Sven Hanson is one of a number of farmers whom Ed McNeil wants to run off their land (because he knows there's oil on it). When Hanson is murdered by McNeil's gunman, Johnny Crale, Hanson's friend Pepe Mirada hides his knowledge of the murderer's identity in order to protect his family. When Hanson's son George arrives and takes up his father's cause, not only Mirada but also Johnny Crale begin to reevaluate their attitudes. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A great, cluelessly forgotten, 50s Western from a B-Movie genius.
When people discuss the Western in the 50s, the richest decade of the genre, they invariably cite Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, THE SEARCHERS or RIO BRAVO . Only the specialised, however, will single out Joseph H. Lewis. A LAWLESS STREET electrifies a banal story with inventive technique. TERROR, though, is something else. I have watched hundreds of Westerns, and I can safely say that this is the most remarkable pre-Peckinpah/Leone effort I've seen. It may not be as rich as the above-mentioned, but its formal daring is unparalleled.
Like Mann, Lewis came to the Manichean world of the Western from film noir, a genre defined by its moral ambiguity. The opening sequence is the most astonishing of any Western (except THE WILD BUNCH, of course), and cleverly complicates everything that follows. It starts with the shoot-out, an innovative device, but one of the combatants carries a large pike. His opponent, face unseen, taunts him. The scene is highly charged, even if we don't know why.
The result of this sequence is cut, and we get the opening credits, featuring an elliptical series of scenes, some lyrically pastoral, others brutally violent, none making any narrative sense because we don't know the story yet. The film proper hurtles us into a violent arson attack. So in the first five minutes, the viewer is assaulted by sensation and violence. There are none of the reassuring signifiers of the traditional Western - noble music (the score here is as bizarre, inventive and parodic as any Morricone spaghetti); John Wayne or Henry Fonda above the title; contextually explanatory intertitles. We have no idea what is going on, we are left staggered, breathless, excited, reeling.
What follows is an explanation of these events. But the unforgettable effect lingers, and colours what seems to be a traditional Western story - big business trying to muscle in on small farmers. The most interesting figure is not the hero, Sterling Hayden, a gentle man forced by circumstance to find savage violence in himself (and saddled with a ridiculous, faltering Swedish accent, but little character), but the villain. In many ways he is the archetypal baddie - dressed in black, a gun for hire, snarling, brutal with women. But he is also a complex psychological portrait - a once great shot, now a cripple, lush and impotent. The familiar story is subverted to become the tragedy of an evil man. The film's surface detective element - who killed Hayden's father - is subsumed thematically by the investigation into this fascinating character (we know early on who killed him anyway).
Stylistically, Lewis turns the Western, traditionally about open spaces, new frontiers, hope, escape, into a bitter male melodrama about entrapment, failure and death. The stark, clear visuals are as beautiful and aesthetically exciting as THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, another morbid masterpiece. The disturbing editing, and exagerrated compositions seem to belong more to Nouvelle Vague deconstructions than a Hollywood Western. Almost as awesome as GUN CRAZY, this is provocative proof that Lewis was a great director.
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