In the 1950s the western really came of age. The endlessly repetitive oaters and singing cowboys of the 30s were replaced by a fad for political allegory and greater psychological depth. The latter may well have been the equivalent of what Orson Welles called ‘dollar-book Freud’ but it certainly helped create some great films – from Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950) to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and many more – setting a standard that the revisionist westerns of the 60s, though interesting in their own way, would rarely equal. The political climate may have made overt political content (at least of a certain colour) difficult but many filmmakers were keen to make a point. The ‘liberal’ western High Noon (1952) written by soon-to-be-blacklisted Carl Foreman and Howard Hawks’s famous riposte Rio Bravo (1959) are perhaps the most famous examples.
Despite its lurid title and its standard plot (probably pitched as Shane meets High Noon – with harpoons!!!), Terror in a Texas Town stands as the epitome of these developments. Written by perhaps the most famous of McCarthy’s Hollywood victims, Dalton Trumbo (who, having served a year in prison and living in Mexico, gave the credit to Ben Perry), the film comes with a heavy dose of both psychology and politics.
The working men (the farmers) hold a meeting to discuss forming a united front against the greedy capitalist McNeil (Sebastian Cabot with a slimy Sidney Greenstreet impersonation) who is trying to force them off their land. A Swedish farmer, Hansen, believes that everyone should stick together; if they don’t: ‘I stick alone – by myself’, he declares. His determination leads to him being McNeil’s next ‘example’. His loyal friend and neighbour Pepe – a rather standard helpless Mexican character – witnesses his murder by McNeil’s man. Pepe then discovers why they want the land – oil.
Sterling Hayden (also famed for his run-ins with McCarthy, albeit with a different conclusion) stars as Hansen’s son George, the man who stands up for the townspeople against the hired gunman. But unlike Shane he is no gunfighter, perhaps even the antithesis of the western hero. He speaks with a strong (and strange) Swedish accent, carries a large unwieldy chest and wears a derby hat instead of a Stetson. He stands with the townspeople behind him and fights oppression with the tool of a working man – his whaling harpoon (a hammer and sickle would have been too blatant, I suppose).
His nemesis Johnny Crale (Ned Young with a villainous Humphrey Bogart impersonation) is a ball of existential and psychological torment. He embodies Freud’s ‘Todestriebe’ – or as McNeil calls him: ‘death walking round in the shape of a man’. As in many westerns, from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to The Wild Bunch, the taming of the West has rendered the gunfighter an anachronism, as his gal Molly tells him: ‘one man with a gun can’t make it anymore.’ Although he is missing his right hand, he has learnt to shoot with his left. However, it is an inability to cause fear that finally renders him ‘impotent’; and if the metaphor was not clear enough Molly spells it out – via Trumbo’s wonderfully unsubtle dialogue: ‘…you see, Johnny, it just doesn’t work anymore’.
It is directed by B-movie legend Joseph H Lewis, who earned the nickname Wagon Wheel Joe for his penchant for framing shots through the spokes of a wagon wheel, and such striking visual compositions in depth are much in evidence here. The gunfight – a preview of which opens the film – features a close-up of the gun in Crale’s holster with Hansen standing in the distance armed with his harpoon. At times though the strong style, great performances and seamless stock shots fail to hide the meagre budget – the town and saloon seem bizarrely empty, the set creaks and the look of the film occasionally foreshadows Lewis’s subsequent move into television – directing episodes of Gunsmoke and Bonanza.
It is heavy-handed for sure (Trumbo – here at his most ripe – and Lewis couldn’t possibly do subtle and nuanced) but also quite strange and wonderful. The quirky soundtrack with its sprightly theme – a mix of Spanish guitar and marching bugle – certainly adds to the weirdness. But it stands alongside Gun Crazy and The Big Combo as one of Lewis’s greatest achievement. It’s a small film that aims high (perhaps ridiculously high) and almost hits the target.
The following western classics are also released by Optimum: Day Of The Outlaw, Doc, The Hills Run Red, The Hunting Party, Man of the East, Man of the West, Legend of the Lost, Navajo Joe, The Spikes Gang, Young Billy Young.