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Besides having a flavorful script that plays fast and loose with the facts concerning notorious figures in the lore of the American West, the Technicolor RKO oater Best of the Badmen (1951) also boasts a once-in-a-lifetime array of character players assigned to step into those roles. Add compelling performances in the lead roles from Robert Ryan and Claire Trevor, and the end result is a highly enjoyable sagebrush saga.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Union officer Jeff Clanton (Ryan) has the dicey responsibility of shepherding a collection of the most dangerous bushwhackers that had ever ridden with Quantrill's Raiders. Among the names destined for future notoriety were those of Frank and Jesse James (Tom Tyler, Lawrence Tierney), Cole and Bob Younger (Bruce Cabot, Jack Beutel), and the Ringo Kid (John Archer). Clanton has offered the rousted renegades amnesty in exchange for a loyalty oath and the hanging up of their guns.
While the rebels are amenable, Clanton's overture galls the zealous federal agent Matthew Fowler (Robert Preston), who'd much rather slaughter them and collect the considerable bounties on their heads. When Clanton uncovers Fowler's intention, the duplicitous detective frames him on a murder rap. The scheming so sickens Fowler's estranged wife Lily (Trevor) that she engineers Clanton's escape from the lock-up. Now riding with his former charges as a fellow outlaw, Clanton leads the pack on attacks on banks and trains under Fowler's protection, all to flush him out for a final confrontation.
Though his distinguished career was marked by many noteworthy sagebrush stories like The Naked Spur (1953), Hour of the Gun (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969), the iconoclastic ex-boxer Ryan bore a private distaste for the genre. It never showed up in his work, however, and his rugged presence provided a more than serviceable fulcrum for Best of the Badmen. Trevor got the chance to provide a slightly softer edge unlike the tough cookies she so often played in film noirs. The cast also benefits from Walter Brennan as a renegade-sympathizer horse doctor, and Barton MacLane as Fowler's flunky.
In his analysis Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film (University of Illinois Press), John H. Lenihan deemed the film unique because its "alienated outlaw figures are neither killed nor totally won over to the ways of social respectability...[Clanton] intends to turn himself in, but at the end of the film offers his best wishes to two of his less scrupulous comrades, one of whom says he will prospect for gold in California and other that there is also gold a lot closer, at the Denver Mint."
Producer: Samuel Bischoff, Herman Schlom
Director: William D. Russell
Screenplay: Robert Hardy Andrews, John Twist
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Film Editing: Desmond Marquette
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Robert Ryan (Jeff Clanton), Claire Trevor (Lily), Jack Beutel (Bob Younger), Robert Preston (Matthew Fowler), Walter Brennan (Doc Butcher), Bruce Cabot (Cole Younger).
by Jay S. Steinberg