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August 18, 2020



John Sturges - 1956
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

There is a shot of Donna Reed that almost promises a different movie. Reed is wearing a small black cowboy hat, cocked to the side, wearing jeans. The camera is tilted up so that Reed is seen against a blue sky. And for a few moments there is hope that Donna Reed could have been an action hero, at least once, prior to her career defining role as a beloved television mom.

Backlash has a bit of everything in a western - an outlaw gang working on behalf of a wealthy man who owns the small town, rampaging Native Americans, a search for missing gold, and a son looking to avenge the death of his father. If that is not enough, there is also a gunfighter by the name of Johnny Cool. The original story was by Frank Gruber, known as "king of the pulps", while the screenplay was by Borden Chase. Chase is best known for his work for Anthony Mann starring James Stewart. While there is a psychological twist here, it's not given the same kind of weight as one might find in the Mann/Stewart films. John Sturges is more interested in the single-minded completion of a mission, whether chosen or assigned, much like his best known films, be they westerns or war-time action.

There is pleasure in watching the supporting cast of actors, some of whom may be more familiar by face rather than by name. Somewhat jarring is Edward Platt, usually seen as the wise counsel in contemporary dramas, as a no-nonsense sheriff. Those who only know Harry Morgan from his long running role as Sherman Potter in the television series, M*A*S*H, might not recognize him as the perpetually unshaven self-proclaimed fast gun. John McIntire, also more frequently a sympathetic character, is on hand as the villain who has no problem selling out his family for easy money. As for the top billed stars, even winning an Oscar did not do much for Donna Reed. As the mystery woman whose interests may coincide with those of Richard Widmark, I don't think the film would have been much different had the role been handed to a Universal contract player like Mara Corday or Faith Domergue. Richard Widmark does not appear to have been challenged by this role. There is his patented giggle at those who might oppose him, but whatever obsession he has about his search does not have the monomania James Stewart excelled during this time.

Samm Deighan's commentary track is well researched and presented. One of the key points she brings up is that the film was developed by Richard Widmark as a way of controlling his onscreen image. Much of the discussion is how Backlash is connected to film noir, and how director John Sturges made several noir films prior to primarily specializing in westerns during the mid-1950s. Also of interest is how the production code severely hampered the production, eliminating or softening the sex, violence and moral ambiguity of what was intended to be an "adult western". The production was shot on location in Arizona, in Technicolor rather than the more subdued Eastman color, rendered quite nicely from what appears to have been a pristine print.

I am left with wondering why the film was titled Backlash. The source novel title, Fort Starvation certainly would have kept the potential audience away. The tagline for the American poster proclaims, "Suspense that cuts like a whip". Donna Reed is seen with a small horse whip in the opening scenes but she never uses it. Could there have been a scene with that whip that was dropped due the the production code? An interesting speculation especially as there is the suggestion that Reed's character hints at the more fully realized whip-wielding Barbara Stanwyck in Sam Fuller's' Forty Guns released just one year later.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 18, 2020 07:42 AM