Friday, January 27, 2023

Ride a Crooked Trail (1958)

Ride a Crooked Trail is a 1958 Audie Murphy western and as it happens Audie Murphy westerns are one of my current enthusiasms.

The screenplay is by Borden Chase, one of the greats when it came to writing screenplays for intelligent complex westerns. His credits include Red River for Howard Hawks and films like Winchester ’73, Bend of the River and The Far Country for Anthony Mann. The guy knew how to write a script for a western.

The classic way to start a western is to have a mysterious stranger ride into town. That’s the way this one starts, with Audie Murphy as the mysterious stranger. Having the mysterious stranger immediately in trouble due to mistaken identity is a pretty standard western feature as well. That happens here as well. But with a few interesting twists.

A bank robber named Joe Maybe is on the loose so when Audie arrives Judge Kyle (Walter Matthau) figures he might be that bank robber. Then the judge sees the badge that Audie is carrying and realises his mistake. This mysterious stranger is the legendary Marshal Joe Noonan. He has the badge and he has identification papers. Only he isn’t Marshal Noonan. It won’t take long for viewers to figure out that he is really Joe Maybe.

Joe Noonan is dead. But Joe Maybe didn’t kill him. Joe Maybe is a bank robber and he undoubtedly has quite a criminal record but he didn’t kill Joe Noonan.

Judge Kyle is happy to have a Marshal in town to help him keep order. Not that the judge has too much trouble keeping order. Judge Kyle knows how to deal with trouble.

The judge is a bit of a cheerful rogue but he keeps order in his own highly individualistic manner and his town is thriving, peaceful and happy.

One of the great western clichés is that the good guys always play by the rules. If the good guy gets into a gunfight he’ll make sure it’s a good clean fight with the bad guy given a sporting chance. Judge Kyle doesn’t go in for any of that nonsense. He believes you should never ever give the other guy an even break. And he quickly demonstrates his methods. They’re pretty drastic and they’re very unsporting but they certainly work.

Maybe and the judge get along pretty well together but the judge is no fool. He knows there’s something not quite right here. He has his suspicions about his new marshal who claims to be Joe Noonan.

Then Tessa Milotte (Gia Scala) arrives on the river steamer. She’s the girlfriend of notorious bank robber Sam Teeler (Henry Silva). She and Joe Maybe know each other pretty well. Joe has always had a hankering to take Tessa away from Teeler but as she keeps reminding Joe if he tried something like that Teeler would kill them both.

Tessa and Joe have to pretend to be married. The judge has provided them with a nice little house and then they acquire a kid named Jimmy. Jimmy is a ward of the court. Judge Kyle is raising him but the judge isn’t exactly an ideal substitute father even when he’s sober. Jimmy decides to move in with Joe and Tessa. To all outward appearances Joe and Tessa are now totally respectable.

Joe proves himself to be an effective lawman. He’s almost starting to like the respectable life. He likes this town. He likes the people. He likes Judge Kyle. He likes Jimmy. He’s reasonably content being the town marshal. He knows it’s a job he’s capable of doing. Joe was born in a saloon. His mother was a whore. She died and the other girls in the whorehouse raised him. He’s never been respected before.

But the fact remains that he’s Joe Maybe, a wanted man. And Judge Kyle clearly suspects something along those lines.

Then Sam Teeler shows up, with plans to rob the town’s bank. Teeler’s plan is that Joe is going to take part in the robbery.

Joe is deeply conflicted. He really isn’t sure which way he wants to jump. He’d like to escape his past but he knows that isn’t likely to be possible. When the time comes for the robbery he’ll have to make his choice.

Walter Matthau is in delightfully outrageous form, stealing every scene he’s in. Judge Kyle is a wonderful character. His methods are perhaps not entirely honourable but that’s why he’s still alive. Being a frontier judge isn’t for the faint-hearted. If you stick rigidly to the rules you’ll wind up dead and your town will go down the gurgler.

Acting opposite Walter Matthau without being overshadowed is a challenge but Audie Murphy holds his own. His characteristically low-key performance meshes surprisingly well with Matthau’s acting pyrotechnics. Murphy was a talented actor and could be rather subtle and this is a part that requires subtlety.

Gia Scala gives a fine performance as Tessa. Tessa is a female equivalent of Joe. She’s a bad girl who starts to wonder if she could become a good girl, and wonders whether she’d like that or not. As you’d expect Henry Silva makes a fine heavy.

This is certainly not a comedy but there’s a healthy leavening of humour. For most of its running time it’s a good-natured movie. Joe Maybe is the bad guy but he’s a nice guy. He’s not just superficially charming. He really is a nice guy. We are therefore going to be hoping that somehow Joe will find a way out of the ticklish position he’s in. We hope he’ll find redemption. And we hope that it won’t cost him his life although we fear that it might.

There’s no shortage of action and the action scenes are well staged.

Jesse Hibbs directed. He directed B-movies in Hollywood before moving into television. It was an unremarkable career but on the strength of this movie I’d say he was pretty competent. The movie was shot in colour and in Cinemascope. It doesn’t have the grandeur of westerns directed by guys like Mann, Ford or Boetticher. It looks like a B-movie, but a solidly crafted B-movie.

This is one of three movies in the recent Kino Lorber Audie Murphy western Blu-Ray boxed set. The transfer is just fine.

Ride a Crooked Trail has just enough complexity, with Joe Maybe’s inner conflicts and the extreme trickiness of his situation, to keep us interested. Audie Murphy’s performance is more than merely competent, Walter Matthau is terrific. This is not one of the great westerns but it’s a fine movie and it’s very entertaining. Highly recommended.

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