Terror in a Texas Town Review

Reportedly shot in just ten days, Joseph H. Lewis' final feature film, the western Terror in a Texas Town, continues now fifty years after its release to fly comfortably under the radar, waiting to be discovered by one pleasantly enthralled cinephile after another. The picture is offbeat in the best possible way and, best of all, played totally straight. There's no camp in this oddity. There is, however, a whaling harpoon. The semi-infamous weapon of choice for the Swedish Hansen family may not seem to fit western traditions, but there are few images more threatening than a formidable Sterling Hayden lunging the harpoon into another man's chest. Lewis even has the guts to tease his finale right at the beginning as the film opens with Hayden, harpoon in hand, staring down a man dressed from head to toe in black.

Who in their right mind wouldn't want to see how such a scenario ends up? A voiceover from the man in black, still faceless at this point, segues into a rear view of the same man sitting at a chair in a hotel. As we learn, his name is Johnny Crale (Ned Young) and he's a hired gun now forced to shoot with his left hand after losing the other in an accident. He wears black gloves to conceal the metal prosthetic where his right fist had been. Crale is in town to do some business for the rotund businessman McNeil (Sebastian Cabot). When not stuffing his face with shrimp flown in especially for him, McNeil is trying to take back pieces of land where oil has been discovered. One of these is a farm occupied by the elder Hansen, who believes he owns the property and doesn't realise he purchased it from a squatter. Walking death sentence Crale doesn't give Hansen a fighting chance to use his harpoon, gunning him down when he refuses to sign over the land.

Enter Hayden doing his best Max von Sydow and not really attempting a Swedish accent so much as altering his inflection and rate of speech. (It's close to Walken-speak in its need for imitation.) Hayden gets off the train intending to visit his father, not knowing he's been killed. Several scenes later we're back at the harpoon vs. pistol showdown. The film is quite short at just 80 minutes before PAL speed-up, but the opening brilliance and strange atmosphere established after that do turn more in the direction of mediocrity before picking back up at the end. The flashy bravura Lewis often brought to his small-budget films initially seems to be in full force. The angles and framing in that first scene hint at the director's playfulness, as do some strange close-ups early on. Cinematographer Ray Rennahan (winner of a pair of Oscars, including a shared one for Gone With the Wind) keeps the shots always interesting, but a bit closer to conventions of the era than the promise of the first few minutes.

An inescapable aspect of Terror in a Texas Town is its close connection to Hollywood's blacklist and HUAC. Hayden was an informer who later repented as loudly as he could. Ned Young was sometimes an actor but also a highly successful screenwriter who had been blacklisted. He wrote the low-level noir master work Decoy under his own name, but had to resort to pseudonyms for his screenplay of Inherit the Wind and his Oscar-winning story for The Defiant Ones. As an actor, Young bears a resemblance to a poor man's Bogart, but his character in this film is twisted into a fascinating spiral when he witnesses a man unafraid to die. Like the assassins in The Killers, Young's Johnny Crale is nearly crippled by trying to understand how a man could die so honourably and without any sense of fear. The idea of forcing responsibility through evildoing comes into play in Crale's reaction. This particular victim faces down death and refuses to let his murderer win. The analogy to the blacklist isn't a difficult one to make, and the actual writer of Terror in a Texas Town was, years later, revealed to have been Dalton Trumbo, noted blacklistee and member of the Hollywood Ten.

The threads are thus here and actively in pursuit of...something. And I'll happily go out on a limb and declare Terror in a Texas Town a shining example of...something. To fully embrace that blacklist and Johnny Crale analogy, one would have to equate our man of black death with HUAC, but Crale is actually an interesting character. His role as an old west hitman involves repressing any motivation and merely doing this job of killing others for money. What's fascinating is the total meltdown he seems to have at the idea that his gift of death could no longer be feared. It really seems to eat away at him, turning such a fearsome and cold man into a neurotic headcase. Much of this is certainly implied since it's only a couple of scenes, but the change of character is undoubtedly swift and important. By the time that dusty street duel takes place, Crale is vulnerable both physically and psychologically. Like in Lewis' exceptional noir The Big Combo, where Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman display a touching relationship between a couple of bad guys, it's the lower-billed villain who's the most intriguing character of the film. Hayden is fine and should get you in the door with his wonderfully off-kilter performance, but Young's Crale remains an enigma shrouded in black.

The Disc

Terror in a Texas Town has previously been released in R1 by MGM and now hits R2 from Optimum. The PAL disc looks to be about the same or identical in terms of the transfer. It's presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen televisions, and the transfer is progressive. A constant infusion of grain, noise and white specks hinder the image. It's passable, but doesn't seem touched up to any positive degree. The white sky looks especially noisy. Sharpness is likewise okay, though not impressive. Contrast and detail aren't likely to win over anyone either, but viewers willing to get lost in the film will probably be fine. Frankly, I feel like this should look better than it does, though it's not bad enough to really deflate one's enjoyment.

The mono audio is given a two-channel English Dolby Digital track. No real problems here. Volume levels are a little weak and not always consistent, but dialogue is easily understood. The confrontational score also presents no issues. I didn't hear any hiss or pop in the track. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles at all included and such an omission always warrants a strong complaint. There's no real excuse in putting out a DVD that lacks subtitles.

The only extra in this budget release is a trailer (1:49).

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