Western RoundUp: The Violent Men (1955)
Forty Guns was an outstanding Western directed by Samuel Fuller, with Barbara Stanwyck leading a top cast. Finally catching up with that film has now prompted me to also watch The Violent Men (1955), another Stanwyck Western with an impressive cast.
While I classed Forty Guns as a top-of-the-line Western, I rank The Violent Men somewhere lower; I found it solid and quite entertaining yet somewhat disjointed. Sometimes I felt that the pieces were better than the whole.
Glenn Ford plays John Parrish, a Civil War veteran who’s been living in the West for a few years to aid his recovery from a lung injury.
When the town doctor (Raymond Greenleaf) gives John a clean bill of health, John plans to sell his spread and move east with his fiancee, Caroline Vail (May Wynn).
Lew Wilkinson (Edward G. Robinson), the crippled but powerful owner of the massive Anchor Ranch, essentially orders John to sell his ranch to him for a low price and gives him 24 hours to respond, with the implication John won’t like the outcome if he refuses. Pressured by his fiancee, who’s desperate to leave town, John initially intends to agree, and then one of his hands is murdered by Anchor Ranch thugs. That changes everything.
John prevents his own ranch hands from retaliating in order to protect them, then sets out to deal with the situation on his own. When John confronts the man (Richard Jaeckel) responsible for the murder and he refuses to turn himself in, John ends up killing him in self-defense.
Lew’s brother Cole (Brian Keith) and wife Martha (Stanwyck), who are secretly having an affair and want to take control of Lew’s empire, escalate the warfare, including burning down John’s ranch. John, however, has a good understanding of tactics due to his military background and gives the Wilkinsons a much tougher battle than they expect.
When the Wilkinsons’ own ranchhouse is burned down, the coldly calculating Martha leaves the struggling Lew to die in the fire instead of helping him escape the house. She believes she and Cole will take over the ranch and rebuild it bigger than ever, but surprises are in store.
There’s a lot of good stuff in this film, a Shakespearean-style tragedy which reminded me a bit of Broken Lance (1954). The cast, down to supporting players like Jaeckel, Basil Ruysdael, Jack Kelly, and James Westerfield, is absolutely top-notch.
Stanwyck doesn’t enter the film until around the half-hour mark, but as ever, she’s one of the main reasons to watch. Initially it appears butter wouldn’t melt in Martha’s mouth, as she seems to be Lew’s concerned, caring wife; she only wants Cole there to lighten Lew’s load, given that Lew can barely walk with crutches. But why won’t her daughter Judith (Dianne Foster) talk to her?
Gradually Martha’s malevolent, grasping side becomes clear, as we learn that Judith is disgusted by the fact her mother and uncle are having an affair behind her father’s back. Judith feels trapped and uncertain what to do, given that she doesn’t want to hurt her father with the news. Judith sees John as someone who might help by taking on the fight against Martha and Cole.
It’s interesting to compare Stanwyck’s Martha to her character in the later Forty Guns. In The Violent Men Martha seeks power by manipulating men to do her bidding and provide her with the huge ranch of her dreams, whereas in Forty Guns Stanwyck’s character has more agency, being personally powerful; in that film, unlike Martha, she ultimately shows she has a conscience.
Like Martha, Cole is of extremely low character; not only is he one of the brutal “violent men” of the title and carrying on an affair with his sister-in-law, he’s also having a fling with Elena (Lita Milan), a girl in town.
Like Stanwyck, Keith completely embraces the evil; my job dropped in the scene when, believing Martha will make him rich, he rejects the loyal, loving Elena and flings her to the ground in the middle of the street. It’s a shocking moment with significant consequences.
This is one of a couple strong Western performances by Keith in the late ’50s; he was also in the excellent Clint Walker–Virginia Mayo Western Fort Dobbs (1958), a film I enthusiastically recommend. Milan is touching as the woman who (somewhat inexplicably) loves Cole. The actress would later make an impression in a larger role as Anthony Quinn‘s equally loyal girlfriend in the Western The Ride Back (1957), a film which deserves to be more widely known.
Ford and Robinson are likewise very solid as well. Ford is right on target as someone who would rather be a “peaceable man,” but when pushed he will always do the right thing, particularly in defense of others. Robinson is interesting as the ostensible villain of the piece who turns out to be more misguided and pathetic than villainous; those honors go to Stanwyck and Keith’s characters.
Other strong points are the cinematography, largely filmed on location in Lone Pine by W. Howard Greene and Burnett Guffey, and a score by Max Steiner.
The film’s flaws are due more to the screenplay, written by Harry Kleiner from a novel by Donald Hamilton, and the direction by cinematographer-turned-director Rudolph Mate.
The script is crammed with characters, and the story, told in 96 minutes, could have been tighter. For instance, there’s really not much point to the character of John’s fiancee Caroline, who apparently has been using John more as a way out of town than truly loving him; when he refuses to leave, she gives him back his ring and she completely disappears from the film.
John already had reason enough to leave town after regaining his health, and the added pressure from a whiny woman doesn’t add a whole lot. Caroline’s complete disappearance has a bit of a feel of “What was that even all about?” wondering why we’ve invested any time in her character.
At the same time, John and Judith’s relationship is underdeveloped, so that the last lines of the film are almost — but not quite — a surprise. Any screen time invested in Caroline should have instead been spent developing Foster’s Judith, who could have used fleshing out, and her relationships with each character, especially John.
Without being too spoilerish, I also felt director Mate could have done much more with the buildup and reveal of a couple of twists in the final action sequence, which instead of being exciting have an almost perfunctory feel. There are some great ideas to utilize in this scene, and the director almost throws them away with “blink and you miss it” moments.
Mate directed other films I love, notably Tyrone Power‘s The Mississippi Gambler (1953), and he does a great job staging the Ford-Jaeckel showdown midway through this movie, but his work here is inconsistent.
A couple fun odds and ends regarding the cast: This was the second Western in which May Wynn and future Maverick TV star Jack Kelly appeared; they had also played supporting roles in They Rode West (1954). They would marry in October 1956 and remain married for eight years.
Dianne Foster, whose additional Westerns included The Kentuckian (1955) and Night Passage (1957), retired from films and television in 1966. She had married a dentist, Dr. Harold Rowe, in 1961, and they remained married until his passing in 1994. Imagine my surprise a few years ago when I was reading an article about Foster and it suddenly dawned on me that the oral surgeon who had removed all my children’s wisdom teeth was her son, who followed his father into dentistry.
While visiting Lone Pine last June I had the opportunity to visit the location of Robinson and Stanwyck’s Anchor Ranch on Moffat Ranch Road. Budd Boetticher’s Randolph Scott film Comanche Station (1960) filmed scenes in the same area.
Our location guide told me that Stanwyck’s final scene was shot here:
Somewhat confusingly, there is a real Anchor Ranch south of Lone Pine, on Highway 395, which predates the film and was often used as a movie location. For the history of Anchor Ranch and filming in Lone Pine, please visit my Western RoundUp column from September 2018.
After the filming of The Violent Men concluded, the anchor seen at the ranch entrance in the film was moved to the entrance of the actual Anchor Ranch; today a replica anchor hangs there, which has caused some visitors — including myself, at one point! — to erroneously believe it’s the ranch location used in the movie.
Here’s a look at the real Anchor Ranch entrance and the replica anchor today:
I hope to dig deeper into the locations for The Violent Men when I’m in town again for the Lone Pine Film Festival in October 2022.
In summary, I rank The Violent Men as a good, interesting film, though a tighter script and more thoughtful staging would have elevated it from simply “good” to “outstanding.”
Despite the flaws, it’s well worth taking the time to watch. It’s available on DVD from Sony/Columbia. It had a VHS release and is currently available to rent for streaming. I hope that at some point it will also be out on Blu-ray.
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.