APACHE DRUMS. Universal International, 1951. Stephen McNally, Coleen Gray, Willard Parker, Arthur Shields, James Griffith, Armando Silvestre, James Best and Clarence Muse. Written by David Chandler, from “Stand at Spanish Boot” by Harry Brown (as stated in the credits; no record of publication known). Produced by Val Lewton. Directed by Hugo Fregonese.

   The last film and only Western of a legendary producer, this is more Val Lewton’s film than director Fregonese’s or writer Chandler’s. The whole approach — a mostly-unseen menace and gradually growing tension, punctuated by moments of shock and horror — harks back to classics like The Seventh Victim and I Walked with a Zombie.

   Which is a good thing, because as a Western, it ain’t much. Director Hugo Fregonese (Man in the Attic, Savage Pampas, etc.) was always a reliable craftsman, but not much more. In his hands, the fights, chases etc. are capably done but strangely unexciting. What makes Apache Drums memorable is Lewton’s feel for the characters and their growing sense of entrapment.

   And the characters are a well-realized lot. Stephen McNally headlines as a raffish gambler run out of town, who returns to warn the disbelieving townsfolk of imminent danger; Coleen Gray, memorable in Red River and The Killing, shows genuine indecision about her feelings for him, while Willard Parker projects stolid blandness as the thudding voice of authority.

   In the supporting cast, Arthur Shields plays yet another reverend, but more complex than usual this time, subject to serious errors of judgment balanced by acts of courage. James Griffith is fine as a smarter-than-usual cavalry officer, and Clarence Muse brings real dignity and pathos to a small part — as he always did.

   The solid characterizations keep Apache Drums watchable, even in the dull stretches, and when the scary parts come, with the townspeople trapped in an old church, unable to see the drum-beating attackers till they leap in from overhead like harpies, the tension really ratchets up. And there’s a truly nightmarish bit toward the end with Willard Parker a captive of the Apaches, locked outside the church, unseen from inside, screaming at everyone not to let him in!

   I guess Val Lewton will always be remembered for those remarkable films at RKO, but Apache Drums is a fitting, if minor, coda to a great career.