Western Union Review
When Western Union was released in 1941 Fritz Lang had been making films in the U.S. for five years. It was the German director’s second Western following sequel The Return of Frank James and one which demonstrates the keen, observant eye of the outsider looking in at an alien culture. Ostensibly the story of the construction of America’s first trans-continental telegraph line, Lang seems more concerned with recreating the milieu of the mid-nineteenth century west and takes his time to explore its various facets. Indeed, in offering three lead roles - to Randolph Scott, Robert Young and Dean Jagger - Western Union requires plenty of exposition thereby giving him plenty of space in which to do just this. And whereas a lesser director would no doubt stumble over so much setting up, Lang seems perfectly relaxed and favours an instinctive approach, allowing the actors to slowly grow into their roles (meaning we get individual characters as opposed to stock types) and finds the humour and detail inherent in their situations. The result is that we are lured into the film gradually, slowly able to gain our bearings before the plot kicks in.
Much like John Ford’s The Iron Horse, which focused on the building of America’s first trans-continental railway line, the bigger story houses a number of smaller narratives. In the case of Western Union ex-bank robber Scott is integral to both: on the one hand, there’s his friendly rivalry with “tenderfoot” Young (which naturally involves a woman in the form of Virginia Gilmore); on the other, his relationship with his corrupt outlaw brother (Barton MacLane) who’s profiteering from the Civil War. But then, Western Union is also, in a way, a road movie and so as the leads traverse the prairies and plains, we are treated to encounters with drunken Indians, cattle rustlers and the comic pairing of Slim Summerville and Chill Wills. These latter elements are engaging to a degree but demonstrate a lack of momentum that leads the film’s mid-section into a kind of dramatic limbo where events are happening but to little overall effect. The script remains snappy (aurally Western Union is extremely zesty courtesy of Robert Carson’s dialogue and David Buttolph’s score), but is sorely missing any drive.
Thankfully, the pace picks up in the final third, beginning with one of the great reveals is cinematic history (which I won’t spoil but demonstrates that Lang was as technically assured during his American years as he was at the time of Metropolis, say, or Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler). At this point, Western Union seemingly remembers where it was going with Lang complementing the easy nature of the early stages with a nimble, emphatic conclusion. As with the rest of the film, these final moments trade on a number of familiar Western tropes, but in such a way and with such a sense of assuredness that they never seem tired. This may mean that Western Union lacks the adventurousness of Lang’s later Rancho Notorious (his third and final Western made a decade later), which perhaps also means that it is less characteristic of its director, yet it’s still a film that offers plenty of pleasures and easily survives its mid-point lull.
An early Technicolor Western, Western Union sadly doesn’t look too great on disc. Where the colour should be spry and expressive, it instead comes across as shadowy and dull. Indeed, the entire film looks as though it were shot at late evening even though the skies are visibly clear. That said, the picture remains largely clean and is given a technically fine transfer despite the print’s weaknesses. As for the sound, the original mono soundtrack is provided and is in better condition that the picture quality. It never truly impresses, yet remains audible throughout and offers no discernible problems. As for extras, Western Union follows the pattern of Optimum’s other Western releases inasmuch as it is completely lacking in supplementary material.