“Terror in a Texas Town”
A Fascinating Allegory
Joseph H. Lewis’ “Terror in a Texas Town” is an allegory of the anti-Communist witch-hunts in America during the 50s. This should really not surprise anyone when they see that it was written by the famously blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (writing here under the pseudonym Ben Perry). There was controversy surrounding this film since in the production were either blacklisted or were subpoenaed to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Sterling Hayden wasn’t blacklisted, but appeared in front of that committee and admitted his communist affiliations in the past and he named names which I understand became s source of great regret later. Director Lewis was not blacklisted but was a close friend of one of the film’s stars, Ned Young, who was blacklisted. It was Young who asked Lewis to direct the film.
Wealthy businessman Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) knows that there is oil on the land belonging to the various ranchers surrounding Prairie City so he hires gunman Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young) to do his dirty work starting with former fisherman Sven Hansen (Ted Stanhope) who refuses to be intimidated by McNeil and the various men he has in his pocket. But Hansen is murdered and when his son George (Sterling Hayden) shows up to work with his father he quickly discovers that no one is going to talk about what happened to his father. I can’t say much about what happens in the plot because that would destroy the viewing experience so it will sound like this is just another wealthy man using a hired gun to bully ranchers off of their land and then a son shows up to get revenge. While this is certainly there, it is only a theme and there is so much more.
“Terror in a Texas Town” starts with a scene close to the end of the movie and then we go to the beginning and get the back-story as to why Hayden as George Hansen is in cowboy country with a whaling spear. Despite its seemingly ordinary premise this film is not just a low budget western but it is also an experimentally artistic one which makes it feel a bit random at times.
Basically this is a black and white B-movie western from the late 50s which sees a greedy hotel owner, McNeil use brute force to drive local farmers off his land after pay-offs don’t work. Using cruel gunman Johnny Crale to do the legwork, McNeil’s latest target is the Swedish immigrant Sven Hansen (Ted Stanhope). Crale kills Sven, as he won’t budge, and it looks like McNeil has got what he wants, as he’s paid off the sheriff so the death won’t be investigated and Sven’s Mexican friend Mirada (Victor Millan), who witnessed the murder, is too scared to talk anyway. However, soon after, Sven’s son George (Sterling Hayden) arrives in town and claims the farm is now rightfully his, causing problems for McNeil. He is also determined to find out who killed his father and bring him to justice. McNeil Crale to sort it out – initially without force, but after a while it looks like there’s no other way. Hansen struggles on, but he can’t get justice without the help of Mirada and the rest of the town, who are too frightened to stand up to the two tyrants, McNeil and Crale.
Many will see a resemblance to classic western “High Noon”, which was released a few years prior to this. The film’s hero and the man who has the information to bring down the villains are outsiders (George is Swedish and Mirada is Mexican), but they have to lose their fear to face them and need the support of the general public, who are also afraid to put a stop to it. This message becomes particularly clear in the final act and adds some weight to proceedings, after which the rest of the film is a typical revenge western. What the film has that we do not see in many Westerns is a tough edge.
There is the traditional plot of settlers trying to hold onto their land while a rich man tries to take it away. We have a bad-guy gunslinger and a stranger who comes to town who inspires the scared locals to stand up against the bad guys. There is a whore with a good heart and there is the final confrontation.
Let me share what I think makes it special. It was written by Dalton Trumbo, who was one of the Hollywood screenwriters blacklisted for refusing in 1947 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The movie also stars two actors who also were called before the Committee: Nedrick Young (who refused to testify) and Sterling Hayden (who testified but regretted it). The supporting characters at first appear to be classic Western stereotypes, but as the movie progresses, you realize they have depth and do not follow conventions. The final showdown is between the evil gunfighter with his guns and the good guy, something you probably never seen in a movie again.
There are better Hollywood B-movies that tackle the McCarthy witch-hunts then, but this is still a solid, entertaining western with substance. The new Blu ray release from Arrow has excellent picture and sound quality.
Special features include:
– Introduction by Peter Stanfield, author of Hollywood, Westerns and the 1930s: The Lost Trail and Horse Opera: The Strange History of the Singing Cowboy
– Scene-select commentaries by Stanfield
– Theatrical trailer