The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, February 24, 2014

One Foot in Hell

Alan Ladd is Shane. That's it. End of story. In the classic 1953 western, Ladd played one of the genre's most famous gunfighters/cowboys, a man named Shane working with homesteaders against ruthless cattle barons. It's an iconic character, one that is easily remembered as one of Ladd's best. So what to make of Alan Ladd -- Shane himself -- playing....a bad guy?!? I know. It caught me by surprise too, but here we are with 1960's One Foot in Hell.

The end of the Civil War is a recent memory as former Confederate soldier Mitch Barrett (Ladd) moves west with his wife, Ellie (Rachel Stephens), hoping to start a new life. Ellie is pregnant though and goes into labor as they ride into the town of Blue Springs, Arizona. Mitch tries to get a hotel room, get a doctor, get medicine, but before he can get back to Ellie, she passes away. He holds certain townspeople to blame for his wife's death, but looking to move on, he takes a job as a deputy in town and settles into a new life. Months go by, Mitch becoming a trusted member of the community, forming friendships and relationships with the townspeople. One day, he approaches a drunken prisoner, Dan Keats (Don Murray), with an offer to cripple the town, but he needs help. As Dan quickly figures out, Mitch hasn't let his feelings of revenge go at all, and he's going to do everything he can to cripple this town.

This western from director James B. Clark actually has its root in television. It's based off a screenplay from Aaron Spelling (later of Beverly Hills 90210, Charlie's Angels, 7th Heaven fame and many others). Spelling had written it originally for Playhouse 90, a TV show that aired in the late 1950s, then adapting it for the big screen in this B-western that clearly didn't have a big budget but also doesn't let that be a huge detriment. It has been almost completely forgotten within the western genre, lost in waves of B-westerns that bombarded audiences in the 1950s and 1960s. Why shouldn't it be forgotten? Well, for starters, it is dark. Very dark. Most 1960 westerns, I still have this picture of white hat good guys vs. black hat bad guys. That trend was starting to change by 1960, especially here in this generally forgotten genre entry.

Where to start? With Ladd as revenge-seeking Mitch. In all my reviews of Ladd films, I feel like I've brought up his general stiffness on-screen, only certain parts rising above that wooden delivery. This actually isn't that part, but the wooden acting actually pays off here. Until Ladd's Mitch approaches Murray's Keats in his jail cell, I wasn't sure where the movie was heading, thinking maybe I was watching a pretty straightforward western hero gets second chance story. Nope, not at all. This is a man who wants revenge, and he's willing to wait for it to make it more painful for all those involved. By 1960, alcoholism was ravaging Ladd, and it shows. He doesn't look good at all. But that wooden delivery? It plays well with a man driven to obsession about gaining that revenge. It's hard to read his intentions at almost all times. How far is he willing to go? What is he willing to sacrifice? If it sounds like a backhanded compliment, so be it. Ladd's performance works, and it's definitely cool to see him play such a dark, villainous role.

Ladd is the biggest name here, but the supporting cast is pretty good, adding to that darkness started off by Ladd's Mitch. Hamming it up a bit at times, Murray is good as Keats, the former Confederate soldier who's turned to the bottle rather than deal with his tragic losses from the war. He's also a talented artist and an artillery specialist, giving Mitch a versatile assistant in his revenge plan. Mitch also assembles a small crew to work with including Sir Harry Ivers (Dan O'Herlihy), an English gentleman and a master thief, Julie (Dolores Michaels), a prostitute posing as Mitch's new wife, and Stu Christian (Barry Coe), a fast draw and gunman with no scruples about killing innocents. It's an interesting group to watch, one that threatens to tear itself apart before it can even unleash its plan. Star power? Nope, but some cool characters. It would have been nice to get some more background, more development, but cool just the same. Also, look for Larry Gates as the town doctor who convinces Mitch to stick around.

But again, that darkness, it's hard to shake it. The opening scene is uncomfortable to watch, Mitch meeting a slow-moving hotel desk clerk (Henry Norell) with lots of questions, a store owner (John Alexander) who holds Mitch up over $1.87 he owes for medicine his wife desperately needs, not allowing it on credit, and the sheriff (Karl Swenson) who arrests Mitch when he's forced to pull a gun to get the medicine. It just caught me by surprise, but for the good. The ending taps the brakes some unfortunately, an out of left field storyline that feels forced and far more typical of a 1960 American western. Also -- and I could have been watching an edited version of the film -- one key character's death isn't shown. Hhhmmm, interesting, but not for the better.

Still, getting to the finale is very interesting. It's a cool change of pace for any number of reasons, especially Alan Ladd in a bad guy role. If you can track down a copy, definitely give it a shot.

One Foot in Hell (1960): ***/****

1 comment:

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