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The final feature film from a major cult director - Joseph H. Lewis, Terror in a Texas Town (1958) is an imaginative low budget Western which casts Sterling Hayden as George Hansen, a Scandinavian whaler who returns home from the sea to find that his father, a farmer, was killed by hired gunslinger Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young). It seems that an enterprising businessman named McNeil (played by a seductively evil Sebastian Cabot) wants to buy up all the surrounding land and drill for oil. Crale is only part of McNeil's scheme which includes bullying the local farmers into selling their land. But Hansen isn't selling under any circumstances. As expected, the film ends in a showdown but we doubt you're seen one as weird as this - Hansen armed with his harpoon and Crale with his colt .45!
The premise, of big business trying to muscle in on small farmers and the thirst for the revenge that follows, is not particularly original. What makes this film unique is that it emphasizes style over content - and talk about style! Lewis takes the traditional Western with its natural, outdoor setting and transforms it into a dark saga about vengeance and death. The stark, black and white photography and the slow, fluid camera movements have more in common with film noir than the standard horse opera. Of course, there are some weak points; Sterling Hayden's Swedish accent comes and goes like the tide and some of the supporting performances, particularly the young actor who plays the Mexican boy, are almost embarassingly amateurish. But the kinetic editing and exaggerated compositions give the film a deep sense of brooding and menace that is unlike any other "B" Western.
Interestingly, Lewis was set to retire when his friend, the actor Nedrick Young, handed him the script for Terror in a Texas Town. Young had been blacklisted and this picture was his chance to get back into the business, along with the screenwriter for the film, Dalton Trumbo, one of the infamous "Hollywood Ten" who was blacklisted during the McCarthy-era witch hunts of the late forties and early fifties. Excited by the script, Lewis agreed to do it because he had nothing to fear from working with blacklisted artists as this was going to be his last film anyway. Short on money and time (he had to wrap the film up in ten days), Lewis had gained plenty of experience working on low-budget Westerns early in his career and understood the pressure of making a film quickly. By incorporating ten to twenty scenes into one shot and covering it in various angles and points-of-view, he pulled off the feat with tremendous aplomb.
Anyone with a passing interest in some of the more innovative B pictures of the fifties owe it to themselves to check out Terror in a Texas Town and some of Lewis's other work: My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), a terse little thriller about a case of mistaken identity, Gun Crazy (1949), a variation on the Bonnie and Clyde story told with gripping narrative skill, and the astonishing film noir thriller, The Big Combo (1955), which is as raw and edgy as any gangster thriller made that decade - all ingenious efforts that prove Lewis was one of the great low-budget stylists of his era.
Producer: Frank N. Seltzer
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay: Ben Perry (a front for Dalton Trumbo)
Art Direction: William Ferrari
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Film Editing: Stefan Arnsten, Frank Sullivan
Original Music: Gerald Fried
Cast: Sterling Hayden (George Hansen), Sebastian Cabot (McNeil), Carol Kelly (Molly), Eugene Martin (Pepe), Nedrick Young (Crale).
By Michael T. Toole