STAGECOACH TO DANCERS’ ROCK. Universal Pictures. 1962. Warren Stevens, Martin Landau, Jody Lawrance, Don Wilbanks, Del Moore, Bob Anderson. Screenplay: Kenneth Darling , based on his own story (his only film credit). Director: Earl Bellamy.

   Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting much from Stagecoach to Dancers’ Rock. Especially once the opening credits began rolling, along with a ridiculously outdated (even for 1962) theme song that basically explains the whole plot. Also, the movie starts off like any other somewhat lower budget Western of the time period. There’s a ragtag group of travelers heading into Apache territory. And among them, there’s Dade Coleman (Martin Landau), an outlaw recently released from jail.

   The first twenty minutes or so are nothing you haven’t seen time and again. But things begin to get interesting when it turns out that one of the passengers – a Chinese woman on her way to San Francisco – may have smallpox. The myriad ways in which the characters react to that development could have carried the whole film, had the screenwriter wanted it to.

   But instead, the film shifts into a half-baked subplot in which one of the stagecoach’s passengers named Jess Dollard (Warren Stevens) teams up with a gunman to rob the very coach he is riding. Why he does this and what lead him to this decision is never fleshed out. In fact, by the end of the movie, it’s almost all forgotten.

   So why did I enjoy the second half of this movie so much? Martin Landau. That’s why. Stagecoach to Dancers’ Rock was one of his earliest screen roles. And he certainly was a much bigger presence in this production than he was in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).

   Here, he takes on the role of a psychotic Western outlaw with glee and with vigor. He smiles that mad smile he was capable of. His character quotes aphorisms and cackles with fiendish delight as succumbs to madness under the glare of the unforgiving hot desert sun.

   You may never have heard of Dade Coleman as an infamous Western villain. But with Landau’s scenery-chewing performance, his name should be up there in the pantheon of villains who stand out from the pack.