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Stars – Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot * Director – Joseph H. Lewis

* Released by Arrow Films *Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Terror in a Texas Town is a B movie western that has more than a few things going for it. Director Joseph H. Lewis had a knack for making cheap pictures look good and even great thanks to his visual style and affinity for offbeat and dark characters. He’s most well know for My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), the Incredible Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1995). But don’t forget that he is also the man who directed three Bowery Boys films back when they were called The East Side Kids as well as a few singing cowboy pictures. The plot of this one is pretty straight forward but with one very neat twist. The film opens with what looks to be a classic shoot out on Main Street. We see this mostly from the point of view of the bad guy. He’s egging on the other guy to make a move, to go for it. Only the good guy, Sterling Hayden doesn’t have a pistol to draw. He’s lifting up a damn whaling harpoon and getting ready to throw it. There’s an image you don’t see every day. The film will close with this same showdown only this time from Hayden’s point of view.

We’ve seen this set up many times before. Fat cat Sebastian Cabot is buying up all the land in this small little town because he knows there is oil there. If they do not sell he has his henchman run them off or shoot them. Nedrick Young is dressed all in black and plays his scenes like a third rate Humphrey Bogart impersonator. Nick wrote better than he acted. He did the screenplays for Jailhouse Rock, The Defiant Ones and Inherit the Wind. Sterling Hayden comes to two look for his father who has been gunned down by this henchman. Blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo working under the name Ben Perry makes a big deal out of how frightened the townspeople are to stand up against Cabot. Similar to the refusal of Hollywood to stand up to Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts. He highlights the few who do with a real appreciation. A latino farmer and the Swedish Sterling Hayden are the first to buck the trend. At the very end the whole community rallies around him, they take to the streets and march against the crooked robber baron, albeit led by a man carrying a harpoon. His father was a whaler so using that particular device as a weapon for justice makes sense. His father was shot dead trying to fight with it but you know that Hayden will hit his mark. That shot of the bad guy impaled by a harpoon is pretty remarkable.

Lewis does a lot of interesting framing. He frequently puts something in the foreground, stages his action in the middle and then adds something else way in the background. This give a lot of depth and also just makes the shot more compelling. We even get to see his trademark wagon wheel in the foreground shot. Apparently some of his crew used to call him Wagon Wheel since he liked that bit so much. Those who have only seen his Film Noirs and urban work will now get the chance to see this bit. Sterling Hayden works well here. He even carries off the accent. He is stalwart and a man of justice. He stands tall. It’s what the part calls for and he fills it well. Sebastian Cabot is also a treat to watch. He fiddles with bowls of fruit as he manipulates the townspeople as easily as popping another grape in his mouth. This one is not in the same league as the big films Lewis is known for but it is done very well and offers up a bizarre twist on the  typical western. It wants to be a fun B picture and it absolutely is that.

Video – 1.85:1
Much of this film looks fantastic with strong contrast and good black levels. Three are sections though where the grain gets out of hand and others where an overall softness of image takes over. These are not at all the norm. It almost feels as if there were different sources in involved or a varying quality inherent in the one that was used. Still this look pretty darn good for this film. Easily the best I have ever seen it.

Audio – Mono 1.0 PCM with subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue is easy to follow. The score by Gerald Fried is interesting. He’ll often use a sparse acoustic guitar highlighted by a lone trumpet. It’s done in a classical style that recalls the score to Murder by Contract made the same year.

Extras – Introduction by Peter Stanfield, Visual Style featurette, Scene-select commentaries by Stanfield ,Theatrical trailer, Reversible sleeve art, Illustrated collector s booklet available in the first pressing only.

The Introduction by Peter Stanfield is more of a depreciation of Joseph Lewis. He starts right off by telling us that if we came to this film expecting the same quality as we found in Gun Crazy or The Big Combo then we will not get it. He tells us it simply will not work to consider Lewis an auteur of any kind. He makes his case framing Lewis as a director for hire , an artist without a theme. Then he goes on to give a pretty good account of many of the elements that Lewis brings to this film in a second featurette on his visual style. For me Stanfield was an odd choice. We generally look to an extra to enhance our appreciation of a film or aspects of it. On occasion some humor is welcome if called for. This guy doesn’t seem to enjoy films, especially this one. He’s a bit too academic and not the kind of guy I’d want to carry my harpoon into a gunfight.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent for the film, not the extras

Movie – Good

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