powered by AFI
By the mid-1950s, both Edward G. Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck had logged two full decades as major Hollywood stars, and in that time span, their careers had intersected only tangentially. While their shared billing in Billy Wilder's film noir classic Double Indemnity (1944) comes quickly to mind, they put in perhaps ten seconds of shared screen time therein. Their previous mutual credit resulted from being cast in separate segments of the anthology Flesh and Fantasy (1943). They finally got an opportunity to interact, and to good effect, in The Violent Men (1955), an expansive Cinemascope oater distinguished by its high production values and Shakespearean overtones.
As derived from the Donald Hamilton novel Rough Company, the narrative concerns Lee Wilkison (Robinson), a lame and embittered cattle baron with nothing in his existence to drive him except expunging the region's smaller ranchers and claiming the entire valley for his own. Spurring him on is his grasping spouse Martha (Stanwyck), a calculating harridan who manages to make time between her scheming for covert dalliances with Lee's unctuous brother Cole (Brian Keith), chief bully amongst the spread's cowhands. Whether Lee is willfully ignorant of the affair or not, it hasn't been lost upon his daughter Judith (Dianne Foster), who can't disguise her contempt from her mother.
While many of the local homesteaders have caved under the threat of the Wilkisons, retired army officer John Parrish (Glenn Ford) has taken a stand of passive resistance. Having had a lifetime's fill of violence on the battlefields of the Civil War, Parrish turns the other cheek to Wilkison's insinuations, at the cost of the faith of his fiancee Caroline (May Wynn). However, everything changes once hired thug Wade Matlock (Richard Jaeckel) guns down Parrish's unassuming ranch hand Bud (William Phipps). Drawing on his old skills as a tactician, Parrish embarks on a vengeful guerrilla assault, taking the conflict back to the Wilkisons and their hirelings, culminating in a dramatic blaze at the land baron's hacienda from which a select few of the players will walk away.
The helm on the The Violent Men was taken by Rudolph Mate, whose directing career yielded a few gems like D.O.A. (1950) and When Worlds Collide (1951). These efforts have always paled in regard to his distinguished reputation as a cinematographer, with classic efforts like Stanwyck's Stella Dallas (1937) to his credit. Visual composition, unsurprisingly, was Mate's biggest strength as a director, and The Violent Men has its share of striking imagery. The film also benefits from a particularly stirring score penned by Max Steiner.
Robinson himself had little to say about The Violent Men, except to remark that it signaled the beginning of his transition from leading actor to supporting roles, an inevitable rite of passage for aging actors. Nevertheless, he and Stanwyck brought professionalism and gravity to their unsavory roles--described by the New York Herald-Tribune as "Little Caesar in buckskin" and "Lady Macbeth of the plains"--and wound up rendering a first rate entertainment.
Producer: Lewis J. Rachmil
Director: Rudolph Mate
Screenplay: Donald Hamilton (novel), Harry Kleiner
Cinematography: W. Howard Greene, Burnett Guffey
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Art Direction: Carl Anderson
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Glenn Ford (John Parrish), Barbara Stanwyck (Martha Wilkison), Edward G. Robinson (Lee Wilkison), Dianne Foster (Judith Wilkison), Brian Keith (Cole Wilkison), May Wynn (Caroline Vail).
by Jay S. Steinberg