Arrow Video: Terror in a Texas Town (1958) - Reviewed

B-movie auteur Joseph H. Lewis, regular director of classy westerns and film noirs best known Gun Crazy which predated Bonnie and Clyde for almost ten years, was about to retire from the industry after a steady career of having directed some forty films when his friend and frequent collaborator, actor Nedrick Young, presented him with the script for Terror in a Texas Town.  Originally penned by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Exodus; Spartacus) with credit going to Trumbo’s pseudonym Ben Perry, the also blacklisted actor saw with the American Western yarn a chance to get back into the film business while also reworking the tropes presented in films like High Noon and Shane.  As this was slated to be Lewis’ final directing job, the director eagerly accepted the job unfazed by the Red Scare sweeping Hollywood. 

A simple and brisk yet compelling tale told almost entirely in flashback, Terror in a Texas Town involves a corrupt hotel owner McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) eager to seize the oil underneath the Prairie City land who hires gunman Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young) to drive the farmers out.  When the efforts claim the life of a former Swedish whaler, the tracks are laid for vengeance upon the arrival of the whaler’s son George Hansen (Sterling Hayden) who quickly learns of the murderous scheming before arming himself with only his father’s harpoon. 

Running at a taut eighty-one minutes, not a moment is wasted depicting the gradual buildup towards the bloody duel depicted on the film’s poster and opening shot.  Where most westerns tend towards the epic length with black and white divisions of good vs. evil, this one gets down to business immediately and presents the viewer with characters trapped in an oddly relatable gray area even as we’re appalled by their actions.  Moreover, there’s a loose theme being rolled out concerning how characters trapped on opposite sides of the fence may have more in common than they realize.

As with High Noon minus the recurring theme song, it’s an engaging yarn concerning the lone hero surrounded by evildoers in the old West.  What separates it from the pack are the moral complexities of the supporting characters.  While Sterling Hayden is always great in anything he’s in, Terror in a Texas Town really belongs to the villains who are each imbued with detailed sensibilities which evoke a degree of sympathy in spite of their illicit actions.  

Take for instance Johnny Crale and his mistress Molly (Carol Kelly) who aren’t illustrated as purely reprehensible crooks but in a way as survivors just trying to get by.  Some of the film’s best scenes are driven purely by conversations of one-up gamesmanship, particularly when Crale is first assigned the task of forcing the farmers out by McNeil.  Crale carries himself with distant cool with a palpable danger about him while the oversized McNeil can’t help but mock him at every turn as he enlists his services.  We also get ample room for themes concerning submitting to oppressive forces and eventually finding the courage to stand up to oppression even as it’s holding a gun to our head.

Visually the film looks splendid thanks to location photography by Russell Harlan (To Kill a Mockingbird; Rio Bravo) with wide shots of plains and fields covering the oil and the dusty soils kicked up throughout the corrupt town with most everyone remaining indoors.  Watching the film my mind kept coming back to There Will Be Blood and I have to believe Paul Thomas Anderson watched Terror in a Texas Town many times as it seems to share locations. 

The only aspect which seems to work against the film is the soundtrack by Gerald Fried which like the recurring theme song for High Noon tends to disengage viewers from the film.  That said, what’s here is a solid western with strong performances a unique flavor thanks to Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay and the now revered Lewis’ direction.  What could have been just another Western quickie, in the pantheon of film history, is now regarded as one of the very best incarnations the genre has to offer!

- Andrew Kotwicki