30 April 2008 | dougdoepke
She may have been tiny, but she could hard-eye stare as well as any man, and make you believe it. It's that quality that this complex Western turns on, and fortunately Veronica Lake delivers in spades. It's not like she's the only good actor in the cast. There's the reliable Joel McCrea as the good guy, the commanding Donald Crisp as the sheriff, and Don De Fore in a sly role as McCrea's buddy, showing both an easy grin and a tricky set of values.
Usually it's two patriarchal land barons who feud over territory. Here it's not. It's the tiny Lake and bad guy Preston Foster who are duking it out, both fair and foul. What makes this Western more interesting than most is that Lake and DeFore fit somewhere between the poles of good-guy bad-guy. You never quite know what they'll do next because their moral compass sometimes wobbles. Being a woman with a lot of ambition, Lake has to finagle men into doing her shooting for her, and guess how she does that. And being a man who likes women, DeFore has figure out how to balance his loyalties. That makes for some interesting situations.
Director Andre DeToth (check out his unpronounceable real name) is the perfect overseer for a plot that features quiet treachery, hidden motives and raw violence. Maybe that's because his middle-European background was steeped in just trying to survive. Nonetheless, his sardonic view of human nature reminds me of an early version Sam Peckinpah. In fact, the latter hired de Toth to direct several episodes of Peckinpah's brilliant TV series The Westerner (1960). In that same vein, note de Toth's unflinching camera when filming the night battle near movie's end and when filming the treacherous backshot on Foster's front porch. It's clear he's bumping against Production Code strictures on what can be shown and what can't.
Ramrod is an underrated Western with an adult story-line. You may, however, need a score card to keep up with the various twists and turns. Still and all, the scenery's great, the acting top-notch, and the action where it ought to be. In my little book, that's definitely a can't-miss package.