Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 81 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Sterling Hayden (THE KILLING, THE GODFATHER, DR. STRANGELOVE, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE), Nedrick Young (SECONDS, HOUSE OF WAX, writer of THE DEFIANT ONES, JAILHOUSE ROCK), Sebastian Cabot (THE TIME MACHINE, narrator of WINNIE THE POOH cartoons), Carol Kelly (DANIEL BOONE, TRAIL BLAZER; SUGARFOOT), Victor Millan (TOUCH OF EVIL, SCARFACE '83, GIANT), Frank Ferguson (JOHNNY GUITAR; HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE), Marilee Earle (THE FEARMAKERS, ISLAND WOMEN). Written by Dalton Trumbo (blacklisted writer, famed for SPARTACUS, ROMAN HOLIDAY, JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN, PAPILLON, EXODUS). Directed by Joseph H. Lewis (GUN CRAZY, THE BIG COMBO, PRIDE OF THE BOWERY, and RETREAT, HELL!).
Tag-lines: "When the Texas Plains Ran With Blood and Black Gold!"
Best one-liner: "Yes, I have killed many whales."
Let me give you the rundown:
The title: TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN. Solid, solid alliteration. Something like TEXAS TERRORS or TERROR IN TEXAS would have been enough. And yet they went the extra step. TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN. And yet something like TROUBLE N' TERROR IN TALCO, A TINY BUT TOUGH TEXAS TOWN would have been too much. The makers experienced exhiliration and exercised restraint. I respect that. (And readers of this site will note how much I appreciate alliteration in a movie title!)
The director: B-movie legend, Joseph H. Lewis. AKA "Wagon Wheel Joe" due to his propensity for filming shots through a wagon wheel whenever he had the opportunity. When asked about his early days as a B-Western helmer, he said "I carried a box filled with different wagon wheels. Whenever I'd come to a scene which was just disgraceful in dialogue and all, I'd place a wagon wheel in one portion of the frame, and make an artistic shot out of it, so by the time the scene was over you only saw the artistic value and couldn't analyze what the scene was about." Well, none of the scenes here are disgraceful, but, as old habits die hard, there are a lot of wagon wheels. Incredibly prolific (he directed nearly forty features from 1937-1958), he's best known for his contributions to film noir (SO DARK THE NIGHT, MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, THE BIG COMBO, GUN CRAZY, A LADY WITHOUT A PASSPORT, CRY OF THE HUNTED, THE UNDERCOVER MAN), but his masterpiece might just be TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN, the final feature he ever completed before moving on to a seven-year-long career in (mostly Western) television, ultimately retiring from directing in 1967.
The star: Sterling Hayden.
Ran away from home at age 15 to be a sailor– he was a ship's boy on a California-bound schooner, a Newfoundland fisherman, and a ship's fireman in Cuba. By 22, he'd sailed the world many times over, and by 24 he was a print model and a Paramount contract player christened "The Beautiful Blond Viking God" and "The Most Beautiful Man in the Movies." When the Second World War began, he enlisted as a private, became an OSS operative, parachuted into Yugoslavia, and won the Silver Star. Post-war, he resumed acting, playing notable roles in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE KILLING, SUDDENLY, JOHNNY GUITAR, CRIME WAVE, and THE STAR. Acting, to Hayden, became a necessary evil- a way to earn a quick buck so he could fund his globe-trotting, seafaring, extracurricular activities.
So to play an ex-whaler, harpoon-slinging, lionhearted, 'fish-out-of-water' hero in TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN is actually no kind of a stretch, whatsoever. (The Swedish accent, on the other hand...)
With many of the major players (writer Dalton Trumbo, stars Sterling Hayden & Nedrick Young) having personally clashed with Joseph McCarthy, it's little surprise to see that the plot revolves around the little man versus the behemoth: a rich shitheel illegally buys up a town and its sheriff so that he can easily steal the oil reserves beneath it. His henchmen intimidate, coerce, and murder those honest citizens who oppose him. A callow, doe-eyed Sterling Hayden (playing a Swede!- i.e., "I yuh-nderstand American yuh-stice, too") arrives in town to learn that his father was murdered only days before.
Adrift in a foreign land and imbued with the same kind of fatalistic broken-English charm that Bruno S. would later exude as STROSZEK, he soon learns how things really work in America, who owns who (the sheriff says "No foreigner's gonna come in here and tell me how to run my job!"), why everyone's afraid to make a stand, and how anyone who makes a stand is quickly abandoned by their buddies and left to a gruesome fate... but maybe, just maybe, he can take up his dead father's harpoon and dispense some high-seas justice in the low-down Wild West. Joseph H. Lewis was advised against taking up the project because of the communist ties amongst the film's personnel and the picture's anti-establishment message, and curiously, he was never permitted to make another feature after this. Coincidence?
Regardess, this movie could easily be retitled (though it'd ruin the alliteration) to "STERLING HAYDEN SEZ: NO MORE BULLSHIT."
Sterling Hayden says "No more bullshit" in 1950's-safe language.
Sterling Hayden EXUDES 'no more bullshit.'
The men he goes up against are corporate oilman Sebastian Cabot (the narrator in the WINNIE THE POOH cartoons) and black-clad hired gun Nedrick Young (a blacklisted screenwriter and brilliant actor who's best described as part Richard Boone, part Claude Akins, and part Martin Landau).
Young schemes as Cabot polishes off an entire platter of lobster.
"As long as there men like you, there'll be plenty of work for men like me," says Young's murderous 'Johnny,' who's described as "death walking around in the shape of a man." The character of Johnny, as well as his relationship with Cabot's robber baron, were clearly an enormous influence on Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST- particularly the dynamic between Henry Fonda's 'Frank' and Gabriele Ferzetti's 'Morton,' right on down to the former having a businessman's aspirations after a career of hired killing. Like Frank, Johnny is an extraordinarily complex character, at times revealing himself capable of compassion, restraint, and self-reflection. Like Richard Boone's baddie in THE TALL T, you see the brutality which they mete out, firsthand- yet you sense the tortured soul, the man who begrudingly justifies his evil as a form of a survival.
Hayden tries to secure a claim on his late father's land, but comes up against the machine that is 'small-town law enforcement in a rich man's pocket.' He befriends some locals, including the young Pepe (Eugene Mazolla) and his family, which leads to the following exchange:
Pepe: "Have you killed whales?"
Sterling Hayden: "Yeh-yus. I have killed many whales-uh."
Pepe's sister: "Mister– (Pepe interrupts) I was talking to him, Pepe!"
Pepe: "Girls don't know anything about whales!"
Sterling Hayden: "Aw, now wait a minute, Pep-eh. Girls know something about al-most everything. Pear-haps even more than you and I-uh."
Hayden's making headway, but the oil magnate and his thugs- not wanting a revolution on their hands- fuck with his shit, rip up his mother's heirloom nightie, beat him down, and send him away on a train out of town. They depend on FEAR ruling the heard. But I can't comment on whether or not Sterling returns and faces off with his tormentors in an epic showdown...
In all, it's as terrific and rip-roaring a genre picture as you'd assume from the logline ("Harpoon-slinging Sterling Hayden avenges father's death!"), but it's an extremely well-written, well-acted, and well-put together film- a B-Western that stands tall amongst its A-list contemporaries- John Ford, Anthony Mann, Howard Hawks, and the like. Nearly five stars.