This is a movie that continually defied my expectations, surprised me, and kept me guessing right up until the end!
If you would like it to do the same for you, maybe don't read my review. I'm going to spoil almost everything. Because this is a very obscure, little-known, nobody-I-know-has-seen-it, how-is-this-even-available-on-DVD western and I suspect most of you will never bother to track it down. Which is a shame, because it is a quirky and intriguing and thought-provoking. It delves into some issues that most westerns never touch, and I am now a firm fan of it.
It all begins with three shifty-looking characters riding down out of the barren hills. They're leading two saddled, riderless horses. Oooooooh, we're definitely supposed to wonder why they have two extra horses. So let's wonder! Why do YOU think they have two extra horses, saddled and everything? Are they out looking for horseless wanderers to rescue?
They watch as a stagecoach comes into view. And then we get some opening credits.
Okay, so one thing about this movie disturbs me. They used stock music for it, and much if that comes from George Duning's score for 3:10 to Yuma (1957). And not just one theme -- they reuse basically the whole score. It's all over the place. My friend DKoren, who as knowledgeable about movie scores as I am about what foods my kids hate -- she says this is fairly common for B-grade movies back then. Even A-listers sometimes reused scores. Well, this is the first time that a score I know intimately has cropped up in another film, and it bugged me at times. Not enough to ruin the movie, but enough to make me go, "Wait, no, this music goes with XYZ scene in 3:10 -- why is it here?" several times. If you haven't watched 3:10 to Yuma a dozen times and listened to the score a hundred, it probably won't bug you at all.
Back to the plot! The three men rein in atop a hill and watch the stagecoach.
Two passengers on the stagecoach watch them. Also, the stagecoach tells us what town it's based in (Springdale, Nebraska) and who owns it (someone named Cutler). And it's carrying mail. Good to know!
The three dusty, shifty guys on horses ride into the town of Springdale. The bank there very helpfully announces on its front window just how much money it contains. Is this normal? I really don't remember seeing another bank that tells us what assets it contains. Is it TRYING to get people to rob it? Why would they put this information on the window? Doesn't seem very smart to me.
Enter the hero! Ben Cutler (Fred MacMurray), owner of Cutler Stage Lines, I guess? Manager of it? He takes an invoice or something from the driver and looks it over, and then his daughter Laurie (Joan Blackman) takes it from him and says she'll file it or something. But never mind, let's get back to the two guys who came in on the stage.
This is a nifty bit of framing. We see a banker doing banker stuff inside the bank, and behind him, here come those two guys from the stage.
As they pass, they reveal one of the three riders is hanging out outside.
And look, here come the other two riders! Oh boy, you just know something exciting will happen with all these strangers in town.
Inside the bank, Marshal Hiram Cain (Emile Meyer) and his wife Molly (Kathryn Card) are doing a bit of banking business in a cheerful, chatty way.
Uh-oh -- those two guys from the stage coach have pistols in their valises! I don't think they're here to deposit money, do you?
As soon as Marshal Cain and his wife leave, one of those guys holds up the banker man who has just been quietly minding his banker business.
Now we see that guy out by the horses -- but he doesn't want to be seen and hides behind his horse.
You can see him here, peeking up over his horse's neck while the Cains stop to chat with Ben Cutler about his upcoming wedding.
Meanwhile, in the bank, everyone's still pointing guns and trying not to let the people outside see that they're pointing guns. Now, I mentioned that this movie surprised me a lot with its storytelling. Here's surprise number one. I expected that the hero would come in the bank and interrupt the bank robbery.
Nope! He's on his way to the dressmaker's shop! But it's closed.
It's closed because the dressmaker, Ruth Granger (Margaret Hayes) is making lunch. Fried chicken, apple pie, biscuits -- yum!
As you've probably guessed, this is who Ben Cutler is getting married to. And this is something I love about this movie! The central romance is between a middle-aged man and a middle-aged woman. They've both been widowed, they both have kids from their previous marriage, and they're both 100% attracted to each other in a really cute, believable way. They flirt and banter and I just love them together. Sweet romances between mature adults are TOO RARE and I WANT MORE.
Ruth has a son named Midge (Rusty Swope) who brings pigs in the house, and he's just a wee bit annoying, but he's not in the movie much, so it doesn't matter.
Back by the bank, the outlaw Eddie Campbell (Robert Vaughn) is trying to look like he has a reason to stand around by his horse all the time. He's resorted to digging around in his saddlebags when Laurie Cutler walks past.
Annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd she totally recognizes him. In fact, she was once his childhood sweetheart!
Eddie is NOT pleased to see Laurie. But he pretends he was just passing through and thought he'd stop and say hi to her and her dad and so on, and generally tries to get rid of her.
Meanwhile, that bank robbery is going splendidly.
Laurie gets all chatty. Goodness, you'd think good-looking men were hard to come by in Springdale or something! And we already know they totally aren't -- the opening credits promised that James Drury was going to be in this. But nope, she hangs around flirting with Eddie for ages. He finally gets rid of her, and just when you think the bank robbery is going to end peacefully...
...it doesn't end peacefully. Lots of shooting occurs. The outlaws mount up and ride off together, but Ben Cutler shoots one of them before they get clear of town.
Marshal Cain summons a posse, which Ben joins, and they ride off in furious pursuit. They hit one more robber, who falls to the ground and is left behind by all and sundry.
The three remaining outlaws pull up at the top of a little ridge and start shooting down at the posse.
Lots of shooting ensues. Amazingly enough, only one member of the posse gets shot.
Eddie shoots Ben's horse out from under him, but that doesn't stop Ben for long. Next thing you know, he shoots Eddie.
Robert Vaughn does some spectacular scenery-chewing in this movie. See? Look at him getting ready to take a big ol' chomp out of the horizon. I mean that in the nicest way possible -- I quite enjoy Vaughn in everything from The Magnificent Seven (1960) to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV show (1964-68) to the Magnificent Seven TV show (1998-2000). But he does chew scenery. Literally, at one point -- we'll get to that.
Okay, so Marshal Cain has been shot and killed.
Ben knew he hit one of the outlaws, but it's not until he goes to inspect the body that he discovers that the outlaw is Eddie, a kid he used to know.
I love this shot of Fred MacMurray -- it's so inscrutable, isn't it? He looks remorseful, but grim, and I really can't tell what he's thinking.
The posse returns, bearing a dead outlaw, a wounded outlaw, and a dead marshal.
This scene is so heartbreaking. Molly Cain asks if that's her husband, but she already knows the answer.
She gently removes his hat and smooths down his hair. And she tells his body that they both knew he would end up this way someday. She's stoic and calm and amazing.
But as they lead the horse away, she clutches his arm and buries her face in his shoulder, stumbling along. Some townsperson takes her elbow to help her. It's beautiful and achingly good, I tell you. Another uncommon look at love between non-whippersnappers.
I think Ben and Ruth wonder if that's their future. It's pretty obvious who they're going to ask to be the next marshal, since they keep framing him against the sign.
But before we can get to that, they take Eddie's body off his horse to carry into the jail, cuz he's managed to not die after being shot in the head. Laurie freaks out and follows them into the jail.
Totally not dead. And look! This town has a doctor! It's such a thriving community.
As a matter of fact, it has a very handsome doctor named Paul Ridgely (James Drury) who has been courting Laurie and is obviously not pleased by how tenderly she's washing Eddie's cheek.
Back outside, a crowd has gathered. They want to know if Eddie's going to live long enough for them to lynch him for killing their marshal. Ben tells them all to go home and behave themselves because in Springdale, they believe in justice, not lynching.
They do go home, including Ben and his daughter Laurie. They have a really nice house, don't they? Wow. Running a stage line is obviously lucrative. She's not behaving, though. She's pouting.
Doctor Paul comes over to see her, and she goes and pouts in the kitchen. I like the framing of this shot, don't you?
Paul and Laurie leave, and in come three townspeople. I guess they're the town council or something. One of them is played by Howard McNear, who played Floyd the barber on The Andy Griffith Show. He has like three lines in the whole movie, which cracks me up. Anyway, they ask Ben to take over as town marshal.
Ben doesn't want the star. He was a lawman twenty years ago, but gave it up when Laurie was a little girl. He's happy running his stage line, thanks anyway.
Well, yeah, no surprise here that he totally takes the job. Who else is there to ask? Paul is already the town doctor, and we don't have any other named male characters in this story so far.
Paul and Laurie take a walk and have an argument. Paul is convinced Eddie is bad. Laurie is convinced he's just misunderstood.
Paul thinks she's an obstinate, headstrong, nonsensical girl.
He's right, that's exactly what she is. Also, I suspect she has poor eyesight, because who would throw over JAMES DRURY for a guy who makes faces like these:
Um, yeah. She's ridiculous. You can do better, Paul.
The marshal's funeral is well-attended.
Ben has to leave early, though, because Eddie is awake and trying to rip his bandages off.
They end up handcuffing him to the cell bars so he can't reopen his wound and try to commit suicide by scratching the wound open.
See? I TOLD YOU. He literally chews on the scenery a while.
But then he turns on the Soulful Charm and looks Repentant and Sweet. So there's that.
Later on, Laurie brings some food over. He says he won't eat it because they're just keeping him alive to hang him. Then he says he won't eat because he's handcuffed to the bars. The deputies, who are both upright and honorable, but don't impress you with their intelligence, agree it's hard to eat while handcuffed to the wall. Over they come, and start messing with his handcuffs, and I was all, "YOU FOOLS! Don't let him loose, he's going to get free! It's a ploy!"
Movie surprised me again! They let him have one hand free, but kept the other cuffed to the bars. GOOD BOYS.
These are the deputies, William Avery (Phil Chambers) and Ed Moore (Denver Pyle). If you're an Andy Griffith Show fan like me, you'll recognize Denver Pyle -- he played Briscoe "got time to breathe, got time for music" Darling. It's super fun to see him as a serious, non-bumbling character here. He's actually kinda nice-looking, even! Anyway, they're not the sharpest tacks in the bulletin board, but they're competent. I get very fond of them.
Meanwhile, this guy arrives. Ugh. A checkered-pants lawyer. Ladies and gents, may I present the smarmy, smirky William P. Selby (Edmon Ryan), attorney at law. He's been hired to represent Eddie, and he won't say who hired him. So we all totally know it was Eddie's outlaw friends, and they paid him with the money they stole from the Springdale bank. The nerve of some people!
Ben goes to pour out his lawyer-based afflictions to Ruth, but she's not particularly sympathetic. Don't you love this shot, though? I love movies that use mirrors like this.
Lawyer Selby starts chatting up the townsfolk. He learns that Eddie grew up around there and was Laurie's childhood sweetheart. He's very gleeful about this fact.
Marshal Ben comes over and tells him to quit discussing the case with the townsfolk because he's prejudicing potential jurors. Lawyer Selby smirks around and accuses Ben of wanting to hang Eddie so he'll stay away from Laurie. Ben slaps Selby. Selby mouths off some more. I expect Ben to walk away at that point, shaking his head about the lowness of some lawyers.
So the movie surprises me again! They have a fistfight instead! Marshal Ben and Lawyer Selby clobber the snot out of each other for a while, and it's awesome! It's a nicely choreographed fight, makes good use of the terrain and available props, and never looks like it's something two middle-aged guys couldn't do. MacMurray was 51 here, and he acquits himself well. So does his stunt double.
Pretty soon, another attorney arrives. But Ben's happy to see this one -- it's his old friend Tallant Joslin (Wendell Holmes) here to represent the state. Ben asks Joslin not to put him on the stand unless it's absolutely necessary because Laurie's going to hate him if it's his testimony that hangs Eddie. Joslin thinks he's got enough evidence to convict without Ben's testimony.
The movie now morphs briefly into a courtroom drama. Lots of people show up for the trial. Ruth's son Midge brings his pig. Cuz why not.
The courtroom is standing-room-only, and people peer in the windows too.
For a low-budget movie, this has some nice camera work, doesn't it? I love how this shot emphasizes that the trial has become entertainment for people to watch -- just like this whole movie is entertainment for us.
Eddie looks rakish and young and worried.
Lawyer Selby confuses one witness after another with tricky lawyer questions. And this is where the movie gets reallllllly cool, and where I won't spoil one thing about it in case you want to see it. Nobody can quite remember seeing Eddie shoot Marshal Cain. They just collectively decided he did it. And when I watched this the first time, I tried to think back to the gunfight at the beginning, and you know what? I COULDN'T REMEMBER WHO SHOT THE MARSHAL EITHER. It happened really fast, I wasn't paying lots of attention, and so on. I wondered through the rest of that first viewing -- did Eddie really do it?
Because Lawyer Selby has discredited or confused all the other witnesses, Tallant Joslin has to call Marshal Ben as a witness for the state.
Ben is adamant -- he saw Eddie shoot Marshal Cain.
Even Lawyer Selby can't shake his conviction on that point. But he tries really hard. And he does make the point repeatedly that Ben was in the middle of a gunfight, thrown off a dying horse -- can he really be sure he saw what he says he saw?
Ben insists he's sure. The jury leaves, deliberates, returns. Eddie despairs.
Eddie has to rise for sentencing. He looks very freaked out. Nicely done, Vaughn.
Here's another place where I wasn't sure how the movie would go -- it really could believably have them declare him not guilty by virtue of insufficient evidence. Or they could convict him. I didn't at all know which way they would go! Well, they find him guilty. Eddie looks terrified.
He makes an impassioned plea for clemency, for a second chance, for the right to turn his life around.
All to no avail. The judge sentences him to hang. Laurie breaks down. None of the townsfolk look real happy about it either.
Tallant Joslin gets drunk. And tells Ben all the special steps he'll have to go through before he can carry out Eddie's sentence. He gives Ben the plans for the approved style of gallows, then goes back to drinking himself into forgetting he's helped sentence a man to death.
Everyone in town suddenly decides that Eddie shouldn't hang after all. The same people who wanted to lynch him when he was first brought in now want his sentence commuted to life in prison. They insist that Ben is just a big meanie who wants to hang Eddie so Eddie can't marry Laurie.
Ruth breaks off her engagement to Ben. I get very angry with Ruth.
Ben goes to visit Molly Cain. She understands. He feels at peace with his role again. I want to hug Molly. And Ben. They're both sensational people caught in terribly sad, hard, complicated life roles.
Everybody gets all fascinated with the gallows. "Wanna go watch them build the gallows?" becomes everyone's favorite sport.
Even Eddie can't help watching from his cell.
Another nice shot, very pensive.
So of course, Eddie asks Laurie to smuggle a gun in for him so he can escape.
Don't these people have jobs? Yeesh! They just sit around all day, gossiping and making snide remarks and generally doing nothing at all. Except the blacksmith in the background, he's working.
Ben confronts the finished gallows. He's doing a lot of soul-searching. Is he really insisting on hanging Eddie just because he's afraid Laurie is in love with him? Is he doing this as a father or as a lawman? Or as both?
Little Midge shows up. Look at this great shot, how the noose separates Ben and Midge now because Ben's insistence on carrying out the sentence has caused Midge's mom to break off the engagement. Love it.
Midge surprises me here. I expected him to say he wants Ben to just let Eddie live so Ben can marry his mom. But he doesn't. He says he wants to be a lawman too when he grows up, just like Ben. A lawman who doesn't back down even when everyone tells him he's wrong. Attaboy, Midge!
That night, Laurie brings supper to Eddie. She's a little startled to see her dad in the jail. Usually it's just the deputies there.
Before Laurie gives Eddie his food, Ben hops up and tells his deputies to inspect the basket. They're all, "What? This is your daughter! We don't need to inspect the basket."
Ben insists. Guess what they find?
Oh boy, that is a stern Dad Face. He asks Laurie who she wanted Eddie to shoot with that pistol -- himself? One of the deputies? She insists Eddie wouldn't have shot anyone because he's not a killer. He's not like Ben.
She generally smarts off, and her dad actually slaps her for being so disrespectful. She runs out in tears. Ben feels bad.
Eddie looks creepy. I'm just sayin'.
After Laurie storms out, the movie surprises me again. The little gun wasn't loaded. Laurie meant to help Eddie bluff his way out, but she wasn't actually stupid enough to give him a loaded gun. Now Ben feels even worse about slapping his daughter.
Ruth finds Ben and makes up with him. She's sorry she was petty and tried to tell him how to do his job. Also, she thinks Laurie needs a good spanking. I agree. Either that or an eye exam. Still haven't figured out how she could dump Paul for Eddie.
The three town ringleaders are back, this time with a petition signed by everyone in town asking the governor to change Eddie's sentence to life in prison. Time for another surprise! I expected Ben to say nope, they can't just go behind his back like that and try to subvert justice. But nope, he says if that's the way the town feels, as the town's elected official, he'll do what they want. He'll send the petition to the governor.
No word comes from the governor. It's the night before the hanging. The deputies find themselves faced with the fact that they have to help hang this kid who grew up in their town and has been living in the same building with them for however long the movie has taken to get this far. They get drunk.
Doctor Paul arrives for no reason at all. He's very disturbed to discover they're drunk. And he hears suspicious noises coming from behind the jail. The deputies are too drunk to care.
This picture is only here because James Drury is so handsome.
Doctor Paul goes outside to investigate. Still handsome. You can really see that in about three years, he's going to be drop-dead gorgeous and get his own TV show.
Danger, Doctor Paul! Bad guys will hurt you! Look out! Oh, poor Doctor Paul.
The bad guys are here to bust Eddie out of jail. They get the drop on the deputies, which surprises no one except the deputies. Maybe not even them.
But this surprises me! During the jailbreak, Ben brings word to the townsfolk that the governor has agreed to change Eddie's sentence to life in prison. He doesn't have to hang after all. Ben resigns his badge, disgusted but relieved.
He admits to Ruth that he thinks NOT hanging Eddie is a miscarriage of justice, but he's glad he doesn't have to do it.
Laurie rushes to the jail to tell Eddie the good news. She gets some bad news instead.
Very bad news. Eddie doesn't care that he's not going to hang. He's leaving, and he punches Laurie in the face so she won't alert anyone. Laurie is not having a good day.
Doctor Paul is not dead! Just hurt.
He fires off a couple shots to alert people to the jailbreak that's taking place.
A gun battle ensues. Obviously.
Eddie and Ben end up chasing each other around in the dark.
Laurie sees Eddie prepare to shoot her father in the back, and she calls out to warn her father. Guess she can see pretty well after all.
Eddie runs away and scales the scaffold, hiding there to ambush Ben.
They fire at each other at the same time.
I told you I would spoil basically everything. Eddie dies atop the very scaffold where he was supposed to be hung the next day. And he dies in this spectacularly weird position, which can't have been comfortable for Robert Vaughn. Especially since they just LEAVE HIM THERE.
Laurie asks Paul to forgive her for being an idiot. He does, but he's more focused on the fact that he's been shot and there aren't any other doctors in town.
The townspeople offer Ben the town marshal badge again. And for a minute, I thought he was going to refuse it. But one more surprise! He takes it. Well, good for you, Ben.
See? They just left Eddie's body up there. Ho hum, dead guy on the scaffold, we'll deal with him later.
Also, um... nobody got hung in this movie. Guess it wasn't such a good day for a hanging after all. It was a good night for a shooting instead.
This has been my contribution to the Fred MacMurray Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Click the link or the blogathon button to visit the blogathon roster and read other entries by lots of cool bloggers!