Monday, August 24, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Backlash (1956) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

Richard Widmark and Donna Reed star in BACKLASH (1956), a melding of Western adventure and psychological mystery just released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

I reviewed this film very briefly way back in 2007, after having watched a commercial-riddled TV print, which I seem to recall was also "pan and scan."

It was a revelation revisiting the movie on Kino Lorber's beautiful widescreen Blu-ray. I appreciated the film much more on this viewing for multiple reasons, including the terrific Blu-ray print.

I think seeing it in a fresh context also contributed to my enjoyment. In the last 13 and a half years, faces like Robert J. Wilke and Glenn Strange have become old friends thanks to watching so many Westerns, and I've also developed an appreciation for the work of director John Sturges.

It was also fun to watch that chameleon of a character actor, John McIntire, in back-to-back movies, following THE WORLD IN HIS ARMS (1952). Both films were written by Borden Chase, who had a wonderful track record, particularly when it comes to Westerns.

This briskly plotted movie begins with Jim Slater (Richard Widmark) and Karyl Orton (Donna Reed) meeting in the Arizona desert, at the site of an Indian massacre. Jim is looking for his missing father, who may be dead, while Karyl is looking for gold she believes her estranged husband had prospected.

Though wary of one another, Jim and Karyl have an undeniable chemistry which heats up during their search, as they also contend with Apache Indians on the warpath, a range war between Major Carson (Roy Roberts) and Jim Bonniwell (McIntire), and the trigger-happy Welker brothers (Harry Morgan and Robert J. Wilke), who blame Jim for their brother's (Regis Parton) death.

In some ways it's a fairly simple Western plot, with the couple traveling around Arizona -- sometimes together, sometimes separately -- in their parallel searches, as they run into all manner of potentially lethal obstacles.

At the same time, the movie is filled with unique touches which provide added interest. As the story develops, we come to realize that this isn't a mere vengeance story, with Jim hunting for the killers of the father he believes dead; we learn that Jim has never even met his father, and an interesting psychological drama develops. Widmark is consistently compelling as the audience comes to understand the character and his life.

For her part, Karyl is far from the standard Western heroine. She's a tough gal who did what she needed to do to survive living in the South during the Civil War; we don't get details, but it bothered her soldier husband enough that he never returned to her after the war was over.

Karyl isn't intimidated dealing with tough men or situations; when she calmly makes coffee in the midst of an Indian attack, it's not a cliched moment of a woman feeding the men around her, but a testament to her strong character. She might die in the near future, but in the meantime, by golly, she's going to put the coffee on.

When a cantina shootout takes place right next to her, Karyl doesn't bat an eye. At one point the betrayed Jim hauls off and slaps her, but she essentially shrugs and moves on, not holding it against him. This doesn't make her a weak doormat; rather, her experiences have clearly given her a certain resilience and the ability to deal with difficult people. Reed is terrific in a carefully developed performance.

One of my favorite scenes is when Jim and Karyl turn in the body of Deputy Welker (Parton) to Sheriff Marson (Edward Platt of GET SMART). The suspicious sheriff has them come into his office and tells Jim to remove his gun. Jim refuses, and over the course of the conversation the sheriff gradually adjusts his behavior and expectations as he sizes Jim up, ultimately providing him with some needed information. It's a very well-written scene which also demonstrates the extra level of interest a couple of strong actors can bring to what could have been a humdrum sequence to provide Jim with the next clue in his search.

There are also some very well-done action sequences, with particular kudos for Jim's horse-to-stagecoach transfer while being chased by Indians.

McIntire played a wide variety of roles in Universal films of the '50s, and this is another noteworthy character who adds interest to the final third of the film. Barton MacLane is likewise excellent as a tough old soldier Jim and Karyl meet during an Apache attack, and William Campbell plays a wild-eyed gunfighter who reminded me more than a little of Widmark's well-remembered debut performance as Tommy Udo in KISS OF DEATH (1947).

The cast also includes Robert Foulk, Gregg Barton, Jack Lambert, Phil Chambers, and Fred Graham.

Chase's screenplay for this 87-minute film was based on a novel by Frank Gruber.

Director Sturges made a number of Westerns I've enjoyed, including ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO (1953). A couple years later he directed Widmark again in THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (1958).

The movie was shot in by Irving Glassberg at numerous Arizona locations, including Old Tucson.

Extras on the Blu-ray include the trailer, a gallery of trailers for five additional films available from Kino Lorber, and a commentary track by Samm Deighan.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Blogger Margot Shelby said...

This is an absolute favorite of mine. Love the cast, and Widmark and Reed sizzle. I like that it's not a straightforward Western, but has an interesting mystery subplot.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

Sturges really knew how to get suspense and pacing into his films. I also like that the female lead is there for more than just decoration; her role is meaty and well-developed.
Good western.

11:32 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Margot, great to hear this is a favorite. Great cast with some good chemistry plus an interesting plot.

Jerry, I've sure liked a number of Sturges' films and this is one. Very true about Reed's part. Seems like it would have been enjoyable for her to play; I hope so!

Hope more people will check this film out thanks to this new release.

Best wishes,

6:22 PM  

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