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Tired of waiting for the Hollywood studios to release discs of your favorite '50s westerns? Look East, young man, about eight thousand miles to Germany, where the western genre has traditionally been just as popular as here in America. Their pulp authors were grinding out Deutsche sagebrush tales almost before our own became popular. Excepting an operetta or two, they may have beaten the Italians in putting big money into their own films set in the American West.
The German Explosive Films label got going several years ago, concentrating at first on top Spaghetti Western titles. But they've just released some Blu-rays of vintage Hollywood product, sporting beautiful new HD transfers. The first up is one of Universal's more interesting oaters of the decade, King Vidor's hyperactive Man Without a Star (German title: Mit stahlharter Faust). At first glance the movie comes across as a full-Testosterone showcase demonstrating the talents and virility of Kirk Douglas, who does his best to make the title character the most red-blooded, fair-minded, sharp shooting womanizer of the 19th century. Although the picture is scored with Universal library music (even I recognize cues from William Alland's monster movies), it opens with a title tune crooned in fine form by Frankie Laine, the sure mark of a matinee winner. In the opening titles Laine's screen credit is positioned right next to that of the producer and the director.
The final screenplay by Borden Chase is almost as anarchic as his script for Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz: one anti-social, aggressive or violent act occurs at least every three minutes. Drifting cowpoke Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) rides the rails into a Wyoming town, tangling with the railroad bulls and deputies when they try to arrest him for a murder committed by a knife-wielding creep (Jack Elam). Rae befriends Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), a tinhorn kid desperate to become a cowboy. Using his fists, his personality and his musical talent on the banjo, Rae wins jobs for himself and Jeff on a huge ranch from the ramrod Strap Davis (Jay C. Flippen). While teaching Jeff how to work cows and shoot, Rae learns that the neighbor ranchers have much smaller spreads and are worried that the big ranch's new owner Reed Bowman will not honor the 'share the range' good neighbor policy of the past. It's true -- the new owner proves to be a calculating Eastern businesswoman (Jeanne Crain). Reed's intention is to treble the size of her herd and push out the other ranchers. In two years the grass will be destroyed, but that's when she'll sell out, reap her profits and move into some other business. Admiring Dempsey Rae's skill with a gun, Reed makes potential romance an unspoken part of her offer for him to take over as foreman. But she also hires the unscrupulous Steve Miles (Richard Boone) and his gunslingers to enforce her takeover of the free range. When fighting breaks out Rae doesn't know which side he should be on. He hates Steve Miles' brutality and doesn't trust Reed. Worse, the little ranchers have resorted to using barbed wire - and Rae has a psychotic hatred of barbed wire.
Man Without a Star is almost as psychotic in its appeal to violence as an ubiquitous ritual. Among both good men and bad, almost every petty dispute is an excuse for a beating or a quick-draw showdown. Corrupt deputies are as rotten as the sleazy gunfighters. The green Jeff Jimson starts out as a loveable guy, and attracts the affection of rancher's daughter, the drop-dead cute (Myrna Hansen). But even he goes gun crazy at one point and must be subdued by Rae.
Writer Borden Chase invented neurotic and disturbed characters for James Stewart and Anthony Mann's very profitable series of '50s westerns. But Stewart favored stories with lame Sunday-School messages and mottoes: can a bad man change his ways? Does one bad apple (man) spoil the whole barrel? The closest Man Without a Star gets to such drivel is when Rae tells Jeff that every man must choose a star to follow. But he hasn't done it himself. Dempsey Rae was once tortured with barbed wire and has nasty scars all over his mighty chest (show us again, Kirk!) to prove it. Just hearing the words 'barbed wire' makes Rae goes nuts, like Steve Martin reacting to the phrase 'cleaning woman' in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Yet Rae eventually defends the downtrodden little ranchers who feel compelled to use barbed wire. Even a cowboy dedicated to the mantra of the wide-open range (read: unrestrained big-business piracy) yields to the fact that a West with people in it needs civilizing boundaries (lawful regulation?).
Man Without a Star has a knifing, several casual fistfights, two or three face-off gun-downs and one man torn up by barbed wire. Dempsey Rae is finally ambushed in town by Steve Miles, roped like a steer and beaten to a pulp. In retaliation Rae "Learns To Stop Worrying And Love the Barbed Wire": he sends one of Miles' men back to Reed Bowman's ranch tightly wrapped in the nasty stuff. The actual body count in Vidor's movie isn't too hight, but the movie's overall message is that everyday life in America is a dog-eat-dog battle to make a buck.
Although it may be hard to picture, most of the show takes a lighthearted tone. The exuberant Rae jokes or sings his way out of average problems, giving Kirk Douglas a chance to show off the banjo tricks he learned during his stint with Walt Disney from the previous year. He makes merry with the town strumpet Moccasin Mary from Tucumcari (Mara Corday of Tarantula) and accepts plenty of favors from the hostess Idonee, an old flame (Claire Trevor). But Dempsey Rae flips over the slick chick boss lady Reed Bowman, who returns his leers with approving smiles and gives him a peek while she bathes in her so-modern-it's-indecent indoor bathroom (Rae: "Right next to the bedroom -- that's kind of handy!") Ms. Crain was always good playing demure farm girls and other upstanding femmes. She's just as impressive as this film's sexually devious and determined Alpha Female.
The director of note is the great King Vidor, a veteran artist who formulates shots, compositions and sequences that cut like butter. His angles are dynamic and his screen is always alive with action and personality. Vidor didn't make westerns often but they tend to be good ones: Billy the Kid with Johnny Mack Brown, and David O. Selznick's delirious Duel in the Sun. That last title and Vidor's weird Ruby Gentry both feature strong female characters that eventually engage their own lovers in murderous gun battles. The scenes are either operatically romantic/fatalistic or enjoyably ludicrous, depending on the individual viewer's mental state.
(Spoiler:) In Man Without a Star all the plot themes except one are neatly resolved: Dempsey Rae has settled scores with all his friends and enemies save for the intransigent Reed Bowman -- unless one believes that he beats her at her own game, using sex to break her spirit. In terms of the sexual subjugation of women in the 1950s, this should work, but of course the movie can't be explicit about it. So the curtain drops minus one showdown, leaving King Vidor and Kirk Douglas's movie in sort of a funk. I mean, the woman has been sanctioning the killing of her neighbors, and she apparently exits poorer but with a full skin. I guess that means that Man Without a Star is sufficiently accurate about crime and punishment in lawless America to satisfy any European audience!
The packaging for Explosive Media and Alive's Blu-ray of Man Without a Star (Mit stahlharter Faust) says it's Region B only, but it's really All-Region: both my review copy and a reader's mail order disc play fine on standard U.S. equipment. The Amazon.de website says the disc is encoded with subtitles, which is sadly not true either.
The disc is a real beauty. Universal's transfer department has put together a very handsome presentation. Some very minor color fringing appears now and then, on the extreme left-hand side of the frame. Colors, granularity, and the richness of the image are uniformly excellent -- Russell Metty's cinematography is gloriously bright yet doesn't make the screen look like the window of a candy store.
Explosive Media's Ulrich Bruckner provides a handsome animated gallery of stills and ad artwork, an impressive string of trailers and an insert pamphlet with liner notes by Markus Tschiedert. They're written in German, so I hope they don't contradict too many of the opinions in my review.
Ulrich Bruckner is a published author on Italian westerns and can give an instant biography on the most arcane Spaghetti western actor you never heard of. In that sense he's the German equivalent of our Robert S. Birchard, who probably knows an equal amount about every one of the many familiar sagebrush actors playing ranch hands and gunslingers in this picture. Stuntman-turned actor Richard Farnsworth is said to be in there, although I wouldn't recognize him without his retirement-age hair and mustache. Third-string bargirl "Boxcar Alice" is none other than pretty Millicent Patrick, who also worked in the Universal makeup department sculpting designs for, among other interesting creations, The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.