RIDE THE MAN DOWN. Republic Pictures, 1952. Brian Donlevy, Rod Cameron, Ella Raines, Forrest Tucker, Barbara Britton, Chill Wills, J. Carroll Naish, James Bell, Taylor Holmes, Jim Davis, Paul Fix, Roy Barcroft, Jack La Rue, Douglas Kennedy, Chris-pin Martin Screenplay by Mary McCall, Jr. based on the book by Luke Short (Doubleday Double D Western, hardcover, 1942; Bantam Books # 82, paperback, February 1947; first published as a Saturday Evening Post serial, April 4 through May 16 1942). Directed by Joseph Kane.

   Maybe it is because it is based on a novel by Luke Short (Frederick Glidden), but this fast moving tale of a range war has enough characters and plot for half a dozen films, and yet somehow never seems crowded or off balance, and that certainly has to do with an all star B cast and the sure hand of veteran Republic oater director Joe Kane at the helm.

   Shot in TruColor, this one boasts a literate script, tough almost hard-boiled characters (not surprising from Short who was one of the leading exponents of the hard-boiled Western and whose books inspired two of the better noir Western films — Blood On the Moon and Stations West), and solid motivation all around, and in this one it feels less like the old West than Capone era Chicago with horses and cowboy hats, as everyone in the countryside is out to steal from or kill the handful of good-guys. Odds against the hero of one of these have seldom been higher.

   This is one of several Rod Cameron and Forrest Tucker worked on at the studio with Cameron usually the hero and Tucker the heavy, though here he is only one of a formidable group surrounding the embattled Cameron and his handful of allies.

   The time is the early thaw of 1892 when Phil Evarts, owner of the Hatchet Ranch has just died, frozen to death in the harsh winter. Evarts was an unpopular man who carved his land out by sweat and bullets and few mourn his passing, particularly not Bide Marriner (Brian Donlevy), a fellow rancher, and neighbors Paul Fix, Roy Barcroft, Jack La Rue, and Douglas Kennedy, who all want the Hatchet grazing land, and Evart’s son-in-law-to-be Sam Danfelser (Forrest Tucker) who has other reasons to want Hatchet broken up. Even Sheriff Joe Kneen (J. Carroll Naish) is no mourner, and likely to be little help.

   Add to that Red Courteen (Jim Davis) as a renegade who sells whiskey and guns to the Indians and wants his piece of the pie, and there is a who’s who of Western bad guys gathered to destroy the Evarts legacy. Even the proprietor of the local general store Mr. Priest (Taylor Holmes) father of Lottie, the girl Hatchet foreman Will Bartlett (Rod Cameron) wants to marry (Barbara Britton), wants to get in on the deal. The Hatchet Ranch is surrounded by venal and violent vultures who want to feed on the body before its dead the characters almost as venal as a revisionist Western from a much later era.

   In fact, the only people who seem to care about Evarts and Hatchet are his weak brother John (James Bell), Phil’s strong daughter Celia (Ella Raines), and foreman Will Bartlett, and it quickly looks as if it will be the latter two against the whole territory as they fight to keep the Hatchet together against impossible odds and enemies inside and out.

   Sub-plots abound. Sam is jealous of Celia Evarts devotion to Bartlett; Lottie is jealous of Bartlett’s devotion to Celia; Sheriff Kneen is in Marriner’s pocket but the fit is increasingly binding; Ray Kavanaugh (Paul Fix) murders John Evarts and is witnessed by weak rancher Joe Kennedy (Jack La Rue) who flees the country pursued by Bartlett; Marriner wants Kavanaugh arrested and tried tying up the Hatchet in court and with it certain the locals who hate the Hatchet Ranch will set him free; Red Courteen (Jim Davis) hates the part Indian Bartlett who humiliated him; Lottie’s father Mr. Priest has bought interest in cattle owned by Courteen and now being held by the Hatchet because they were grazing on Hatchet land and he’s losing money; and, the only help Bartlett can hire is a couple of drifters top hand Ike Adams (Chill Wills) doesn’t trust.

   Meanwhile Sam tries to undermine Bartlett and force Celia to give into Marriner because he is unmanned by her wealth and power and resents her strength.

   That’s quite a bit of plot to work into just over ninety minutes and still get in a satisfying amount of action and gunplay, and granted Donlevy doesn’t really get as much film time as he might need to really make an impression as the bad guy, what with Tucker and Davis taking up so much of the bad air..

   And tough action there is, more brutal than you might expect from a Western of this era, but also room for the redemption of Sheriff Kneen and a shootout between him and Marriner; a couple of well done set pieces — a nice one of Bartlett trapped in the town run by Courteen having to shoot his way out against a small army of enemies — and enough bits here and there for the large cast to keep all the actors happy.

   It’s no lost classic, and frankly the print I saw was at best only serviceable, but it is a good example of what Republic could do with the Western, given a bit more to chew on than the usual oater script. The fact that the crowded plot never seems constrained by the running time and no one in the cast gets slighted shows capable hands at work. Just getting all those plot elements from the Short story into the screenplay without losing track of any of the characters or their arcs was no small achievement.

   It’s not exactly true that Republic never made a bad Western as they used to assert when I was a kid growing up, but they didn’t make many of them, and they hit the bulls-eye for more often than you might expect. This is a surprisingly meaty small A film with a Western fan’s dream cast, and more going for it than any fan has the right to expect. You got a lot for your dime or quarter in those days and no Western fan, kid or adult, was likely disappointed in this one.