No, we’re not talking about the TV series featuring Clint Eastwood and Frankie Laine’s memorable theme song. This is Henry Hathaway’s claustrophobic western from 1951 with Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward. It’s one of those pictures that seems to have fallen through the cracks and is rarely talked about. I think the reason Rawhide doesn’t enjoy a better reputation can be traced to one essential weakness in the script, or more accurately the characterization, which I’ll look at later.
Tom Owens (Power) is a man with a lot to learn; he’s the son of the stagecoach owner and has been sent west to learn the business. With his apprenticeship nearing its end he’s eager to escape the confines of the isolated swing station which he’s been sharing with stationmaster and ‘tutor’ Edgar Buchanan. The first whiff of danger comes with the news that a notorious outlaw called Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) has broken out of prison and has already committed a murder. The first consequence is that Owens now finds himself saddled with task of putting up a disgruntled female passenger (Susan Hayward) and her child, since company policy dictates that the stage can’t carry them in these circumstances. It should come as no surprise that Zimmerman and his men duly arrive and take control of the station. So far this is all fairly standard fare, but the second half of the film really cranks up the tension as Owens has to play a cat and mouse game with Zimmerman to ensure not only his own survival but that of the woman and child also. The real surprise is who comes to dominate proceedings and gains the upper hand in the end.
Susan Hayward was one of those strong women who seemed to dominate the screen effortlessly. From her first appearance in Rawhide, she grabs hold of the viewer’s attention and never lets go until the credits roll. People often use, and indeed overuse, the term powerhouse performance but it’s no exaggeration to say that Hayward delivers one here. She proves herself tough and resourceful enough to be a match for any of the male characters. However, if this is one of the great strengths of the film it’s also the factor that damages it. While it’s no criticism of Hayward, both Power and Marlowe pale in comparison. Power’s character is a weak one from the outset and remains so for the duration. In certain films that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but westerns tend to suffer when the male lead appears ineffectual. There is a similar problem with Hugh Marlowe’s villain, who is a bit colorless and just doesn’t appear to have the steel required to control a band of desperadoes. In fact, Marlowe looks completely out of place in this setting, although he is given a backstory to help explain the cultured nature of Zimmerman. Now, this kind of thing could hamstring a film, but it’s saved by the performances of Zimmerman’s sidekicks, particularly Jack Elam and Dean Jagger. Elam was an actor who was prone to hamming it up and devouring the scenery, and his turn as the depraved Tevis does just that. However, given Marlowe’s shortcomings, this adds some much needed meat to the outlaws’ threats.
Fox put Rawhide out on DVD in R1 last spring in a box which bundled it together with Garden of Evil and The Gunfighter. Typical of much of Fox’s output, the transfer is excellent and the disc has some nice extras, including a short featurette on Susan Hayward and another on the Lone Pine locations. All told, Rawhide is a fine western with some very tense and genuinely dramatic moments. It’s not quite in the top tier, largely for the reasons I mentioned above, but is well worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time. It’s been suggested to me that there are some similarities to Boetticher’s The Tall T, and I can see where that may be the case. However, the similarities are really only plot points and both the characterization and direction mark them out as quite different films. Having said that, I do think that those who enjoyed Boetticher’s spare tales of tight knit groups in a tense situation would definitely take something positive from Rawhide.
10 thoughts on “Rawhide”
How come there’s no comment about this tight and tense small western? Thriller western, in fact. Or noirish western. Predating Budd Boetticher’s “The Tall T” as well as Anthony Mann’s “Man of the West”. Since I’m French I may have some difficulties expressing my own views with as much accuracy as the person in charge of this blog. Anyway, despite my own limitations, I’ll try to do my best. I love this “indoor western” by director Henry Hathaway who seems to be quite overlooked nowadays compared to such big names as Ford, Mann, Hawks, Daves or Boetticher, for instance. Which I personally regret. I have always been fond of westerns and I still am (I was born in the mid-fifties). And “Rawhide” (whose french title happens to be “L’Attaque de la Malle-Poste”) ranks among my favorite ones. First of all, I’d say Hathaway’s camera (Milton Krasner’s in fact) makes very good use of the location (e.g. Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, CA, in the Sierra Nevada). There’s a fine balance between inside and outside shots and the photography actually has an oustanding black and white quality. Hathaway knows exactly what directing means and this picture stands out as a perfect example of his supreme mastery. Jack Elam’s character deserves special attention, which can’t escape any western buff, of course, and in fact he steals the show. I have been told that the lead actor should have been Richard Widmark instead of Hugh Marlowe. Is that true? Marlowe’s acting is very fine, in my opinion. You never know exactly what’s on his mind. How is he going to respond to the different situations he has to face? Hard to predict. Hence a very effective suspense. I must say that the french release of this film on DVD is not far from being perfect. The only (slight) problem I might have with Suzan Hayward’s character has to do with her ever perfect hair cut (a recurring detail in “Garden of Evil”). I always wonder : how does she manage?
Hi Samuel. This is indeed a fine little movie, a tense, claustrophobic piece of western noir.
I’m a great admirer of Hathaway’s work myself, and I’ve featured a number of his films on this site. I quite agree that he’s underrated, but I feel that this may be a result of his not having a distinctive visual style that can be traced throughout his body of work. He was a consummate professional though, and his films are almost always extremely well crafted and of high quality.
That’s interesting about Widmark being under consideration. I hadn’t heard that before, but I could quite easily envisage him in the role.
Thanks for stopping by Samuel and taking the time to comment. I always appreciate input from readers and value their feedback. I hope you’ll be back again.
Good western and I’m glad you have highlighted it , Colin. Have to disagree with you on Hugh Marlowe. I think he’s a fine actor and plays Zimmerman quite menacingly – you are never sure how he is going to react.
Marlowe’s character overshadows the nominal lead, Power.
Of course, Susan Hayward can’t be overshadowed by anyone!
Hugh also effective as Susan’s husband in GARDEN OF EVIL.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve watched this movie so I’d really need to sit down with it again to say whether I judged Marlowe too harshly. Our perceptions do alter over time so it’s possible I may view his performance in a different light now.
I just found this review, I watched “Rawhide” again yesterday and was going to suggest you review it, but as usual you got there first. I really love this movie, have since I found a used copy on VHS about 15 years ago. I see your point about Hayward’s “powerhouse” performance, but I’m not sure I agree that Tyrone Power or Hugh Marlowe necessarily pale in comparison, or that it’s not intended given the natures of the characters. Certainly this movie belongs to Susan Hayward and Jack Elam, and it’s clear as a rifle shot who comes out on top in the end.
Bruce, I’ll admit I may have been a bit overcritical of certain aspects of the movie, such as those you’ve mentioned. I recently read a very positive appraisal of the movie here and discussed some of these matters. It’s over five years now since I last viewed the film and I honestly can’t say whether or not I’d feel differently about it.
I went over there and read Stormy’s review of the movie, and I like his analysis of why Tyrone Powers’ character is so reticent. (I also like that picture on his website of the Rio Grande…I’ve been on that bridge where it’s taken from, it’s a railroad bridge) Since you confess to occasionally checking out other people’s opinions on films, I’ll throw in that I reviewed “Rawhide” myself 10 years ago on Amazon, when it was still only available on VHS. (I’d do one of those one-click “HERE” things but I don’t know how) If you ever decide to check it out I’d be honored, considering how much I enjoy your reviews. Anyway, you, me, and Stormy Weathers all agree that Susan Hayward is one foxy chick. That’s really all that matters here.
Found it Bruce! I always like to see different people’s takes on movies – the best way to learn I reckon – and you’ve offered a nice concise summation of the strengths of the film. Anyone who wishes to check it out can do so here.
Seen this a good half dozen times in the last decade and it never fails to entertain. Nice cast, good direction and a nice look make this a keeper. Nice work as always, Colin. I am enjoying going over your older postings.
In truth, I’ve been meaning to give this one a go again soon as i think I was overcritical of some aspects when I wrote this piece years ago – I think it’s a better film than I might have suggested.