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Stranger on Horseback

Stranger on Horseback(1955)

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Rick Thorne, a U.S. circuit judge, rides to the frontier town of Bannerman for a routine check of the town's records, and upon his arrival, is surprised to learn that all of the town's businesses are owned either by rancher Josiah Bannerman or his relatives. Thorne is greeted by Col. Buck Streeter, a U.S. district attorney. Streeter, who also serves as Bannerman's personal counsel, admits that Bannerman's word is law in the town. While meeting with Marshal Nat Bell, Thorne learns about a recent shooting that resulted in the death of town resident Sidney Morison. Thorne is perturbed to hear that the shooting, committed by Bannerman's "high-spirited" son Tom, was dismissed as self-defense without any formal investigation. When Thorne insists that Tom be brought in for trial, Bell cynically observes that he will have difficulty raising a posse that is not composed of Bannerman's relatives or employees. Meanwhile, banker Arnold Hammer, who is in love with Bannerman's feisty niece Amy Lee, goes to the Bannerman ranch to warn the clan about Thorne's intentions. The arrogant Bannerman, who believes that he is entitled to run the area however he wants, orders Hammer to bring Thorne to the ranch for supper. That night, Tom and his men ride into town to taunt Thorne, who asks Bell for support in arresting the young man. Bell demurs, stating that Thorne must prove his mettle by facing Tom alone, and so Thorne enters the saloon where Tom is drinking. There, Thorne outdraws Tom and marches him toward the jail, and Bell, impressed by the judge's actions, fires a warning shot at Tom's encroaching henchmen. The next day, Thorne is about to send a rider to Cottonwood, the nearest town with a telegraph office, to request a prosecutor for the case, when Streeter informs him that he has already arranged to be named the prosecutor, despite his obvious conflict of interest. After Thorne returns to the jail, he is confronted by Amy Lee, who, despite her attraction to the judge, warns him that no one challenges a Bannerman in their town. Thorne sternly replies that the town belongs to the citizens who live there, then goes to visit Morison's widow Paula. Although Paula will not admit it, Thorne deduces that Tom was harassing her, and that Bannerman has paid her to leave town. Paula gives Thorne the pistol that Tom claimed Morison drew on him, although she swears that her husband never carried a gun. Upon returning to town, Thorne calmly trounces one of Tom's taunting henchmen, then goes with Streeter to the corral where Morison was killed. There, Streeter insinuates that if Thorne drops the case, Bannerman will back him politically, but Thorne dismisses his offer and goes to the nearby house of gunsmith Vince Webb. Webb tells Thorne that he does not recognize the pistol allegedly used by Morison, then reveals that he and his daughter Caroline saw Tom murder the unarmed Morison. Caroline confesses that she was reluctant to tell Thorne the truth, as she had vainly hoped that the womanizing Tom would keep his promise to marry her. The Webbs agree to testify, and as Thorne is returning to town, he meets Amy Lee, who pretends that her horse has run off. Thorne escorts Amy Lee to the Bannerman ranch, where Bannerman orders him to release Tom and proclaims that if his son needs to be punished, he will do it himself. When he returns to town, Thorne warns Bell that they are going to have to transport Tom to Cottonwood that night, as their only hope of bringing him to trial is to move him to an impartial town. Before he leaves, Thorne is again confronted by Amy Lee, who warns him of the danger he is in and kisses him. Thorne misinterprets her gesture, believing that she is offering herself in exchange for her cousin's freedom, and spurns her. Bell and Thorne leave with Tom and the Webbs, after which the unsuspecting Bannermen sends two of his men to get Tom out of jail. When they realize Tom is missing, the gang rides after Thorne and the others, who attempt to elude them by riding along a dangerous mountain pass. Bannerman deduces Thorne's strategy, however, and sends his men to block both ends of the pass. Amy Lee rides hard to join Thorne and apprise him of the situation, and Tom, assuming that she has come to free him, admits to her that he killed Morison. As the group continues along the treacherous path, Tom, who is tied to his saddle, nudges Webb with his horse, thus pushing him over the cliff to his death. Amy Lee is horrified to witness her cousin's cold-blooded act, and when they reach the end of the pass and are approached by Bannerman and his men, she declares that she stands with Thorne. Appearing to bow to the superior number of his enemies, Thorne rides off, but once he reaches a protective knoll, dismounts and begins firing upon the henchmen. Bell joins him in the shootout, while Amy Lee whips Tom's horse and forces him to ride to Cottonwood. After Bannerman finally surrenders, he tells Thorne that Amy Lee is now his responsibility, then leaves with his men. Later, Amy Lee is in the courtroom watching as Thorne begins the proceedings on Tom's trial.