The Halliday Brand (MGM LE Collection) Review
If there were no guns, horses or wide open spaces involved, The Halliday Brand might just be a bitter family drama. The addition of those things, along with the simmering racial tension that attaches with the presence of Indians, makes Joseph H. Lewis' 1957 film a western, and a damn good one at that. The picture reminds us of how versatile and expansive the western genre could be. It needed only a setting rather than more specifically defined aspects of plot or mood. The Halliday Brand came near the height of the genre's popularity, on both television and in cinemas, but it rather bravely adheres to few of the usual expectations. Action is kept to a minimum, despite the threat or even the aftereffects of such simmering throughout, and law-abiding heroes are hard to find. Also, the film is lean, clocking in at 79 minutes, and was almost certainly made on a modest budget, a familiar handicap for Lewis. These things prove to matter little, as the narrative plays out at its own pace and in a brilliantly stylized manner when appropriate.
Joseph Cotten as Dan Halliday seems like the film's protagonist. He's not shown for a long stretch of time and even engages in vengeful crimes including arson, but this is nonetheless clearly our good guy for purposes of emotional attachment. Indeed, the clear avoidance by the film to actually show him doing some of his more objectionable acts is a good way of retaining sympathy for the character. We root for Dan because his father, played by Ward Bond, is a bigoted, deeply flawed man of power who cannot get past his son's rejection. Dan doesn't want to inherit his father's sheriff's badge. He recognizes it as an unclean emblem of singular justice, where the old man who's built up the town finds it okay to implement the law as he sees fit. He wants nothing to do with that, or the titular symbol of his father's ways. In flashback, the breaking point comes when Dan's sister (Betsy Blair) has her lover and would-be husband, a half breed who works for the Hallidays, involuntarily separated from her because of the father's beliefs. The fallout from this bleeds into the entirety of the film.
The Halliday Brand actually begins with Dan's brother Clay (Bill Williams) confronting him at a campfire. We're told it's been six months and their father is dying. The significance is somewhat lost because the entire detailing of Bond's patriarch comes as Dan is supposedly remembering, just prior to entering his father's bedroom. It's a weird, not entirely successful framing device, but it does get its point across to some extent. Watching the rift among the family escalate, you always have those opening scenes in the back of your mind. The character Bond plays really never fails to live up to increasingly unflattering expectations. He's an utter prick. The performance is so good that the viewer always half-expects some redemption, only for it to never materialize.
It's nice of the film to make an implicit statement about Indians in its demonizing of Bond's bigotry, which actually flares up as a reaction to half-breeds. Viveca Lindfors plays the woman coveted by both Halliday brothers but her character remains a little underdeveloped, a potential victim of that short running time. Westerns by this point were a little more forgiving and sympathetic to Native Americans rather than always painting them as outright villains absent any motivation. The pre-death visual eulogy Lewis gives Jivaro (Christopher Dark) is the most striking series of compositions in a film that makes almost flawless use of them. You could perhaps even attach more serious-minded ideals and intentions behind some of the themes laid out in the movie. In depicting a stubborn, resolute patriarch who declares at one point that those not with him are against him, The Halliday Brand hits deeply and directly on allegorical matters of political despotism. It's intentions are, nonetheless, probably more contained inside the given frame.
Shake off those pinkish concerns and there remains plenty of red meat to dispense, which I suspect will be the tipping point for many. Lewis, director of stylishly off-kilter films like Gun Crazy, The Big Combo, and Terror in a Texas Town, was great at manufacturing entertainment from the tension in his movies. Here, Cotten's Dan becomes a semi-hidden foe for his father. His actions are often spiteful and fraught with vengeance. The film almost downplays this despite Dan giving way to his basest, most violent desires as a means of evening the score with his father. In general, Cotten doesn't lend himself to being an archetypal western hero and perhaps this is another reason why Dan's actions are seen mostly after the fact. Regardless, the relationship established between the father and son is epic in its dysfunction and never in need of explicit illustration. Add the half-breed love interests for all three of the Halliday children and we're dipping pretty heavily into tragedy. Part of what makes The Halliday Brand stand out so boldly is its terse adapting of major themes into a well-structured, gripping film. Watching it, you perhaps feel like even more is present than gets explored. The film is deep with substance, and equally full of tense familial clashes.
Despite being made-on-demand and contained on a single-layered DVD-R (or whatever this form of recordable media is considered), the film has a nice, silvery sheen to it that translates well digitally. The major complaint is that it can look overly bright at times, particularly when looking at faces in the distance. It's softer than would be ideal too. Also, the aspect ratio for this 1957 film is around 1.33:1, indicating it's likely an open matte presentation. There are no obvious distractions on this front, with the framing looking fine in Academy ratio, but it always raises a tiny red flag. The progressive transfer exhibits only a bit of damage while generally appearing to have been cleaned up well.
Audio uses a standard English mono mix spread across the left and right front channels. Dialogue escapes without incident. The volume remains consistent during the picture, and no indication of hiss or distracting pops and crackle were heard. Subtitles are, as is frustratingly standard for burned discs, not offered.
There are also no extra features.