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In his best movies director Andre De Toth broke through a barrier, finding a personal voice in a studio system normally designed to discourage such behavior. The tough and wiry De Toth's genre movies rejected easy sentimentality. His Crime Wave is perhaps the best "on the street" L.A. Noir and his domestic noir Pitfall pinpoints the moral depression in the postwar American family. The more conventional House of Wax and The Indian Fighter allow touches of madness and sadism to slip through the slick '50s veneer of optimism. In the bleak Day of the Outlaw six-guns are useless against the power of the natural elements. One of De Toth's last pictures Play Dirty says "no" to the dishonesty of the escapist war movie subgenre, with a truly cynical look at a daring mission in North Africa.
A western about feuding ranchers, Ramrod takes most people by surprise. The presence of the amiable Joel McCrea and the charming Veronica Lake probably led audiences of 1947 to expect a softhearted tale of harmony on the range. Adapted from a story by veteran western author Luke Short, the film is not very optimistic about human nature. In a land of greedy, ambitious opportunity, loyalty and friendship count for little.
Ranchers battle for control of a valley's grassland, a struggle centered on the desire for beautiful Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake) to escape the domination of her father. Ben Dickason (Charlie Ruggles) has always insisted that she marry Frank Ivey (Preston Foster), the most successful rancher in the district. Connie resists, as Ivey is a brutal cheat, and her spineless father goes along with whatever he says. The local sheriff Jim Crew (Donald Crisp) can't do much about Ivey's crimes and killings. Hoping to break free by bringing sheep to the county, Connie marries Walt Shipley (Ian MacDonald), owner of the Circle 66 ranch. But Walt runs away in the face of Ivey's threats. He deeds his land to Connie, who determines to face Ivey alone. Signing the reluctant Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) as her ramrod (foreman), Connie moves to block Ivey's aggression with peaceful tactics. Dave is still recovering from alcoholism after the death of his wife and child, and is initially mocked by Ivey's men. He soon takes charge, hiring the charismatic but amoral gunman Bill Schell (Don DeFore) as his main helper. Ivey's men burn Connie's ranch house, so Dave seizes one of Ivey's line camp shacks for her. In reprisal Ivey has one of Connie's cowboys beaten to the point of death. Aware that Dave will quit if she cheats on her promise to play fair, Connie conspires with Bill to stampede her own cattle and place the blame on Ivey. When a real range war breaks out, Dave is unaware that "his side" is just as tainted as the unscrupulous Frank Ivey's.
At first glance Ramrod might seem to be a western version of one of those radical crime thrillers that try to convince us that the American free enterprise system is wholly corrupt -- Force of Evil, The Underworld Story. But no, its only aim is to point out the instability of human relationships. The ranchers in Ramrod are competing but it's really a clash of personalities. The pushy Frank Ivey seems to think he owns everything. As he has the weak Ben Dickason under his control he presumes to consider Connie his rightful property as well. Connie is a strong woman among flawed or weak men. She swears that she'll prevail because Ivey can't simply kill her, and she's willing to deceive men into helping her. Dave Nash has integrity yet can't disguise his admiration for Connie. Bill Schell is an easy target for Connie's fluttering eyelashes, and she charms another cowboy as well. It's too bad that Connie's goal-oriented pragmatism involves so many little betrayals.
Andre De Toth's strong direction invigorates this upscale western effort, with excellent location shooting, credible action and dynamic stunt work. Future actor Ben Johnson is said to be one of the main stunt men on view. Unlike the vast majority of classic-era westerns, De Toth emphasizes the unpleasant consequences of violence. Pummeled by Ivey's foreman, one man is permanently blinded and so disfigured that he's difficult to recognize.
Joel McCrea is excellent as a good man who can't avoid the corruption around him. Connie's lies cause him to shoot the wrong man in response to the murder of the Sheriff and he goes into the final act unaware that Ivey's men are responding in part to Connie's treachery. Yet he retains his self-respect. Throughout the film he comes in contact with Rose Leland (Arleen Wheelan) a dressmaker who would seem to offer a more traditional relationship for him. But Veronica Lake's Connie is the film's driving force. She bravely resists her father and Ivey, insisting on her personal independence. The screenplay refuses to condemn Connie's behavior, acknowledging that powerful, flawed people that "make things happen" are all around us. This is one of Ms.Lake's most interesting non-comedy roles, filmed when she was married to director Andre De Toth.
Baby boomers know Don DeFore (pictured below) as a perpetually smiling actor on a number of '50s TV sitcoms, so it's quite a surprise to see him in Ramrod playing an enormously likeable free spirit / cowpoke / gunfighter. DeFore's Bill Schell leaps to Dave's defense but disobeys orders when he thinks he sees an easier, less ethical way of getting things done. Bill undermines Dave's leadership yet comes through for him in the end. The best thing about Ramrod is its refusal to pigeonhole characters as Good or Bad -- even Ivey has some interesting qualities. DeFore's Bill Schell is only the most prominent of the film's fully dimensional characters.
The show has interesting supporting and bit casting. Charlie Ruggles plays the worthless father without a hint of his characteristic humor. Preston Foster conveys Ivey's essential ruthlessness. Lloyd Bridges ranks fairly high on the cast list but is only seen around the periphery of the action, while Nestor Paiva and Ray Teal have more substantial parts. Jeff Corey is instantly recognizable as a hotel clerk.
Released by United Artists, Ramrod was produced by Harry Sherman, who normally had his name on Hopalong Cassidy westerns. The next year he produced Four Faces West, another unusual upscale western with Joel McCrea. It's remarkable in that not one shot is fired during the course of the film!
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Ramrod makes us smile -- in a home video climate that sees acknowledged studio classics barred from Blu-ray release, who would have believed that a superior but obscure western would suddenly show up in HD? Acquired by Paramount/Viacom as part of its Republic holdings, Ramrod is in excellent shape with just a few marks and scratches here and there. The transfer is sharp, with rich contrast. The music track by Adolph Deutsch comes across strongly.
Ramrod gets a big endorsement from DVD Savant. It's not easy to find Class "A" westerns that we haven't already seen, and this superior show by Andre De Toth rates with the big titles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ramrod Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.