By the time Oliver Drake planted his director’s chair for the first shot of A Lust To Kill (1958), he’d already carved out quite a place for himself in the history of the Western. He was a real Hollywood veteran, writing cowboy pictures before sound came in, and amassing hundreds of credits. He scripted the incredible Riders Of The Whistling Skull (1937) for Republic, which pitted The Three Mesquiteers against mummies and an Indian cult. While it doesn’t reach the delirium of The Phantom Empire (1935), it has some of that same goofy genre-mixing charm.
As time went on, Drake was doing more and more. He wrote, produced, directed and even composed songs for dozens of Westerns for Universal and Monogram. The Universal Johnny Mack Brown picture The Lone Star Trail (1943) serves as a good example. He’s credited for the screenplay, as a composer and as associate producer. Around the same time, he began directing with more frequency, turning out low-budget pictures such the Jimmy Wakely series for Monogram.
It wasn’t all Westerns, however. Drake was producer and an uncredited scriptwriter on The Mummy’s Curse (1944), the last of Universal’s Lon Chaney Mummy cycle. And he wrote a couple of Monogram’s later Charlie Chan films. From what I can tell, he was a Story Machine.
As the Series Western made its way to television in the early 50s, Drake went along for the ride, writing episodes of everything from The Gene Autry Show to The Adventures Of Superman. But there were still features here and there, such as Marie Windsor in The Parson And The Outlaw (1957, which he wrote and directed) and A Lust To Kill.
A low-budget affair starring Jim Davis, Don Megowan and Allison Hayes — a Production Associates production released by Barjul International Pictures — A Lust To Kill is surprisingly adult and mean-spirited. If it lacked certain production values, it made sure it offered stuff TV couldn’t touch.
Cheney Holland (Megowan) and his brother Luke are involved in a robbery of a load of rifles and abandoned by the rest of their gang. Luke is killed and Cheney apprehended by the pursuing lawmen, a posse that includes former friend Marshal Matt Gordon (Jim Davis). During his brother’s funeral, Cheney escapes with the aid of his girl Sherry (Allison Hayes). While Cheney seeks to settle the score with his gang, Marshall Gordon is after Cheney. Early on, we care for Cheney. There’s good in him and he wants to lead a simple, honest life — but Fate just won’t let him. Over the course of the picture, we know his bad side has won out, and our sympathies start to shift to Jim Davis.
The story and screenplay were by Tom Hubbard and Sam Roeca, who’d written episodes of 26 Men, a Western series from the same period Drake often directed. Director of Photography Glen MacWilliams shot Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), which landed him an Oscar nomination. While the picture has the look of your typical 40s Series Western, its tone and noir-ish plot (not to mention the skinny-dipping barmaids) place it squarely in the 50s. The performances are quite good for a picture that was obviously done on the cheap (and the quick), and we owe the cast and Drake for doing quite a lot with what looks like very little. Having Davis provide a voiceover at the beginning and end from Ecclesiastes 3 is a cool touch. This gritty little picture is well worth 70 minutes of your time. (The only serious liability is the stock music. It’s effective at times, but wildly inconsistent overall.)
You’ll find A Lust To Kill readily available on DVD from Alpha Video. By Alpha’s standards, it looks pretty good. By any other standards, however, it’s a supreme insult. (At least it’s cheap.) An Oscar-caliber cinematographer deserves better treatment than this, even if it’s nowhere near the picture he was nominated for. It’s also available on DVD-R from Something Weird Video. I haven’t seen their release, but I hear it’s much better. It couldn’t help but be.
I’ve been meaning to write about A Lust To Kill for some time. When I recently came into contact with Lisa Drake, Oliver Drake’s daughter, it seemed like the right time to do it. Below is a photo of Oliver Drake’s ranch in Pearblossum, California. Some of A Lust To Kill was shot there. Drake built the house himself — it had electricity, running (cold) water and little else. (May do more on the ranch a bit later.) Thanks to Miss Drake for the photos.