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Duel On the Mississippi (1955)

Just a few years shy of William Castle’s emergence as a showman of the macabre, he directed numerous low budget efforts including this “B” unit project released by Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures. At a running time of just 72 minutes it’s a fast paced frontier tale with the one time man of the loincloth, Lex Barker, in the leading role with red haired technicolor support from leading lady Patricia Medina and Warren Stevens as his nemesis in the battle of good vs. evil and for the hand of our fair maiden.

It’s a New Orleans backdrop and Barker is the son of land baron, John Dehner, and his wife, Celia Lovsky. There are river pirates about and the film opens with Stevens leading a ragtag group of toughs who steal a cargo of sugar that Dehner’s land has produced. Barker is quick to move into action but the only pirate he catches is the red haired Medina. She’s far better looking than any pirate Barker had hoped to catch and not surprisingly he’ll let her beauty interfere with his thinking. End result? She’ll KO him with a rock and maker her getaway.

She’ll quickly regroup with Stevens who wants nothing better than to claim her as his own. She’ll have none of it and brands him as, “a crude arrogant lout with a hellish knack for killing.” Besides, now that she’s met the handsome young man of nobility she has her sights set much higher than the murderous Stevens. And so begins her scheme to become a woman of means. She’ll buy the note that the bank holds on Dehner’s property and call it in. Dehner not having the 30K on hand will have to spend his remaining days in prison. Unless of course Medina takes up Barker’s offer of a three year bond where he’ll become her slave to do her bidding.

That won’t stop Stevens from accepting the challenge of a duel from Barker. Considering Stevens has a record of killing a number of men in duels, Medina, isn’t happy with this development but can’t stop it. First blood will be drawn by Barker ending the skirmish for now. As for Stevens, he’ll have revenge on his mind for the balance of the film.

Anyone want to make a wager that boy-toy, Barker, is going to end up seducing Miss Medina? O.K. I’m getting ahead of myself but give it a little more time.

As we’re on the Mississippi there’s bound to be a riverboat and in this script from Gerald Drayson Adams, this one proves to be a gambling den that Medina and Stevens are partners in. Crooked? Well with Stevens in charge of the hiring it’s bound to be. He’s just no good and though Medina wants the riches that come with the partnership, she’s beginning to distance herself from him which is only causing Stevens to put the blame squarely at the feet of Barker all the more.

On the topic of writer, Adams. He’s credited with plenty of outdoor adventures ranging from The Prince Who Was a Thief to Harum Scarum to Flame of Araby. I mention that third title because I couldn’t help but think Duel on the Mississippi plays like a Jeff Chandler – Maureen O’Hara duet. It should also be noted that Adams wrote the exceptional Noir film, Armored Car Robbery starring one of the premiere Noir figures, Charles McGraw.

I don’t think anyone should be too surprised to see Barker and Stevens renew their hostilities in the final reel though machetes as a choice of weapon sounds terribly messy. And no, Danny Trejo did not turn up to witness the carnage. Might there be a happy ending lying in wait with the customary kiss at the fadeout between our two leading players?

Seriously, what do you think?

With Macabre and The House On Haunted Hill just over the horizon as the decade would wind down, director Castle, was on a steady diet of low budget westerns and costume adventures with well known faces who weren’t quite on the “A” list (Barker and George Montgomery) or as in the case of Dennis Morgan who starred in two of Castle’s 50’s outings, were on their way down and no longer attached to bigger budget efforts. By my count Castle directed 10 westerns in the 1950’s and only the appearance of Glenn Ford in The Americano would suggest a film destined to be the top feature of a double bill.

Miss Medina would appear in three of these Castle efforts of the 1950’s. Along with Duel, she’d appear opposite Morgan in Uranium Boom and the period piece, Drums of Tahiti, with leading man, Dennis O’Keefe. Following the Tarzan series,Lex Barker, was in a succession of “B” movie adventures during the fifties and would end up overseas in the decade ahead acting in a variety of genres from westerns (Winnetou) to spies (24 Hours to Kill) to horrors (Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism)before his early death at the age of 54 in 1973.

New to me, Duel on the Mississippi, has turned up on DVD in a welcome 8 pack of William Castle westerns from Mill Creek that has found it’s way to the shelves of the movie room here at Mike’s Take if you’re looking to see some of Castle’s non-horror efforts before he embarked on becoming the P.T. Barnum of movie making.

7 Comments »

  1. I always enjoy telling people William Castle was the film equivalent to P.T. Barnum, and all his gimmicks made it 100% true. It’s equally interesting to see how he got his start in the business, and how versatile he was. Very cool.

  2. I love ‘Armored Car Robbery’, so I looked up Adams to see what else he’s done, and discovered he’s written two other noirs: ‘Dead Reckoning’ and ‘The Big Steal’, both of which I like. Too bad he didn’t do more. And that’s pretty cool that Mill Creek put together a set featuring Westerns by William Castle…most of the reviews are quite impressed with the quality of the set, which is nice to hear about an MC set.

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