Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Produced by Harry Joe Brown
Associate Producer: Randolph Scott
Screen Play by Kenneth Gamet
Story by Brad Ward (novel, The Marshal Of Medicine Bend)
Director Of Photography: Ray Rennahan, ASC
Music Composed and Conducted by Paul Sawtell
Film Editor: Gene Havlick
CAST: Randolph Scott (Marshal Calem Ware), Angela Lansbury (Tally Dickenson), Warner Anderson (Hamer Thorne), Jean Parker (Cora Dean), Wallace Ford (Dr. Amos Wynn), John Emery (Cody Clark), James Bell (Asaph Dean), Ruth Donnelly (Molly Higgins), Michael Pate (Harley Baskam), Don Megowan (Dooley Brion), Jeanette Nolan (Mrs. Dingo Brion), Frank Hagney (Dingo Brion), Frank Ferguson, Kermit Maynard.
Thanks to Randolph Scott pictures like Hangman’s Knot (1956) and the Ranown cycle, A Lawless Street (1955) is often overlooked. But when held up to those exalted Scotts, it holds its own — and shares several of the themes that would mark Randy’s pictures through the end of his career.
Scott is Marshal Calem Ware, an aging, weary town-tamer hired to restore order to Medicine Bend. There have been similar jobs in similar towns, lots of them. This lifestyle has had its consequences along the way, including losing Tally Dickenson (Angela Lansbury), who couldn’t take the constant pressure of wondering if her man would be coming home. Then, as Fate would have it, Tally’s traveling stage show arrives in Medicine Bend.
Scott’s sense of justice or need for revenge, and what they’ve cost him, is a common thread in his 50s Westerns. There’s a different spin on it this time since Lansbury is still alive — Scott’s lost as many wives in his films as Vincent Price in the Corman/Poe cycle — and their talk of old times and what went wrong makes for a very good scene.
Of course, Ware’s sense of duty and justice put off rekindling any romance. There’s a wide-open town to tend to.
So Scott goes about his work, and with a couple reels to go, things go a bit astray plot-wise. It’s all wrapped around a neat plot twist, and Lewis’ deft handling of Kenneth Gamet’s screenplay can’t prevent a somewhat dissatisfying resolution. Instead of a home run, we’ve got a triple.
Joseph H. Lewis always brought a strong sense of style to his pictures — along with a budget-be-damned desire to put something with real flair on the screen. As he told Peter Bogdanovich: “I signed my name to every frame of film.”* Always trying something different. Always looking for another visual approach to the story. Always trying to keep things moving. And in A Lawless Street, this drive is obvious the second the Columbia lady gets out of the way.
Stylistically, it’s a marvelous little film — to the point of pointing out how static some 50s Westerns can be. Lewis’ compositions are exquisite with some complex camera moves that set it apart from similarly-budgeted pictures. (The titles and opening sequence make quite an impact.) At every point, the camera seems to be in just the right place. Each cut, or decision to go with a long take, feels like the right one. And never does style get in the way of telling the story.
Joining Lewis behind the camera was cinematographer Ray Rennahan, one of the true masters of three-strip Technicolor — he shot the first feature in the process, Becky Sharp (1935). Rennahan would shoot Lewis’ remaining features: 7th Cavalry (1956), The Halliday Brand (1958) and Terror In A Texas Town (1959).
Like most of the Scotts, this one has a terrific cast. Angela Lansbury seems like an offbeat choice for Ware’s estranged wife, and she overplays it a bit, especially in contrast to the subtle Scott, but she’s lovely. She evidently wasn’t fond of the picture: “I once rode off into the sunset on a buckboard with Randolph Scott — another low point.”**
Michael Pate, however, was thrilled to be involved. “I was called in to see the always friendly, very modest director Joseph H. Lewis at Columbia. Sitting in his office, I was amazed when he told me he’d seen me in Hondo (1953) and had decided right there and then I’d be a good bet for Harley Bascom. Oh boy — was I nervous about getting that part! I borrowed a gunbelt and a Colt .45 from the Columbia property department and practiced and practiced in front of a full-length mirror… We came to the scene in the bar where Randy dives under the batwing doors… In the first rehearsal, I was so fast on the draw I got off three shots before Randy had hardly hit the floorboards… Randy got slowly to his feet, very thoughtfully holstered his six-shooter, carefully brushed a speck or two of dust from his trousers and drawled, as only he could, ‘Son, that was a mighty fast draw you did there — but keep I mind I’m supposed to win this one.”#
A Lawless Street gives a good part to the always-terrific Wallace Ford. He’d been in Coroner Creek (1948) with Scott and would go on to add Wichita, The Man From Laramie (both 1955) and Warlock (1959) to his resume. He was also an off-and-on member of John Ford’s stock company. In addition, Frank Hagney and Jeanette Nolan are quite good in parts well crafted by Gamet (who wrote eight Scott Westerns in all).
Around the time of the release of A Lawless Street, Scott told Bob Thomas: “There’s no doubt that television has cut into our business. We used to count on a two-and-a-half or three million gross domestically and four million or more worldwide. But you can’t expect that nowadays.” He was well aware of the fact that the picture business was indeed a business.
But he also knew a good director when he came across one — his independent (Scott-Brown) pictures were directed by the likes of Lewis, Andre de Toth and Budd Boetticher. And direction is what makes a difference here. Recommended.
SOURCES: *Who The Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich; **The Films Of Randolph Scott by Robert Nott; #Western Clippings #3 by Boyd Magers; and Kings Of The Bs by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn.
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