Unexpectedly effective Western heist outing, with a dark, menacing noir undercurrent. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released City of Bad Men, the 1953 oater from Fox, directed by Harmon Jones, and starring Jeanne Crain, Dale Robertson, Richard Boone, Lloyd Bridges, Carole Mathews, Whitfield Connor, Hugh Sanders, Rodolfo Acosta, and Carl Betz. Using as a backdrop the real-life boxing match between James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons in Carson City, Nevada at the turn of the 20th century, City of Bad Men's themes of lost, doomed love, the unwelcome advance of civilization into the Old West, and the deadly, corrupt gamesmanship between outlaw and law keeper, mark it as a B-oater (...or low-end "A," Barry) with more on its mind than most of its contemporaries. Pity about that happy ending, though.... No extras for this good-looking fullscreen color transfer.
Outlaw leader Brett Stanton (Dale Robertson), returning home to Carson City, Nevada with his gang after six years--two of those years pointlessly fighting as mercenaries "on the wrong side" in one of Mexico's countless revolutions--sees in his mind's eye the easy pickings of sleepy Carson City's local bank as a way to ease back into American criminal society. Tensions in the gang--which includes Russell (Leo Gordon), Jack (Harry Carter), and Mexican bandits Joe Mendoza (Rodolfo Acosta) and Pig (Pascual Garcia Pena)--have been brewing, however, due to sibling friction with Brett's hot-headed, ambitious, violent brother, Gar (Lloyd Bridges), the gang's second-in-command. Arriving in Carson City, the gang is shocked to see the podunk town transformed into a teeming carnival sideshow, with hundreds of visiting Eastern dudes crammed to the city's rafters, all of them there to see the Heavyweight Boxing Championship between James J. Corbett (John Daheim) and Bob Fitzsimmons (Gil Perkins). With more grumblings led by Gar, Brett decides to rob the fight of its ticket earnings...and then permanently part ways with the gang. But first, he wants to see Linda Culligan (Jeanne Crain), the girl he left behind when he took off six years ago. Linda, however, is now engaged to Jim London (Whitfield Connor), local businessman and the boxing match's promoter. London's widowed sister, man-hungry Cynthia (Carole Mathews), isn't shy about making it known she'd like to be with Brett, a prospect Brett doesn't seem to mind until she tries to buy the independent gunslinger with a silver saddle. To rob the fight of its gate, the fight actually has to come off, and that may not happen, due to several rival gangs in town, smelling money to be made from gambling, including Johnny Ringo (Richard Boone) and Brett's deadly adversary, Bob Thrailkill (Don Haggerty). Pragmatic Sheriff Bill Gifford (Hugh Sanders), fully aware that he's completely outgunned and that the anxious, trigger-fingered gangs could take over the town any time they choose, consults equally nervous London and proposes a bizarre compromise: Brett, Ringo, and Thrailkill become his deputies, to keep their men in line so the fat Eastern pigeons don't fly the coup with all their dough--a plan that Brett endorses...for his own reasons.
An unexpectedly involving, accomplished B oater, City of Bad Men impressed me by bringing in noir undercurrents married to a hybrid Western outlaw/heist movie framework...in what I thought was going to be a simple shoot-'em-up. Scripted by frequent collaborators George W. George and George F. Slavin (Red Mountain, Smoke Signal, Apache Territory), and directed by editor-turned-director Harmon Jones (he cut classic Fox titles like Boomerang!, Pinky, and Panic in the Streets, before helming low-budget outings like The Pride of St. Louis, Gorilla at Large, Princess of the Nile, and later, lots of 60s episodic TV), City of Bad Men begins on a pessimistic, sour note...and continues right on through (...until that ill-advised happy ending). Brett is a quintessential noir loser, buffeted not only by his own internal failings (leaving behind the girl he loved for a life a crime), but also by the winds of change (civilization making his criminal way of life obsolete), and the perfidy of fate (picking "the wrong side" in a Mexican revolution; "Sure did a lot of fighting for nothing," one of the gang states). He's coming back to America a failure, with his tail between his legs, satisfied merely to pull an easy job (he thinks) of knocking off his sleepy home town's bank. A believer in luck (and so by extension, fate), he's subject to their whims; he tells his men to quit whining and complaining, and to act like men or their luck will never change...only to have the men lose even more faith in him when he incorrectly calls the "cinch" Carson bank job. His nihilistic cynicism is complete when he finally does latch onto an alternate plan---rob the boxing match's gate--only in order to facilitate cutting all ties with everyone (he makes it plain that once the job is over, he doesn't want to see any of them again--including his brother).
Personal salvation for Brett doesn't come with love, either (again...until that stupid happy ending fade-out; just ignore it). Having left beautiful Linda six years earlier, taking her brother with him, he returns to find her as changed as the town. Burned by his previous hurt, she's now willing to marry square London as a ticket out of town and back East (she's retreating, emotionally and physically, abandoning the memory of Brett, as well as the promise of the West), lest she turn into something like man-eating widower Cynthia, who's willing to take up with a gunslinger like Brett precisely because he promises danger. No matter that Linda expresses desire for Brett, she can't forget what happened, and realizes it's over (wounded Crain and particularly quiet, thoughtful Dale Robertson, are excellent in Jones' extreme close-ups during their nighttime courting scenes). And even when Linda weakens, on fight night, and begs Brett to go away with her, he finally understands that their relationship has irrevocably changed; there's no going back for them. Not even the love of a brother survives City of Bad Men's dark, pessimistic noir landscape; Brett and Gar have been headed for a showdown for years, until Gar finally asserts himself and sells his brother Brett out completely to cold, murderous Johnny Ringo.
Along with capricious fate and the alteration of Linda's love further hampering Brett's redemption, the final straw for this hapless gunslinger comes with the civilization of the American West he missed while in Mexico--making men like him obsolete and unnecessary, dangerous reminders of a past that the citizenry will want eliminated. On the cusp of a new century, Carson City, far from being sleepy, is viewed for the first time by Brett's gang like a city caught in the midst of a grotesque carnival, with everything from wagons advertising hot showers, to Indians playing slot machines, to a horseless carriage, just waiting to put the West's horse out of business, on display in the streets (director Jones cuts this sequence just right, conveying the shock and confusion of Brett's gang at these modern, unwelcome sights). More troubling, the West's sense of justice has "evolved" to the "civilized" point where Sheriff Gifford, acting in concert with upstanding businessman London, who's more concerned with having the boxing match come off--and knowing full well he the upholder of the law exercises no real control over the town teeming with killers--collaborates with his sworn enemies, all in the name of keeping the peace...instead of taking the killers on in gun battles (a forerunner of more modern-dress noirs, where the cops often will willingly sell themselves to their criminal adversaries). With everyone from Brett to the sheriff to Ringo mentioning how society is changing, one wonders how long it will be in this "new West" before criminal and cop work together right from the start...at least in noir-land?
By the final shoot-out, after director Jones has masterfully ratcheted up the suspense through a long, exciting, mostly silent heist sequence where the robbers constantly reposition themselves--not only physically among the fight ring's bleachers but also within their own personal loyalties to each other--we expect Brett not to make it, such is the crushingly pessimistic noir world created here. Indeed, in the final shoot-out SPOILER ALERT, where brother guns down brother (Jones has a terrific wavering, out-of-focus P.O.V shot from Lloyd Bridge's perspective, after he's been wounded by Brett), Jones comes up with a rather remarkable visual and aural symbol--a shot-up boxer's punching bag, screeching on its rope as it swings to and fro with metronomic regularity, leaking sand out on the ground from the bullet holes--that's as good a noir metaphor for the death of Brett and his way of life as I can think of. Like a clock's pendulum, as well as like the sands pouring down through an hour glass, time is up for Brett, according to that punching bag. Unfortunately, City of Bad Men doesn't just end here, with Brett killing his brother and losing Linda--lost in a world that no longer needs him. Instead, a happy ending undercuts City of Bad Men's dark, ugly worldview, with Brett's redemption through Linda's love mirroring the West's realignment along ethical standards: the bad guys are killed, the money saved, and outlaw Brett is transformed into (presumably) married, settled lawman Brett. What a shame good had to triumph here.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.