Initially intriguing psychological oater, taken to ponderous, counterproductive anti-Western extremes. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released an obscure one: 1957's Black Patch, written by co-star Leo Gordon, produced and directed by Allen H. Miner, and starring George Montgomery, Diane Brewster, Tom Pittman, House Peters, Jr., Lynn Cartwright, George Trevino, Peter Brocco, Strother Martin, Ned Glass, Stanley Adams, and Sebastian Cabot. What starts out as a nicely moody, somber chamber piece about the adults somehow sluggishly devolves into Nick Adams-Wannabe Apes James Dean and Grows Up to be Shane, with Gordon and Miner eliminating too many established Western conventions in a resoundingly failed effort to be "arty." Too bad. No extras for this nice anamorphically enhanced widescreen black and white transfer.
Dusty little Santa Rita, New Mexico. If you're a drifter or gambler or ornery cowpoke, don't expect to lean on the Golden Lily's bar too long, because one-eyed Union Army veteran Marshal Clay Morgan (underrated George Montgomery, who's thoughtful and layered here) ain't foolin' around: drink up and hustle your ass out of town because Santa Rita is for respectable people looking to settle down and create a life for themselves. The fact that the emotionally damaged Clay has no life of his own, however, is brought into sharp relief when two people from his past arrive in town. Former best friend Hank Danner (the excellent Leo Gordon), an imposing, brutal looking gunman arrives first, followed by Helen Danner (Diane Brewster, wasted here in an underwritten role), his wife...and Clay's former love. The beautiful Helen makes quite an impression on young Carl (Tom Pittman), condescendingly known as "Flytrap" by brutes such as Golden Lily bouncer (and drunk) Holman (House Peters, Jr.), as she does on Clay, who's shocked to find out she's now married to Hank. A late night meeting confirms Clay and Helen still love each other desperately, but they both agree not to hurt Hank--who in turn is well aware that Helen very probably still harbors strong feelings for Clay. Consistently marginalized Carl is enamored with both the newcomers--Helen for her beauty and Hank for his toughness--so he's shocked when a deeply reluctant Clay does his duty and locks up Hank on suspicion of a bank robbery. When saloon owner Frenchy De Vere (Sebastian Cabot) finds out that the stolen $40,000 may be hidden in town, he gives a pistol loaded with dud bullets to Holman with the instructions to help Hank bust out of jail. But the plan goes wrong, and Hank's killed...with everyone thinking that Clay did the shooting to get the money, and Helen. And that tips Carl over the edge...with the help of Frenchy.
If you look at that screaming ad copy on the sweet, sweet original poster art for Black Patch ("They took his eye--they stole his woman and they dirtied his name--but now the Marshal called Black Patch was coming back with white lightning in his holsters!"), you might expect a very different B Western than what actually plays out here. Marketing has always been about the selling of the product, rather than the product itself, particularly in Hollywood, so Black Patch certainly wasn't the first movie or last to get a deliberately misdirected pitch. However, the raucous, violent tone of that flat-out wrong copy--nobody in the movie takes his eye, or his woman...nor do his guns blaze with white lightning--is at complete odds with the dour, funereal tone of this anti-Western. Which is fine...had that downbeat vision been complete or at least marginally sustained. So-called "psychological Westerns" weren't exactly new in the mid-to-late 1950s (the term is so loose and imprecise, anyway, that one might even go back and include "classic" Westerns from Ford like My Darling Clementine or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, or Hawks' Red River...or even further back to some of William S. Hart's more character-driven outings), with 1952's High Noon being the most obvious influence here for Black Patch (a lawman, alone in his duty, is distrusted by his town and his girl). And certainly Black Patch's underlying dramatic framework was far from original by this point in mid-century oaters--you can't get anymore basic than a love triangle between friends, or the buddy that turns bad, making the hero choose between duty and friendship, or the punk kid who idolizes a "fallen" hero, only to turn "bad" in his disappointment, or the emotionally/physically wounded loner battling societal forces and inner demons. All of that had been done and done again by 1957.
So what felt fresh and rather absorbing at first with Black Patch was not the storyline itself, but how screenwriter/actor Leo Gordon (Riot in Cell Block 11, numerous episodic TV scripts) and director Allen Miner (Chubasco, lots of episodic television) worked against our B Western genre expectations. While Black Patch's opening shot is well-designed but familiar (a pan over the desert locale to Gordon's black horse, followed by the sound of gunfire and black-clad Gordon laughing over someone's shallow grave), Gordon's first full scene at Santa Rita's Golden Lily isn't. Young Pittman's Flytrap is being insulted and pushed around by nasty drunk Peters, Jr., even to the point where Peters, Jr. begins to bait Gordon--not a proposition any sane man would undertake (have you ever seen Gordon's eyes in widescreen color, on a 75-foot movie screen? About as cold and scary as you can get...). Gordon, however, doesn't react the way we're sure he's eventually going to: he merely turns away. It finally does stop when he pops Peters, Jr., but it takes a long time for Gordon to get there. As the story continues, the three main leads act with equal caution, with awkward politeness, and low-key feeling. Montgomery isn't insulting to Brewster when he discovers she's married Gordon, and Gordon is pleased to see his rival after all these years, as is Montgomery. They even shake hands when both acknowledge they've hurt Brewster, and that the current romantic situation might not be ideal. Gordon and Miner plug in little details to round off these curiously well-mannered but tense scenes, such as Montgomery wearily washing his eye socket, a horny Gordon telling Brewster she's wasting her time combing her hair before bed, and Brewster watching the shadow of Montgomery pacing back and forth in his jail office, the bars of the cells cast in relief against the dusty street. All of this comes off as adult and intelligent and nicely enigmatic--even a bit noirish, at least in terms of quiet doom: the politest, strangest goddamn love triangle you ever saw (complimented well by Jerry Goldsmith's first big-screen score). And so naturally, such niceties puts the viewer on even more of an edge. Things aren't going to stay "nice" with two strapping studs like Montgomery and Gordon, particularly when they're going to clash over lush Brewster. How's it going to work out?Well...it works out by Gordon getting killed (not a spoiler, since it happens so quickly into the movie). And when he dies, Black Patch dies, because all of the sudden the story pivots to Pittman's boy Flytrap, and the triangle is reconfigured to disastrous results (Pittman simply--fatally--doesn't have what it takes to balance out this dynamic: physically unimposing, with an almost complete lack of screen presence or personality). Just when things were getting interesting--you can't beat a debauched, violent Sebastian Cabot beating his mistress Lynn Cartwright and punking bullets by soaking them not in mere water but champagne, no less--the movie stops and becomes a third-rate teen flick, with Pittman woefully out of his depth as the evolving Flytrap. Quicker than you can say, "Pittman is a copy of Nick Adams...who was a copy of James Dean...who was a copy of Marlon Brando," he somehow becomes a deadly quick-draw artist who's gunning for Montgomery. Gordon and Miner slow what was already a deliberate character study down to a lugubrious crawl as Western genre conventions are thrown out the window in favor of anti-Western pretensions woefully implemented in the service of "ART." Endless talk to a purpose we long already sussed out replaces action, and the build established at the movie's beginning is squandered in pretentious wallowing. SPOILER ALERT! By the time the movie is winding up, Gordon and Miner, so enamored of what they think is genre-busting, set us up for a gundown with the now-tough Pittman and the maybe-scared Montgomery...only to let the final showdown improbably blow away in the breeze in an infuriating "I'm okay, you're okay" non-resolution that isn't so much anti-Western as it is anti-drama itself. Pleasures of the genre have been ruthlessly eliminated in favor of pompous, pretentious, even-steven claptrap. That's not genuine experimentation with the form, but rather misguided trickery. A gimmick. And it doesn't work at all in Black Patch.
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.