Jack Palance was without a doubt, one of the best heavies around in film. He was great in those tough, can't keep down parts that ranged from heroes to dastardly villains, especially in 1953's Shane where he played one of the western genre's all-time great villains. So in the 1950s as he played a lot of anti-heroes, a lot of out-and-out bad guys, it's cool to see him in a well-told, somber western from 1957, The Lonely Man.
In a quiet, dusty western town, a man with quite the reputation, Jacob Wade (Palance), rides up the street looking to find someone. His reputation leans heavily toward the wrong side of the law, Wade gaining notoriety as a gunfighter, a killer, a bandit, and wherever he goes, that name precedes him. He finds the man he's looking for, Riley (Anthony Perkins), a young man, a bit of a loafer around town who goes about his own business quietly. Who is he? He's Wade's son, the son he hasn't seen in over 15 years since leaving him and the boy's mother, hitting the outlaw trail of sorts. After all those years apart though, Wade wants to do right by his son, setting him up with a ranch, some cattle. It will be small at first, but with some hard work, it can flourish....if Riley wants anything to do with his long-lost father's help. It's more than that though. Men from Wade's past are on his trail, men looking to exact revenge on the infamous gunslinger.
Well, here we sit. It is movies like this that make me such a huge fan of the western. There's nothing particularly out of this world unique, nothing you probably haven't seen in other, more well-known westerns over the years. And you know what? There's nothing wrong with that. From director Henry Levin, 'Lonely' is a well-told, old-fashioned story that I liked from the beginning. It gets to the core of what can be so right about westerns. Ultimately, it's about doing what's right, even if it'd be easier to turn and ride out. It's about living up to your word, standing by a friend when he's in trouble, and doing your damnedest to live up to what you should be whether it's loyal, honest or hard-working. As Davy Crockett said, 'Know you're right and go ahead.' In story terms, it doesn't get more straightforward than that.
We get that perspective that would be dealt with years later in movies like Ride the High Country, The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch through the eyes of Palance's Jacob Wade (apparently not related to THIS Jake Wade). His outlaw is trying to put that outlaw past behind him, but that past may not allow it. He regrets the things he's done, the men he's killed, those he's put at risk. It may be too late to save himself, but in his son, there remains some sort of hope for a better future. Palance could be a gem at chewing the scenery, but he was at his best here when he underplays everything. He keeps it inside, the emotions brewing and waiting for an outburst. It is a part that brims with intensity, but it never comes over the top. The chemistry between Palance and Perkins is excellent, a father who wants to help the son he abandoned (supposedly), a son who wants nothing to do with the offer of help. The father-son dynamic works across most genres, and that's no different in the western.
Now that supporting cast. Yikes, just yikes. Some of those familiar faces would go onto bigger and better in the coming years, but that's our benefit. There's a very deep cast that western fans will definitely appreciate from top to bottom. Neville Brand gets the lead villain part as King Fisher, a former saloon owner who has a bullet he carries with Wade's name on it, some of the lead still in his leg. His gang includes Lee Van Cleef, Elisha Cook Jr., and Adam Williams. Robert Middleton has a strong, key supporting part as Ben Ryerson, a former member of Wade's gang, now riding with him trying to put the boy on the right track. There's also a quick part for Claude Akins, a former gang member looking for some "help" with John Doucette riding by his side. Even look for Denver Pyle in an early appearance as a sheriff who knows Wade's reputation.
There's some issues here, but nothing huge. The story is a tad slow, even at 88 minutes dragging in bits and pieces. The subplot with Elaine Aiken's Ada, a saloon girl who rode with Wade and wanted to settle down with him, doesn't develop as much as it could have. When Perkins' Riley shows some interest, I'd had about enough with that part of the story. For the most part though, things work and they work well. A somber, soft score permeates the emotionally-charged family story, and the locations in the Alabama Hills in California are a gorgeous backdrop to the developments across the board. It isn't a perfect western, but it is a really good one that genre fans will definitely enjoy. You pretty much know where it's building early on, but getting to the finale was part of the fun. An easy western to recommend.
The Lonely Man (1957): ***/****