Western summary: The violent men (1955)
This spring I wrote about observing here Forty guns (1957) for the first time.
Forty guns was a standout western directed by Samuel Fuller, and starring Barbara Stanwyck at the helm of a top cast. The fact that I finally caught up on this film has prompted me to watch it too The violent men (1955), another Stanwyck western with an impressive cast.
while I was teaching Forty guns I rank as a first class western The violent men somewhere lower; I found it solid and quite entertaining, but a bit disjointed. Sometimes I felt that the parts were better than the whole.
Glenn Ford plays John Parrish, a Civil War veteran who has been living in the West for a number of years to aid in his recovery from a lung injury.
When the town doctor (Raymond Greenleaf) gives John a clean bill of health, John plans to sell his spread and move east with his fiancée, Caroline Vail (May Wynn).
Lew Wilkinson (Edward G. Robinson), the crippled but powerful owner of the massive Anchor Ranch, essentially orders John to sell him his ranch for a low price and gives him 24 hours to respond, with the implication, that John will not like the result if he refuses. Under pressure from his fiancee, who is desperate to leave town, John initially wants to agree, but then one of his hands is murdered by thugs at Anchor Ranch. That changes everything.
John stops his own ranch hands from taking retaliatory action to protect them, then sets out to handle the situation on his own. When John confronts the man responsible for the murder (Richard Jaeckel) and refuses to turn himself in, John eventually kills him in self-defense.
Lew’s brother Cole (Brian Keith) and his wife Martha (Stanwyck), who are secretly having an affair and want to take control of Lew’s empire, escalate the war, including burning down John’s ranch. However, John has a good grasp of tactics due to his military background and puts up a much tougher fight for the Wilkinsons than they expected.
When the Wilkinsons’ ranch house is burned down, the cold-calculating Martha lets the struggling Lew die in the fire instead of helping him escape the house. She believes that she and Cole will take over the ranch and rebuild it bigger than ever, but surprises are in store.
There’s a lot of good things in this film, a Shakespearean-style tragedy that reminded me a bit of Broken Lance (1954). The cast, right down to supporting actors like Jaeckel, Basil Ruysdael, Jack Kelly and James Westerfield, is absolutely top notch.
Stanwyck only enters the film after about half an hour, but as always she is one of the main reasons to watch the film. At first it seems like butter won’t melt in Martha’s mouth as she appears to be Lew’s concerned, caring wife; She just wants Cole to lighten Lew’s load since Lew can barely walk with crutches. But why isn’t her daughter Judith (Dianne Foster) talking to her?
Martha’s malicious, greedy side begins to emerge when we learn that Judith is disgusted that her mother and uncle are having an affair behind her father’s back. Judith feels trapped and unsure of what to do as she doesn’t want to hurt her father with the news. Judith sees John as someone who could help by taking up the fight against Martha and Cole.
It is interesting to later compare Stanwyck’s Martha to her character Forty guns. in the The violent men Martha seeks power by manipulating men into granting her desires and providing her with the massive ranch of her dreams while in Forty guns Stanwyck’s character has more agency as he is personally strong; In this film, unlike Martha, she ultimately shows that she has a conscience.
Like Martha, Cole has an extremely low character; Not only is he one of the title’s brutal “violent men” and having an affair with his sister-in-law, he’s also having an affair with Elena (Lita Milan), a town girl.
Like Stanwyck, Keith fully embraces evil; My job fell into the scene when, believing that Martha would make him rich, he rejected the faithful, loving Elena and threw her to the ground in the middle of the street. It’s a shocking moment with significant consequences.
This is one of a few strong Western performances by Keith in the late ’50s; he was also in the excellent Clint Walker-Virginia Mayo western Fort Dobbs (1958), a film I enthusiastically recommend. Milan is touching as the woman who (somewhat inexplicably) loves Cole. The actress later made an impact in a bigger role as Anthony Quinn’s equally loyal friend in the western The ride back (1957), a movie that deserves to be better known.
Ford and Robinson are also very solid. Ford is spot on as someone who would rather be a “peaceful man,” but when pushed he will always do what is right, especially in defense of others. Of interest is Robinson as the play’s supposed villain, who turns out to be misguided and pathetic rather than villainous; that honor goes to the characters of Stanwyck and Keith.
Other strengths include cinematography, mostly shot on location at Lone Pine by W. Howard Greene and Burnett Guffey, and music by Max Steiner.
The film’s flaws are more a result of the screenplay, written by Harry Kleiner based on a novel by Donald Hamilton, and direction by cinematographer-turned-director Rudolph Mate.
The script is packed with characters and the story, told in 96 minutes, could have been tighter. For example, the character of John’s fiancé, Caroline, who seems to have used John more as a way out of town than to genuinely love him, really doesn’t make much sense; When he refuses to leave, she returns his ring to him and disappears from the film entirely.
John already had reason enough to leave town after he got better, and the added pressure of a whiny wife doesn’t do much for that. Caroline’s complete disappearance has a bit of a “what was that all about?” feeling. I wonder why we put any time into her character at all.
At the same time, John and Judith’s relationship is underdeveloped, so the film’s final lines come as almost – but not quite – a surprise. Any screen time invested in Caroline should have instead been spent developing Foster’s Judith, who could have used some elaboration and her relationships with each character, especially John.
Without being too spoilery, I also felt that director Mate could have done a lot more with the build up and revealing some twists in the final action sequence that, instead of being exciting, has an almost superficial feel to it. There are some great ideas to use in this scene and the director almost throws them away with blink and you’ll miss it moments.
Mate has directed other films that I love, most notably Tyrone Power The Mississippi Player (1953), and he does a great job directing the Ford-Jaeckel showdown in the middle of that film, but his work here is inconsistent.
A few funny bits about the cast: This was the second western starring May Wynn and future loner TV star Jack Kelly appeared; They had also played supporting roles in They rode west (1954). They would marry in October 1956 and remained married for eight years.
Dianne Foster, whose additional westerns are included The Kentuckian (1955) and night passage (1957), retired from film and television in 1966. She had a dentist in 1961, Dr. Harold Rowe, and they remained married until his death in 1994. Imagine my surprise a few years ago when I read an article about Foster and it suddenly dawned on me that the oral surgeon who removed all of my children’s wisdom teeth was their son, who followed his father into dentistry.
While visiting Lone Pine last June I had the opportunity to visit the location of Robinson and Stanwyck’s Anchor Ranch on Moffat Ranch Road. Budd Boetticher’s Randolph Scott film Comanche station (1960) filmed scenes in the same area.
Our location guide told me that Stanwyck’s final scene was filmed here:
Somewhat confusingly, just south of Lone Pine on Highway 395, there is an actual anchor ranch that predated the film and was often used as a filming location. For the history of Anchor Ranch and filming at Lone Pine, please visit my September 2018 Western RoundUp column.
After the shooting too The violent men Finally, the anchor seen at the entrance to the ranch in the film was moved to the entrance to the actual Anchor Ranch. Today there is a replica anchor hanging there, which brought some visitors – including myself – some visitors! – mistakenly believing it to be the ranch location used in the film.
Here’s a look at the real Anchor Ranch entrance and replica anchor as of today:
I hope to delve deeper into the locations The violent men when I’m back in town for the Lone Pine Film Festival in October 2022.
In summary, I rank The violent men as a good, interesting film, although a tighter script and more thoughtful direction would have taken it from just good to outstanding.
Despite the flaws, it’s worth taking the time to look at. It is available on DVD from Sony/Columbia. It had a VHS release and is currently available to stream to rent. I hope it will come out on Blu-ray at some point.
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found on her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she has been writing about film since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film buff, Laura loves classics like Disney, film noir, musicals and westerns. She regularly reports on classic film festivals in Southern California. Laura will be writing all about westerns at the Western RoundUp for CMH.