16 February 2002 | Igenlode Wordsmith
Low-budget film raises disturbing questions
There's a lot more to this little Western than the cheap thrills the title might suggest. The film itself may have been made in black and white, but the off-beat story is shot through with shades of moral grey. Indeed, I'm not sure that it would be entirely baseless to describe it as an implicit indictment of US society.
This picture uses familiar Western stereotypes - the corrupt sheriff, the land-greedy tycoon, the sinister hired gun - in a depiction that subtly undercuts much of the entire genre. I don't think it's too far-fetched to see the long shadow of McCarthy over the townspeople who allow themselves to be cowed and driven off one at a time, only to turn at last as a mob not on the man who bribed their silence, but on the outsider employed as a tool to do his dirty work.
(Having just read the IMDB entry for this film and discovered that the scriptwriter was himself blacklisted by the McCarthy regime, I'm now almost certain I was not imagining this!)
The whole story is framed by that final confrontation and the flashbacks (?flash-forwards?) that follow under the opening titles. After all, it's not every Western that features a man walking the length of Main Street to face down his father's killer... with a harpoon. This one *opens* with that image!
But as we catch up with the flash-back scenes in real-time we soon realise that things are not as they seem. This is no standard Western, there are no stand-up gunfights and no galloping horses; the only quick-draw we see is performed under duress as a humiliating party-trick. Virtue is not rewarded and those who make a stand on principle only suffer thereby. The hired killer is an aging gunman whose trade has lost him the use of his good right hand; the dogged hero is no cowboy or plains drifter but a seaman from a Swedish whaler, and the script makes it very clear just what value he can place on American justice.
Inexorably, driven by the sinister jaunty little tune of the theme music, the story winds on until we reach again that final face-down - and now the close-ups make sense, and they are not what we thought they were. That man with the moustache is not the sheriff; that blonde is not the hero's girl; the crowd is not spilling out of a saloon.
And it is not any longer, for me at least, the clear-cut question of good and evil the genre has led us to expect. When it is all over - when the shots are called and the dice are down - the crowd pours past the Swede without a backward glance. Society doesn't want to know; doesn't want to face its own complicity. It wants a scapegoat to sacrifice, and for life to go on.
Morally, this film is very far from black and white. If it is a B-movie, then it is by far more unsettling than the vast majority of cheap and cheerful productions made in that budget. I cannot imagine what its intended audience must have made of it. Am I the only viewer to find myself drawn as much to the cold-blooded, isolated 'villain' as to the nominal hero?