Backlash (1956) is one of those films that seems to have slipped through the cracks. I’m not sure if it would be correct to call it a forgotten film, but it’s certainly not one that you hear mentioned much when the genre’s notables come up for discussion. It fits neatly into the “psychological western” category due to its less than perfect hero and mature themes. At first glance it may appear to be just another tale of a man seeking revenge (not that that’s a bad thing in itself), but as the story develops it becomes clear that this is a film which is going to dig a little deeper.
The opening shots of the film, with a lone rider traversing a rugged landscape to come upon a man filling in a grave, set the tone for the movie and establish the isolation of the two principal characters. The fact that both of them are soon under attack from a gunman perched in the rocks high above underlines the danger of the quest they are about to set out upon. There is also an undercurrent of suspicion and mistrust that will follow them now as neither one can be sure that the other isn’t responsible for setting the ambush. The rider is Karyl Orton (Donna Reed) and the gravedigger is Jim Slater (Richard Widmark); both are in search of the truth, and maybe $60,000 in gold. Years before, five men died at this spot at the hands of the Apache but one other escaped with his life and the gold, leaving his partners to their fate. Slater believes the father he never knew was one of the five, and Karyl believes her estranged husband to be another. With Slater seeking vengeance and closure, and the woman with her eyes on the gold they set out to identify and track down the mysterious sixth man. The manhunt pitches both these characters into one perilous situation after another, from a murderous Apache raid to a range war. Along the way their relationship slowly develops, although it’s no smooth ride for either of them – at one point Slater hauls off and belts Karyl full in the face for putting his life in danger, and she later takes an almost perverse pleasure in sealing up his wounds with a heated blade. By the end of the movie both these people will have to face down their own personal demons and maybe take something of real value away from the experience.
Backlash was made at a time when Sturges’ and Widmark’s stars were on the rise. John Sturges had just come off the magnificent Bad Day at Black Rock and would shortly go on to make Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He was close to his peak at this point and handled just about every aspect of the picture perfectly. Action and suspense blend seamlessly together and the Arizona locations look particularly fine through the wide lens. Widmark was also doing some of his best work around this time and this film must have helped him along nicely. His bony features and distinctive nasal giggle had landed him plenty of villainous roles but they were also ideally suited to playing the kind of damaged men that psychological westerns thrived on. He turns in a great performance here, obsessively digging into the past, searching for the truth and searching for himself – all the while fearing what he might learn yet unable to stop himself. Conversely, Donna Reed’s movie career was soon to end and she was close to moving into a successful run on television. With an impressive list of credits behind her she does well as the feisty, courageous woman-with-a-past. The support cast are solid too with Barton MacLane and an eye-rolling John McIntire standing out especially. A good screenplay is key to the success of any film and having Borden Chase’s name attached never hurt any. It struck me that the episodic structure and the underlying theme bore at least a passing resemblance to the writer’s earlier Winchester 73.
Backlash has had a number of releases on DVD in R2 but the UK disc appears to be the only one with a proper widescreen image – there’s a R4 available but I’m not sure how it’s presented. Optimum’s UK disc has the movie looking very nice in a 2:1 anamorphic transfer, and I’ve been reliably informed that this is indeed the correct ratio for the film. There’s very little damage to be seen and colors and detail all looked excellent to my eyes. Surprisingly, for an Optimum release, the theatrical trailer is included but that’s it as far as extras go. However, when the main feature is there in OAR and looking good then I’m not about to complain. Backlash is a good example of a high quality mid 50s western – one that I rate and recommend.