Terror in a Texas Town Review
Terror in a Texas Town is Joseph H. Lewis’s last film before he started working in TV for the rest of his career, which ended in 1966 at aged 59 (despite living for another 34 years), and it’s a shame when seeing what he could achieve with a movie filmed in ten days on a ridiculous budget, a situation well known to a filmmaker who mostly worked on B-movies throughout his career.
McNeil (Sebastian Cabot, The Time Machine) is a greedy hotel owner who wants to take control of Prairie City. Keen to drive the local farmers of their land, McNeil hires a gunman, Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young, who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay of Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones the same year), resulting in the death of a former whaler. The dead man’s son, George Hansen (Sterling Hayden, The Killing), arrives in town to inherit the farm and set the stage for revenge.
Lewis made a name for himself in the 1940s and 1950s working in another popular American cinematic genre, Film Noir, from which emerged a series of notable efforts (My Name Is Julia Ross, So Dark the Night, The Undercover Man, A Lady Without Passport) and two undisputed gems: Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. He then applied his relentless efficiency and distinct visual style to the Western genre on the underrated A Lawless Street, 7th Cavalry and The Halliday Brand, and which culminated in Terror in a Texas Town.
For his last foray into the genre, he used a script written by Young and completed by Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus), both of which were part of the famous blacklist drawn up by Senator McCarthy in the early 1950s to track down the communists present in Hollywood. Terror in a Texas Town lead Hayden also had issues with the House of Un-American Committee, and ended up naming names, the climate of anguish that irrigates the film could appear as a commentary on the United States of the 1950s when the population of a democracy was ready to abandon its ideals of freedom through fear and cowardice.
On the one hand, Lewis was not the kind of director that tried to impose his point-of-view. On the other, he managed to create a striking example of B-movie, something that few directors were capable of doing at the time, and puts him on the same level as an early Don Siegel (The Duel at Silver Creek) or Budd Boetticher (Seven Men from Now). That’s the great strength of Terror in a Texas Town; instead of pushing the analogy with his country or seeking to compensate the weakness of the means allocated to him, Lewis made it his ally by composing plans simultaneously stripped of decorative elements whilst being very well planned in terms of frame composition. He also used a contrasting black and white, something he learnt from his Film Noir years, which sometimes gives his film a feeling of German Expressionism, a creative movement that inspired the Film Noir genre. The cleverness of Lewis’ direction brings an undeniable supplement of soul, reinforcing the impact of a story, which despite being treated with implacable rigour, has already been seen a thousand times: the struggle of one man against an almighty local potentate.
Furthermore, Lewis manages to get the best out of his actors with an excellent Hayden, in the rather unfamiliar role of a Swedish fisherman - at the beginning of the movie he brings a touchingly candid bonhomie to his character with his accent and tone of voice - dedicated to simply get what he rightfully believes is his, and an impeccable Young in the role of a disillusioned gunman who manages to appear both tougher and more tortured as the movies progresses. Their interpretation greatly contributes to the indelible feeling of tense atmosphere which emanates from the strikingly captivating opening sequence during which a tracking shot follows Crale coming out of the salon and stops on his left hand ready to draw (there is no doubt that this shot had an influence on Sergio Leone’s genre defining Westerns) whilst his intimidating monotonous voice entices a palpably frustrated and angered Hansen to "come closer".
Terror in a Texas Town is released for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK by Arrow Academy on 3rd July.
The disc created by Arrow Academy offers a 1080p transfer, presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which looks extremely good overall with very nicely detailed close-ups (for instance during the fire scene at the beginning of the film). There is a fair amount of grain during some scenes in comparison to others, but it is never detrimental to the viewing, and it gives the transfer a more genuine feel.
On the sound side, Arrow Academy has included a very good linear PCM mono track with a good balance between voices, sounds and music, and no apparent defects. The disc offers optional English subtitles for the Hearing Impaired.
Arrow Academy has included three extras on this disc.
Introduction by Peter Stanfield (13 min, no subtitles) - This is an insightful introduction focussing on Lewis’ two other noticeable films, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo and putting them in perspective alongside Terror in a Texas Town. There is also an interesting comparison made to the work of Samuel Fuller (Forty Guns), Raoul Walsh (White Heat) and Jacques Tourneur (Cat People).
A visual analysis (14 min, no subtitles) - This is a short audio commentary on several key scenes of the film explaining how some of the images of the movie are framed with an emphasis on how they have no real meaning but to mark the visual style of Terror in a Texas Town .
Trailer (2 min, no subtitles) - The original trailer of the movie presented in standard definition .