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Terror in a Texas Town
MGM Home Entertainment
1958 / b&w / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 80 min. / Street Date May 20, 2003 / 14.95
Starring Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly, Eugene Martin, Ned Young, Victor Millan, Frank Ferguson, Marilee Earle
Cinematography Ray Rennahan
Art Direction William Ferrari
Film Editors Stefan Arnsten, Frank Sullivan
Original Music Gerald Fried
Written by Ben L. Perry as a front for Dalton Trumbo
Produced by Frank N. Seltzer
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Terror in a Texas Town is the notorious 50s Western with the outrageous conclusion written up in all the textbooks: Sterling Hayden 'outdraws' a gunslinger with his whaling harpoon, and wins. It's a great scene, simply for novelty's sake. When Savant did a montage of UA Westerns about ten years ago, it provided an hilarious conclusion to a fast-cut sequence of about 50 fast draws, from Red River to For a Few Dollars More.

The picture is undistinguished in most respects, but has been kept alive in cult Western circles by admiration for its cockeyed script. Director Joseph H. Lewis is the celebrated auteur of Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. Reading about this mostly unimpressive production would be more fun than watching it, if it weren't for a few committed performances that demand serious attention.


Crooked businessman Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) buys out stubborn homesteaders by hiring black-hearted hired gun Johnny Crale (Ned Young) to kill them on a case-by-case basis. Crale murders Swedish immigrant Sven Hansen (Ted Stanhope), just as his seafaring son George (Sterling Hayden) arrives to join him after 19 years apart. With his accent and odd manners, harpoonist George is an easy man to underestimate, and NcNeil decides to intimidate him instead of kill him outright, while floating the lie that his title to the farm is no good. Meanwhile, Hansen's neighbor Jose Mirada (Victor Millan of Touch of Evil) is holding back two pieces of information that could break McNeil's hold on the town: he witnessed Sven's murder, and he knows why McNeil wants the land: oil.

Terror in a Texas Town is a pretty shabby movie, shot on undressed back-lot Western streets without townspeople, stagecoaches, extra horses or anything else that might cost an extra nickel. The use of cheap stockshots for cattle scenes and a train and is obvious; the locomotive that brings Sterling Hayden to town remains standing like a derelict at the end of the set, right through the final showdown.

Joseph H. Lewis is certainly a strange one, when it comes to directors - he's made two or three film noir classics, but this late-50s Western and another, The Halliday Brand, are darlings of film buffs who love the esoteric. The Halliday Brand is so overwritten, overplayed and overdirected, it's almost unwatchable. Terror in a Texas Town survives by virtue of a captivating performance by Sterling Hayden, who takes the whole affair very seriously.

Western analysts love the Ned Young character, who is philosophically interested in the absurdity of his professional role. He considers each killing an opportunity for some 'business', and relishes the cruelty of his murders, but like the hit-men of The Killers, has a mental short-circuit when a victim doesn't behave as he thinks he should.

His deal with Sebastian Cabot's condescending fat-cat businessman is identical to the one in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in The West. Cabot isn't a cripple, but he never moves from his hotel-suite. He does a weak Sydney Greenstreet imitation while treating Young like a hired hand. Expecting to be made a partner, Young voices ironic comments. The gunslinger is actually missing his right hand, and shoots with his left. As a result, he's not very fast on the draw, something that's not particularly necessary because he never shoots anybody in a fair fight anyway.

Some of the 'mythic genre purity' ascribed to Terror in a Texas Town by the critics can be easily explained in more prosaic terms - the budget. Sebastian Cabot waits in his suite like a spider in its lair, it's probably to minimize the time he was on the payroll by limiting him to one set. Ned Young always wears his entire black-assassin rig, including gloves, possibly to simplify continuity and avoid having to show the iron right hand mentioned in the dialogue.

Despite the presence of Hayden, much of the show is by-the-book dull - Carol Kelly's moll character has nothing interesting to recommend it, and the script's stock approach to the Mexican family is sympathetic but condescending. The farmer played by Victor Millan has the information that would unite the town against McNeil, but illogically keeps it to himself. Although Victor Millan gives a good performance, he's still conceived as the standard helpless Mexican character. The domestic scenes are painfully wooden. Blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo was unveiled a few years back as the true screenwriter, and his conception of the earthy, downtrodden Millan character, choosing to die on his feet preserving his honor, would seem a dry run for Spartacus. Not that the klunky direction encourages any such analysis.

All the cult interest in Terror in a Texas Town centers on the Ned Young character. Gunslinger Johnny Crale's selfconsciousness about the role fate has given him to play, lends the film a progressive feel. When he chooses to commit himself to a Matt Dillon-style showdown, it seems an attempt to reaffirm his identity.

The big sixgun vs. harpoon finale is shot about as well as it can be, considering the essential silliness of the concept. The cheap music score is a detriment, as is the illogical blocking where the townspeople choose to stand behind Hayden during the duel, right in the bad guy's line of fire! Interestingly, Hayden glances away before he hurls the harpoon, to misdirect Young's attention - just as in a samurai film. It's an absurd scene not likely to be forgotten.

MGM's DVD of Terror in a Texas Town is a beaut - after presenting almost all of their b&w widescreen films in 1:66 flat, the studio curiously decided to transfer this one at 1:78 & 16:9, as it should have formatted the majority of everything from Marty to Some Like it Hot, On the Beach to A Bucket of Blood. This is the answer for these UA late-50's widescreen pictures, as I really hate looking at the dead space above and below, after seeing the main credits arrayed in a rectangle delineating a wider theatrical aspect ratio. Even true 1:66 titles can be given excellent DVD transfers, as proven by companies like Anchor Bay. They put slight black bars left and right of the image to retain the extra height of the 1:66 ratio. On most monitors, overscan eliminates the bars anyway, so it works out as windowboxing on the horizontal plane.

Besides presenting the film at a ratio closer to its original presentation, the 16:9 enhancement brings out a lot of detail in the b&w image. One angle of Hayden walking down some railroad tracks, for instance, is revealed to be a rather good matte painting. The only extra is a trailer that is actually a textless element for foreign use. There's no voiceover and no text, and it doesn't make much sense.

Universal monster-guy Glenn Strange has a brief one-line bit, talking to Hayden on the train that brings him to town.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Terror in a Texas Town rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: textless international trailer element - 'almost a trailer'
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 29, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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