Rage at Dawn (1955)

When it’s on: Saturday, 12 August (2.35 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

In the hinterland of British Freeview television, that mid-afternoon space the schedulers have always struggled to fill, the classic Western still reigns supreme. It was like this when I was young, quite some time ago, and it remains so today. Clearly there are viewers who want to watch these movies, and the sheer wealth of titles on offer proves there’s a rich vein from which to mine, certainly where films made in the 1950s are concerned. The ‘Golden Age’ of the Western threw out some unimpeachable gems, efforts that are well worth watching now both on their own merits and as mirrors to the contemporary American society, values and concerns. But they weren’t all greats. For every High Noon, there were numerous offerings like Rage at Dawn, this minor entry from late period RKO that trod well known paths, served as a vehicle for its star name – Randolph Scott – and disappeared as quickly as it hit theatres.

The film makes an attempt to tell the story of the Reno Brothers Gang, an infamous real-life group of outlaws that was renowned for its train robberies. It’s entirely possible that the Renos’ adventures formed the basis for The Great Train Robbery, America’s first action film from 1903 that would have been made less than forty years after the actual events it was depicting and by which stage the protagonists were long since dead, all hanged by lynch mobs in grisly examples of frontier justice. Rage at Dawn does a fair job of recreating their capers, and the efforts by the Pinkerton Detective Agency (renamed Peterson in the film) to bring them to heel.

Scott plays James Barlow, who’s hired by the agency to work undercover and infiltrate the gang. He doesn’t appear until after twenty minutes have elapsed. That time is taken up with our introduction to the felons, the double cross that leads them to exact some pretty brutal revenge, and the suggestion that not all is right in the web of corruption of which they are the centre. The gang lead a torrid home life, holed up in the house of Laura Reno (Mala Powers) and arguing among themselves, treating the Reno sister like a servant. The good brother, Clint (Denver Pyle), wants little to do with any of it, leaving Frank (Forrest Tucker) to effectively run things, to the happiness of nobody.

Once Barlow enters the picture, he takes it over, faking a train heist in order to come into the gang’s orbit while he learns about the crooked town officials they’re keeping sweet, and speaking of which of course becoming sweet on poor, downtrodden Laura. Scott is an old hand at this stuff and plays his part well enough, seeming to realise it isn’t a prestige project and won’t have any lasting effect on the public’s imagination and so putting in a fairly routine performance. The kind of broiling, beneath the surface resentment that Budd Botticher found in his retinue is barely there and Scott plays it straight, easily in command of the proceedings. Charisma and a natural charm come to the surface. Things only ramp up towards the end, when the gang has been caught and townspeople take it upon themselves to do an old-fashioned lynching, which prompts him into action and offers a spark of the bitter anger he was more than capable of showing. The chemistry with Powers is just about present, though it comes with an air of both players being the only attractive performers and so something romantic’s bound to happen eventually. 

It’s all down to a by the numbers script from Horace McCoy, best known for writing the novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and Tim Whelan’s somewhat leaden direction. Whelan was credited as one of the three (named) directors on The Thief of Bagdad, and many years before had written the story that led to Harold Lloyd’s seminal Safety Last!, but made this one as a strictly box ticking exercise, covering the bases but failing to pronounce any of the story’s more interesting elements, such as the corruption angle. The result is a harmless enough matinee flick that could have been much more, indeed I was pulled in by what sounded like a densely layered plot that didn’t amount to very much.

It does look good however, Whelan able to take advantage of Technicolor to produce an Oater that’s altogether easy on the eyes. Scholars of the period have noted that while the action is supposed to take place in Indiana (where the crimes happened) it’s very clearly California. A state flag appears at one point to unfortunate effect, and that’s when the boom mic isn’t dropping into the shot, all of which suggests a briskly made film without much attention to detail being paid. One for the Randolph Scott completists.

Rage at Dawn: **

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14 Replies to “Rage at Dawn (1955)”

  1. It’s a medium Scott picture, easily overshadowed by far more memorable stuff he was doing at around this time. The star’s presence, a good supporting cast and a pretty grim and tough climax raise it a few notches.
    Of course even if it’s not what could be termed a great movie it remains a solid and entertaining western, the kind of bread and butter effort that kept the genre alive and afloat – we actually needed this kind of stuff to exist for all the top movies to get made, if that makes sense.
    Anyway, lesser Scott is still fun, and the likes of Tucker, Naish and Powers were never less than good value.

    1. Thanks Colin – clearly one you think more of than I did. Perhaps the quality of the DVD didn’t help – I bought the Pegasus disc, which didn’t look as though it had any restoration work done on it and meant I might as well have caught it for free on the archive. Oh well…

      1. Maybe. I have the old Roan disc, which is in the correct ratio and probably has it looking as good as it’s going to.
        I agree the movie is fairly routine for the most part, but I don’t think that’s amounts to a big negative. In context, it’s a relatively simple genre piece, not breaking any new ground and not challenging us in any way. Still, it’s the kind of movie that would have made a modest amount, kept cast and crew working and kept the genre ticking along. That’s what I meant about films like this being important in the overall scheme, perhaps no great shakes on their own but still contributing overall to genre.

      2. That’s fair; I admit I didn’t think of it within the wider context. Recently I did an anal and geeky audit of my DVD collection, amounted to around 2,300 discs. I remember thinking I wondered about yours and how many were golden age Westerns…

      3. Good question. I think I had just over 3000 titles titles, give or take, last time I looked. I’d have to look through a bit more carefully to see which are westerns but I imagine it’s probably in the region of 750 or 800.

      4. That raises obvious questions about storage – I’m tending to use just about any space I can find and for some time have been double stacking on shelves. It’s all a bit of a mess, and part of the point about cataloguing them all was to perform a cull on some of the discs that have been double bought – upgrades to Blu Ray, part of box sets, etc. It’s a real First World problem and of course not a problem at all, but it was a fun, geeky thing to do, coming across discs I’d almost forgotten I owned and queuing them up for another viewing.

      5. Ah, storage…
        Circumstances dictated that I had to do something about the bulk involved so I bit the bullet and junked the cases completely. Now it’s binders & and paper sleeves all numbered and cross-referenced with a filing program – DVD Profiler – so I can find pretty much anything just be searching the database alphabetically and finding the corresponding number.
        My stuff can be seen online here: http://www.invelos.com/DVDCollection.aspx/Livius1
        The editions aren’t necessarily the ones I own now and some have had to be added to the database manually but the titles match up, which is all that matters to me.

      6. That’s a pretty impressive collection you’ve amassed there too – loads of good stuff. Junking the packaging was a bit of a wrench but I reached the point where it really was necessary, and the truth is stuff is a whole lot easier to access now. Anyway, it works for me but it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

      7. Makes a lot of sense to me, and it’s at moments like these that I regret buying certain titles that came in lavish, outsize packaging – just taking up space now. Out of interest have you sorted your catalogue into any kind of order – chronological? By production release year? Genre? Or is that a step too far?

      8. Profiler already adds in the genre, year etc so the database is searchable and in such terms anyway. No, I started with a bunch of random discs and then proceeded to decant them into binders, and later sleeves to put in storage boxes. Each one is numbered, beginning at one and continuing, and simultaneously entered in the database with that corresponding number attached. The database is then arranged alphabetically. After that any title can be found in seconds – look it up alphabetically, look what the number is and then go to the appropriate binder or box. If I want to search stuff by a certain director, star (or any crew member), year, genre etc, the same procedure applies. I find it very convenient.

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