Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo (credited as Ben Perry)
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Nedrick Young, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly, Victor Millan
Running Time: 81 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Terror in a Texas Town is a film I hadn’t heard of before to be honest, but whenever a western or film noir crops up on Blu-Ray or DVD I feel obliged to review it as I’m a fan of both genres. Well the press release for this described it as a cross between both genres, so I was even more interested than usual.
Terror in a Texas Town is a black and white B-movie western from the late 50s which sees a greedy hotel owner, McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), use brute force to drive local farmers off his land after pay-offs don’t work. Using the cruel gunman Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young) to do the legwork, McNeil’s latest target is the Swedish immigrant Sven Hansen (Ted Stanhope). Crale kills Sven, as he won’t budge, and it looks like McNeil has got what he wants, as he’s paid off the sheriff so the death won’t be investigated and Sven’s Mexican friend Mirada (Victor Millan), who witnessed the murder, is too scared to talk anyway. However, soon after, Sven’s son George (Sterling Hayden) arrives in town and claims the farm is now rightfully his, causing problems for McNeil. On top of this, he’s determined to find out who killed his father and bring him to justice. McNeil of course asks Crale to sort it out – initially without force, but after a while it looks like there’s no other way. Hansen struggles on, but he can’t get justice without the help of Mirada and the rest of the town, who are too frightened to stand up to the two tyrants, McNeil and Crale.
As that last sentence suggests, Terror in a Texas Town bears more than a passing resemblance to High Noon, which was released a few years prior to this. Like that film, Terror in a Texas Town plays out as an allegory of the anti-Communist witch hunts in America during the 50s, which is unsurprising given the writer was the famously blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (writing here under the pseudonym Ben Perry). The film’s hero and the man who has the information to bring down the villains are outsiders (George is Swedish and Mirada is Mexican), but they have to lose their fear to face them and need the support of the general public, who are also afraid to put a stop to it. This message becomes particularly clear in the final act and adds some weight to proceedings, after most of the rest of the film plays out like a typical revenge western. I’m not quite sure I see the noir aspects, although the film has a tough edge many 50s westerns don’t share.
The turning of George into a clear outsider brings up a major problem I had with the film though. Hayden is a great actor who’s portrayed largely tough guys in dozens of classic films, but here he’s a little embarrassing playing a Swedish whaler. His accent is laughable and he gives his character an awkward quality in the way he walks and acts, which I felt was a bit forced. It’s a shame because it really lets the film down as I couldn’t take him seriously.
I also found the film a little slow. It’s far too short to be considered boring and the film doesn’t waste much time so to speak, but there’s not a lot of action or clear tension until the last half an hour or so, meaning it’s more of a dialogue-driven drama than I expected from a B-movie revenge western like this. The final act is very good though, as the tension and violence mounts and it all ends with a powerful, no-nonsense final scene.
There are better Hollywood B-movies that tackle the McCarthy witch-hunts then. Hayden’s dodgy Swedish accent, some pacing issues and a little too much ‘borrowing’ from High Noon prevent the film from reaching the heights of say Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it’s still a pretty solid, entertaining oater with more substance than many.
Terror in a Texas Town is out on 10th July on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. The picture and sound quality was excellent, with a damage-free print that’s detailed with an attractive natural grain.
There are a handful of special features included too. Here’s the list:
– Introduction by Peter Stanfield, author of Hollywood, Westerns and the 1930s: The Lost Trail and Horse Opera: The Strange History of the Singing Cowboy
– Scene-select commentaries by Stanfield
– Theatrical trailer
It’s not a lot of material, only running to about half an hour in total, but Stanfield’s pieces are both excellent. He’s put a lot of leg work into it, so knows what he’s talking about and his insights are genuinely interesting and surprisingly honest. He’s not afraid to talk about the film’s problems and limitations.