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A strong script and interesting casting provide the attraction in the awkwardly named Tribute to a Bad Man, a fifties' "adult western" with a good central drama.
Apparently Spencer Tracy wasn't as calm as he appears in his movies. The famous actor didn't like the long location shoot high in the Rocky Mountains or the lack of star amenities, and balked. Instead of giving in, MGM replaced him by bringing James Cagney in as a replacement. Tracy didn't have a defender in Robert Wise, a company man trusted by producers for finishing pictures under budget and under deadline. A director with liberal instincts, Wise was strictly business when it came to making movies. 1
Wise was not a strong director of actors, but Tribute to a Bad Man has the presence of both Cagney and the refreshing import Irene Papas. It's Ms. Papas' first American movie. Cash-strapped MGM probably didn't spend a fortune for her services, and the same goes for the very good Don Dubbins, a new face. The much more familiar Stephen McNally contributes solid support. Vic Morrow's character stays mostly in the background but is just as interesting as Don Dubbins' young lead.
Pennsylvania grocer boy Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) ventures into Montana Territory and hooks up with Jeremy Rodock (Cagney), a rich horse rancher at odds with his own lifestyle. Rodock is constantly bothered by horse thieves, and ranch hands like McNulty (Stephen McNally) that would like to run off with his mistress Jocasta "Jo" Constantine (Irene Papas). Jeremy picked Jo up from a Cheyenne bawdy house where she played piano; they're lovers but he hasn't proposed.
More horses are stolen, and the culprits are found to be drifters in league with Jeremy's old partner Peterson (James Bell), who lives nearby. Peterson, his wife (Jeanette Nolan) and son Lars (Vic Morrow) have failed at ranching and hate Jeremy.
Jeremy hangs one of the horse thieves, and Steve is revolted. Jocasta is equally troubled by Jeremy's unfeeling brutality, and threatens to leave him. But Jeremy is too consumed by his own sense of justice to care what anybody else thinks. He fires and beats McNulty, suspecting an affair with Jo. Jo is about to leave with Steve, who has also fallen in love with her, when more horses disappear. Steve goes off with Jeremy one more time, intent on keeping him from executing the thieves.
Tribute to a Bad Man starts slowly, but builds as we begin to understand the sexual tensions in the Rodock bunkhouse and kitchen. The men are so starved for women that Fat Jones (Lee Van Cleef) dreams about the new Sears Catalog, which is said to have pictures of women in corsets. The fact that Jeremy hasn't married Jo encourages McNulty into attempting to lure her away. Young Steve develops a man's longing for Jo as well, and is so sincere that Jo takes him seriously.
This is of course James Cagney's picture. To his credit he doesn't make Jeremy Rodock into one of his psychotics, as in White Heat or Love Me or Leave Me. Jeremy loves his horses and is somewhat within his rights to protect his property with violence; it's just that he has chosen to play judge and executioner as well. All we know about Peterson, his ex-partner, is that the man was "weak". This might mean that Jeremy dumped him for not being ruthless, or perhaps he caught Peterson stealing.
Jeremy is now a strong but isolated range baron. He's insecure about Jocasta's love and doesn't really trust her, even though it's obvious that she's faithful to him. The majority of movies with this setup plunge everyone into violent tragedy (that's what the "Cattle Empire" western subgenre seems to specialize in) but Tribute to a Bad Man instead allows Jeremy's bitterness to work itself out. The old man is brash and stubborn, but when young Steve and young Lars independently accuse him of being the 'Bad Man' of the title, he's forced to reconsider his position. Cagney performs these transformations as interior events, all the more effective for being played on horseback.
Tribute to a Bad Man is a call for tolerance and reason; if it conveyed this idea in dialogue position speeches it would be just another social message film. It's not, and for that reason is much more effective.
Robert Wise's sure blocking adds little outright visual excitement to the tale, allowing cinematographer Robert Surtees' rich images to make their own statement. The landscape often looks dark, with the ground wet after a recent rain. It's all very convincing. Miklos Rozsa's score is mostly used for transitions and is also on the low-key side. The movie is all of a piece. Don Dubbins is good in a role that a James Dean type would surely overplay. Greek beauty Irene Papas is fascinating to watch as she smokes cigareets, a habit picked up at the piano bar. Papas may have been some agent's or executive's idea of an alternative to Italy's Anna Magnani.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Tribute to a Bad Man is a fine enhanced transfer of this CinemaScope film with rich color and clear sound. Metrocolor from this year sometimes doesn't age well but hues appear accurate.
A trailer is included that introduces James Cagney on his (New York?) farm. Cagney drives up in a jeep to praise the film's new young actors. He must have had a personal interest in Don Dubbins, as Dubbins appears in his next picture, These Wilder Years. Cagney may be showing his age, but he's in fine physical shape ... his fight scene with the bigger Stephen McNally is a good one.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tribute to a Bad Man rates:
Glenn, Tribute to a Bad Man turned out to be a major problem for MGM on multiple levels. Firstly Grace Kelly turned it (and Quentin Durward) down. Then Tracy was drunk and disorderly and subsequently fired and dropped entirely from MGM. (The Howard Strickling Metro press release claimed Tracy left the film voluntarily because the high location altitude made him ill. Tracy's next film? The Mountain which was filmed in ---- Switzerland.) Finally after shooting for weeks Robert Francis was killed in a plane crash and had to be replaced by Dubbins. The film ultimately was an enormous flop for Metro who released it as a second feature in New York with Patterns. I have an early draft of script for The Bad and the Beautiful which is titled Tribute to a Bad Man. Cheers, Dick
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