When it’s on: Sunday, 8 February (11.00 am)
Films about lawless men in the American west ‘new frontier’ are ten a penny, but things can get a lot more interesting when they focus on entire towns riddled with corruption. Enter Ray Milland, the star of his directorial debut, A Man Alone, as Wes Steele, the classic wanderer who has the misfortune of entering just such a community. We first meet Wes when he’s travelling alone through the desolate wilderness. Forced to shoot his lame horse, he takes the only possessions worth keeping – a gun and rather a lot of money – and heads for the nearest sign of civilisation. Before he can do so, he comes across a looted and abandoned stagecoach. All the people in it, including a little girl, have been gunned down in cold blood. Eventually, he hits a town and discovers, to his horror, that he’s the main suspect.
Wes has just enough time to learn that the real culprit is Stanley (Raymond Burr), one of the bankers, who along with his partners Luke Joiner (Grandon Rhodes) and hired gun Clanton (Lee Van Cleef) pulled off the robbery and murder for pure profit, sure they can pin the crime on someone else as they have effectively bought the town and keep what passes for its law on their side. Joiner is appalled by the killings and is himself shot dead, another murder pinned on the luckless Wes. Pursued through the dusty, windswept streets, he manages to find refuge in a cellar, which belongs to the house owned by Nadine Corrigan (Mary Murphy) and her father, Sheriff Gil (Ward Bond), the latter suffering from a bout of yellow fever.
Over time, Wes is able to convince Nadine of his innocence, though his reputation as a dangerous outlaw precedes him and he remains an easy target for the rest of the town, which slowly closes in on him. The only choice left to him is exposing Stanley as the real perpetrator, an almost impossible assignment given the banker has been the power for some years and has everyone, the Sheriff included, in his back pocket.
If A Man Alone has a natural ancestor within the genre, then it’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and whilst it isn’t as powerful as that earlier film, it has several elements going for it. The first is Milland’s direction. Whilst his work behind the camera ensures he isn’t the best thing on the screen, Milland keeps the action moving and excels in visual storytelling; preshadowing Sergio Leone, nobody speaks for the first ten minutes, and Wes is largely silent until almost a third of the film has taken place, meaning moments like him discovering the stagecoach massacre is purely what the camera shows and musical cues. Wes’s silence makes his character enigmatic. The sight of him covering up the corpses hints at his humanity, also when he feeds the kittens in Nadine’s cellar, but there’s an ambiguity about his past that gnaws at his reputation. Just what sort of man is he? Why he has so much money on his person remains a mystery, as are his skills with a pistol, and all this adds to the way people react to his name, like he’s every bit as dangerous as they’ve been led to believe.
Raymond Burr was always a reliable villain, the Perry Mason years just ahead of him, whilst gaunt Lee Van Cleef added a nice level of juxtaposition to the well fed banker as the pinched, almost feral henchman, doomed as always to go down at the film’s climax with a gun in his hand. Mary Murphy wasn’t a star for very long. When she made A Man Alone, she was at the height of her fame following The Wild One and made for a comely heroine with a fair degree of spark. It’s her character, suppressing her more feminine trappings by storing them in a trunk in the cellar, who does more than anyone to expose the corruption within her town. She supports Wes as she begins to love him, realising that he’s being set up for the stagecoach job and in turn questioning how her father has somehow gone from abject poverty to relative wealth.
The answer, naturally, is that he’s as much a part of the town’s sick underbelly as anybody, and it’s a casting coup to see Ward Bond, the fast living drinking buddy of John Ford playing the Sheriff. Bond, an ardent support of Hollywood blacklisting, supplies an uncomfortable undercurrent to this tale of bribery and moral depravity. As the endless wind whips drifts of sand through the community, it turns out that the physical desolation mirrors its very soul.
A Man Alone: ***