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In the middle 1950s director John Sturges was a talent on the rise. He capped his contract period directing for MGM with the attention-getting thriller Bad Day at Black Rock, a hit that won him assignments and challenges all over town -- RKO & Howard Hughes, Paramount & Hal Wallis, etc. Tucked in there just before Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a modest but intelligent western for Universal-International, Backlash. The stars are Richard Widmark, whose career was also on an upswing, and Donna Reed, whose impressive part in From Here to Eternity had resulted mostly in secondary roles. A sagebrush murder mystery with psychological overtones, Backlash could have been written for Anthony Mann and James Stewart -- it's another tale about a neurotic avenger who fears that discovering the truth will reveal terrible secrets about himself.
Licensed by the German company Explosive Media, Backlash (aka Das geheimnis der 5 gräber) is yet another import Blu-ray of a Hollywood picture, in a sparkling new HD transfer. And although the purchase website says that it's Region B, it's really Region 0, and playable in the United States on ordinary equipment.
Top western screenwriter Borden Chase retains the dynamic characters of Frank Gruber's original novel. Two drifters come together to investigate an incident in the post- Civil War West. Several years before, five miners died in an Indian massacre. Locals have been looking in vain for the reported $60,000 in gold that was lost. Jim Slater (Richard Widmark) thinks that his estranged father was one of the prospectors, and that there was a sixth partner who left the others to die. Karyl Orton (Donna Reed) is searching for her husband, who may have been one of the five as well. He abandoned her after learning how she survived while he was away fighting for the South. Jim and Karyl each accuse the other of being after the money, and Jim thinks that Karyl is in league with the murderous Welker brothers (Harry Morgan & Robert J. Wilke). They learn more about the incident from Sgt. George Lake (Barton MacLane), during a second Indian siege at a lonely trading post. But eventually Karyl and Jim must confront some unpleasant truths about the husband and father they seek, as they find themselves in the middle of a range war between bitter ranchers Major Carson (Roy Roberts) and Jim Bonniwell (John McIntire).
John Sturges once again shows himself to be an efficient filmmaker sensitive to the finer points of characterizations. Jim Slater and Karyl Orton carry on a love-hate relationship, as each repeatedly finds reasons to believe that the other is a deceitful liar. Jim catches Karyl with the slimy Welker brothers and assumes that they're in cahoots. But she discovers that his vengeance mission is true. Jim has never known his father, who deserted his mother long ago. He's determined to kill the man who left the others to die, whether or not his father is the guilty party. This anticipated patricide angle is what makes Jim a neurotic, '50s-style western character. Sturges handles the conflict as best he can, although Donna Reed seems a bit too squeaky-clean to convince as a former prostitute. As the movie still deals in conventional western situations and violence, we don't connect Reed with her terrific character from the James Jones-Pearl Harbor epic.
What Backlash has plenty of is action and wild personalities. The siege at the trading post is amusing, with the hard-bitten soldiers giving the crooked trader a bad time. Jim earns the confidence of Sgt. Lake the old-fashioned way, by going on a midnight reconnoiter to run off the Indians' corral of ponies. Back in town, familiar western and noir losers Harry Morgan and Robert J. Wilke act tough, even though they ought to know that the hero will be along any minute to shoot them full of holes. The sight of Harry Morgan forcing Donna Reed upstairs at gunpoint is almost funny. First, she looks stronger and meaner than he does. Second, Morgan's screen persona is so sexless that we can't imagine what he'd do with Reed once he got her upstairs.
The ending confrontation is unusual, to say the least. Jim is caught between two father figures, the noble Major Carson and the almost ridiculously corrupt Jim Bonniwell. John McIntire did this same sort of role in two James Stewart/Anthony Mann westerns, and he's even more sleazy here. Bonniwell shoots his own men and can barely control his top quick-draw gunslinger Johnny Cool (William Campbell). Jim's loyalties are split once again when the possibility arises that the venal Bonniwell could indeed be his own father. Bonniwell's men are about to ambush and massacre Carson's cowboys. What should Jim do?
Widmark is excellent while Donna Reed can't quite surmount the acting challenge of being simultaneously caring-sensitive and hard-ruthless -- the script or the direction dropped the ball on that one. John McIntire is wonderfully over the top as the almost completely treacherous land baron. William Campbell is showing up in a lot of good pictures lately; he's terrific as a nearly psychotic gunman.
Backlash benefits from bright, colorful exteriors and nicely-judged interior sets. After all the primitive shacks and dank bar rooms, Major Carson's ranch house looks like a lonely oasis of civilization, and the first place where Donna Reed really belongs. John Sturges gives the quasi-Oedipal dramatics all he can, and the result is a different and satisfying mid-range western experience.
Explosive Media's Region 0 Blu-ray of Backlash (Das geheimnis der 5 gräber) is a bright, sharp and colorful rendering of a show originally printed in Technicolor. Several Universal pictures transferred to HD have been given a wide 2:1 aspect ratio as of late, when the shows were designed and filmed to be comfortably projected anywhere between 1:66 and 2:1, protecting the full frame for later TV sales. The compositions are not compromised by the slightly wider screen, which I suppose is fine. Just realize that 2:1 is also the aspect ratio for original SuperScope.
As I explained above, this is a German disc. Many American film fans seeking to expand their access to titles have purchased multi-region players, but by checking on the web one will discover that some European discs are actually Region "0", or, playable in any Region. The amazon.de entry for Backlash says that it's Region B, but it is really Region 0, and playable in the United States on ordinary equipment. All one has to do is navigate through a menu written in German instead of English. And since the package text and insert essay are in Deutsch as well, you can stare at them meaningfully and impress your friends, if you don't read foreign languages. Markus Tschiedert wrote the liner notes.
One last thing -- I'm always confusing Backlash with Delmer Daves' The Last Wagon, with Richard Widmark and Felicia Farr. Both are good pictures, with Backlash having the edge. It's less sentimental and predictable.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Backlash Region 0 Blu-ray
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.