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Rival Railroads Collide Head-On -- Literally And Figuratively
Denver & Rio Grande is one of those entertaining 1950's "B-plus" Westerns -- that is a "B" picture cast but top-notch "A" production values. This Technicolor oater about a right-away shooting war between rival railway companies actually qualifies as a minor classic of the genre. Not for the dramatic acting or Frank Guber's average screen play, but because of high powered action sequences in, on, and around authentic 19th Century railroad rolling stock, all enveloped in gloriously scenic Colorado Rocky Mountain locations.
Unlikely leading man Edmond O'Brien is one of yours truly's favorite actors, whether he is in a lead or a supporting role. But Eddy looks somewhat uncomfortable in his Western togs, even a little peaked at times, as if all that Rocky Mountain sunshine and fresh air disagreed with his constitution. Could be he was wishing to be back in one of those dimly lighted, smoke-filled, noir bars which were his more typical cinema habitat. A much more familiar face to the celluloid Western environment, tall, stiff actor Sterling Hayden is cast against type here as the ruthless leader of the bad guys. You may have thought Hayden was stiff in his more typical heroic roles, but as a villain in Denver & Rio Grande, he's so wooden it's difficult to distinguish him from one of the telegraph poles. Dean Jagger, as real-life railroad builder General William J. Palmer, adds a touch of class to the cast, but doesn't have much to do. He looks like he's about to go to sleep through most of the picture, but as always, he has his moments. On the other hand leading lady Laura Elliot (aka Kasey Rogers), best known for her role in popular TV sitcom Bewitched, shows a little spark as the General's pretty secretary with a grudge against O'Brien. The ever reliable J. Carrol Naish, often seen as a gangster or a cynical cop, refreshingly gets a sympathetic, clean-cut role as the nattily attired railroad construction engineer. But never mind, the real stars of this picture are gorgeous Rocky Mountain scenery and the thrilling, nostalgic steam locomotives.
If the dramatic acting of the fine cast did not seem up to par, you can blame flabby direction by director Byron Haskin, who was more of a special effects technician than a director anyway. But once the action sequences start, Haskin is in his element. Denver & Rio Grande is nothing if not action-packed, and isn't that what we all love in Westerns? When the two railroad companies get serious about going after each other, they employ military tactics along with prolific volleys of (mostly inaccurate) gunfire from railroad cars to take and re-take miles of track and telegraph stations. One of the top action scenes is the actual "head-on collision of two bull locomotives", as it was heavily advertised at the time of the picture's 1952 release. The result is not disappointing, though Haskin cheated a bit with a dynamite explosion at the point of impact to make the shock of collision more spectacular. He really had to. Those old locomotives were such solidly constructed masses of steel, they could have just bounced apart without showing much apparent damage or the desired boiler explosions. By the way, as a minor point, this much ballyhooed train wreck does not happen at the climax of the movie, as stated by Leonard Maltin and others. It is one of the events building toward the climax, and it occurs quite some time before the end of the picture.
Denver & Rio Grande is a nicely turned out Western. The sets are very good, though most of the scenes are filmed in the great outdoors. Costumes are true to the time, place, and occupation of the characters. Particularly impressive were the authentic looking six-gun leather and the colorful variety of hats. The chubby O'Brien liked to foster an everyman image, and he did little to improve his unglamorous looks. Here his rough working man outfit includes a floppy black hat which looks as if it has been roundly stomped on by a couple of overweight saloon floozies. But it is the trains steaming around the mountains, the water tanks, stations, piles of cross-ties, telegraphs, and other supporting railroad equipment that really grab the eye. The excellent train sound effects made all of this as stimulating to hear as to see.
For all its flaws this is a highly entertaining picture. If you are a fan of exciting, flavorful Western action with chugging, puffing, hissing, clanging, whistling, steaming, smoke-belching, greasy, sooty, oil-dripping, jerking, screeching, cinder-flinging Nineteenth Century trains -- and how could anyone not be -- Denver & Rio Grande will take you where you can find it!
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