A few weeks ago, I took advantage of a “Black Friday” sale at VCI Entertainment (50% off) to pick up a copy of their recent Burke’s Law: Season 1, Volume 2 release…and while I was shopping, I threw in a copy of Stranger on Horseback (1955), a lean-and-mean horse opera starring one of my favorite actors in Westerns, Joel McCrea.
Finally got around to seeing it last night, and I have to say I was a little more than impressed. It’s not a perfect film; there are a few-too-many overtones of a much-better western, High Noon (1952), and the ending doesn’t completely jibe with what took place before it—but the cast is pretty solid, and anytime your source material comes from author Louis L’Amour (Horseback was based on his story and the screenplay was co-written by Herb Meadow, a scenarist best known for co-creating a popular TV series about a gunslinger who had a gun and did a lot of traveling) most of the heavy lifting’s done.
Richard Thorne (McCrea), a circuit judge, is making his rounds through various small hamlets when he notices that one town in particular is “run” by autocratic land baron Josiah Bannerman (John McIntire). Thorne learns from the town marshal (Emile Meyer) that Bannerman’s son Tom (Kevin McCarthy) killed a man sometime earlier but the case never went to trial because the younger Bannerman claimed it was self-defense. Thorne isn’t satisfied with the explanation, and arrests the spoiled Tom (while at the same time doggedly investigating witnesses to the crime)…something that doesn’t sit well with Bannerman, Sr. or his strong-willed niece Amy Lee (Miroslava). In Horseback’s action-packed climax, Thorne is determined to bring Tom to justice by taking the suspect to a nearby town for a fair trial before an impartial jury…with Bannerman and his lackeys in close pursuit.
In addition to the aforementioned performers, Horseback also spotlights great acting turns from John Carradine (as an oleaginous Southern gentleman/attorney trying to play both sides to his advantage), Robert Cornthwaite (weak as water as always), Nancy Gates, Roy Roberts, Jaclynne Greene, Walter Baldwin and the poor man’s “Gabby” Hayes, Emmett Lynn. (Television-film stalwart Dabbs Greer is also in the film as the hotel clerk…but he doesn’t rate a mention in the opening credits.) McCrea, McIntire and McCarthy (the three Macs?) all turn in solid performances; the only discordant note comes from Miroslava—though I think that has more to do with the fact that her part is underwritten than her actual presentation.
The producers of Horseback, twin brothers Robert and Leonard Goldstein, very much wanted McCrea to star in this film…but simply could not pony up the necessary scratch to meet the star’s asking price. The Goldsteins maneuvered around this by throwing a few perks Joel’s way—one of which allowed him to choose the director of the Horseback project. In 1950, McCrea had worked with Jacques Tourneur on a western film entitled Stars in My Crown, which would later be referred to by the star as his favorite of the films in which he appeared. (Crown shows on TCM every now and then, but a DVD release of this engaging little film would be simply loverly.) So McCrea chose Tourneur to helm the production, and would later team up with the director a third time for his next picture, Wichita (1955).
Horseback was filmed in Anscocolor (a distant—very distant—relation to Technicolor) and according to Joel Blumberg (who provides audio biographies on both the film and McCrea), director Tourneur wasn’t all that impressed with the process—yet Blumberg argues that this might be colored (if you'll pardon the pun) because Jacques may not have had access to a full print of the film. (Personally, I think Tourneur did get a look at it—and I have to agree, Anscocolor is a mess. I will say this, though—even Anscocolor can’t harm the breathtaking cinematography of Stranger, which was filmed on location in beautiful Sedona, Arizona.) For years now, this cheap color process was sort of a moot point because the original negative of Horseback vanished long ago, and the only way to see it was in a black-and-white version. That’s why this VCI release is so special; a print of the film (not pristine by any means, but still in good shape) was recently discovered in the BFI National Archive and VCI/Kit Parker Films has restored it to make it look better than it has in years.
Included on this DVD are Stranger’s original theatrical trailer and a pair of old-time radio broadcasts of Tales of the Texas Rangers starring McCrea—“Bad Blood” (04/08/51) and “Trigger Man” (07/29/50); VCI also has a few promotional announcements for some their other Western releases—the most interesting of which is titled Western Film Noir: Volume 1, a double feature that kicks off with Little Big Horn (1951)…which was written and directed by Charles Marquis Warren (director of many of the TV Gunsmokes and also the series Rawhide) and stars (dig this cast) Lloyd Bridges, John Ireland, Marie Windsor, Reed Hadley, Jim Davis, Hugh O’Brian, King Donovan and Sheb Wooley in a tale of a small band of Cavalry soldiers trying to warn Gen. Custer of the you-know-what facing him over the hill. This is then supplemented by Rimfire (1949), a slightly lesser entry (directed by veteran B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason) which nevertheless has the good sense to feature Reed Hadley (again!), Henry Hull, Victor Kilian, Fuzzy Knight, Chris-Pin Martin, George Cleveland, Glenn Strange and I. Stanford Jolley.