I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about this Western at first – until it suddenly took a hard right out of the tropes of that genre and became a gritty noir.
I think I can be forgiven my initial misgivings, though. The opening credits smack of the usual Western-As-Hero-Narrative, with Gary Cooper as our hero, “Link Jones”, riding a horse just into frame and then inexplicably stopping it short and sitting there long enough for the opening titles to conveniently unspool in front of him. And when he does move on, he ends up in a town where all the businesses have bland generic names, like “Saloon” or “Inn” or “Dry Goods”.
Jones doesn’t stop in any of these spots, though – he’s just passing through, catching a train to El Paso. A couple locals eye him warily when he’s boarding his horse and pays out of what looks like a huge sack of cash; the sheriff quizzes him briefly about that, asking if he’s heard of an outlaw named Doc Tobin. “No, I haven’t,” our hero says – looking a bit uneasy. But the sheriff is appeased and lets him go.
Truth be told, Doc Tobin is our hero’s uncle. For years, Jones was part of Tobin’s outlaw gang, committing a series of robberies and murders across most of the Texas frontier. But that was some time ago – Jones eventually bailed out of that life and fled to the far West, settling in a small town called Good Hope and trying to go straight. The only reason he’s even back east is because the people of Good Hope want to open a schoolhouse, and have sent Jones to El Paso with their pooled savings to try to recruit a teacher.
However, the train he’s on ends up getting held up by Tobin’s current gang when the passengers are all at a rest stop. One of the outlaws also grabs Jones’ bag away from him, and the Tobin gang takes the whole train as well, leaving Jones stuck by the tracks in the middle of nowhere along with Billie Ellis (Julie London), a saloon singer en route to a new gig, and Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell), a card-playing con man. Sam and Billie lament their fate, but Jones takes over – he knows where they can find shelter, he tells them. ….Because he recognizes they’re close to the Tobin’s old hideout. Jones turns up at the Tobin’s squat that evening, his new friends in tow, where Jones says he’s come back to rejoin the gang (which he is, but only long enough to find his stolen cash). And Billie is his girlfriend, he quickly adds, when he sees the other men eyeing her. Doc is overjoyed – he’s been planning on one last bank robbery in a sleepy town called Lassoo, and with Jones back, the heist is sure to succeed. So he eagerly starts planning the holdup as Jones secretly figures out whether he can sabotage things.
The story goes some pretty interesting places, and there were some surprisingly shocking moments. One uneasy scene sees Tobin’s men threaten Billie to do a strip tease for them, with Jones’ cousin “Coaley” (Jack Lord) holding Jones at bay with a knife so he can’t rescue her. The scene actually gets as far as Billie removing shoes, socks, and her shirt before Doc calls a halt to things. Even though Billie stays clothed “enough” during the scene, it still goes on long enough to be pretty damn uncomfortable – and sets up a fantastic moment later where Jones has his revenge on Coaley by methodically divesting him of the very same pieces of his clothes as they fight. Another scene with an attempted bank robbery has a moment where a woman is killed during the crossfire of a gun battle – and towards the end of the scene, after the dust has settled, her husband innocently wanders in asking what happened. Jones is too mortified to explain, and simply blurts out an apology before fleeing – leaving the man to discover his dead wife on his own. The scene ends with him keening for her. It was poignant, and impressed the hell out of me – a lot of the “innocent bystander victims” in most action movies don’t get that moment of someone mourning for them.
The one and only bit of the plot that I disliked was how Billie ends up infatuated with Jones. To be fair, Jones is treating her decently and there’s probably some Stockholm Syndrome going on – but after only about 24 hours, Billie is talking as if Jones is the One Big Love Of Her Life and how she will be Forever Changed By His Kindness. Jones makes it pretty apparent that he is not interested in her that way, and the whole situation is generally chaotic and messy – Jones even tells her during a private moment that he’s married with two kids, and during another private moment he rebuffs her when she comes on to him. But she still implies by the end of the whole thing that she will be quietly carrying a torch for Jones her whole life now, and I just don’t buy it.
But that’s a side element to what is ultimately Jones’ continuing search for some kind of revenge – or redemption. It’s difficult to tell which, and maybe it’s both. Either way it was a more nuanced take than I thought the film was taking at first.