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Once a popular Hollywood leading man in everything from westerns and war films to musicals, melodramas and comedies, Randolph Scott had grown too old for romantic leads by the 1950s so he settled into the saddle as the star of dozens of low-budget westerns. By Hollywood's reckoning he had slipped from the A-list but Scott wasn't resigning himself to lesser opportunities. He was forging his own trail doing what he did best and he was making a fortune along the way: he made most of these westerns through his own production company, which he formed with producer Harry Joe Brown. Andre de Toth and John Sturges directed some of the earlier films and the series culminated in a cycle of austere western masterpieces directed by Budd Boetticher. But before Scott's first collaboration with Boetticher, he made a pair of films with Joseph H. Lewis, the director of the legendary film noirs Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955). A Lawless Street (1955) was the first of these.
Though Lewis never quite broke out of the low-budget end of Hollywood, he had a reputation for making the most of limited resources and injecting a touch of style and class into every assignment. In A Lawless Street he announces his presence in the memorable opening shot: a simply but elegantly executed long take that observes a rider approach the camera from a distance, moves in to study the man's hard, weather-beaten face, tilts down to reveal his holstered gun, and then pans around to the worried look of a citizen who recognizes trouble when he sees it. In one shot Lewis delivers tension, danger and anticipation, announcing a threat and setting the stage for a showdown. While the rest of A Lawless Street has a more conventional storytelling style, his eye for interesting camera angles, expressive compositions and thoughtful camera movement elevates the film above the standard western churned out by most studios in the fifties.
Like the majority of films from the long-running Randolph Scott cycle, A Lawless Street takes place in a frontier town with Scott playing a veteran lawman trying to hold back the forces of violence and chaos. Marshal Calem Ware's commitment to justice has cost him much -- in particular his marriage -- but he won't quit his post until he tames the "growling beast" of the town (a line he repeats throughout the script). Angela Lansbury makes her entrance with style: the leading lady of a traveling stage show, she is ushered into town on a stagecoach and introduced with great fanfare by the town's gambling baron (John Emery). But this oily showman's attempts to charm the famous showgirl are overshadowed by the marshal as he engages her in a conversation loaded with history: you can hear in their words and see in their looks and smiles that they know each other far more intimately than anyone in town could guess. The gambling man and marshal are at odds over more than just a woman; there's a struggle over control of the town and Emery and his partner (Warner Anderson), the owner of the shuttered mine, are conspiring to remove the marshal and turn this place into a lawless "wide open town."
Angela Lansbury began her career as a Hollywood ingnue in the forties but was always relegated to supporting status, and she eventually found her forte as a character actress of great command and range. A Lawless Street is one of her rare romantic leads and one of few films to showcase her talents as a singer and dancer. She was at her best playing characters who were conniving, calculating, witty or simply experienced in the ways of life and love. She plays the latter here with confidence and grace, a woman in love with Scott's lawman but unable to endure the anxiety of him putting his life on the line every day.
A Lawless Street features a bigger budget than most of Scott's films of the period but otherwise follows a familiar formula right to the end; Lewis makes the most of the budget with a relatively lavish portrait of chaos in the streets as drunken cowboys and racing horses send citizens scrambling for safety during the marshal's absence. But the movie also looks forward to the "sunset westerns" that Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962, co-starring Scott as a leathery veteran lawman and gunfighter in a frontier that has no place for him anymore) helped popularize.
One of the most interesting hallmarks of Scott in his westerns of the fifties is that he plays his age. He moves like he's lived his entire life in frontier towns and on saddles and the experience is etched in his gaunt face and his lanky, aging body. The marshal maintains a front of strength and invulnerability in front of the townspeople, smiling and joking every morning with his rooming house landlady (Ruth Donnelly, a prolific character actress featured in so many snappy thirties pictures for Warner Bros.) while striding toward every potential showdown and gunfight with a grim purposefulness. Scott was confident enough an actor and cagey enough a producer to let his mortality show and it only makes his courage more impressive.
Producer: Harry Joe Brown
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay: Kenneth Gamet; Brad Ward (story)
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Art Direction: George Brooks
Music: Paul Sawtell
Film Editing: Gene Havlick
Cast: Randolph Scott (Marshal Calem Ware), Angela Lansbury (Tally Dickenson), Warner Anderson (Hamer Thorne), Jean Parker (Cora Dean), Wallace Ford (Dr. Amos Wynn), John Emery (Cody Clark), James Bell (Asaph Dean), Ruth Donnelly (Molly Higgins), Michael Pate (Harley Baskam), Don Megowan (Dooley Brion), Jeanette Nolan (Mrs. Dingo Brion).
by Sean Axmaker