Western films can easily blur since it is a genre that thrives on formulas and set pieces. Once you peel back the classics of the genre, you’re left with 100s of films that kept cowboy fans eager to run down to the theater every weekend. The B-movie studios cranked them out at a brisk pace and the stories felt it. The same-ness got even worse with the arrival of the TV Western. Was it a John Wayne film or an episode of Gunsmoke that had that plot? Answer was both. But fans had expectations that had to be met. They ultimately wanted the showdown between good and evil gunfighters on a Wild West street. Terror in a Texas Town delivers on the formula, but gives it a few twists that sets it apart from most B-movie westerns. You won’t forget this film’s showdown.
McNeil (Family Affair‘s Sebastian Cabot) is a rich guy who is staking his claim in Prairie City. He’s bought the hotel and a lot of the land surrounding the place. His only problem is that a lot of settlers don’t think anyone owns their land. He also wants to pick up other farms on the cheap. But he’s not going to mess up his hands negotiating with the unwashed locals. He brings on Johnny Crale (as Ned Young) make an offer the farmers can’t refuse. Johnny is not a licensed real estate broker. He’s a gunslinger dressed in black. He arrives on the land of a Swedish-American farmer at the same time they discover a bit of oil on the property. He’s in no mood to sell so Johnny goes with plan B and pulls out his gun. All the farmer has to defend himself with is a harpoon. This showdown doesn’t end well. The farmer’s son George Hansen (Dr. Strangelove‘s Sterling Hayden) arrives for a reunion that turns into a murder investigation with the town’s sheriff not being much help. McNeil wants George to give up on the property, but the big Swede won’t budge. As we get teased in the opening, there will be another showdown between gun and harpoon. Can the outcome be any different?
I can’t remember a single other Western that had the good guy hauling a harpoon. This sets it apart. The casting also sets up strange tensions. Who can imagine kindly Mr. French ordering a hitman to whack poor people? Cabot is sinister and strangely still gracious. Ned Young is extraordinarily cold blooded as Johnny. Around this time, Young had not only written the script for Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock, but would win the Oscar for Best Screenplay on The Defiant Ones. Hayden is given the role of the upright outsider who does his best to stand up to McNeil and his killer. He holds his Swedish accent for the most part. He looks good totting a harpoon in the land of the six-shooter. The script is credited to Ben L. Berry’s name, but was really the work of Dalton Trumbo during the time he was red listed. The film has the basic message of not cowering in fear even if all you have is a harpoon against a gun. The little elements make Terror in a Texas Town memorable in a genre that so easily blurs.
The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The black and white transfer looks fine with a touch of film grain to show off the gritty Wild West backlot. The audio is Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM Audio. The levels let you feel the sinister tones in Young’s voice when he goes into full killer mode. The movie is subtitled.
Introduction by Peter Stanfield (13:10) talks about how director Joseph H. Lewis is remembered for Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. But he isn’t considered an iconic director since Lewis he mostly made B-movies for studios. He was like today’s directors of HBO episodes. And for the last decade of his life, Lewis directed episodic Westerns for TV such as Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Stanfield connects how beyond Trumbo, other people in the film were involved in the Hollywood red scare. He mentions how two of the leads were on opposite sides in front of the HUAC. He points out how the film borrows from High Noon.
Visual Analysis (14:14) has Stanfield point out shots from the film to show that Lewis was a cinematic stylist without a theme. Lewis liked using wagon wheels to frame up shots.
Trailer (1:55) sells this as the first Western with a harpoon.
Arrow Academy presents Terror in a Texas Town. Directed by: Joseph H. Lewis. Screenplay by: Dalton Trumbo. Starring: Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly, Eugene Mazzola, Nedrick Young. Running Time: 80 minutes. Rated: Unrated. Released: July 11, 2017.
Tags: Arrow Academy, Sebastian Cabot, Sterling Hayden, Terror In a Texas Town