RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL. Universal, 1958. Audie Murphy, Gia Scala, Walter Matthau, Henry Silva. Written by Borden Chase. Directed by Jesse Hibbs.

   Someone at Universal figured out how to make a decent Audie Murphy Western: hire a strong character actor (such as Barry Sullivan, Dan Duryea…) a good writer (such as Clair Huffaker, Burt Kennedy…) and build the movie around the character actor, with Audie moving the plot along.

   Ride a Crooked Trail offers the formula at its best, with Walter Matthau as a shotgun-totin’ judge and a script by Borden Chase, who penned classics like Red River and Winchester 73. And if this isn’t exactly his best work, it still ain’t bad.

   Audie sort of stumbles into the proceedings as an outlaw on the run who picks up a dead sheriff’s horse and is mistaken for the lawman when he rides into Matthau’s town. Forced to adopt the false identity, he finds himself unwillingly adopted by the boozy old judge, but things get complicated when an ex-girlfriend (Gia Scala) comes along and ends up posing as his wife… to be followed in turn by nasty Henry Silva, the current man in her life and head of an outlaw gang with eyes on the local bank.

   It’s all very pat, fast-moving and family-oriented. Henry Silva is convincingly nasty, in a Jack Palance kind of way as the bad guy, though there isn’t really much for him to do. But it’s fun watching Matthau ham it up as the old reprobate judge, and the whole thing is done up in that lush Technicolor used by Universal in those days. In short, easy to watch and easy to forget.