A soapy Western redeemed somewhat by an exciting climatic shoot-out, Three Violent People (1957) re-teamed Charlton Heston with his Ten Commandments co-star, Anne Baxter. This was shot just as De Mille's epic was wrapping production and in the can even before Ten Commandments was released.
The picture is set immediately after the Civil War, with decommissioned cavalry officer Colt Saunders (Heston) eager to get back to his Texas ranch, the Bar S. Defending the honor of Lorna Hunter (Baxter), Colt is beaten unconscious by carpetbaggers and she takes him back to his hotel suite. Mistaken as his wife, Lorna in fact is a thinly-coded hooker who initially plans to relieve Colt of his $900 in gold coins, while he is initially suspicious of her. However, after only a few hours, with Colt believing Lorna to be nothing other than a Southern Belle looking for a husband, they fall head-over-heels and decide to get married. An old, ahem, colleague of Lorna's, Ruby LaSalle (Elaine Stritch, very young), warns Lorna that high-minded Colt's going to be none-too-happy when he learns of his new bride's shady past. "They got a saying in Texas," says Ruby, rather cryptically, "The Rio Grande, it changes its course. The Saunders don't."
Returning to the Bar S, the newlyweds are met by new problems. First, Colt's long-estranged brother, Cinch (Tom Tryon), is now living at the ranch, wanting to be cut into any sale of the property or its assets. The two have tussled ever since, as children, Cinch got his arm torn off in the gears of a windmill on the property and Colt became a hero after saving him. Meanwhile, the postwar provisional government, led by Commissioner Harrison (Bruce Bennett) and his deputy, gunslinger Cable (Forrest Tucker), are stealing land by levying outrageous taxes and forcing ranchers out. As one of Lorna's old customers from St. Louis recognizes her, and as tensions flare between Colt and Cinch, Colt and other ranchers vow to fight the commissioner and his men.
Three Violent People is short on action but long on flamboyant romantic melodrama. It's more than a little similar to the George Pal/Byron Haskin The Naked Jungle (1954): In both films, Heston plays a tough-as-nails, humorless rancher who brings a woman he barely knows to his remote part of the world to start a family - then turns icy cold once he learns she's been with other men. In both pictures Heston's character is stiflingly sanctimonious and almost completely unsympathetic.
Interest in Colt's problem is further undermined by Heston's and Baxter's affected performances. When her roles called for such over-the-top theatrics, as in All About Eve or The Ten Commandments, Baxter could be quite entertaining, but in Three Violent People she's simply hammy much of the time. One gets the sense that she and Heston were in competition with one another. He's as hammy as she is in scenes where they're together; both are better when the other is absent.
It's no wonder then that Tom Tryon, generally not regarded as a good actor, comes off best. Compared to Heston and Baxter, Tryon is surprisingly naturalistic as Cinch, so much so that his character, though misguided, doesn't seem as unreasonable as perhaps the writers had intended. Where Heston's Colt simply smolders, Tryon's Cinch is alternately pragmatic and tough and ready for action. In one good scene he taunts Tucker's deputy by mocking the way the latter wears his gunbelt.
Similarly, the ageless Gilbert Roland, as Innocencio Ortega, the Bar S's foreman, also fares better than the leads by underplaying everything. Always charismatic, Roland makes a strong impression just standing around, a cigarette perched on his lips, watching Colt make a fool of himself.
In retrospect, the multi-cultural casting of Ortega's five Hispanic sons is amusing: Robert Blake and Jamie Farr (billed here as Jameel Farah) have the most lines; Ross Bagdasarian (aka David Seville of Chimpmunk fame), Leo Castillo, and future producer Don Devlin have much less to do.
Director Rudolph Mate does a good job with the action sequences and gives the entire production a nice polish, but the former cinematographer doesn't seem to have been much of an actor's director. There's no connection, incidentally, to Mate's The Violent Men, which was released to DVD by Columbia/TriStar just last month. This Paramount production was announced as Maverick but released as the equally-inapt Three Violent People. Heston and Tryon are the first two, I suppose, but who's the third violent man? Forrest Tucker? Gilbert Roland? Harry Lime?
Video & Audio
Filmed in VistaVision, Three Violent People has been given a handsome 16:9 transfer that shows off the higher-resolution that horizontal film format offered. The image is sharp with vivid, bright hues (original printing was by Technicolor). There is some age-related wear here and there, including razor thin horizontal scratches, dirt, etc. but mostly the film looks great. The mono sound is serviceable. Included are optional English subtitles but that's it - no French or Spanish subtitles or audio, and no Extra Features, not even a trailer.
Three Violent People is slickly produced and competently made but unmemorable. The film was Heston's last under his Paramount contract, and the actor would shortly embark on an indie career taking him to far more interesting productions. As such Three Violent People is one of the last gasps of the old studio system.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.