Having served a majority of his sentence, Peter van Hoek (Alan Ladd), better known as 'the Dutchman,' is released early from the Yuma territorial prison. A mining engineer, Dutchman maintains that he was framed for a robbery of a gold shipment, still claiming his innocence. He's got a plan to get back at those who set him up, robbing a supposedly useless mine that never produced any gold, or so it seemed. Dutchman enlists the help of McBain (Ernest Borgnine), another recently released prisoner, and Vincente (Nehemiah Persoff), a dynamite specialist, to help in the plan which will require split second timing. The plan seems perfect, but one never knows what might come up when so much gold is involved.
I've never hidden the fact that I'm not a fan of remakes, especially remakes of movies like The Asphalt Jungle that didn't need to be touched. On the other hand, if you're going to do a remake, add something new, a unique feature or departure from the original, much like director Delmer Daves did here. Transplanting the team of crooks, robbers and specialists to the dusty desert of the wild west is an inspired choice. 'Badlanders' was filmed in Old Tucson, Arizona, a filming location western fans will be especially familiar with. The lonely western town surrounded by mountains is a great backdrop to the heist story. As a fan of both westerns and heist flicks, I couldn't help but like this one. How often do we actually see western heists? Few and far between.
The cast is streamlined some, certain characters tweaked or completely dropped from 'Asphalt.' The focus is on Ladd's Dutchman and Borgnine's McBain. Ladd's quiet, easy-going and understated acting style works here, even if a little more visible revenge-seeking would have helped. His background is never fully explained, but we know he wants some revenge, and he's had years to think about it. Playing his partner in crime, Borgnine shows a different side of his acting ability. He isn't the loud, aggressive thug he played so often in the 1950s as he built up a name for himself. His McBain was sent to prison on a manslaughter charge and then saw his land and home pulled out from under him. He too wants revenge but doesn't know where to start until the Dutchman approaches him with a plan. A subplot with McBain and Anita (Katy Jurado), a prostitute in town, helps develop the character as well.
Having two very solid leads in those roles is both good and bad. The good is obvious; it's fun to see Ladd and Borgnine working together on this heist. The bad in an 85-minute movie? The focus is on them, but little else gets dealt with. We hear about both Dutchman and McBain's predicament, their background in getting sent to the Yuma prison, but that's all. We hear, but there's little in the way of details. When Dutchman sets up the plan, are the higher-ups in town the ones who set him up? Does he intend to get them back or just earn himself some money? Not even breaking the 90-minute mark, things feel rushed, like key scenes and explanations were left in the editing room. The villains aren't developed, subplots that are there feel forced and/or pointless, and all the sudden the movie's over. It's an enjoyable ride along the way, but it could have been much better.
Throwing so many different elements into an 85-minute long movie is unfortunate because there's just too much going on. Jurado's Anita is a bright spot, making the most of her time with Borgnine's McBain as the heist plan comes together, but Persoff doesn't come across as well as the Mexican dynamite expert. As mentioned though, the villains are weak and poorly developed. Kent Smith is Lounsberry, the town hot-shot who will serve as a fence for the stolen gold, Robert Emhardt playing Sample, a partner in the coming double-cross. Claire Kelly is Ada (sexy name, huh?), Lounsberry's girlfriend literally locked away in a hotel room until she's needed, there because Ladd's Dutchman needs a love interest. Supporting player in the original 'Asphalt,' Anthony Caruso is Comanche, one of Sample's gunhands while Adam Williams does what he did best, playing a possibly unhinged, highly dangerous gunfighter, albeit a deputy named Leslie.
Like a lot of movies, this one had the potential to be an above average, pretty memorable western, but it never quite gets there. Where 'Asphalt' reveled in its darkness and cynicism, 'Badlanders' refuses to go there, especially in its ending which is just too nice and tidy when it could have been incredibly dark and surprising. It's still a good movie with some solid performances, but it isn't as good as it could have been.
The Badlanders <---TCM trailer (1958): ** 1/2 /****