Terror in a Texas Town
“You’re too far for a fair throw, Hansen. Come a little closer, eh?” A showdown in the center of a dusty town. A classic shot of the black hat’s gloved hand hovering dangerously in the foreground by the handle of his pistol with the white hat looking small in the distance. Black hat’s voice, diabolically even and poisonously sweet, encourages his challenger to take few steps forward, “Please, Hansen. Five steps, two steps, one, Hansen, just one step.” The white hat doesn’t fall for it, but he doesn’t charge either. He just stands in suspended defiance with his weapon in hand. The weapon is a five and half foot long whaling hook.
The opening scene of Terror in a Texas Town crackles with tension. It’s a framing device, a glimpse into the climax of the film, and the story is the events leading up to Sterling Hayden wielding a harpoon. The last scene as the first scene is not an uncommon hook, but when done this impeccably, it feels like completing the circuit of a battery. That raw energy runs through the entire film, and once you find yourself returned to the main street of Prairie City staring down the point of Hayden’s spear, you can practically chuck it yourself.
I was in awe of this film from the very beginning and the gobsmackery only increased from there. So much so, that I began questioning how such a film from 1958 could exist and it not be one of the most talked about black and white Westerns of all time. The dialogue had me agape. It just snapped, with each line of dialogue more quotable than the next. I just had to know what was up with this movie. So in between being floored and taking copious notes and quotes, I googled. The story behind this film’s existence does not disappoint. The script, which was credited to Ben Perry, is actually written by Dalton Trumbo, one of The Hollywood Ten. He was in the inaugural group of writers and directors who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era for having communist sympathies. Nedrick Young, the man under the black hat, was also a blacklisted screenwriter and actor and he was the one who put the script in the hands of Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy, 1950) who would come out of retirement to direct this one last film.
Terror in a Texas Town is fairly textbook in terms of plot. A real moneybags by the name of McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) is trying to shake good and honest farmers off of their land through some prior claim legal jargon, and some good Ol’ West intimidation. He’s got three thugs with charmingly goonish names – Weed, Keeno and Baxter (Fred Kohler Jr., Steve Mitchell, Sheb Wooley) –in one silk-lined pocket and the Sheriff (Tyler McVey) in the other. The three thugs, however, have wreaked all of the havoc they can muster and there are a few stubborn squatters hanging on to their lot, so McNeil decides to call on a specialist, a big gun, a man with his moral compass trained on Hell – a merciless mercenary by the name of Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young). Crale has been the man behind many a massacre to his profit, but he has also paid through the loss of his dominant right hand, which he has replaced with a solid steel replica and disguises with a black glove. McNeil, who feels the messy massacre has gone out of fashion, asks his hired gun to target just one man to be made an example of – an immigrant by the name of Sven Hansen (Ted Standhope). Hansen was a clean enough target; elderly, no family, and a farm that just so happens to have crude bubbling beneath it. But Crale nor McNeil counted on Hansen’s sailor son, George Hansen (Sterling Hayden), to arrive in Prairie City to make claim to the land and to what is right.
I’m sure that Terror in a Texas Town was just the kind of film that the House Committee on Un-American Activities was afraid of, chock full of thinly veiled socialist ideals to corrupt the hearts and minds of American cinema-goers. The film-proper opens with McNeil’s hooligans burning down the barn and home of one of Prairie City’s farmers. The farmers then gather with the town Deacon, Matt Holmes (Frank Ferguson) who encourages them to stick together. But with each farmer looking after their own self-interest and their modest farms being targeted individually, there is little incentive to take a united stand against McNeil. It’s only when Holmes finds out that there is oil that runs underneath all of their land, a wealth in which they can all share, that he can get them under a church roof to talk seriously about facing McNeil together.
George Hansen is the perfect vessel for delivering the message that the system is broken. He is a foreigner, an outsider, who has bought in, both literally and figuratively, to the American dream. For 19 years, he had been sending his whaler’s wages from Sweden to his father in America so that they could buy the land that would be their home and their legacy. When he arrives he finds his father murdered, the money gone, and the land belonging to someone else. How can this be right? He goes to the town sheriff, but there were no witnesses, so the sheriff can do nothing. Hansen could get a lawyer, but the rich landowner’s lawyer is going to be better, so the lawyer would probably accomplish nothing. When he declines to take McNeil’s $300 to give up the farm without a fight, he finds himself battered, bruised, and on the next train out of town. This Swede does not scare easy, however, and he is willing to face down the whale, McNeil, even if he has to do it alone. Sterling Hayden’s acting is a little bizarre because of his “Swedish accent.” If you’ve grown to love him in Dr. Strangelove or Johnny Guitar, you may find his delivering every line like it is a question distracting at first, but the performance is earnest, he looks badass in a ten gallon white hat, and I’ll believe anything he says with a harpoon in his hand.
The performance of the film goes to Nedrick Young as John Crale. A screenwriter himself (Jail House Rock, 1957), he saw in Trumbo’s script a real scoundrel of a character that he could sink his teeth into. Crale’s glory days of quick-drawing bloodshed are behind him, but all he knows is delivering someone else’s message with the tip of his bullet and it has got to be better than honest work. He’s a villain who knows the score. He tells the bloated McNeil to his face, “As long as there are men like you, there’ll be plenty of men like me.” McNeil describes him as “death in the shape of a man,” but really he is just a symbiote thriving on the underbelly of a corrupt system – part of the depraved natural order. Crale keeps by his side a hooker with a heart of ash by the name of Molly (Carol Kelly). Any life and self-respect she had, Crale has long extinguished, but she stays by his side to endure his jabs along with his overly passionate kisses. She sees the writing on the wall for Crale, that this Hansen character may be more than his slow left hand can handle, but he shuts her down with a coldness that rivals his steel right, “Nothing looks easy to you. You know why? Because you’re so easy.” Young’s Crale is the kind of bastard you love to hate. He’s got all the best lines, he’s got the coolest outfit, and he deserves the five feet of pike sticking out of his guts.
The very existence of Terror in a Texas Town is a coup. It was written by a man who was not allowed to write, starring a man who was not supposed to act, and directed by a man with nothing to lose. In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was sentenced to eleven months in prison for contempt of congress for not answering questions about communism, and by 1958 he had been writing scripts under pseudonyms for ten years, but, I swear, Terror in a Texas Town buzzes with the vibrancy of a bunch of scamps getting away with something and it is intoxicating. Even with its standard issue plot, this film is entirely entertaining and exciting, and made with an urgency that is palpable.
Terror in a Texas Town is available on a special edition blu-ray from Arrow Video. If you’re cinephile, a history buff, or just a dirty commie, you’re going to love this movie.