Great, tense western thriller with just a few (white) characters and an unusual philosophical ending. “He’s not dead if you take him back. He’ll never be dead for you.” Shot by William Mellor (Giant) in academy-ratio color. I noticed some cool secret-revealing camera moves – from a quick one during the opening titles to a slow traveling shot later on showing a guy hiding behind a rock. Overall great performances except that I wished Jesse Tate had been played by Rio Bravo‘s Walter Brennan – Millard’s voice wasn’t quite right.
Jimmy Stewart (the year before Rear Window) comes at friendly ol’ prospector Jesse (Millard Mitchell of Thieves’ Highway and Winchester ’73), says he’s looking for lawman-slayer Robert Ryan. Jesse hasn’t seen Ryan since Clash By Night, so offers his assistance. In wanders Kiss Me Deadly star Ralph Meeker as a disgraced ex-soldier, and between them, the men take down Robert Ryan over the protest of his gal Janet Leigh (four years after Holiday Affair).
Everyone but Jimmy:
But Ryan pretty easily turns the men against each other by revealing that he’s got quite a bounty on his head, and Stewart is after him for the money, not as a lawman. This works better than Janet Leigh’s appeals that poor Ryan is innocent – and if we’d ever considered believing her, Ryan loses all sympathy when he wears down the men to the point that he’s allowed to escape, then he shoots ol’ Jesse. Meeker goes down next, but takes Ryan with him, and Stewart recovers the body. But apparently Janet Leigh can make a man fall in love with her pretty much instantly, so…
Howard drags Ben’s body to his horse in a final paroxysm of fury, but then turns to Lina and sees in her face the light of unconditional love and a new beginning, and at last relents. The tears and cracking voice of Stewart in close shot are a high moment of this great actor’s career, perfectly complemented by the softer yet no less vibrant playing of Leigh. . . As the camera moves up into the sky, then follows a dissolve to come back to the two characters moving through dead trees within an open expanse, one sees in these images that there is a spiritual rhythm within life, and that “choosing a way to live” can happen even in the roughest passage.
Another look at the face that turned Jimmy’s life around:
Bonus: lots of Indian-slaying and horse-injuring action when Meeker declares war on a passing tribe, and some Jimmy Stewart backstory, narrated to Leigh while he’s injured and raving. Jimmy uses his spur to help climb a cliff at the end (then throws it in Robert Ryan’s face), which I guess is where the weird title came from.