Directed by Edwin L. Marin
Produced by Jules Levey
Screen play by Harold Shumate
From the novel “Trail Town” by Ernest Haycox
Director Of Photography: Archie J. Stout, ASC
Film Editor: Richard Heermance
Cast: Randolph Scott (Marshal Dan Mitchell), Ann Dvorak (Rita), Edgar Buchanan (Bravo Trimble), Rhonda Fleming (Sherry Balder), Lloyd Bridges (Henry Dreiser), Helen Boice (Big Annie), Howard Freeman (Ed Balder), Richard Hale (Charlie Fair), Jack Lambert (Jet Younger), Dick Curtis (Ryker), Earl Schenck (Hazelhurst), Eddie Waller (Hannaberry), Hank Patterson (Doug Neil)
After World War II, Randolph Scott would create a persona that would carry him through the rest of his career (he played his last non-Western role in 1947) and make him one of the Western’s true icons. He wore his age very, very well, and it gave him the kind of authority you find in Wayne or Cooper or Stewart.
At the same time Scott was maturing, so was the Western itself — and that maturity marks the 50s Westerns we’re so enamored of around here. Abilene Town (1946) shows both of these shifts, Scott’s and the Western’s, toward something more complex and a little darker.
Just a few years after the Civil War, Abilene, Kansas, is a town divided, literally. On one side of the street are the merchants and homesteaders, and on the other side, the saloonkeepers, gamblers and dance hall girls. In the middle stands Marshal Dan Mitchell (Randolph Scott). There’s a range war brewing, with the homesteaders laying down stakes to build a real community and the ranchers wanting to keep the range, and the saloons, open.
Of course, the rancher-settler conflict forms the backbone of many, many Westerns. This time around, there’s a lot of human nature woven into that familiar plot-line — the townspeople are reluctant to actually do anything about their situation, in a way that would become more common in the 50s. It’s certainly lighter here than what would come later, which provides a good role for Edgar Buchanan as an ineffective sheriff. Ann Dvorak gets plenty of screen time, and a number of songs, as Scott’s saloon-singer girlfriend. Lloyd Bridges and Rhonda Fleming get early roles. And Jack Lambert is at his creepy best.
Edwin L. Marin’s direction is very assured, and the action scenes are very well done.
Abilene Town is in the public domain, and when it turns up on TV or on DVD at the dollar store, it invariably looks terrible. Soft, washed-out, spliced-up — just plain lousy. For that reason, I’d never seen it all the way through. The new region-free Blu-ray from Panamint Cinema, mastered from a 35mm fine grain print courtesy of the BFI National Archive, is a revelation. There’s a sound glitch or two, and changeover cues are visible, but those are welcome reminders that you’re watching a movie. I miss such things. Archie Stout’s cinematography is just incredible — it’s hard to believe this is the same movie I’ve given up on so many times over the years. We all owe a big thanks to Russell Cowe at Panamint Cinema for seeing this one through — a movie that has been almost unwatchable for decades now shines like a diamond. Abilene Town is ripe for reappraisal and this Blu-ray should make it happen. Essential.
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