Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Rawhide (1951)

Rawhide is one of the lesser remembered westerns of the early 50s, but with Henry Hathaway directing, a script by Dudley Nichols and two major stars (Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward) this 1951 20th Century-Fox production is clearly no B-picture.

Tom Owens (Tyrone Power) is learning the stagecoach business on the San Francisco to St Louis run. He doesn’t like the stagecoach business but his father is the superintendent of the western operations of the company so Tom is learning the business whether he likes it or not.

There is bad news at Rawhide Station, a remote way station. Four desperate criminals, led by convicted killer Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe), have broken out of prison. They’ve already robbed one stage, killing the driver, and it’s assumed they will strike again. The news arrives just after the eastbound stage arrives. Among the passengers is a Miss Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward) with a baby. Company rules don’t allow children to travel when there’s additional danger such as that posed by the escaped desperadoes. So instead of travelling on the stagecoach crewed by two armed men and with a military escort she has to spend the night at Rawhide Station where there are only two men to protect her.

The two men are Tom Owens and the grizzled and grumpy Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan). As you might expect Miss Holt and the baby would have been a whole lot safer on that stagecoach. Zimmerman and his gang turn up and Tom and Miss Holt are held captive while the gang awaits the arrival next day of an eastbound stagecoach carrying a fortune in gold.

Tom Owens and Vinnie Holt pretty much take an instant dislike to each other. In fact they clash so badly that we naturally assume they will end up falling in love (I’m not going to tell you if that actually happens or not). Vinnie is the kind of gal you might reasonably describe as fiery. She’s already in a bad mood and that mood gets steadily worse although eventually she is forced to accept that like it or not she’s going to have to rely on Tom Owens and she’d better get used to it.

Vinnie and Tom have also come to the inescapable conclusion that Zimmerman is not going to be able to let them go after robbing the stagecoach. They’ve become witnesses to murder and he’ll have to kill them. So they’re going to have to come up with a plan for survival.

Tom Owens is not a natural born hero. He’s certainly no coward but gunfighting is right outside his field of expertise. He’s really just a tenderfoot from the east and he’s pretty appalled at suddenly finding himself having to act the hero. Especially as he has absolutely no idea what a real hero would do in such a parlous situation. Casting Tyrone Power was a good move. He’s not at all in the mould of typical western stars and he’s convincing as an ordinary kind of guy who has to cope as best he can. He knows he’s no hero but he’s now responsible for the lives of a woman and a baby and he can’t escape that responsibility. And maybe that’s what a real hero is - a man who has no choice and is somehow going to have to prevail or die in the attempt. It’s a subtle performance from a chronically underrated actor.

Susan Hayward as a spitfire is the kind of casting that just can’t fail. She was a showy actress who tended to overact (and do so very well) and she makes an interesting contrast to the much more low-key Power. While there’s the usual Hayward feistiness here her performance is actually a lot more nuanced than usual.

Rafe Zimmerman is a killer but he’s no mere hoodlum. He’s an intelligent educated killer, from a good family. It was a woman who proved to be his downfall and she was the reason he was originally sentenced to hang. He’ll kill without hesitation if he needs to, but he kills like a gentleman. Hugh Marlowe is excellent. There’s none of the western villain clich├ęs about his complex performance. There’s perhaps even a slight touch of film noir here - it’s obvious that Zimmerman was once a very decent and very civilised man, until the wrong woman (obviously a classic femme fatale) came along. The decency is still there but he’s made a fatal mistake and is now doomed. You know that even if he isn’t killed at Rawhide Station he’ll end his life on the end of a rope or being gunned down like a dog somewhere or other. Once you fall into the noir abyss there’s no escape.

These three key characters are all equally interesting and all have quite a bit of depth. All are, in their own ways, trapped by fate (we find that this applies to Vinnie as well once we find out how she managed to get saddled with that baby). So again there’s that hint of film noir - these are people who have become the playthings of fate.

The other members of the gang are not at all like Zimmerman and he has nothing but contempt for them. Gratz (George Tobias) and Yancy (Dean Jagger) are petty criminals of extremely limited intelligence. Tevas (played with gusto by Jack Elam) is a neurotic sadistic thug who likes to kill.

There’s not a lot of action in Rawhide. It’s not that type of movie. It’s a suspense movie and Henry Hathaway keeps the tension at the highest possible level throughout. The plot is on the surface a standard western plot but screenwriter Dudley Nichols does clever and interesting thing with a straightforward story framework. Most of all the film gives us characters interesting enough that we develop an emotional investment in their fates.

The Region 4 DVD from Bounty is barebones but the transfer is quite good.

Rawhide is a great western and a great suspense movie with intriguing film noirish elements. Very highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. With a review like that, this sounds right up my street!