« Coffee Break | Main | Coffee Break »

July 18, 2017

Terror in a Texas Town

terror in a texas town cover.jpg

Joseph H. Lewis - 1958
Arrow Academy BD Regions AB

I don't think there's anyway to discuss Terror in a Texas Town and avoid the connections with the Blacklist of the 1950s. The screenplay is by Dalton Trumbo, credited to Ben Perry, who previously wrote, without credit, the screenplay for Gun Crazy (1950), also directed by Lewis. Both films have Nedrick Young in the cast. Young, also blacklisted at the time, acted in several films for Lewis, and also wrote a few screenplays, ironically winning the Oscar, under a pseudonym, for The Defiant Ones, also in 1958. Star Sterling Hayden named names before the House of Un-American Activities, felt guilty about it, and literally sailed away from Hollywood for about six years.

What makes Terror in a Texas Town ironic in retrospect is that Hayden plays a sailor that has decided to settle in landlocked Prairie City, Texas after almost twenty years out at sea. Even if one chooses to ignore any of the political aspects of the film, the film offers the surface pleasure of a showdown between the gunfighter dressed total in black, and the hero armed with a harpoon. Should anyone think I'm giving away a plot twist, the film's posters advertise this gimmick, and even begin the film with part of the confrontation of sea-faring George Hansen and professional gun Johnny Crale. Portly Sebastian Cabot is hotel owner plotting to buy or snatch as much land as possible, although it is never explained how he's the only one to know about the oil underneath. There's also the town populated by familiar faces like Frank Ferguson, Hank Patterson and Sheb Wooley, again faces, though not always known by name.

The blu-ray is a quite nice, probably looking even better than it did when it played theatrically in 1958, most likely as part of a double feature in second run or small town theaters. What is a bit baffling is the introduction by film historian Peter Stansfield, who argues that Joseph Lewis should not be accorded credentials as an auteur because he is intuitive rather than someone who can explain all the reasons why he'll film a two-shot of two characters in an extended conversation while not looking at each other. It's almost as if Stansfield is undermining why this ten day wonder of a film is getting the special Arrow treatment. Better is the short supplement of Lewis' visual style, where Stansfield finds a moment to point out how Terror may influenced Sergio Leone. But again I want to slap Stansfield for mentioning that the character played Hayden shares the same name, George Hansen, as Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, wondering if the co-writer of the latter film, Terry Southern, had seen Terror, and yet failing to mention that when Sterling Hayden made a return to films, it was in Dr. Strangelove, a film with a screenplay by . . . Terry Southern.

Aside from dropping the ball where a coincidence (or is it?) is concerned, Stansfield complains that Lewis' overall career lacks the "coherence" of other directors honored with Edinburgh Film Festival retrospectives. As to Lewis being an intuitive filmmaker, my own take from those I've interviewed is that most classic Hollywood directors were intuitive and their careers were mostly assigned work. It's the film critic or historians job to identify the elements that make a filmmaker an auteur, and in the case of Joseph Lewis, it's a matter of taking a closer look at how Lewis handles the projects thrown his way.

To get a better understanding of Lewis' visual style, read the booklet notes by Glenn Kenny. Consistently informative and entertaining, with quotes from interviews as well as his own observations, Kenny does a much better job of explaining how Lewis likes to use long takes, with two or three characters within the same frame, each with their own agenda, unlike many contemporary filmmakers who would cut between the actors in conversation. Sure, having two or three actors within the same frame is a more economical way of working when you have a limited budget and short shooting schedule, but Kenny indicates that even with greater resources, Lewis would probably not film any differently. Lewis was known as "Wagon Wheel Joe", and that first wagon wheel shot comes in at 5:55, and we see similar shots of that wagon wheel jutting from the left of the screen nearing the climax. About fifty years ago, Andrew Sarris wrote of Lewis, "It would seem that his (Lewis) career warrants further investigation." Especially for those who have yet to discover My Name is Julia Ross, The Big Combo or Gun Crazy, this new blu-ray is a good place to start.

 terror in texas town poster.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 18, 2017 06:59 AM