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Largely overlooked until recent years, the body of work of director Delmer Daves is finding a new level of appreciation, due in no large part to the thoughtful contributions that he made to the adult Western genre during the '50s. Daves began a colorful Hollywood apprenticeship in the late '20s as a prop man and bit actor before finding his niche as a screenwriter and assistant director. Before making his way to Los Angeles, however, he spent some time in the Hopi and Navajo reservations of the Southwest, and his experiences there would serve him well from the time of his first Western assignment as a director, Broken Arrow (1950), nominated for three Oscars®. Other western staples served by his touch include 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Cowboy (1958), and the effective remake of The Asphalt Jungle (1950) in a sagebrush setting, The Badlanders (1958).
The narrative opens at a prison camp in Yuma in 1898, where the authorities have just discharged Peter "Dutchman" Van Hoek (Alan Ladd) and John McBain (Ernest Borgnine) from their respective stretches. The Dutchman wants to recruit the roughneck McBain to aid in a vengeful sting. Their stage lets them off in the town of Prescott, home to a mine owned by Cyril Lounsbery (Kent Smith). The shady Lounsbery has some history with Van Hoek; the Dutchman went to jail after being railroaded on false charges once he asserted his own stake in the mine.
After sneaking into the mine to steal an ore sample, the Dutchman arranges a meeting with Lounsbery, contending that he has discovered a new gold vein and promising his old foe a $100,000 return on a $10,000 investment to finance the dig. Lounsbery agrees, presumably unsuspecting that Van Hoek intends to take his resources to plunder his own mine. As he lays out his scheme, the Dutchman also insinuates himself into the life of Lounsbery's mistress Ada Winton (Claire Kelly). McBain finally buys into the plan, hoping that his cut will finance a retired life alongside Anita (Katy Jurado), the Mexican woman he rescued from a gang of roughnecks.
Instrumental in the planned heist is the Dutchman's old amigo Vincente (Nehemiah Persoff), the "powder monkey" whose expertise with explosives is critical for the scheme to work; Van Hoek's intent is to coordinate their blasts with those set off in the course of the mine's normal operations.
Ladd was at the stage of his career when he was in sore need of a box-office hit, and, unfortunately, The Badlanders didn't provide one. "MGM, aware of another spate of Westerns that would be crowding the TV airwaves in the fall and winter of 1958, did not even try for prestigious bookings for The Badlanders," Beverly Linet wrote in Ladd: The Life, the Legend, the Legacy of Alan Ladd. "Instead the film was given a saturation release in neighborhoods before the TV season officially started. For Alan Ladd it was the greatest comedown in sixteen years." Borgnine, for his part, reaped some personal benefit for his involvement with the project, as it led to his five-year marriage to Jurado.
Producer: Aaron Rosenberg
Director: Delmer Daves
Screenplay: W.R. Burnett (novel), Richard Collins
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Film Editing: James Baiotto, William Webb
Art Direction: Daniel B. Cathcart, William A. Horning
Music: Joseph Cacciola, Louis De Francesco, Harry Philip Green, Alexander Laszlo
Cast: Alan Ladd (Peter Van Hoek), Ernest Borgnine (John McBain), Katy Jurado (Anita), Claire Kelly (Ada Winton), Kent Smith (Cyril Lounsbery).
C-84m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg