This superior western released through Herbert J. Yates’ Republic Pictures represents the first film to be directed by Oscar winning actor, Ray Milland, who also stars in the lead role fronting a cast that includes Mary Murphy, Ward Bond, Raymond Burr and Lee Van Cleef.
Milland sets the tone of this harsher than most westerns of it’s era by waiting a full 11 minutes until any dialogue is actually spoken. During that time we’ll see him riding through dry country in a sandstorm, having to put his horse down after a nasty tumble, feeding himself from the juice of a cactus and finally coming across what’s left of a savage attack on a stagecoach leaving very little to the imaginations of filmgoers in 1955. The massacre includes men, women and even a little girl.
On foot he’ll claim one of the horses tied to the coach and release the other so that he may follow it to the nearest town on it’s route. It won’t be a warm welcome when he arrives late at night during the sandstorm that has winds and dirt whipping it’s way through the town as if it’s a character itself. An overeager deputy, Alan Hale Jr. greets him from behind with a cocked trigger forcing Ray to turn and fire wounding Hale. On the run he finds his way into a dark hallway looking for shelter when he overhears three voices talk about the botched coach robbery in an adjacent office. If you guessed Burr was the headman and Van Cleef carried out the killings you’d be bang on and have surely seen these two in action before. The third voice? A decenter and Milland will witness his being shot in the back but not see the faces of the two left standing in the shadows.
All of which leads to Milland being seen in the dark corridor allowing Burr to cast guilt upon the stranger who arrived in town wounding Hale and leaving little doubt amongst the townsfolk that he also committed the stagecoach massacre and killed Burr’s now dead business partner. It would seem that Burr has found his patsy.
Milland quickly finds himself just as the title suggests, “A Man Alone.”
Our leading man will take refuge in a cellar that turns out to be the home of Miss Murphy and her father, Sheriff Ward Bond. 28 minutes into the film and Milland will finally exchange dialogue when confronted by Murphy. She seems to find the stranger in her home adventurous displaying a playfulness with him until she’ll learn of the stagecoach massacre and Milland is the supposed killer. As for Bond, he’s down with yellow fever and bedridden for the first hour of the film’s 96 minute running time.
Laying low with Murphy as a host/hostage, Milland, assists her in nursing the delirious Bond back to health. Displaying acts of kindness don’t match up with the supposed killer and Miss Murphy not only knows he couldn’t have done the deeds he’s been accused of but of course she’s falling for the smooth talking stranger with the big heart and a gun on his hip.
I’ll not play spoiler here but would like to point out that the film is far from fast moving and Milland has done an expert job at setting the tone of a slow paced western that picks up a head of steam towards the final showdown. There is also a rousing fistfight expertly filmed at a time when we know stunt doubles are both throwing most of the punches and catching them. Milland chose to film it late at night in the shadows of an alley thereby making it look far more believable then it really is. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t state matter of factly that when Ward Bond comes around from the yellow fever he just might have delivered his finest performance on screen over the course of his long career that amassed over 270 acting credits. For my money it was Oscar caliber and worthy of a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
As for our heavies, Burr and Van Cleef, this film offered them a reunion of sorts. Just two years earlier they played similar roles in a period piece, The Bandits of Corsica. Burr the chief villain with Van Cleef as his right hand man trying to stop swordsman Richard Greene from reclaiming his rightful lands and title. The boys don’t fare to well in the final reel of either film. But then you all know that going in. Burr was playing baddies and mired in most any genre from costume pics to westerns to noir efforts and even a Lex Barker Tarzan adventure. That would all change when Perry Mason came his way. As for Van Cleef, the man was a workhorse in the 1950’s following his screen debut in High Noon. He went on to appear in countless westerns and TV shows. I’ve no idea how many times he was killed on screen but he must have been a leading contender for death scenes during the decade and beyond.
Milland’s first directorial effort is a solid one. He’d follow up with 1956’s Lisbon, 58’s The Safecracker, 62’s Panic In the Year Zero and his final effort, Hostile Witness in 1969. He’d play the lead in all five films.
The power of Bond’s performance has stayed with me for years. I had seen this film on a late show I’m guessing 30 plus years ago. I couldn’t recall much about the film aside from I had thought it a solid effort and that Bond had made a lasting impression on me during the days when I was discovering films and learning to identify the many character actors that would continually turn up to support the leading players. He didn’t disappoint after all these years between viewings. Neither did the film.
The film was released on blu ray thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics and while I never have scored an original one sheet I did land a lobby card years ago featuring Bond delivering his powerful performance that in my mind was snubbed by the Academy.
Hey Mike. Another I’ve never seen and now will seek out after your review. I’ve always been a fan of Bond since I was a kid watching “Wagon Train”, so I’m looking forward to his performance here. Cheers, Mark
I’ve only seen a handful of Wagon Train shows. Mostly I guess I recognized him constantly turning up in John Wayne movies and by extension John Ford flicks.
An interesting review of an entertaining western . Saw this and another exciting western, Bugles In The Afternoon a long time ago. Surprised as Milland was not well known for westerns but he did have the physique and charima.
I’ve seen Bugles but like this one, it’s been years. Pretty sure I have a VHS copy buried around here. I like Milland but do admit to picking on him a bit in his later years. He went from leading man to playing numerous old grumps in his later years and usually without any redemption or likability. https://mikestakeonthemovies.com/2017/09/22/a-trio-of-ray-milland-television-terrors/
I agree this is a very good, rare western. A fine review.
Thanks and I don’t think I’ll wait as long till my next revisit.
Maybe Bond’s snub was because he never made himself too likeable to the people he worked with.
Well said. No secret he had enemies with his bully tactics in the industry during the communist hunts if what I read in the history books are to be believed.
This is a really good western and Milland showed that he was not only comfortable in the genre but actually had a strong feel for it. It’s a movie I must get back to myself soon.
Yes, as I point out hadn’t seen it in decades and it’s impact always stayed with me even if i forgot many of the details.
I always liked Milland. Often underrated but he had a really good range. I reviewd Hostile Witness a while back, surprisingly good! Saw this film a while back when i was catching on Van Cleef and was, like you, taken by Ward Bond’s performance. I might even have a Pressbook for this.
Yes he could play a variety of genres in his early years including rom coms and screwball efforts. He also made a nasty heavy at times along the way.
Very adroit. A great heavy. At one time the highest-paid actor in Hollywood.
Strange seeing Milland in a Western…I’m used to his noir work, and his later cheesy horror and sci-fi efforts. But I do like this type of story, of a guy on his own, trying to convince everyone of his innocence, but now I’m curious to see how he looks – and acts – as a cowboy.
And speaking of noir…you threw me there with your list of Milland’s directorial efforts…I saw you’d listed ‘Panic in the Streets’ and thought, “I never knew he directed that!” And then I saw the year it came out, and I wondered, did he do a remake? After a quick check on IMDb…ahhhh, ‘Panic in Year Zero!’ Nice try, trying to sneak that one by us!
I should have had you proof read this first. I’m such a know it all. LOL. Of course Milland is in Panic Zero with Frankie Avalon. Really a nice little gem from Ray and AIP. Panic in the Streets? A great Noir with Widmark and Palance. Correction made. Have fun checking out Ray as a cowboy. Also take a look at Copper Canyon while you’re at it.