If you mention Fritz Lang’s name to most film fans they are most likely to think of expressionism, thrillers, and films such as M and Metropolis. It is not so typical to associate the German director’s name with classic Hollywood westerns but he did make a handful of these. To be exact, he made three westerns: The Return of Frank James (1940), Western Union (1941) and Rancho Notorious (1952). I think it would be fair to say that Western Union is the least known of them, but perhaps it deserves better. It is quite representative of 1940s westerns in that it tries to avoid some of the more juvenile aspects of the previous decade’s output but lacks the psychological depth that would come in the 50s. Although it may not bear the hallmarks of classic Lang, it does contain those of the classic western.
It’s not for nothing that the building of the railroad has figured so prominently in so many great westerns, from Ford’s The Iron Horse through to Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West. It was this massive undertaking that at once opened up the west and also signalled the closing of the frontier way of life. For some film-makers it represented the advance of law, order and civil society; for others it stood only for the gradual encroachment of the corrupt influences of the east. Western Union deals not with the railroad but that other piece of progress that would drag America into the modern world and relegate the Old West to the realm of mythology – the laying of the transcontinental telegraph wire.
The film opens with outlaw Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) attempting to outrun a posse and happening upon telegraph boss Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger). Creighton has been injured and is barely able to move with a busted ribcage. Shaw is desperate to evade capture and is on the point of taking Creighton’s horse and leaving the stricken man to his fate. However, his conscience pricks at him and he decides to take a risk and bring the helpless man along. That proves to be the turning point for Shaw, for when he later finds employment with the telegraph company as a scout it is Creighton who offers him the chance to go respectable. The other main character is the dandified easterner, Blake (Robert Young). Blake has come west to work for the telegraph, and soon enters into a rivalry with Shaw over Creighton’s sister. The movie, like the characters themselves, has a lot of ground to cover and is played out against the back-story of the Civil War. It includes a well-staged battle with some drunken Indians and a confrontation with a gang of renegade confederate raiders led by Shaw’s own brother.
Randolph Scott is excellent as a man torn between a lingering loyalty to his brother and the old ways, and a desire to turn over a new leaf. If you’re under the impression that Scott would not come into his own until a decade later in the films of Budd Boetticher then think again – this is definitely one of his better performances. Dean Jagger’s part doesn’t call for much more than stoic determination and he does that just fine. As for Robert Young, he’s never been an actor that I’ve cared much for and this showing did little to change my opinion. The support cast features some great and familiar faces, not least Barton MacLane (who seemed to appear everywhere in the thirties and forties) as Scott’s thoroughly good-for-nothing brother. Add in an impossibly young looking Chill Wills as a tobacco-chewing (and spitting) telegraph man, and John Carradine as the company doctor and there’s not much to complain about. As I said above, there isn’t much to distinguish this as a Fritz Lang film, but he still delivers a polished, professional picture and does include a few typically dark moments – particularly the ‘shock’ climax.
The film is out on DVD in R2 from Optimum in their Western Classics line. The transfer is mediocre at best and has clearly undergone no restoration, with the colours looking quite washed out. Having said that, the movie is worth seeking out, but I can’t help wishing that Fox would see their way to releasing it in R1 with an improved transfer.