Stranger On The Run Review

Optimum’s Western Classics line continues with this surprisingly good TV Western from the reliable Don Siegel.

Ben Chamberlain (Fonda), a mysterious itinerant, arrives in the town of Banner with a message for a local woman. When he asks after her, however, he is treated initially with suspicion and later with hostility from the thugs hired as lawmen by the railroad. Upon discovering the location of the woman, he discovers that she has been killed – and is immediately mistaken for the murderer. His only help comes from a local widow Mrs Johnson (Baxter) and a group of cowboys, the leader of which takes a shine to him and agrees to help.

Stranger On The Run had the working title of “Bad Day At Banner” and this is appropriate, given the similarity of the set-up to that of John Sturges’ brilliant 1955 western Bad Day At Black Rock. Indeed, a straight remake would have fitted in nicely with Don Siegel’s career during the mid-sixties, a period in which he remodelled The Killers and Ride A Pink Horse – and been involved in scripting an abortive remake of Crime Without Passion for John Cassavetes. However, the differences to Sturges’ film far outweigh the similarities – Ben Chamberlain is a hobo with few specialist fighting skills, the townspeople are considerably friendlier (for the most part) and the crime in question is compounded while Ben is on the scene. The overwhelming stench of the sins of the past which is all over Bad Day At Black Rock is considerably diluted here and the racism which is endemic to the earlier film isn’t an issue. Indeed, the West of the movie is multiracial and remarkably tolerant considering the film takes place in 1885.

What makes the film particularly interesting is the portrait of a small railroad town at the end of the Nineteenth Century. The railroad companies depended on small towns along their routes and, to keep their interests flourishing, installed their own sheriffs to keep law and order. Most of these men were young, malleable and inexperienced and it was their task to build up a group of deputies to help them. Trouble was frowned upon by the companies with court cases in particular bringing bad publicity. The deputies tended to be a mixture of eager wannabe lawmen, natural thugs who wanted an excuse to use a gun and veterans who had nothing else to do. Lawbreaking was dealt with harshly and vigilante activity, particularly lynching, was accepted as normal and sometimes encouraged. The film portrays this accurately and with particular intelligence in the character of Vince McKay (Parks), the railroad lawman who’s forced into moral compromise through the twin demands of doing the right thing and ensuring that any trouble is kept out of the public eye. He’s shackled by this requirement and by the need to keep his deputies out of trouble – eventually agreeing to a manhunt of dubious legality simply to keep them on side.

Don Siegel could direct this sort of thing with his eyes shut and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t, making what might have been, in other hands, a standard TV western both pacy and exciting. He’s helped enormously by the location shooting. The film was largely made on location in the Conejo Valley and it looks totally convincing as a result – this kind of verisimilitude is unusual for a Universal TV movie and would become even rarer during the following decade. Siegel was on his way to bigger and better things – Universal seemed to realise that he was too good for TV films – and his talent is all over this movie. Dean Reisner’s carefully structured screenplay ensures that every part of the narrative falls into place and we’re kept hanging on for the reasonably unpredictable final revelations. Reisner and Siegel also get away with a number of moments which are grittier than the normal TV fare, notably the distinct suggestion of a gang rape and some unusually rough gunfights.

The casting is particularly noteworthy as a combination of old and new. Henry Fonda is exceptionally good in the leading role and subtle enough to make us wonder whether his transition into an unshaven hobo is indicative of violence and maybe even villainy in his past. Naturally, he turns out to be a good guy – this being a year before Once Upon A Time In The West and some years since Warlock – but he’s not an uncomplicated one. Fonda works very well with Anne Baxter, a familiar TV face in the 1960s, and he develops a dry and funny rapport with Bernie Hamilton as the black cowboy who decides to help him. As the railroad representatives, Tom Reese and Sal Mineo are perfectly serviceable, although Mineo looks so weedy it’s hard to believe he’s meant to be a man with a fearsome reputation. In the tricky role of their father figure, and the most reflective ma in the place, Dan Duryea comes up trumps. This was one of his last films before he died in 1968 and he comes across as the nostalgic and slightly sad old-timer who’s seen it all too many times before. Duryea remains one of my favourite actors and he’s near his best here – although for his real last hurrah you have to get hold of the 1965 Western The Bounty Killer.

The only real weak link in the film is Michael Parks whose portrayal of McKay ignores the subtleties of the character in favour of a mumbling faux-method performance which is often inaudible and always ludicrous. Quite apart from anything else he’s saddled himself with a droopy moustache which does nothing for either him or the character. Siegel realised this and tried in vain to get him to part with the facial hair but to no avail – this refusal to compromise was symptomatic of Parks’ behaviour on set, an attitude which extended to the ending of the screenplay which he demanded be changed. The finished product doesn’t suffer too much, although the character of McKay is somewhat weakened by a somewhat surprising change of heart at the last minute. Luckily, Siegel is a real director and Fonda is a real star and, between them, they produce something which towers above the average TV Western product to become surprisingly memorable.

The Disc

For once, Optimum’s “Western Classics” label comes up with something which is inarguably a Western even if it’s not necessarily a classic, despite undoubted good points.

The film was shot for television and is consequently correctly presented at a fullscreen ratio of 1.33:1. The transfer is excellent throughout, give or take a bit of print damage, and the colours are particularly noteworthy. It’s not a visually distinguished film but the location shooting comes across very well. The mono soundtrack is absolutely fine throughout, perhaps a bit too fine when it comes to the nauseating title song.

There are no extra features and once again, regrettably, there are no subtitles.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Feb 19, 2009

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