So. This Western enjoys a distinction uncommon amongst others in that genre – it was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1953. And to be fair, the broad strokes of the plot are fairly interesting on paper.
However, I probably would have liked it better if the lead hadn’t been playing his character as a complete and total idiot.
Our tale here is that of Howard Kemp (Jimmy Stewart), a rancher-turned-bounty-hunter on the trail of outlaw Ben Vandergrout (Robert Ryan). Kemp had lost his ranch a while back, and saw his chance when his old frenemy Ben shot a marshal during a bank robbery in Abilene and escaped; the hefty bounty would be enough to buy his ranch back from the current owner. He trails Ben to Colorado, where he enlists the help of disgraced soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) and doddering old prospector Jessie Tate (Millard Mitchell) to finally corner his quarry. When they capture him, they discover that Ben isn’t alone – Lina (Janet Leigh), the daughter of one of Ben’s buddies who’s also smitten with Ben.
Now they just have to get Ben back to Abilene to collect the bounty. And Ben sees this as his chance – he guesses the alliance between the others isn’t all that solid, and figures the longer they’re on the road, the more time he’ll have to turn his captors against each other, so he and Lina can escape during the confusion. He quickly figures out each man’s weak spot and gets to work – teasing Kemp about his lost ranch, needling Anderson about his military career, and tempting Tate with stories about a sure-shot vein of gold somewhere to the north. Kemp’s determination proves too strong – and too much of a temptation for Lina, who starts to rethink her allegiances. But Anderson and Tate start to listen…
It’s not a bad story, and it has a neatly discharged ending. Most of the cast do well in their respective roles. But Stewart….
Okay, I saw Kemp do some super dumb things over the course of this film, and it totally lost me. For instance: Kemp and Tate first meet Anderson on the trail, right when they’ve first cornered Ben and are planning their strategy. Anderson rides up behind them and takes them by surprise, and they stop him, guns drawn, and disarm him before asking who he is. Anderson tells them he’s recently been discharged from the nearby Army barracks and is heading home; he hands Kemp his discharge papers as proof. We read the discharge papers along with Kemp – Anderson has been dishonorably discharged on the grounds that he is “morally unstable.” And yet, even after reading this – Kemp gives him his gun back. Even worse – Anderson immediately points his returned gun right at Kemp, keeping it there for the next several minutes, and Kemp doesn’t even notice.
Also, about midway through the film Kemp gets shot in the leg. This gives Stewart plenty of chances for dramatic acting – gasping and raving in delirium in his bedroll as Lina tends to him, a stiff-legged walk to his horse and theatrically wincing as he mounts it – but just a few scenes later, he’s climbing through a cave and even scaling a cliff face seemingly without issues. Another actor, or a better performance from Stewart, might have convinced me that the shot to the leg was just a stroke of bad luck for the party; but here it just felt like Stewart saw it as a chance to engage in some Oscar-Bait Acting. A lot of his performance felt like he had a blind spot to everything except Kemp’s desperation; even when he finally kisses Lina, he grabs her and locks lips as if hes a scuba diver pouncing on a fresh tank of air.
Stewart’s performance just felt….sloppy and hokey, and it lost me and ultimately soured me on the film.