This film was just so odd.
It’s clearly a low-budget B-film, but they have Joan Crawford starring. And it’s a Western. And the main antagonism is between a pair of women. There are bandits and there are simple townspeople, but the townspeople end up being the bad guys. Sort of. And the bandits are the good guys. Kind of. And while there are some gunfight scenes, most of the drama is in deep emotional conversations.
Joan Crawford plays “Vienna,” owner of a saloon just outside a small Arizona town. She doesn’t really get much business, but she’s working a deal with a railroad to bring a track and a depot to the town. The local cattle ranchers aren’t keen on the idea, nor are they thrilled with how Vienna has no trouble entertaining the outlaw known as “The Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady). Local fussbudget Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) is especially scandalized as she heard Vienna used to date him. Things are so tense that Vienna tracks down another old boyfriend, Johnny Logan (Sterling Hayden), a gunslinger who has supposedly given guns up for music. Vienna hires him to play in her saloon, and officially frowns on his gunslinging – but secretly hopes that if things go sour at the saloon ever, Johnny can be some extra muscle.
And things do go sour – but just outside town, when a stagecoach gets held up and Emma’s brother gets killed. She’s convinced the culprits are the Dancing Kid and his band, and is equally convinced that Vienna is the mastermind – so she drags the marshall, the mayor, and a few other townspeople to Vienna’s saloon to make her accusations. But not only are Vienna and the Dancing Kid able to present alibis, Vienna starts joking Emma maybe has a crush on the Dancing Kid herself. Chastened, Emma slinks away, resolving to get her revenge on Vienna someday. And when the town bank gets robbed – on a day when Vienna is conveniently making a deposit – Emma sees her chance, whipping the townspeople up into a mob bent on destruction, and all too eager to step in when the mob starts to have second thoughts.
In his review, Roger Ebert calls this a “blatant psychosexual melodrama”, and he’s honestly not far off. Vienna toys with both Johnny and The Dancing Kid, frowning on both their muscle but taking advantage of their protection. Emma is obsessed with bringing Vienna down to the point that some have suspected that it’s her, and not the Dancing Kid, that Emma pines for. Either way, Emma is such a force of nature that the entire rest of the town gets caught up in her obsession; often all it takes to bring a doubter back into line is for Emma to bark a command at them.
Maybe that’s why Joan Crawford sort of works here. She’s really not someone I pictured in a Western – her vibe has always seemed more 1940s noir, as opposed to bright technicolor and cowboys. But that noir energy is what she brings to a confrontation she has with Johnny mid-film, in which they re-hash some conflicts from their prior relationship, and it fits perfectly.
It’s still all just so odd. Fascinatingly so, though.