At an isolated way station for the Overland Mail and stagecoach line in the Arizona desert, Tom Owens (Tyrone Power) is a week away from moving back east away from his job as the assistant to the grizzled stationmaster, Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan). News of a stagecoach robbery is making its way up and down the line, forcing one stagecoach passenger, Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward) and a toddler, to hole up at the station due to company policy. It's only a few hours later when the outlaws behind the robbery arrive, led by escaped convict Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe). They put the station in a hostage situation, Zimmerman revealing what his plan is. A stagecoach packed with gold bars is due in the next day, and he intends to get away with all of it. Can the hostages do something in time to stop the robbery and ensure their safety?
Here's a good example of why I love the western so much. From director Henry Hathaway, 'Rawhide' is neither a classic nor it is a dud. To say it's somewhere in between isn't even fair. It's a really good western that I enjoyed throughout and will gladly revisit it in the future. This 1951 small scale western has little to no reputation, but it came along at a different time. The late 1940s and early 1950s were an underrated time for the entire genre before the glossy widescreen (and often white-washed) examples of much of the 1950s. It's just 89 minutes long, was filmed in beautiful black and white and deserves a far more well-known reputation. Western fans will definitely get a kick out of this one.
There is something appealing and charming about the generally confined setting here for this 1951 western. Written by Dudley Nichols, 'Rawhide' has the feel of a stage-based play getting a big screen adaptation. Do you recognize Nichols? I didn't, but I should have. He wrote the screenplay for John Ford's 1939 classic Stagecoach, and 'Rawhide' has a similar feel. The entire story is set at the stagecoach station whether it's in the main building or the barn/corrals out in the middle of the desert. With the Alabama Hills used as a stunning backdrop, the black and white, sparse look of the story is a gem. The entire story takes place over about a 24-hour time period. We spend a lot of time in the expansive main room of the station, the claustrophobic room used as a prison cell or sorts, and then things open up in a big way outside with the mountains in the background. It's a not so flashy but perfectly set little story.
I'm guessing a big reason why 'Rawhide' doesn't have a huge reputation or following is because of the star power, or lack of it. It's a very solid cast (VERY) but there aren't any John Wayne or Henry Fonda waiting in the wings. Power and Hayward are excellent together, strangers forced to pretend they're married for safety reasons. Their kinda Odd Couple dynamic works in a hectic, tense situation. Marlowe is the nasty villain who's cold and calculating with Jack Elam (the psycho), Dean Jagger (the over his head horse thief) and George Tobias (the oafish/loyal enforcer) rounding out his gang. Buchanan is underused as the grizzled stationmaster who could use a bath while Jeff Corey, James Millican, Louis Jean Heydt and Kenneth Tobey make some quick appearances.
'Rawhide' is never slow but does have some relative struggles in getting to the third act. The threat is laid out and really there's only so much you can do before Marlowe's Zimmerman has to either gun somebody down or smack somebody. The ending though, it provides some good twists in dark fashion. The master of the psychotic, possibly unhinged 1950s western bad guy, Jack Elam even outdoes himself when he's in a desperate spot. And what's one of my main complaints about female characters in westerns? The damsel in distress. Not the case here as Hayward's Holt is front and center in the action. Who needs help? Give that woman a gun! An underrated western, one any genre fan should enjoy a lot. Track this one down!
Rawhide (1951): ***/****