This was a little Western that snuck up and surprised me. It’s short, and I hadn’t heard of any of the actors save for James Coburn (making his debut in a smaller supporting role). But it’s a lean story that cuts to the chase, and doesn’t get bogged down in any of the tropes about Westerns I’ve disliked in the past.
Randolph Scott stars as “Ben Brigade”, a bounty hunter we first meet just as he is catching up with his latest quarry, Billy John (James Best), who’s wanted for murder in Santa Cruz. Billy isn’t too keen on turning himself in, but ultimately comes quietly, asking one of his companions to alert his brother Frank before they set off. The pair stop in at a stagecoach station en route and meet outlaw Sam Boone (Pernell Robert) and his partner Whit (James Coburn), both of whom seem friendly enough until a woman bursts out with a gun drawn on them both. This is Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) – the wife of the station master who’s been trying to hold down the station while her husband is away on an errand. And no, she doesn’t know Boone or Whit, they just showed up and she wants them gone. Brigade quickly figures out that Boone and Whit have turned up to try to rob the next coach – just as Boone and Whit are figuring out that Brigade is traveling with Billy John, and they are also interested in the bounty. Good thing, too, since the next coach had been attacked by warriors from the Mescalero tribe and contained only dead passengers when it arrived. Carrie Lane soon learns the Mescaleros have killed her husband as well; so when Brigade sets off with Billy John the next day, she joins in with Boone and Whit and tags along.
As they travel, Boone repeatedly tells Brigade that he’s playing nice for now, since it looks like Brigade can help the party get safely to Santa Cruz – but he also has every intention of fighting Brigade for Billy once they arrive and claiming the bounty himself. Brigade doesn’t seem too bothered by this. ….In fact, Brigade seems to be a little too chill. Almost like he’s taking his time and drawing out the trip. Even when Whit spots that Billy’s brother Frank is on their tale, Brigade doesn’t speed up. Why, it’s almost like Brigade wants Frank to catch up….what’s going on with that?
You do learn what’s going on with that, and it’s best that I not share. You also learn who gets custody of Billy by the end – and it’s a satisfying ending, with everyone getting what they really wanted all along. Well – almost everyone; Carrie is kind of a new widow adrift, but in her (unfortunately brief) role we’ve learned she’s a pretty tough cookie and we’re confident she’ll be okay. Carrie’s characterization is possibly the biggest complaint I had about that – director Budd Boetticher relegates her to eye candy in several shots, showing her in profile so as to emphasize her…physique. Boone and Whit both indulge in long lingering studies of her form. But – they keep their distance and keep their hands to themselves, fortunately, and usually a glare from Carrie is enough to make the boys back off and turn away.
The movie also never really forgets she is a recent widow – there is no scene where she falls into anyone’s arms asking for comfort or breaks down into a crying jag. She’s holding everyone at arms’ length – at one point she learns Brigade is a widower himself, and seems to recognize him as a kindred spirit rather than a potential new husband. She’s also not that interested in Boone or Whit either. And rather than being the helpless damsel in the film’s various chase scenes or shootouts, she’s joining in the fray with her own rifle and manages to take down a couple of the team’s attackers herself. Brigade also comes across as a stereotypical “taciturn lone gunman”, kind of like Shane – but unlike with Shane, you do learn his backstory, and you learn that his silence is strategic (if Boone or Whit don’t know about what his plan is, they can’t try to stop him, after all).
So it’s a Western which avoids a lot of the tropes I didn’t like, the characters all have motivations that make sense, and it’s a neat quick little story. I was pleasantly surprised.