Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
USA, 1948. RKO Radio Pictures. Screenplay by Lillie Hayward, adaptation by Harold Shumate, Luke Short, based on the Saturday Evening Post serial story by Luke Short. Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca. Produced by Theron Warth. Music by Roy Webb. Production Design by Albert S. D’Agostino, Walter E. Keller. Costume Design by Edward Stevenson. Film Editing by Samuel E. Beetley.
In a thrilling opening sequence, Robert Mitchum is trying to catch some sleep late at night on an open plain when he is interrupted by a cattle stampede. The animals turn out to be owned by a cattleman (Tom Tully) who tells him that shady businessman Robert Preston is trying to drive his herd off a government range. He doesn’t realize that Mitchum, an unemployed cowhand, is actually on his way to go work for that same man, but when he arrives and finds out that Preston is in cahoots with the federal Indian agent to swindle Tully out of his cattle, our hero’s moral stance hits a gray area. We as an audience aren’t sure if he is on the side of what’s right but he’s not pledging allegiance to Tully either, thus placing himself square in the centre of a very dangerous conflict. A combination of western mythology with tropes of film noir, this early Robert Wise film is an exciting and involving drama that elicits thrills for so many of its elements, from Mitchum’s dangerously charismatic performance in the lead, the moody and rich monochrome cinematography, and a terrific cast of supporting characters including an excellent Barbara Bel Geddes as Tully’s uncompromising daughter. Wise has a great time directing this genre mashup in which everything usually celebrated is treated with suspicion, from the dubious claims on land ownership (the great American west, usually the setting for the greatness of the American way, is suggested to be stolen land here) to the infallible masculinity of the players: the glory of the stampede at the beginning sets a misleading tone, as the film works its way down from a blazy of glory to a tired combat between good and bad guy that emphasizes exhaustion more than power.