The Whaler and the Western.
Joseph H. Lewis was something of a B movie king, with his best directorial efforts coming via Westerns and film noir. After this Sterling Hayden starrer he signed off from Hollywood for good, as a legacy it's difficult to say if it's a fitting point of reference to Lewis and his talents, or entirely apt for his career? It's an often quirky, even bizarre, picture that manages through its surreal like tendencies to detract from its formulaic Western plot.
Set in Prairie City, Texas, the tale revolves around George Hanson (Hayden), a Swedish whaler who after 19 years away, returns to Prairie to find his father has been murdered. As he delves deeper with a staunch undaunted determination, he finds that the law is corrupt and a horrible land baron called McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), aided by gunslinger for hire Johnny Crale (Ned Young), is behind his fathers death. It appears there is oil in the land and McNeil is using force to buy up the land at ridiculously cheap prices. But if he thought George was going to be forgiving? Or going to be easily frightened? Well he and Crale are in for some big shocks.
Shot in stark black and white, Lewis' film throws up the always interesting conflict between homespun virtue and greedy evil. There's compelling villains and some nicely drawn characterisations for the decent citizens of the town, such as those who are on the periphery of the protagonists struggle (note Victor Millan's poor Mexican farmer and Carol Kelly's downbeat girlfriend of Crale).
What of Hayden, though? It's a fascinating performance, where saddled with the task of trying to do a Swedish accent, and wearing a suit a size too short for him, it's difficult to know if he is in tune with the off-kilter nature of the film, or he's just on robotic auto-pilot while Lewis chuckles to himself off camera. Either way Hayden gives us a character to root for with our every breath. Hanson is a bastion of good and well meaning, we ache for him to outdo the lobster eating land baron and the metal clawed outlaw.
There's some controversy in the tid-bids here. The script was credited to Ben Perry, but actually was written by Dalton Trumbo who was blacklisted. Hayden, although not blacklisted, appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and simultaneously admitted past communist affiliations and named names. Lewis was not involved in the unsavoury chapter but was a close friend of Ned Young, who was blacklisted for taking the fifth, but whose impact on the film was to not only be in it, but to also be instrumental in getting Lewis to direct it. Boy was that an interesting time in American history.
Stylish, odd and certainly different, Terror In A Texas Town has enough about it to make it worthy of a night in. And it gets better on repeat viewings once you buy into the kookiness. 7.5/10