Richard Egan was in over 60 movies and made guest appearances on several TV shows. But like so many Hollywood actors/actresses from the time, he's been mostly forgotten in the years since his death in 1987. Some of it surely has to do with his films -- not one is a true classic -- but that doesn't mean he was in good movies. Where some stars reach the heights of the profession, Egan became more known for his work in B-movies. I'll never consider him a great actor, but even in his lesser roles, he had presence to spare.
A good example of his abilities is on display in the 1956 western Tension at Table Rock. Egan plays the main character -- a gunfighter running from his past -- in a story that uses just about every western cliche available and still manages to be halfway decent. Egan has one emotion in this movie, if you can call it an emotion, and it's monotone. His voice never goes up or down whether he's angry, wooing a lady, or just having a conversation. His face seems to be stuck in the one position for the whole 93 minutes, and through it all still makes it an interesting character.
Wes Tancred (Egan) is dealing with his name becoming legendary -- and not in a good way -- after he shot his best friend and partner, a fellow gunslinger, who was turning on him. The legend builds that Wes gunned him down in the back, and soon enough, a ballad pops up describing the killing. Wes is pardoned by the governor and moves further west under a new name. He takes a job at a stagecoach station but is forced to move on after a robbery with the loner survivor of the attempt, young Jody (Billy Chapin) in tow. Jody has an uncle living in the nearby town of Table Rock who happens to be the sheriff, Fred Miller (Cameron Mitchell). Some well-hidden sparks start to fly between Wes (alias 'Bailey') and Miller's wife Lorna (Dorothy Malone), but that's the least of the problems. Fred is still recovering from a brutal attack and with a cattle drive coming his way, he will have to stick up for the town against the rowdy cowboys, with or without Wes's help.
The story does take its time setting everything up, and it's over 45 minutes in before the cattle drive and its boss (John Dehner) is even introduced. The different storylines bounce every which way with just about every possibility imaginable taken into account in one way or another. 'Table Rock' borrows liberally from other 1950s westerns but still manages to put its own spin on things. All the important elements of a good western are there; honesty, loyalty, doing what's right no matter the cost, and being true to yourself. Still, it's hard not to shake the idea that the plot was never really settled on. Everything wraps up nicely though in the end with the heroic Egan moving on to another town rather than cause a disruption where he is.
The western drifter/gunfighter has been done to death although on a positive note this was well before Sergio Leone got his hand on the genre and infused a bit of cynicism into the western. Egan's Wes is a flawed man who's made out to be something he's not. Sure, he's good with a gun, but he's not a cold-blooded killer. 1950s westerns love flawed characters like these because they're not bad guys, but they're not white hatted good guys either. These sort of anti-heroes usually end up making some sort of personal sacrifice -- not usually involving their own death, it is the 1950s -- so that a family or a town can move on from their pasts.
Joining Egan is a strong supporting cast, especially Mitchell as Sheriff Fred Miller. He's still recovering from a horrific beating that almost killed him and is thrown right into the fire to protect his town from the incoming rowdy cowpokes. Mitchell makes Miller a character who wavers over what to do but ends up figuring out what's right and what's wrong, consequences be damned. Malone is good as Miller's wife Lorna who can't help but be attracted to the steely-eyed, mysterious gunfighter. Dehner is wasted as a quasi-villain with Royal Dano having some fun with his part as the crotchety old newspaper man. Only in one scene, DeForest Kelly (pre Star Trek) makes a strong impression as Jim Breck, a hired gun with a unique mission.
Nothing really remarkable about this B-western, but as several IMDB reviewers point out, doing a well-worn formula picture well has to count for something. At Youtube, several clips have been posted focusing on child star Billy Chapin's performance for those curious and looking for more about the movie. Also look for a young Angie Dickinson in a small part, playing against the image she would become known for when she became a star. Innocent enough western that is a pleasant enough way to spend 90 minutes.
Tension at Table Rock <----trailer (1956): ** 1/2 /****