Western Fiction


THOMAS W. BLACKBURN – Short Grass. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1947. Bantam #207, paperback, 1948; #1164, paperback 1953. Other editions include Dell, paperback, 1973.

SHORT GRASS. Allied Artists, 1950. Rod Cameron, Johnny Mack Brown, Cathy Downs, Morris Ankrum, Alan Hale Jr. Raymond Walburn, Harry Woods, Stanley Andrews, Riley Hill, Jeff York, Tristam Coffin and Lee Tung Foo. Screenplay by Thomas W. Blackburn. Directed by Lesley Selander.

   An excellent book turned into a superior B Western.

   I started watching Short Grass last month and was immediately struck by something rare in B Westerns: Depth. Early on, wandering gunfighter Steve Lewellen (Rod Cameron) gets dry-gulched by Myron Healey, who is in the employ of big rancher Hal Fenton (Morris Ankrum.) He survives (Healey doesn’t) and is nursed back to health by small rancher Pete Lynch (Stanley Andrews) and his daughter Sharon (Cathy Downs — whom you may remember in the title role of My Darling Clementine.)

   The whole episode serves as a plot device to put Rod on the side of the small ranchers, but the film takes a few minutes to tell us a bit about Myron Healey’s character, and how he comes up against Rod Cameron. The two even have a bit of edgy interaction before getting on with the story, and I wondered why a B-Western would take such pains with a throwaway character like Healey’s. Then I saw that the screenplay was by the author of the book, who would naturally try to get as much of his story on screen as he could.

   Then I started wondering about the book itself. So I dug out a copy to compare and contrast with the film, and it was a revelation.

   Don’t get me wrong. Short Grass is not a great novel. But it’s a damn fine one, and it made a superior B Western. But where was I?

   Oh Yeah: In the book, Steve Lewellen uses his prowess to keep Pete Lynch from being crowded off his range. But when he kills Fenton’s hot-head brother he realizes the odds are too great, and if he stays it will bring worse trouble. So he advises his friend to sell out and rides away from the woman he has grown to love.

   That’s book one of a two hundred page novel. Book two finds Lassiter three years later, farming on the outskirts of a small town called Brokenbow, which threatens to become a wide-open town since the railroad arrived and drew in the cattle drives—headed by Fenton.

   And this is where Blackburn turns a standard western into something a bit better, sketching out vivid portraits of the townsfolk: a town-taming sheriff, a Swede farmer, crusty old doctor, shopkeeper… and even a Chinese Cook. They all come to life here and join in the action, of which there is plenty.

   Ah yes, the action. You couldn’t ask for anything better. In one scene Lewellen takes on four opponents and Blackburn makes it read real, not like some pulp-book superman. And he wraps things up with a running gun battle through the streets: Townsfolk vs drovers, and never lets the reader lose track of who’s where and what hit whom—a neat trick, and he does it well.


   When Allied Artists made this into a movie they were still sloughing off the Monogram persona, like a caterpillar turning hopefully moth-ward, and they fashioned Short Grass firmly in the B+ mode, with sturdy sets, good stunting, lots of extras, and names familiar to Western fans.

   Blackburn cut out the unnecessary characters, put the bit parts in deep focus (as in the opening cited above) and changed what needed changing; in the book, the virile, town-taming sheriff is fooling around with the wife of the Newspaper Editor. In the movie he’s tough, paunchy Johnny Mack Brown, loving her pure & chaste from afar.

   Allied Artists picked Lesley Selander to direct, and no one could have made a better job of it. Selander was a dab hand with action, and he visualizes Blackburn’s fights and shoot-outs just as he wrote them. But more than this, Selander — who brought Hopalong Casssidy and The Lone Ranger to the scree — had a feel for the mythic qualities of the men and their story. When, after many minutes of furious battle, the battered gunman and the wounded lawman lock arms and march across the street into a saloon full of bad guys, it carries all the feeling of a similar moment in Ride the High Country. Peckinpah did it better, but Selander did it first.

   You can enjoy Short Grass equally as book or movie, but I recommend you try both. And before I wrap this up, I should add that Tom W Blackburn was also a songwriter of sorts with one solid gold record to his credit.

   Can you name it?



THE TALL T (AND OTHER WESTERN ADVENTURES) Avon #775, 1957, featuring: “The Tall T” (originally “The Captives”) by Elmore Leonard, 1955; “The Man from Gant’s Place” by Steve Frazee, 1951; “The Twilighters” by Noel M Loomis, 1954.

THE TALL T. Columbia, 1957. Randolph Scott, Maureen O’Sullivan, Richard Boone, Henry Silva, Arthur Hunnicutt, Skip Homeier, and John Hubbard. Screenoplay by Burt Kennedy from the story by Elmore Leonard. Directed by Budd Boetticher.

   Whathehell does that title mean?

   But leave that be for now. Perhaps it will convey the quality of the book if I say that the Elmore Leonard story, while quite good, is the least of the three here.

   Leonard’s tale is a tight-knit saga of a hold-up-turned-kidnapping, with Rancher Pat Brennan reluctantly along for the ride as three killers hold heiress Doretta Mims for ransom and send her husband — Willard Mims, the name says it all — to make arrangements. The characters are well defined, the action deftly done, but it all seems a bit too terse, as if there were a novel inside this story, yearning to break out.

   I will add though that I saw the film before reading the book, and my judgement may be more critically impaired than usual. More on this anon. For now I’ll just say, as if it needed saying, that Elmore Leonard knew how to write action and move a story fast without seeming rushed.

   But “The Man from Gant’s Place” takes the prize here. A simple tale of a boy fresh off the farm walking into the middle of a range war, that overturns every cliché known to pulp writers. Steve Frazee isn’t well remembered among Western writers, but he had a way of looking at hard work and senseless gunplay that gave his stories depth as well as life, and this is one of his best.

   And the book rounds off with one of the grimmest western stories I’ve ever read: “The Twilighters,” a narrative of dishonor among thieves filled with shocking brutality. Tough, scary and unforgettable.

   I will add that the book is graced with a gaudy cover and loads of shots from the film, and conclude that it’s an attractive package indeed, and one worth seeking out.


   As for the movie made from it, this is a minority opinion, but I’ve always felt that the first twenty minutes were a waste of film, and watching them was a wanton squandering of my precious youth. But the film proper truly takes off when the three bad guys ooze out of the darkened swing station, and from there on it attains a high level of tension and feeling until (SPOILER ALERT!) Randolph Scott flushes them back into the darkness from whence they oozed at film’s end.

   I say “tension” because The Tall T reels at the edge of violence like a drunk at a wedding, with Henry Silva as a killer who enjoys his work entirely too much, Skip Homeier as an outlaw too dumb to be honest, and Richard Boone as their leader, who doesn’t really want to kill Scott but knows he will have to do it in the end.

   All four actors seem so at home in their parts that one doesn’t even notice them acting, and Maureen O’Sullivan matches them as the homely prize they must fight over. Arthur Hunnicutt tosses off another of his pitch-perfect performances as himself, and even John Hubbard, the forgettable leading man of The Mummy’s Tomb, has moments of rare and well-done intensity.

   Best of all, writer Burt Kennedy fleshes out the empty spaces in Elmore Leonard’s story with genuine sensitivity. When Boone and Scott talk quietly about ranching and outlawry, they’re really talking about life itself and why they ended up on opposite sides of it. Boone in particular seems trapped in his role no less than his captives, and his confabs with Scott are as much a struggle for escape as Scott will undertake when the chips go flying.

   The Tall T is, in short, what poets and philosophers call “a must-see” and though I have yet to figure out what the title means, it’s a film I can watch again and again with pleasure.


BRETT McKINLEY – Just Plain Scum. Cleveland Publishing Co., Australia, digest-sized paperback original, no date stated.

   Okay, I just couldn’t resist a title like that. Even on a saddle stitched booklet of fewer than a hundred pages wrapped in an indifferent cover. Ultimately, I had to read it, and…

   Well for what it is, Just Plan Scum ain’t bad. It ain’t good, mind you, but it recalled to me the Doc Savage books I enjoyed in Junior High, with characters as colorful and flat as the pages in a comic book, and a fast-moving, unlikely story told in plain, functional prose.

   Scum starts well, with

   â€œHey Johnny!”


   â€œThere’s a feller here wants to fight you.”


   â€œHe reckons you’re flash.”

   â€œHe’s right.”

   â€œHe still wants to fight you.”

   I like that. It promises imminent action and a bit of humor, and it could go anywhere from there.

   Where it goes is to a band of free-booting veterans of the Civil War—Yanks and Rebs alike — known as The Company, guided by the loose but firm reins of Johnny Lee, a pulp hero in the best tradition: invincible, right-minded and colorfully costumed. He’s also surrounded by a few faithful lieutenants, each with a special trait that recalls the myrmidons of Doc Savage or the Shadow.

   The story that follows serves them well: raiding Apaches, lovely women, brave soldiers, a double-dealing Officer, and action action action action. It left a cloying aftertaste, and the vague suspicion that too much of this would give me brain decay, but that was quickly rinsed by reading a real book.

   And as I put Just Plain Scum on the shelf somewhere between Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and Hud, it was with a sense of deep down pleasure that my library is big enough for all three.


ERNEST HAYCOX -Sundown Jim [or “Red Harvest Rides the Range”}. Little Brown, hardcover, 1937. Grosset & Dunlap, hardcover reprint, 1938. Pocket Book #573, paperback, 1949. Reprinted many times since. Film: 20th Century Fox, 1942, with John Kimbrough as Sundown Jim Majors.

   Haycox tended to make his heroes working men: miners, ranchers, freighters and such, but here the focus is on Jim Majors, a US Deputy Marshall sent to the town of Reservation, fast becoming a sanctuary for wanted men, to clear out the owlhoots and generally set things straight.

   Turns out, Reservation is the Western equivalent of Hammett’s “Poisonville,” a town so rife with corruption, warring factions and shifting alliances that it’s hard to tell who’s on which side at any given moment and fatal to misjudge. One sure-enough outlaw, Ben Maffit, has his eye on Katie Barr, daughter of the local cattle baron, and keeps his felonious followers allied against the smaller ranchers, but some of these lesser cattlemen are as bad as the Barrs and scarcely better than Maffit’s misfits – in fact, sometimes not as good.

   The situation is ripe for violence and Haycox ladles out plenty, done up in his terse, visceral style, but he also peoples the tale with some well-rounded and even memorable characters, and gives them enough ink to spread their wings and fly about the pages a bit. And this in turn motivates the plot as violence spreads throughout Reservation’s environs.

   There’s a dandy few pages here where, having de-fanged the cattle baron, Majors persuades the smaller ranchers not to take advantage of his weakness. They do it anyway, with decidedly mixed results, and then blame Majors for the ensuing tragedy. And it works on the page because Haycox has given us a few short scenes of each man debating the situation and deciding on violence.

   I have to say that the characters of Majors himself and Katie Barr never break free of the Hero and Heroine mold, but they don’t really need to; Haycox keeps things moving fast enough to cover for it, and the back-up band makes it all ring true.


CHARLES O. LOCKE – The Hell Bent Kid. W. W. Norton, hardcover, 1958. Popular Library, paperback, 1958; reprinted. 1963. Ace, paperback, date unknown. Named at one time as one of the top 25 Western novels of all time by the Western Writers of America. Film: Released as From Hell to Texas (20th Century Fox, 1958) Don Murray, Diane Varsi, Chill Wills, R. G. Armstrong, Dennis Hopper. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

   This Kid — Tot Lohman — was no murderer and was not penned up. He knew he had to stay on the place, the way I had fixed it with the sheriff. Also, he had killed Shorty Boyd in self-defense, although I think he made a mistake in not saying how it was done. The Boyds said Shorty had been shot. Lohman let it go that way. There was supposed to be more honor to it, if it involved a bullet. On both sides.

   When Tot Lohman was probated to me, he had one thing on his mind. His family had been pretty well wiped out, except one brother and his father, who suddenly took consumption and seemed to be dying a slow death. The father, who had been a fine peace officer, pulled up stakes and went into the territory of New Mexico, looking like a skeleton that walked and leaving his son in Texas, which led to the shooting, if it was a shooting, that landed the boy on me.

   Tot Lohman is only about eighteen, a fair hand with cattle, but gifted with his two loves, horses and guns. He’s a decent kid, hard luck, but hard luck isn’t unusual on the Staked Plains of West Texas, the Llano Estacado.

   But life has just spun out of control for Tot because he killed a Boyd, and the Boyd was related to Hunter Boyd, and his son wild Tom Boyd, and neither will stand for the killing.

   Tot wisely decides getting out of the country will be better than waiting for the Boyds. He heads for New Mexico looking for his father determined to put the Boyds behind him, but the Boyds are determined and want “justice,” and they will do anything to get it, including turning Tot Lohman, a big kid who just happens to be good with a gun into the Hell Bent Kid, a killer with a conscience and a growing list of white crosses in his wake.

   I have a taste for Westerns, and bend to no one in my love of the more common pulp Western from Zane Gray to Louis L’Amour and the men and women who write them, but there is another kind of Western, the more literary model, the Western as novel, and not just story that I admire. It is no attack on the former to admire the latter.

   It’s a sub-genre of the more popular form with a history in itself with familiar names like Owen Wister, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Walter Van Tilberg Clark, Frederick Manfred, Dorothy Johnson, Wallace Stegner, Conrad Richter, Oakley Hall, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, and now one I never knew about before, Charles O. Locke. Titles like The Oxbow Incident, The King of Spades, A Man Called Horse, Sea of Grass, Shane, The Last Hunt, Warlock, Blood Meridian, and Lonesome Dove are among its more famous examples.

   As you might imagine, it’s rarer to discover a book in this category than in the more familiar form and a time to celebrate when you do.

    The Hell Bent Kid is a pure example of the form. The plot may be straight out of a hundred pulp Western fantasies, but this is a novel and not just a tale. It is about the destruction of a young man forced to run and fight through brutal country against hard men who learn too late his almost mystical skill with a gun. It is about a good kid forced to become a killer, a decent young man who doesn’t want to be what his hunters make him into, who meets a girl, has a brief moment of normalcy, and is forced to take up the gun one last time.

   â€œNo more of this fooling around with scare-shots and cattle. I will shoot first from now on and will aim for one of two places, the head or the heart.”

   Amos looked at me a long time. “Well,” he finally said, “if you aim at either one, you kill a man as a rule, and you don’t have to prove to me that you can hit where you aim. I hope you get a bagful of Boyds. But in the end they’ll get you. Yep.”

      It’s the inevitability of Tot Lohman’s fate that makes this a novel and not just a well written pulp tale. The same story appeared in a thousand Western pulps and original paperbacks and still does today, but seldom written with the simplicity and human understanding of this version.

   It’s no coincidence this one ends in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, though Tot Lohman is no Billy the Kid, and his fate isn’t met at the hands of a Pat Garrett.

   After the noise there was dead quiet. The breeze had died. I looked once quick at the faces of the cattlemen and they were a study. Except Hunter who was smiling to himself so that, having known him thirty years, he visibly began to get small in my eyes and once he had seemed pretty big. Yes sir. For as I saw him smile, he seemed to shrivel down to less than a fraction of a man. Hunter couldn’t change. He was still a born winner and could even rake in life’s chips over the body of his dead son. Sometimes it takes a long time and a particular set of circumstances to catch up with a man.

   There is no shortage of standard Western thrills here, but there hangs over the book a hint of Greek tragedy, of hard country written on men’s souls, and burned in women’s broken hearts and too short lives. As I said at the beginning I had never heard of this book or of Locke, but now I will look for his name and treasure this book.

   Told in epistolary form, a long section in the middle by Tot himself, the book is as easy to read as any Western, it just has a little more to say than most, the difference between a great B Western film and John Ford, between blazing guns and the smell of gunsmoke and the exposed souls of the people involved.

   The Hell Bent Kid was made into a decent film in 1958, From Hell To Texas, directed by Henry Hathaway. It’s a pretty good little film aimed at focusing on younger stars, but it is a pale adaptation of the novel, much more a standard Western than the well-written novel this book is.


BACKLASH. Universal International, 1956. Richard Widmark, Donna Reed, William Campbell, John McIntire, Barton MacLane, Harry Morgan, Robert J. Wilke, Jack Lambert, Roy Roberts, Edward C. Platt, Robert Foulk. Screenplay: Borden Chase, based on the novel Fort Starvation by Frank Gruber, reviewed here. Director: John Sturges.

   Here’s a gaudy little B-movie which I found enjoyable out of all proportion to its actual merit. Written by Borden (Red River) Chase, directed by John Sturges (Great Escape, Magnificent Seven) and done up in lurid Universal Technicolor, this is in every inch a “B,” never mind the budget, cowboys, Indians, lost treasure and what-all else you need for a Saturday afternoon.

   The plot hangs loosely on the peg of Richard Widmark looking for the man who killed his Pa — or more precisely, the an who let Dad and four others get butchered by Indians instead of going for help, then took the gold they were carrying out of Indian country.

   To this end, Widmark does some exemplary sleuthing, poring over old testimony, double-checking witnesses, exploring the crime scene and wisecracking in the best PI tradition (“There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you since we first met — Goodbye!”) with “tough gal” Donna Reed, who plays the possibly treacherous female lead like Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo or The Killers.

   There are suggestions here that this could have been a better movie, though perhaps less fun: as the story progresses we find that Widmark is not so much pursuing his dad’s killer as he is trying to live up to a father whose love he never knew. Anthony Mann or Delmar Daves would have pursued the oedipal complexities of this, but Sturges just shrugs it off and brings on the Indians.

   And the gunfights, fistfights, and chases with the lean technical skill typical of him, and even a certain amount of humor. I particularly enjoyed the spirited thesping of third-billed William Campbell: he’s only in the movie for a few minutes, but he plays a black-clad giggling gunfighter just like Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo of a decade earlier.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #51, May 2007.


CLIFF FARRELL “Sign of the White Feather.” Short novel. First published in Fighting Western, March 1946. Collected in The White Feather as “The White Feather.” (Five Star, hardcover, 2004; Leisure, paperback, March 2005).

   Fighting Western is generally considered one of the second- or even third-rank western pulps, but this particular issue is filled with a bunch of better western writers. Besides this long tale by Farrell, there are four shorter ones by gents such as Giles A. Lutz, William J. Glynn, Thomas Thompson, and Joseph Chadwick, of whom only Glynn is completely unknown to me.

   As you can probably guess from the title, “Sign of the White Feather” is the story of a man considered a coward but who in the end redeems himself. It seems that in order to make a hurried trip to Salt Lake City to raise money to save his estranged father from bankruptcy, he had to forego a fight with one of the men working for his father’s ruthless competitor in finishing a coast-to-cast telegraph line.

   A contract is a contract, and a deadline is a deadline, but it’s even harder when thugs, gunmen and outlaws are working for the other side. Even Kelly’s fiancée is starting to wonder how much courage the man she is engaged to marry actually has. It does not help in that regard when she learns that the only person who has agreed to give Kelly the loan he needs is a woman, and what’s more, she’s coming back with him.

   The story is non-stop action, starting with a rough and bumpy stage ride back to Salt Lake City, then up in the mountains cutting down logs to be used as poles — just as the winter season is ready to settle in. The enemy is suitably vicious, the romance suitably up in the air, and while the characters are not deeply developed, I found myself rooting for them all the way. Is Kelly Brackett a coward? Far from it!

TODHUNTER BALLARD “The Dragon Was a Lady.” Novella. First published in Ranch Romances, July #2, 1949. Collected in Lost Gold: A Western Duo. (Five Star, hardcover, March 2006; Leisure, paperback, April 2007).

   As W. T. Ballard, the author of Lost Gold was a prolific writer of hard-boiled fiction for the detective pulps in the 30s and 40s before switching over to paperback originals in the 50s and 60s. Somewhere along the way he seems to have decided that the kind of mystery and detective fiction he wrote was on the way out, and he switched to writing westerns almost exclusively.

   Which is not to say that he wasn’t writing westerns all along, going back to the mid-30s, at the same time he was writing for Black Mask and other detective magazines. “The Dragon Was a Lady,” the first tale in this western duo was first published in Ranch Romances, and at just over 40 pages is by far the shorter of the two.

   The story is a bit of a trifle, perhaps because it was written for a “love pulp,” but it’s fun to read, nonetheless. In it a young woman comes out West after her father dies and finds a lawyer running the show. Unknown to her but far from a secret from the local townspeople, including a husky fellow who operates the town newspaper, the lawyer is one of those guys who gives lawyers a bad name.

   She goes as far as setting a wedding day, but while clad in her wedding dress, she decides to learn the truth at last, and to fall in love, but for real this time. Just as everyone reading this issue of Ranch Romances when it was fresh on the newsstands knew from the very first page. And exactly how they wanted it.

   The second half of the reprint paperback consists of the short novel “Lost Gold.” I’ve temporarily misplaced it, though, so that the moment this is all I call tel you about it.


ERNEST HAYCOX – Canyon Passage. Little Brown, hardcover, 1945. Pocket, #640, paperback, 1949. Many other reprint editions exist.

CANYON PASSAGE. Universal, 1946. Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Patricia Roc, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Lloyd Bridges and Andy Devine. Screenplay by Ernest Pascal, based on the novel by Ernest Haycox. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

   Ernest Haycox writes best about working men — miners, ranchers, or as here a freighter — made heroes by force of circumstance, set in communities that are not always right or just, but keep striving to get that way. Canyon Passage is the best example of this I’ve seen so far, not so much a carefully-plotted story as a series of interactions between fallible people bouncing off each other in an evolving milieu.

   A book like this gets life from its characters, and Haycox gives us a colorful cast. Logan Stuart, the central character, is the solid, dependable sort to hang a story on; he has a hankerin’ for smart, tough Lucy Overmire, and she for him, but… well, Haycox puts it best, as Logan ponders to himself:

   â€œIt was a queer business — this confused wandering of people toward things they wanted and could not have, this silent resignation to less than they wanted. It was a world where people walked with their desires and seldom attained them, but it was all in silence, held away….”

   I credit Haycox with making these ill-turned relationships at least as interesting as the fights, murders and Indian raids that propel the story. He draws an interesting parallel between George Camrose — Logan’s friend betrothed to Lucy, and also a polished thief preying on his friends — and Honey Bragg, a murderous brute and near-outcast, also preying on the locals. Both are eventually punished by the mining camp they live in (and off) but in very different ways, and it’s this sense of Community as Character that gives Canyon Passage real depth.

   Bragg gets his comeuppance at the hands of Logan Stuart, after the good people of the town have goaded them into a fight for no better reason than they wanted to see a battle royal. And Haycox writes us a dandy. Faced with the meaner, stronger, Bragg, Stuart starts the fight by cracking a bottle across his face, then smashing a chair over his head, then picking up the pieces of the chair and smashing them over his head, then picking up another chair…. You get the idea. It’s brutal and very real.

   Camrose, on the other hand, gets tried by a Miner’s Court for the murder of a man whose poke he’s pilfered, found guilty on the basis of circumstantial evidence (He is in fact guilty as hell.) and locked up till the town can get around to lynching him—which puts Logan in the position of having to rescue his guilty buddy for the sake of the misguided Lucy.

   Me, I woulda just sat back, seen him hanged, and moved in on Lucy myself, but that’s probably why I was never the hero of a Western. And I have to say Haycox rings in the Indian Raid that brings everything to a head and resolves the various conflicts without seeming a bit contrived.

   Producer Walter Wanger made a fine job of filming this, hiring Jacques Tourneur, known for his horror flicks with Val Lewton, to direct, and dependable hack Ernest Pascal to stick close to the book. He also signed up sturdy leads Andrews, Donlevy and Hayward, and a host of dependable character actors, including Ward Bond as Bragg, Andy Devine as a homesteader, and best of all Hoagy Carmichael as an amiable minstrel.

   The result is a film of considerable charm and surprising brutality. Like I say, writer Pascal stays close to the book, and director Tourneur gives us the beatings & killings with unflinching nastiness, done up in fairy-tale Technicolor by photographer Edward (Heaven Can Wait) Cronjager.

   There is one point where the movie departs from the book though, and I think it’s an improvement. And since it’s at the ending, I’ll throw in a SPOILER ALERT!!

   In the book, Logan Stewart helps his friend Camrose escape, but it does no good as he’s shot down shortly thereafter by one of his victims. Logan, having led the miners against raiding Indians, is forgiven by the town, mainly because they got their man anyway and no real harm done.

   In the movie, however, Logan returns from injun-fightin’ to find that the good people of the town have burned down his store as retribution for his crime. Having chastened him, they are now willing to accept him back as a member of society in good standing. And Logan accepts it as a just punishment, ready to move on with his life.

   It’s not a major story element, but somehow this moment, as directed by Tourneur, gets to the meat of what Haycox was saying in the book. I’m not sure I can put it into words, but it has something to do with a civilization not built on laws, religion, or even tradition, but on people. And therefore as good or bad as the best and worst of us.

   As Walt Kelly used to say, “it’s enough to make a man think.”


LEE LEIGHTON (WAYNE D. OVERHOLSER) – Law Man. Ballentine, hardcover (H51) & paperback (#51), 1953. Ballantine U1040, paperback 1964. Axe, paperback, 1977. Ace/Charter, paperback, 1985. Jove, paperback, 1988. Winner of the first Western Writer’s Assocation Spur Award for Best Novel.

STAR IN THE DUST. Universal, 1956. John Agar, Mamie Van Doren, Richard Boone, Colleen Gray, Leif Erickson, Randy Stuart, Paul Fix, Harry Morgan, Kermit Maynard and Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Oscar Brodney, from the novel by Lee Leighton. Produced by the redoubtable Albert Zugsmith. Directed by Charles Haas.

   A taut film from a slack novel.

   Leighton/Overholser’s book deals with twenty-four hours in the life of middle-aged Marshal Bill Worden: the last day in the life of convicted killer Ed Lake, scheduled to hang next morning. It also deals with a wide cast of characters, including:

   Worden’s daughter Ellen, who is engaged to marry

   George Ballard, who owns the biggest ranch in the valley and the local bank — and is therefore ipso facto a bad guy.

   Nan Hogan, Ballard’s ex-mistress, now married to

   Lew Hogan, a stubborn rancher who feels duty-bound to keep Lake from hanging

   Rigdon, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who feels duty-bound to hang Lake himself

   Mike MacNamara, Worden’s Deputy

   Orval Jones, janitor and would-be deputy

   Jeannie Mason, a fallen woman because of Ed Lake

plus assorted farmers, ranchers, cowhands, townsfolk and attendants to the court.

   Leighton does a skillful job of setting all these folks at odds with each other: the ranchers out to save Lake, Ballard anxious to see that Lake doesn’t incriminate him, farmers egged on to lynching by Rigdon, Lake with his own plans for the future – and thankfully Leighton takes care to remind the reader who everyone is from time to time. He also works things to a convincing resolution, one that seems to grow from the characters themselves.

   The problem is that Leighton tends to tell us how they feel—repeatedly and at length — when he should just show us — and when things should be getting tense, they just get wordy. Worthy concept, weak execution.

   Oscar Brodney’s script for Star in the Dust tightens things up considerably. For one thing, it starts at dawn on the day Lake (here named “Sam Hall”) is scheduled to die at sunset. And since this is a film, the internal monologues of the book get replaced by a few lines of dialogue.

   That’s not all that gets replaced. Preacher Rigdon of the book is here a power-mad schoolteacher (I think I had him for English 101 in College) and middle-aged Marshal Bill Worden is now youngish Bill Jordan (John Agar) engaged to marry Ballard’s sister (Mamie Van Doren.)

   Best of all, nasty Ed Lake in the book is now Sam Hall, played with savage sensitivity by Richard Boone, a year before Have Gun, Will Travel and in those days a character actor to be reckoned with. I suspect Brodney knew he was writing for Boone, and wrote the part to fit him. His Sam Hall is educated, self-aware, and dangerous to know, a character at once sympathetic and frightening.

   With Boone as the lynch pin, Star in the Dust could have stopped right there, but producer Albert Zugsmith fills the movie with fine actors in choice parts. Leif Erickson radiates bluff duplicity as the scheming bad guy, slimy Robert Osterloh projects petty tyranny as the schoolmaster, while Paul Fix and James Gleason do a fine double-act as Agar’s deputy and the wanna-be janitor.

   Star in the DustEven better, Colleen Gray and Randy Stuart play off each other perfectly as the women who loved well but unwisely. Stuart in particular carries a moving rueful aspect as Erickson’s cast-off mistress, now married to Henry Morgan, as the loyal-but-not-bright Lew Hogan (Years later, Stuart also played Morgan’s wife in the 1960s Dragnet teleseries.)

   Best of all, Star in the Dust moves in a way the novel never did, filling eighty minutes with action under the fast-paced direction of Charles Haas.

   And by the way, in his one scene, a skinny young contract player named Clint Eastwood is what is usually and charitably termed adequate.

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