Sony's recent spate of Randolph Scott Westerns runs hot and cold. Man in the Saddle (1951) had characterizations of surprising depth, but Ten Wanted Men (1955) was blah in the extreme and The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953) was undermined by its goofy 3-D effects. A Lawless Street (1955) falls somewhere in between, moderately above average. The film is more cynical than the usual Scott Western, with a few story elements lifted from High Noon (1952), and cult director Joseph H. Lewis infuses the material with myth-making camera angles and tautly-edited action.
After gunning down Dingo Brion (Frank Hagney), weary Marshal Calem Ware (Scott) has had just about enough. His community of Medicine Bend is forever on the verge of breaking wide open with lawlessness, with vengeful gunfighters endlessly trying to gun Calem down. Disenchanted, he had hoped to "outlast the times," that civilization would make his kind of violence obsolete, but such is not the case. And like High Noon many of the town's leading businessmen, including opera house director Hamer Thorne (Warner Anderson) and saloon owner Cody Clark (Rocketship X-M's John Emery) would just as soon see Calem turn in his badge, pack up and leave town.
Hamer brings popular singer Tally Dickson (Angela Lansbury) to town; he intends on marrying her, unaware that she's already married though long separated from Calem. Sometime before, in Apache Wells, Tally had left Calem after seeing him wounded; she couldn't cope with his life of violence. Their relationship is rekindled in Medicine Bend but, and again like High Noon, she vows to catch the next stage unless he's willing to walk away from a town that doesn't particularly want to be saved. Worse, it soon becomes apparent that Dingo and another newly arrived gunslinger, Harley Baskam (Michael Pate), aren't gunning for the marshal out of simple revenge - they've been specifically hired to assassinate him.
Calem's weariness and director Lewis's energetic direction make for an interesting, fast-paced 78 minutes. On the surface Calem is the typical Randolph Scott hero; he jokes with cook Molly (Ruth Donnelly) no matter how bleak things get, yet has to lock himself deep in the empty cells of his own jail to have a peaceful rest. Age and experience have brought him little comfort; it only makes killing another man more difficult.
Lewis's direction, helped considerably by Paul Sawtell's edgy score, is full of sweeping tracking and crane shots that contrast the static quality of weaker Scott Westerns like Ten Wanted Men. The staging of the action is far superior to Sony's other Scott DVDs, and also more inventive. (Mild Spoilers) In a scene repeated by Clint Eastwood almost 20 years later for High Plains Drifter (1973), one killer tries to shoot an apparently unarmed Calem as he sits in a barber's chair getting a shave, only to be killed by the Marshal, who fires a Derringer hidden under the barber's bib. A later duel with Pate's Harley Baskam offers a plot twist that's surprising if not convincing. Still, the filmmakers deserve credit for almost pulling it off.
Kenneth Gamet's script, from Brad Ward's story "The Marshal of Medicine Bend," offers a neat subplot involving Dingo's widow (Jeanette Nolan, very good) and hulking, cougar-scarred brother (Don Megowan, who around this time played everything from Col. William Travis on Davy Crockett to the Creature from the Black Lagoon in). Sharp-eyed viewers will note the calendar on Scott's wall is from "Gamet's Vegetable Compound."
Less successful is Calem's relationship with Tally and her ties to other various characters. Angela Lansbury's casting is offbeat but not surprising as this type of film tended to attract big stars on their way down and rising talent on the ascent, both of which apply in Lansbury's case. Her unusual looks, simultaneously youthful and mature, fit the 58-year-old Scott quite well, even though she was barely 30 at the time.
Video & Audio
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen with a 16:9 anamorphic squeeze for widescreen TVs, A Lawless Street is notably grainy in its title elements and dissolves, and the color is pretty tepid throughout, with everything on the browning side. The film may have been one of the very last shot in three-strip Technicolor, though it's possible that this was actually shot in Eastman Color and that Technicolor may have only done the release prints. In any case the color as seen here is unimpressive. The mono sound is average. Optional English and Japanese subtitles are available. There are no Extra Features.
Randolph Scott was a shrewd enough to realize that his modesty-budgeted Westerns could be much improved in the hands of creative directors like Andre De Toth, Budd Boetticher, and Joseph H. Lewis. A Lawless Street, though not apex of this policy, is an entertaining example.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.