Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Man in the Shadow (1957)

My notes on Man in the Shadow (1957)

‘You want to get to town alive, get movin’.  You want to get there dead, keep talkin’.’


This was the movie Orson Welles acted in for producer Albert Zugsmith which led to the auteur landing his last American directing gig on Touch of Evil.  Welles was originally set just to play the villain in Touch, but when Zugsmith approached Charlton Heston for the lead, the star said he’d be more interested if Welles directed (a noble gesture, since Welles ended up stealing the film).  If a reliable Universal-International contract hand like Jack Arnold had directed it, Touch of Evil might well have turned out as unambitiously solid a programmer as Man in the Shadow.  Like Touch, it has a racial angle – hardly unprecedented in the 1950s, especially after Bad Day at Black Rock – but it’s basically a modern-dress High Noon with a side order of Enemy of the People.

Sheriff Ben Sadler (Jeff Chandler) insists on investigating a report that a ‘wetback’ bracero has been beaten to death on the Golden Empire, the ranch of cattle baron Virge Renchler (Welles), though the town fathers discourage anything that might persuade the big man to take his business elsewhere.  Oddly, Welles is an unflamboyant baddie, tremulous in his ill-doing (twice he tells underlings only to rough up victims and whines a bit when they commit or attempt murder).  There are sharper portraits of rottenness from the bigoted top-hands (John Larch, Leo Gordon), not to mention the squirming town officials who try to wheedle the hero around to dropping the matter even when the initial witness to murder (Martin Garralaga) turns up shot dead.  ‘There isn’t a yard of guts in this whole town,’ Sadler snarls, ‘this isn’t a town, it’s a trained dog act.’

A weak sub-plot deals with the motive, which is that Virge’s wilful, britches-wearing daughter Skippy (the beautiful but bland Colleen Miller) was sweet on the deceased, but the sex stuff is low-wattage for Zugsmith (producer of those steamy Douglas Sirk melodramas as well as Sex Kittens Go to College and High School Confidential!).  Barbara Lawrence nags as the Sheriff’s late-introduced wife who also goes along with the town’s attitudes.  Chandler carries the film with unstressed integrity and does the full Gary Cooper bit, suffering as he is repeatedly battered and even dragged around the town square from the back of a pick-up truck while Gordon whoops it up and shoots out windows.  Then, the Sheriff delivers a speech to the appalled townsfolk indicting them for being more upset by the abuse of a white man than the murders of Mexicans and does the old favourite badge-tossing bit before going for a final confrontation with Renchler, who sets an attack dog on him.

In a slightly happier ending than usual in this cycle, the townsfolk finally rally round and stand by the Sheriff, but the economic questions of what they’ll do without the cattle business are ignored by the happy finish.  With Royal Dano as poor white trash with decency, Mort Mills (of Touch of Evil and Psycho) as a grinning gatekeeper, Mario Siletti as an Italian stereotype barber who compares Renchler to Mussolini (a role Welles surprisingly missed playing), William Schallert, Paul Fix and James Gleason. The opening credits, complete with onscreen shots of the stars, big up little-known Ben Alexander, playing a drunk deputy who’s in the baddies’ pocket, suggesting that a more prominent character actor must have dropped out.  Written by Gene L. Coon, later of Star Trek fame.


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