LUKE SHORT – Ambush. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1949. Bantam #853, paperback, December 1950. Many other reprint paperback editions.

AMBUSH. MGM, 1950. Robert Taylor, Arlene Dahl, John Hodiak, Don Taylor, John McIntire, Jean Hagen, Leon Ames, Chief Thundercloud and Charles Stevens. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, from the novel by Luke Short. Directed by Sam Wood.

   Reading Luke Short’s Ambush, it’s easy to see why so many of his books were translated into noir Westerns: The terse, tough dialogue; fast, bloody action, and most of all Short’s view of the World as nasty, brutish and vast. Short’s heroes seem to be shaped by the terrain they travel, from snow-bound mining camps, to wide open cattle ranges and harsh deserts, pitiless as Chandler’s Mean Streets. Thus they beget films like Ramrod, Station West, Blood on the Moon … and Ambush.

   As the novel opens, ex-army scout Ward Kinsman has been mining gold for months in Apache country, keeping his presence a secret until old friend and fellow-scout Frank Holly noses him out and brings the Apaches down on them both. We get a long, tense scene of the two men making their way down an escarpment in the dark to escape, then back up again to throw their pursuers off the trail. Finally they reach the Army outpost whence Holly was sent to summon him, he’s asked to scout for an expedition to find a war chief known as Diabolito and rescue a captive from him — a mission he flatly refuses, in the tradition of hard-boiled heroes everywhere.

   Of course, Kinsman does eventually take on the job, and while he’s working his way around to it, we get background on the soldiers and soldiers’ wives who make their homes at the outpost, and the little dramas that fill their lives. This could have been a dull stretch, but Short keeps it moving with clever dialogue (“What comes after a Billion?” “I don’t know. Fifteen, I think.”) and bursts of action.

   Best of all, when the expedition gets underway the action is plentiful and shaped by the relationships we watched simmering back at the fort. Short has a gift for letting the rough-hewn characters shape their own ends, and best of all he knows how to keep it exciting.

   Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts and director Sam Wood were smart enough to stick close to the book when they filmed this, and they do a fairly good job of getting through the personal drama quickly and on to the injun fightin’. Robert Taylor uses his type-cast sharpness to good effect; his piercing glance seems to take in each rabbit and lizard scuttling across the rocky terrain and file it away for future use. John McIntire, made up to look like Buffalo Bill, is fine as Frank Holly, and Jean Hagen puts in a quietly moving performance as a battered wife that steals the show from ostensible leading lady Arlene Dahl.

   There’s also some movie shorthand here that works well: In the book, Luke short limns the characters of Diabolito, crazed war chief, and Tana, a warrior who has switched sides (or has he?) to scout for the Army. The movie doesn’t have time to do this, so director Wood simply uses actors Charles Stevens (who made a career of crazy Indians) and Chief Thundercloud, whose inexpressive face seems to hint at all sorts of possibilities.

   There are a couple of awkward spots where the screenplay departs from the book and Roberts patches it over with awkward dialogue, but Ambush brings off a memorable finale, as the Cavalry rushes to catch up with fleeing foes… and we suddenly see they are charging into the canyon where the film opened – with an ambush.

   Nice touch, that.