“Rawhide” (1951) is a taut and terrific hostage drama that happens to take place in the Old West. It’s lean and mean, and runs a trim 86 minutes without a wasted scene (thank you, director Henry Hathaway). Good performances abound, especially Jack Elam as a particularly nasty bad guy who offers a piece of violence that possibly wouldn’t get past nervous studio executives today.
The film’s first several minutes are deceiving. The title music is the rousing march that Alfred Newman composed for “Brigham Young, Frontiersman” (1940), hardly indicative of the drama to follow. Then we get several minutes of footage about the importance of the Overland Mail, and how it helped transform the West. Sequences of stagecoaches traversing the countryside, while full-blooded orchestrations of “Oh Susannah” play in the background, leads one to think we’re in for one of those “transportation winning the west” epics like “Wells Fargo” (1937) or “Union Pacific” (1939).
But soon the mini-history lesson disappears, and we’re ready for the story to begin.
“Rawhide” takes place at a stagecoach station, a stopping point for passengers to stretch their legs and have a meal while the horses are changed. The station is an isolated one, a tiny spot amidst the towering mountains. Four escaped convicts, led by Hugh Marlowe, take over the station to hijack a gold shipment coming in the next day. Caretakers Edgar Buchanan and Tyrone Power need to act normal for the other stages that stop by, while passenger Susan Hayward and her infant niece are held hostage. Buchanan is killed trying to resist, and Power and Hayward knowing they will be killed since they witnessed Buchanan’s slaying, attempt to forge an escape plan before the next day’s stage arrives.
Good stuff on display here, and like I said, not a minute of wasted footage. It’s an atypical role for Power. No heroics here, just a scared greenhorn trying to stay alive. Hayward is always a pleasure to watch and she’s particularly well photographed here.
Marlowe initially appears to be a little too civilized, a little too “nice” to be the leader of outlaws, until it’s revealed that he’s the black sheep of a prominent banking family, so his good breeding becomes more understandable.
But bug-eyed Jack Elam easily steals the show. He’s scary good here. He can’t resist pawing Hayward despite continual threats from Marlowe. You just know he’s going to explode one day.
In the film’s climax, Power and Elam are shooting it out when Elam sees the infant girl walking innocently through the courtyard. Elam begins shooting at the little girl to draw Power out into the open. It’s an agonizing scene to watch as the little girl screams with her arms up in the air, turning this way and that way while the bullets hit the ground at her feet. I don’t think that would occur in a big budget studio film today. (I’m not talking about cartoon, CGI-inspired violence like last year’s “Shoot Out”, which boasted a coming attractions trailer so loud and stupid that I couldn’t see myself paying to support it. I understand there’s a baby in distress throughout the whole movie, but when people are flying through the air, twirling around and shooting guns while defying the laws of physics, all credibility goes out the window. The baby was probably CGI anyway.)
I’m a sucker for thrillers set in isolated settings or in confined areas, like an airplane, train or ship. “Rawhide” combines the two, contrasting the isolation of the stagecoach station and the majesty of the surrounding mountains. The film was shot in Lone Pine, California, a famous locale for westerns, and its beautiful, if desolate, countryside. Even if Power, Hayward and baby escaped from the outlaws, there’s really no place to escape to.
Alas, the coming attractions trailer shows the film’s climax, proving that Hollywood’s penchant for giving too much away in trailers is nothing new. Due to the film’s paucity of action, its likely 20th Century Fox sold the film as a traditional western shoot ‘em up rather than a tense suspense drama. Still, I can’t believe westerns fans who went to see “Rawhide” would go home disappointed.
Rating for “Rawhide”: A strong three stars.