HELL CANYON OUTLAWS. Jarod Zukor Productions/Republic, 1957. Dale Robertson, Brian Keith, Rossana Rory, Dick Kallman, Charles Fredericks, Buddy Baer and Don Megowan. Written by Allan Kaufman and Max Glandbard. Directed by Paul Landres.

   I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist a movie called Hell Canyon Outlaws, and when it was over, I wasn’t even mildly disappointed upon reflecting that there was no actual Hell Canyon in the film itself. Call it Poetic License I guess, but director Paul Landres was doing some interesting movies about this time, and this is one of them.

   It’s easy to look at Hell Canyon Outlaws and say Brian Keith carries it with his off-beat portrayal of Outlaw Leader “Happy” Waters: good-humored, lethal, and pitched on a collision course with steely lawman Caleb Wells (Dale Robertson — And get it? Wells? Waters?)

   But the fact is, some intelligent writing and sure-handed direction went into making the character—and those around him—come alive.

   The film itself balances delicately between cliché and creativity. Robertson’s Caleb Wells is a sure-shot sheriff who cleaned up the town years ago, but things are quiet now. His Deputy—fittingly named “Bear”—is drunk all the time, and the Town Council wants to replace the two of them with something more modern. And of course no sooner do they oust their lawmen than four owlhoots ride into town, obviously wired for trouble, with Brian Keith’s jovial leader keeping a treacherous hand on the switch.

   Standard stuff so far, made even more ordinary by staid Alexander Lockwood as the “modern” replacement lawman, and noisy method-acting Dick Kallman as the local quick-draw kid trying to prove he’s a man. Add Rossana Rory (of Big Deal on Madonna Street) as Dale Robertson’s girlfriend who doesn’t see the need for violence, and you’ve got a pretty cold deck to try and deal a new hand from.

   The wonder is that they do it, and do it rather well, too. Landres and the writers keep things poised on the edge of violence, so that whenever Keith and his overgrown goons (including Buddy Baer and Don Megowan) swagger into a saloon, bank or dry-goods store, they seem just about to take it apart by size alone.

   Contrast this with Dale Robertson, waiting silent and tight-lipped on the sidelines, no longer a lawman, but always just about to spring into action, and you get a very involving movie indeed, particularly when he and Brian Keith circle about each other, talking quietly but both clearly looking for the right moment….

   And when that moment comes, it doesn’t disappoint: An extended shoot-out in a darkened saloon, with Dale and his deputy jockeying for position against the bad guys, who make some smart moves themselves, ratcheting up the tension, even as shots blast and bodies fall all over the place.

   Hell Canyon Outlaws is a low-budget affair, and the DVD I got at Cinevent is a thing of shreds and patches, but it has flair and to spare, plus a few surprises. Recommended.