Directed by Joseph H. Lewis; Written by Dalton Trumbo
Becoming less popular is sometimes the best thing that could happen to a genre. Westerns were the popular entertainment back in the 30s and 40s, providing thrills and nostalgia for an audience rapidly industrializing away from the wild, unkempt land America used to be. Open frontiers, open destinies and reductive characterizations provided an escape, and with money comes cookie-cuttery production codes meant to streamline away any rough edges.
Terror in a Texas Town came after the initial gold rush, at a time when enthusiasm was waning slightly and the genre opened up to new interpretations. As foreign producers made it their purview, in the U.S., it saw a shift in values.
The gunslinger, good or bad, and his tyrant firepower was less in vogue, along with it the idea of the exemplary individual. The power of social thought slowly seeped in, as protagonists began wielding the strength of collective action instead of firearms and rallying communities instead of merely passing through them. Sterling Hayden as George Hansen is such a protagonist, coming into town after almost two decades at sea, working as a whaler, now back in Texas to work on his father’s farm that he’s set to inherit.
There’ll be no reunion, however, as his father was gunned down shortly before his arrival by a hired gun, made to be an example by a dandy crook of a fat cat who wants to buy up the local farmers’ land for the oil he knows lies beneath. With the local farmers cowering to protect their families, it marks the beginning Hansen’s solitary stand-off against crooked sheriffs, bribes and the threat of violence, while all he takes with him into the fight is stolid earnestness, a belief in what’s right, and the heels of a mule, refusing to budge an inch.
Opposite him is Nedrick Young as Crale, the hired gun you know is a bad hombre because he wears all black, even keeping his black leather gloves on when drinking champagne. Yet even he is up against it, aware that the world isn’t as lawless as to permit his kind much longer. His self-hatred in how his life has gone is not great enough to outweigh his fear of what’s to become of him should he do something else, meaning he’s forced into bed with men who make his blood boil.
Their dichotomy puts the motion in the film’s ocean, this sad state of affairs where citizens and crooks alike are under a greater evil’s yoke. Trumbo’s script has enough humanity to go around, and Young’s excellent performance allows you to both pity and despise this murderous sonuvabitch. The film’s depiction of a changing society also pushes a new villain into the light in the shape of land speculator McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), whose thuggish brand of capitalism is so recognizable that it makes time a flat circle, catapulting 1958 right into the present.
Ray Rennahan’s camerawork also puts a lot of modern lenses to shame, setting up multiple compositions within a single shot and gracefully connecting them with fluid movement that Lewis’ direction honors by letting his actors play out scenes in long medium shots. What that means for Terror in a Texas Town is the action is as natural and unadorned as possible, with the only dramatic flourishes found in Rennahan’s artful use of lighting. No dramatically heightened stakes and editorialized framing, just people presented in the light of their own actions and words. It’s visual artistry, culminating in Hansen’s climactic stroll down the middle of the town, ready to duel for its fate.
Ultimately, Terror in a Texas Town is dated for the right reasons. The technical craftsmanship on display behind the camera is playful and imaginative, as opposed to modern popular filmmaking’s affinity for lazy framing and CGI backdrops. Sterling Hayden has the right build and energy as a reserved but resourceful strongman, even if his attempt at Swedish accent gets lost somewhere between the island of Bornholm and the German coastline. Still, his work as Hansen is a cute little accompaniment to his work in 1954’s Johnny Guitar, and a magnificent moral high ground from which he’d fall in The Godfather where he’s perfect as corrupt police captain McCluskey – look at how they massacred my boy.
Together with Young, they’re a great duality of men resigned to their respective fates and willing to walk the line as twins in a twist of fate. Sometimes that’s enough to make a great movie, thankfully the rest is up to scratch too.