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Terror In A Texas Town [Blu-ray]
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For his 41st and final feature film, Joseph H. Lewis was able to combine the two genres in which he had excelled. The man in the director s chair for My Name is Julia Ross, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, Lewis was one of the all-time greats in film noir. But he was also a fine director of Westerns, having made A Lawless Street, 7th Cavalry and The Halliday Brand, all of which especially the last remain underrated. Terror in a Texas Town would bring his noir sensibilities to the American West, resulting in one of his finest works.
McNeil (Sebastian Cabot, The Time Machine) is a greedy hotel owner who wants to take control of Prairie City, the Texas town of the title. Keen to drive the local farmers of their land, McNeil hires a gunman, Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young, who would pen the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Defiant Ones the same year), resulting in the death of a former whaler. The dead man s son, George Hansen (Sterling Hayden, The Killing), arrives in town to inherit the farm and set the stage for revenge armed with only his father s old harpoon...
Terror in a Texas Town was written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten blacklisted by the film industry and forced to write under pseudonyms or to use fronts . Two years before he helped break the blacklist with on-screen credits for Otto Preminger s Exodus and Stanley Kubrick s Spartacus, his work was credited to Ben Perry, but it demonstrates a psychological depth and political dimension that is undoubtedly that of Trumbo.
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Tall, rangy, fair-haired Sterling Hayden (a real-life sailor and adventurer who should have starred in some of the old Hemingway adaptations, being 'Hemingway man' personified) is George Hansen, a Dane who`s returned from travelling the world to Prairie City, the one-horse town in Texas where his beloved father has become the latest casualty of the tyrranical rule of local fat cat Ed McNeil (played with resourceful relish by British actor Sebastan Cabot). McNeil`s slimy black-leathered enforcer is a mean little killing machine named Johnny Crale, played by obscure actor Ned Young. (He was obscure then, and is even more so now, though he`s not bad at all, in an admittedly dislikeable way.
Equally forgotten is Carol Kelly, who plays Crale`s girl. She`s very good, as are all the actors in this strange but compelling black & white western. Victor Millan is excellent as a neighbouring Mexican farmer, and Eugene Martin as his son fares well too. Their scenes with Hansen are very well done.
But it`s Hayden who offers the clearest portrayal here, as a plainly spoken man, and the actor (who in fact had Dutch ancestry) effects a light Danish accent that is nicely authentic and adds a deceptive calmness to his speech which belies the mounting grief, betrayal and anger he feels.
There has to be a showdown, and there certainly is. We even get a brief preview of it before the opening titles - an unorthodox device which somehow works. Hansen is a man who won`t take no or 'Get out of town!' for an answer, so, in time-honoured High Noon fashion, he rallies the cowed townsfolk (few as they are - no extras, you see!) to face Crale, with only his late father`s trusty harpoon as a weapon. (I`m not making this up.)
In retrospect, it could be seen as an unnecessary eccentricity to dress the killer in not only creaking leather but a false hand to boot (so to speak) but this is a film full of craziness and perversity, as the films of Lewis tended to be.
Hayden, a reluctant actor who decried his own performances and films in later life, proves what an effective and watchable actor he was in his day, and brings a Nordic serenity to the frenzied paranoia escalating all around him in this determinedly stark but entertaining western.
It`s bleak, it`s bonkers, it`s a low-budget folly - but in the end, it manages to be a minor classic all the same. If you like your westerns to be of the Magnificent Seven/Big Country crowd-pleasing variety, you`re unlikely to go for this, but if you enjoy the Boetticher/Scott westerns or Sam Fuller`s similarly offbeat efforts in the genre, or even Monte Hellman`s inscrutable existential outdoor anectodes, then this is for you, buddy.
In "Terror ..." Sterling Hayden plays a Swedish sailor returning to his fathers home in Prairie Town Texas after 19 years away, only to find that his father has been murdered. He finds the townspeople unwilling to talk for fear of their lives. As he probes further he finds a local landowner Ed McNeil has been buying up property for reasons that later become apparent. Those that don't want to sell tend to find permanent accommodation on boot hill. The finger of suspicion points towards Johnny Crale, McNeils hired gun.
Perhaps the greatest influence on the film is blacklisted Dalton Trumbo's literate and very intelligent script, co written with Ned Young who was also blacklisted during the McCarthy years of comunist paranoia. Neither were credited due to this. You don't have to look hard to find the influence of those years in the way the film tears apart western conventions. The people that put their head in the sand, corrupt leaders who use others to do their dirty work, and the sacrificial lambs at the bottom of the pile. Filmed in stark black and white to a jarring trumpet led soundtrack that complements the sombre mood perfectly, the film is more about the tragedy of an evil man, than another simple revenge movie. Ned Young is excellent as the cold blooded killer Johnny Crale, who is unlike any other western villain. He comes all in black, with gloves to cover one wooden hand. He is as McNeil observes "Death walking around in the shape of a man". But Crale's world is shaken when he finds 'a man who wasn't afraid to die'. Suddenly his cruel but ordered world becomes one of chaos.
The film contains many arresting images. There are two killings that are even more emphatic and callous than that of Elisha Cook jnr in "Shane". The second is perhaps one of the screens more poignant. The film also strikingly opens and closes with the same scenes, which shows great originality. Sterling Hayden is solid as the Swedish sailor although his accent is far from perfect. Hayden was strangely enough a fisherman on the Grand Banks for a spell, before movie stardom beckoned. Sebastian Cabot gives a good turn as the gloating glutton Ed McNeil, and regular character actor Frank Ferguson lends further support. But it is Ned Young as Johnny Crale who steals the show. He commands the screen with great presence and effortlessly reeks of evil. Good old Optimum have dug up a real gem worthy of this release. This is an example of the heights a 'B' western could attain in the right hands.
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i have been collection these films for a while and will buy more.
Sterling is fantastic as always and the rest of the cast is very good.