Thursday, November 16, 2017

#2,461. Terror in a Texas Town (1958)

Directed By: Joseph H. Lewis

Starring: Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly

Tag line: "When the Texas Plains Ran With Blood and Black Gold!"

Trivia: Co-star Nedrick Young wrote much of the script, but b/c he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, he was not credited for it

Even the most casual fans of western movies love a good showdown scene, but very few are as unusual as what transpires during a key moment in 1958’s Terror in a Texas Town

A hired killer, dressed in black, stands at the end of a street while his opponent, the film’s hero, walks towards him, followed closely by just about every honest man in town. We know right away that a showdown is coming, only the hero isn’t packing a traditional sidearm. No, he’s carrying a whaling spear! 

You heard me right… a whaling spear, and this little surprise is one of several elements that helps lift an otherwise humdrum western to a whole different level.

The hero is George Hansen (Sterling Hayden), a Swedish sailor who traveled to Prairie City, Texas, to live with his father Sven (Ted Stanhope), owner of a small farm just outside of town. Unfortunately, George arrived a few days too late; his father was recently gunned down by Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young), an outlaw employed by wealthy landowner Mr. McNeil (Sebastian Cabot). 

McNeil hopes to “persuade” the farmers and settlers to move away as quickly as possible (McNeil claims he has a grant proving he owns the entire area, and he wants every man, woman, and child gone before they realize how much oil is flowing beneath their feet). Most of the locals have been living there for 20 years or more, and refuse to budge, which is where Johnny Crale enters the picture; as a warning to everyone else, McNeil had Johnny shoot Sven dead, a cold-blooded murder witnessed by Hansen’s nearest neighbor Jose Mirada (Victor Millan) and Mirada’s young son Pepe (Eugene Mazzola). 

Still, despite what’s happened, George Hansen has made it known that he intends to stick around a while (having sent money to his father each and every month, George now feels the property is as much his as it was Sven’s). Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with McNeil or Johnny Crale, but will George be forced to face them on his own, or will the other farmers finally band together to fight McNeil and his team of killers? 

From a stylistic standpoint, Terror in a Texas Town has the look and feel of a TV movie, with basic set-ups and not much camera movement (immediately after making this film, its director, Joseph H. Lewis, spent the remainder of his career working in television). Story-wise, it also treads in familiar territory (greedy land grabs, hired guns, revenge, etc), but what distinguishes this 1958 film from others of its ilk are its characters, a few of which are incredibly dark. 

Even the love interest has an edge to her. Johnny’s live-in girlfriend Molly (Carol Kelly) lets Johnny walk all over her, absorbing the verbal abuse he heaps upon her day and night, not because she loves him, but because being around someone like Johnny gives her a feeling of superiority, something she has yet to experience with any other person she’s ever met. As for McNeil, he doesn’t really like Johnny, either; he keeps him around only to finish the job that needs doing (the various meetings between the two so-called “partners” are some of the film’s most contentious moments). As for Johnny himself (played wonderfully by Nedrick Young), we sense that his spirit died a long time ago. Now he’s just going through the motions, killing dispassionately and without a care in the world, which makes him the most frightening character in the entire movie. 

On the other side of the coin, Sterling Hayden is perfectly believable as the strong-willed George (even when he faces Johnny with a whaling spear, we never once feel that George is at a disadvantage), and Ted Stanhope shines in his brief appearance as George’s equally determined father. In a film where everything else seems routine, the characters that inhabit Terror in a Texas Town are anything but, and it is thanks to them that this movie is so damned engrossing.

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