Late 40s westerns are always of interest, existing as they do on the cusp of the genre’s golden age. Some are very clearly products of their era, combining elements that look back feel more light-hearted, while also displaying some of the complexity that would dominate and define the coming decade. Streets of Laredo (1949) fits comfortably into this category by virtue of being a remake of a 30s film (you can read Paul’s take on the original, The Texas Rangers, here), and also the fact that the overall tone of the movie shifts quite dramatically at or around the mid-point. It’s almost as though we’re seeing two different films playing out, though the contrast works quite well and helps focus the spotlight on the journey the characters undertake over the course of its running time.
Streets of Laredo tells the story of three outlaw partners – Jim Dawkins (William Holden), Lorn Reming (Macdonald Carey) and Wahoo Jones (William Bendix). These three have established a profitable line in holding up stagecoaches, and whatever other opportunity comes their way. Theirs is an easy-going partnership, one where friendship reigns supreme and binds them together. The film concentrates on how that friendship is put under pressure by circumstances and is finally broken. The impetus arrives early, but its full import is not realized until later. The fate of these three men is dictated by their stumbling upon a raid on an isolated holding. A man and girl are holed up in a shack while a group of rustlers lay siege. Our three heroes, sensing an opportunity to make a killing at the expense of one party or the other, ride in and drive off the attackers. It turns out the girl, Rannie Carter (Mona Freeman), is the sole survivor in the shack. The gunmen who have been sent packing are led by Charley Calico (Alfonso Bedoya) and are running a protection racket. in the territory. Reluctantly taking the girl along, the trio set off in search of a place where they can leave her safely and satisfy the consciences. However, that encounter with Calico sets in motion a train of events, beginning with an ambush that sees Reming separated from his two friends. In the years that follow, their fortunes are just as divergent as their paths – Reming gains increasing notoriety as a successful bandit while Dawkins and Jones come close to starving. While chance forced the men apart, it reappears and unites them again, albeit briefly. The years alone have cemented Reming’s determination to live outside the law. Dawkins and Jones, while not reformed characters by any means, have yet to become so hardened. The latter two join the Texas rangers, with far from noble aims at the beginning, while Reming plans to use these inside contacts to facilitate his life of crime. Sooner or later, a reckoning must come with the old enemy, Calico, and it’s this which forces all of them to reassess their motives. In brief, Dawkins and Jones have learned that doing the right thing is sometimes reward enough in itself, while Reming has become so used to the outlaw life that he cannot or will not abandon it. And so an uneasy truce is agreed between these men, but can it last? Dawkins and Reming find their approaches pulling them in radically different directions, and the fact that both are attracted to the grown-up Rannie adds even more strain. What remains to be seen is whether the bonds of friendship are strong enough to withstand the pressure of very different sets of priorities.
Along with Whispering Smith, director Leslie Fenton arguably did his best work in Streets of Laredo. These two films saw him collaborating with cameraman Ray Rennahan, and while Streets of Laredo is perhaps not quite as sumptuous, it’s still a handsome looking production. The exteriors, mainly shot on the Paramount ranch as far as I can tell, always look attractive and lend an air of authenticity to the story. And it’s that story (with a screenplay by Charles Marquis Warren), or rather its shape and development, that makes the film worthwhile. The first half of the movie concentrates on the friendship of the three main characters, and does so in a very light and humorous fashion. The comedic aspects of their relationship are played up and take center stage. It’s this section that harks back to earlier films, but the switch takes place at almost exactly the halfway mark. A this point the trio see their easy amiability gradually tested as they begin to drift further apart. Everything takes a much darker turn as Reming starts to reveal the ruthlessness that his eloquence masks. Simultaneously, Dawkins takes his first steps towards eventual redemption, spurred on both by his growing love for Rannie and also his awareness that honesty and ethics have some meaning for him.
William Holden was just about to turn his career around and enter his most successful period at this time. His performance, particularly in the latter half of the movie, looks ahead to that success and also foreshadows the kind of morally challenged heroes that would pop up all through 50s westerns. Holden still had that youthful air about him, but he was also starting to exhibit more of the weariness and self-doubt that he would soon put to good use. It’s easy to see him visibly questioning himself and his previous philosophy as the situation changes around him. As the story progresses, Holden very naturally grows into the part and the Jim Dawkins we see at the end is a very different man to the one who was first introduced. I think that, while the other performances are not without merit, it’s Holden who makes the film what it is. Macdonald Carey was never an actor I could say I was overly impressed by. I don’t mean to say he was poor, but he had a certain blandness that always put me off somewhat. The role of Lorn Reming was a much showier one than Holden was handed, but it was also considerably less complex. Right from the beginning, there’s a glib shallowness about the character, and it therefore requires no great leap to see him stick firmly to the villainous path. However, within the confines of the part, I think it’s fair to say that Carey does pretty much all that’s asked of him.
Frankly, I love watching William Bendix on screen. The man had a wonderful ability to move effortlessly from comedic lug to something altogether more sinister with ease. Bendix was blessed with an extraordinarily expressive face and the camera was able to capture a wide range of emotion there. Streets of Laredo was one of his very few western parts, and I guess my own familiarity with seeing him in totally different settings meant he seemed a little out of place on the frontier. Having said that, he played his part fine; most of the time he’s there for comic relief but he also achieves a measure of soulful pathos that makes his ultimate fate all the more affecting. I was less impressed by Mona Freeman, an actress I haven’t seen an awful lot of to be honest, but that’s maybe down to the way her character was written. She starts out very naive and immature and, despite growing up as the film goes on, never quite loses some of the more irritating traits. The strong supporting cast is filled out by the likes of Ray Teal, Stanley Ridges, Alfonso Bedoya and Clem Bevans.
Streets of Laredo is one of those Paramount productions whose rights now reside with Universal. I don’t think it has seen a DVD release in the US to date. However, there are editions available in various European countries and Australia. I have the German release from Koch Media, which is quite reasonable. Colors appear quite strong and true but the image can be a little soft in places. The print used for the transfer doesn’t seem to be restored as there are various instances of damage visible, although none are especially serious or distracting. The disc offers either the original English soundtrack or a German dub, and there are no subtitles at all. Extra features are a couple of galleries and a booklet (in German) that reproduces the original poster art on the back cover. Generally, I d have to rate this as a satisfying little picture that acts as a bridge between 40s and 50 westerns. The story unfolds nicely and adds layers to the characters as it does so. Factor in a well-drawn performance by William Holden and the result is a better than average example of the late 40s western.