dir. Joseph H. Lewis
A Harpoon wielding Swede marches down the street of a dusty Western town. Behind him follows a horde of bloodthirsty townspeople. As the group arrives at the town saloon, a man in black (seen only from behind) emerges to face the angry horde. He taunts the Swede, telling him to move closer. He wants to give the harpoonist a fair fight. You see, in whaling harpoon/six-shooter duels, distance of the essence. Reluctant, the Swede turns around to face the crowd. Bluntly, credits appear. Throughout the titles, random clips from scenes to appear later in the film, form a back-drop.
[The film's opening:]
And so begins Joseph H. Lewis' final feature film, Terror in a Texas Town. To say this is an unconventional opening for a fifties western is an understatement. Although cold opens were becoming more commonplace at this time (especially in the TV world), few were non-chronological scenes to appear later in the film. Even more striking is the use of later movie footage during the credits. The effect is especially jarring.
And Lewis doesn't even let up after the opening credits have run their course. He cuts bluntly from the titles to a nightmarish nighttime scene. Rowdy cowboys torch a house and ride off into the darkness. Close-ups of teary-eyed adults and children punctuate the scene. Just what is going on here? Few directors of the time (or now, for that matter) had the cojones to so tease and confuse an audience. Master that he was, Lewis waited until the breaking point before bringing any kind of meaning to all these disparate, striking images.
Such was the norm for Lewis. Why this stylish director of B Noirs and Westerns is not better known, is a mystery to me. Given even the most routine scripts he still managed to churn out movies distinctly stamped with his unique vision. Indeed, a formative filmmaking period in the thirties spent on poverty row Westerns, instilled in the young director an attention to visual detail. So bored was he by the hackneyed scripts he was assigned, that he began to gussy up the images (many times with foreground images of wagon wheels) so as to distract the audiences from the pablum they were watching. Employing a fluid camera and inventive compositions, Lewis' work behind the camera rivaled such contemporaries as Ophuls, Hitchcock, and Ford. Perhaps Lewis' lack of recognition is due to his propensity for filming trite scripts.
Such was not the case with Terror in a Texas Town, however. Working from a script by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (fronted by Ben Perry), Lewis helmed a film on par with the best psychological Westerns of the era. The Swede in the opening scene, George Hansen (Sterling motherfuckin' Hayden), is the son of a landowner who was the victim of intimidation and finally murder at the hands of the black-clad gunman, Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young, another black-listee and one of the film's uncredited screenwriters). The elder Hansen wasn’t alone, of course. All of the homesteaders in this quiet Western town have been feeling pressure to leave. What these peaceful townsfolk don’t know is that they sit atop one of the biggest oil deposits in the region. Unfortunately for them, oil tycoon Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) uses the black gold to pleasure himself and will stop at nothing to have complete access to the stuff. McNeil employs Johnny to scare the bejeezus out of those who refuse to sell their land to him.
Essentially a revenge picture, Terror in a Texas Town also acts as a treatise on the decreasing value of human life in a rapidly expanding, continually civilized Western frontier. In this town, a life is only as valuable as the few hundred dollars it takes to pay off the law, or to hire a gunmen. Thematically this film would see echoes in David Milch's brilliant, canceled show Deadwood. Although Lewis' picture may be a film-history footnote, its influence can't be discounted. It's also a helluva way to finish a film career.