After making a series of exemplary Westerns starring James Stewart during the 1950s, Anthony Mann cast an aging Gary Cooper as a man forced to confront a past which he thought he had left behind him.
As is usual in Mann’s Westerns, personal history exerts a grip on the characters that only death can loosen.
Cooper plays Link Jones, an apparently respectable citizen on his way to hire a schoolteacher for his town. After the train he’s travelling on is robbed, Link finds himself marooned in the middle of nowhere with a saloon girl named Billie (Julie London), and in desperation he decides to seek help from some former associates nearby.
Link is revealed to have a criminal past, and his one-time friends are a gang of menacing grotesques, played by Western stalwarts Royal Dano, Robert Wilke, and John Dehner. It soon becomes evident that there are scores to be settled, and the gang tries to force Link to help them with a robbery, threatening Billie with rape.
Their behaviour, in turn, calls up a murderous rage in the hitherto mild-mannered Link, who hands out a brutal beating to one of the gang. The leader of the gang is Dock Tobin (a barn-storming performance by Lee J Cobb).
In Mann’s Westerns, family ties always prove stronger than any sense of the wider community, and Tobin’s gang functions as a monstrous parody of kith and kin. Dock indeed, regards Link as a surrogate son.
In the final confrontation, beautifully staged by Mann in an old ghost town, Dock having finally raped Billie as a direct provocation incites Link into what amounts to an act of patricide.
In finally laying to rest the threat of his menacing “father” however, Link reveals in himself a savage violence only barely under control.
Unusually for a Mann Western, a lot of the action takes place in dark and gloomy interiors, as the tensions between Link and the gang play out.
But Mann’s camerawork is as assured as ever.
Lee J. Cobb
Robert J. Wilke