Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In 1956 when The Proud Ones came out network television hadn't yet become saturated with western programs, although movie screens certainly were. This law 'n order picture is a fairly undistinguished oater with standard production values and a better-than-average cast. It's a good opportunity to see favorite Robert Ryan in a starring role, but a formula script and limp direction militate against him. A classic western this is not.
Cass Silver (Robert Ryan) takes the job of Marshal in the Kansas town of Flat Rock to get revenge on "Honest" John Barrett (Robert Middleton), the owner of the crooked Palace Saloon. Cass has old Jake and married man Jim Dexter (Walter Brennan and Arthur O'Connell) for deputies, but would like young Thad Anderson (Jeffrey Hunter) for the job. The trouble is, Thad blames Cass for the shooting of his father, and Cass has a rough time winning the young man's trust. Cass also falls for Sally (Virginia Mayo), a hotel owner with the only good meals in town. But he can't tell her his crippling secret: After getting knocked on the head, he now undergoes episodes of blindness when he's under pressure. And just when Honest John has hired killers Pike and Chico (Ken Clark and Rodolfo Acosta) to eliminate him!
In script terms The Proud Ones is a definite High Noon clone. A lonely Marshal faces up to the bad element in his town while juggling tough personal problems. By 1956 audiences were seeing a watered-down version of this story every week on Gunsmoke, but CinemaScope and color were still good reasons to enjoy even an ordinary western in a big theater.
There were several reasons why Robert Ryan never hit the top rank of male stars. By the time his career got in gear at RKO he was already forty, and his weathered face is starting to look old. He could act circles around most of his Hollywood peers but excelled when playing anguished men under pressure. The Proud Ones finds Ryan working far below his range. His tough-guy motivation to put the pressure on Robert Middleton's crooked businessman never seems drastic enough to get so worked up over. He's convincing as a tough lawman but the script neglects to give him a detailed character or even a sense of humor.
Ryan's Cass Silver is reasonable with his girlfriend Sally and paternally supportive of Jeffrey Hunter's young hothead -- but he isn't much fun. Since he's not the fastest gun in the west, the script gives him dull backup characters. Who wants dumpy Arthur O'Connell backing them up as a deputy? O'Connell asks to quit to be with his pregnant wife, and Cass basically says yes. Rudolfo Acosta and Ken Clark (later of Italo musclemen epics) are predictable bad guys; Cass is saved from one of their ambushes because the town cripple tips him off. And I don't know if this is Walter Brennan's first hang-around-the-jailhouse sidekick role, but he basically has nothing to do except provide a sentimental exit scene. It's a real waste of his talent.
Virginia Mayo, looking thinner than a few years before, also has a rote role to fill. Jeffrey Hunter comes off the best with a one-note revenge-seeking character. One wonders if it's fair to fault director Robert Webb for the fact that all of these good actors make very little impact. I hesitate to blame the script when so many scenes are blocked flatter than a pancake, with actors speaking at each other from opposite ends of the frame.
The film's gimmick is mostly a detriment. Robert Ryan can be excellent at portraying layers of inner pain and doubt, but The Proud Ones has him plagued by recurring episodes of dizziness and loss of vision. Naturally, he tries to ignore the seizures and hope for the best until he finds a way to get rid of the bad guys, but we know that the gimmick is bound to kick in as soon as the big showdown comes. Cass is first struck whenever he lowers his head to pick anything up, and he acts as if his brain was suddenly scrambled. I can imagine Ryan trying to show the affliction as a subtle effect and being told to make it more obvious, so that little kids would get it. So our finest western thespian exaggerates by blinking and making faces. It's absurd that nobody seems to notice.
Cass gives the venal town businessmen a stern talking-to, but as they just meekly take his lecture ("You make me want to vomit!") nothing comes of it. The final showdown takes place partially in a barn, reminding us again of High Noon. The resolution is also without distinction: (spoiler) Virginia Mayo has only offered a token objection to Cass's "man's gotta do" determination, and he happily leaves Flat Rock in the sure hands of his successor. That's great, but the film never really creates any tension.
Fox's DVD of The Proud Ones has a beautiful enhanced transfer; if you love westerns it probably won't matter that this one isn't a critical favorite. The soundtrack often makes do with a whistle for the main melody line, and we wince several times when the "hero" theme lamely returns to underscore Ryan's entrances. Producer Robert L. Jacks and Edmund North have plenty of fine pictures to their credit, but this isn't one of them.
It's funny that Savant should be complaining that Fox is reaching deeper into its barrel without putting out desired westerns like Garden of Evil, because the trailer for The Proud Ones uses the Bernard Herrmann soundtrack from that 1954 Gary Cooper picture -- really badly edited.
The disc is a flipper with a second flat transfer but the preferred widescreen version is on the flip side. Fox Home Video apparently didn't find any satisfactory artwork because the cover is a generic photo of some riding cowboy silhouettes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Proud Ones rates:
Movie: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 25, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson