Ride a Crooked Trail


Anyone who has been a regular, or even occasional, visitor to this site will be aware of my fondness for westerns of the 1950s. And even a cursory glance through the various pieces I’ve written on these movies will reveal a particular term that crops up again and again – redemption. It was the overriding theme of westerns of the period and there’s no getting away from it. Such a concept inevitably involves a form of atonement for sins of the past and/or a coming to terms with the pain of the present. Superficially, revisiting this theme may appear either grim or formulaic, but I’ve found that this is rarely the case. It really boils down to the approach adopted by the filmmakers and the spin they put on it all. Ride a Crooked Trail (1958) is at heart another tale examining the journey towards redemption but comes at it from a slightly unexpected angle, a refreshingly lighthearted one.

The movie hits the ground running, literally. The first image is of a rider galloping across open country, with another horseman hot on his heels. As the pursuer smoothly unsheathes and fires his rifle the fugitive has his mount shot out from under him. Scrambling to his feet, he scurries off towards the protection of rocks and high ground. But it’s an illusory form of shelter masking a precipitous drop into a deep chasm. Still this man is nothing if not lucky as a misstep by his hunter sees him plunge over the edge to his death. The fugitive is the wonderfully named Joe Maybe (Audie Murphy), a would-be bank robber running from the law. Taking the dead man’s gear with him, he rides into the nearest town and immediately finds himself in a tricky situation. In the absence of a marshal the shotgun-toting Judge Kyle (Walter Matthau) is the sole representative of the law and just happens to be on the lookout for a wanted man by the name of Joe Maybe. Just as it looks as though our hero has leaped from the frying pan into the fire, another stroke of dubious good fortune arises. The man whose outfit he took possession of happened to be a marshal of some repute by the name of Noonan, known far and wide for his distinctive broken star badge. Kyle, whose penchant for dispatching miscreants with his shotgun is matched only by his fondness for the whiskey bottle, automatically assumes that Joe is actually Noonan and welcomes him warmly. In fact, he duly appoints Joe town marshal and seems thrilled to have his burden lightened. Joe is initially reluctant to run with this masquerade but, ever the opportunist, sees the potential for an easy score in a trusting town that’s soon to be swimming in money from the trail drives. Yet complications soon appear: the arrival of an old acquaintance, Tessa (Gia Scala), signals both temptation and imminent danger. Tessa’s lover is Sam Teeler (Henry Silva), a ruthless type also eying the lucrative prize in the bank vault. And on top of this the gradually dawning suspicion of Kyle, the kindness of the townsfolk and the adoration of an orphaned boy all begin to prick at Joe’s conscience.

Ride a Crooked Trail was scripted by the prolific Borden Chase, a writer whose work often wove lighter elements into generally serious stories. While this film isn’t a comedy there are strong comedic aspects, especially evident in the arch, knowing dialogue and the innuendo-rich circumstances surrounding Joe’s enforced domestic arrangements. As I said at the beginning, everything revolves around Joe’s path towards redemption. There’s adversity to be overcome and ghosts to be laid, but the performances, Chase’s script and Jesse Hibbs’ direction all add a sense of warmth to the film that sets it a little apart from other variations on this traditional theme. Where many other 50s westerns trade on intensity, fatalism or psychological complexity, Ride a Crooked Trail has heart and sincerity.

I get the impression that Audie Murphy tends to be viewed as a kind of standard western hero, a straight arrow if you like with the minimum of complexity. However, his best performances, and there are more of those than many would have you believe, point out the fallacy in that assumption. Murphy was a man deeply affected by his wartime experiences but the heroic image and clean-cut looks helped disguise that. When the occasion or role demanded he was able to channel a degree of ambiguity and in Ride a Crooked Trail we see some of that beneath the surface good humor. Even the name of his character, Joe Maybe, is suggestive of moral ambivalence. I think one of the best scenes in the movie is the quiet little interlude where Murphy chats with the orphan about growing up alone, the judgments made based on dubious ancestry and the road one is expected to follow. As it develops we learn more about Joe’s own past and even the origin of his curious name, although I think the explanation of the latter would actually have been better left unsaid. Either way, it’s an affecting and subtle little scene well-played by Murphy. The film also benefits from fine support from Walter Matthau and Gia Scala. Matthau was an immensely talented comic actor and I feel he struck the right balance here between comedy and drama, the judge coming across as simultaneously sardonic, ornery and cunning. The private life of Irish-Italian actress Gia Scala was one of those Hollywood tragedies, a sensitive beauty whose shyness led to alcohol problems and an early death. On screen though she was sassy and confident, and more than held her own with Murphy and Matthau. Now if ever a man was born to play villains, then it was surely Henry Silva. The man had a real knack for portraying menace, and it’s too bad he doesn’t get more screen time in this film.

At one time Ride a Crooked Trail wasn’t the easiest film to track down on DVD but it’s now fairly widely available in the US and Europe – incidentally, I see that a company called 101 Films have this title along with a raft of other Universal westerns up for pre-order at Amazon UK. I have the German edition released by Koch and it’s a typically strong effort. The anamorphic scope transfer is colorful and detailed and displays little in the way of damage. There’s the choice of viewing the movie with the original English soundtrack or a German dub, and there are no subtitles of any kind to worry about. The extra features consist of the theatrical trailer, a gallery and an inlay leaflet in German. In many ways this can be seen as a typical late 50s western, which is far from being a bad thing, but the lighter, warmer atmosphere gives it an extra bit of charm in my eyes. I don’t think I’d place it up with the very best Audie Murphy westerns but it’s still a strong piece of work, and I reckon it’s a rewarding film to watch.

39 thoughts on “Ride a Crooked Trail

  1. I really like the sound of the lighter tone – and Borden Chase was certainly a major writer of the period – thanks chum and very curious about these UK releases – thanks for the link!


  2. This film does have a really strong cast Colin, which certainly makes it even moire attractive and I’m glad to see 101 are putting it out as the price of your Koch edition has become a tad steep …


  3. Walter Matthau was still several years from becoming a star when he made RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL, and this was probably his longest role up to 1958. It’s fun to see him as a young man playing a much older man.


    • Well Matthau always seemed to play a bit older than he really was – he had the features for it – but his role here made it even more noticeable, what with the white hair and all. His career and his screen persona were still developing at this point although he had done interesting work in The Indian Fighter, The Kentuckian and Bigger Than Life.


  4. Good review ( as always), Colin. I have seen this Murphy film (have a copy of it) but it is not one I am that familiar with, nonetheless. I really will have to get it off the shelves and re-watch now.

    In your previous post you mentioned some of your favourite Murphy roles and I would like to agree with those choices and add “Night Passage”, the Anthony Mann film-that-never-was. I thought Audie as The Utica Kid played one of his career-best roles in a film I think underrated. What are your thoughts, I wonder?


    • I wrote a very short piece on Night Passage some time back here. It’s a film I’ve come to appreciate a lot more over time, seeing a lot of positives in it, not the least of which is a fine anti-heroic turn by Murphy.

      Toby wrote two articles on the movie back in early 2013 which stimulated a fair bit of interesting discussion, and encouraged me to look at the film anew. You can find both of those here and here.


  5. Colin, I wouldn’t have believed it if I was told that Walter Matthau acted in a western, so this is a complete surprise for me; as is the wannabe bank robber Audie Murphy who I last saw in “Posse From Hell” where he plays the good guy. In fact, I don’t recall seeing Matthau in his early films, of the 50s & 60s where he must have been quite young. I probably first saw him in “The Odd Couple,” rather predictable that. I share your fondness for early westerns and I often dream of sitting with a pile of them over many weekends.


    • Prashant, I think most people associate Matthau with comedy and that’s perfectly understandable given the memorable nature of his roles and movies within that genre. However, as with all the best actors, he was very versatile and could move easily from type of picture to another. As I mentioned earlier he appeared in a trio of westerns in the 50s – this one, The Indian Fighter and The Kentuckian, and then also made the wonderful Lonely Are the Brave in 1962.
      His adaptability is also apparent from the fine thrillers he made in the 70s – The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Laughing Policeman and the criminally underrated Charley Varrick.

      As for sitting with a pile of westerns of a weekend, that’s pretty much routine for me!


      • Colin, I haven’t seen any of Matthau’s other westerns and I’m glad I’ve those to look forward to. He was a very fine actor and, yes, “versatile” too, that he should have had no qualms about playing Mr. Wilson in “Dennis the Menace.” Was comedy his first choice or did it come about later? I also vaguely remember seeing him as a villain unless I’m thinking of somebody else.


        • Matthau certainly played the villain on a number of occasions – the two westerns mentioned for example, while Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Charade also spring to mind.


  6. I very much agree with your thoughts on Murphy’s acting and his talent for darker roles. Someone mentioned “Night Passage” but as another example, if not mentioned, go get “No Name On The Bullet.”

    In that role he walks a line between controlled anger and self satisfaction in the havoc he is creating. What may be a bit of a disappointment in the ending takes nothing away from Murphy’s enigmatic character.

    Now to find “Ride A Crooked Trail.”


  7. I wholeheartedly agree with your description of this film as “a refreshing and light-hearted one”, and for this is reason I have always enjoyed ” Ride a Crooked Trail”.

    In my opinion, Walter Matthau steals every scene he appears in, and, if my observation is correct, Audie Murphy seems more bemused than annoyed at this transgression; “Ride” being Murphy’s 23rd film – a majority filmed for Universal, he, no doubt, felt secure in his tenure at that studio.


    • Hello Rod. I don’t think Murphy had any problem with Matthau stealing scenes either. There’s a lovely bit of business early on in the movie where Murphy accompanies Matthau into the court to sit in on a hearing. As Matthau takes his seat on the bench he’s still got his cigar in hand. Casting around for a place to leave it, he notices the little statue of justice nearby and promptly deposits the stogie on one of the scales. To me this looks like Matthau improvised it on the spur of the moment and Murphy, as you say, looks quite bemused.


  8. After reading your review, I watched the movie on the weekend, and enjoyed it immensely. Actually, I have been watching a fair number of Audie Murphy westerns recently, and they have generally been rewarding, aside from the painful Kid From Texas. As you said, Murphy deserves more credit as an actor, and he played an excellent straight man, which I suspect is harder than it looks, especially when he is given an excellent script. In fact, I would love to see a modern remake of the film.


    • Great to hear you saw the movie and enjoyed it too, Andrew. It looks like there is a bit more appreciation of the talents and abilities of Murphy these days. I think most of his films do deliver, and the man himself rarely disappoints.
      You know, I’ve never seen The Kid from Texas – I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. Thanks for dropping by and commenting on this one.


    • There’s always stuff that we’ve not seen for ages, isn’t there? And not necessarily movies we didn’t like, just the sheer volume pushes titles further back and they get kind of lost in the mix. Hope you get a chance to check it out – there’s a, just about watchable, copy up online.


  9. LOL
    I’ll need to live another 50 years just to get through my collection. And speaking of the film’s writer, Borden Chase, check out an episode of Robert Taylor’s THE DETECTIVES called “Longshot” from 1960 that was written by Chase. I have 60 or so episodes on disc but there are some on You-tube. Worth a look, with of course a review up at the usual place.


  10. An excellent series in my humble opinion. There are quite a few great episodes that i have taken in so far. Three that really stand out are BODYGUARDS with noir fav, Charles McGraw guesting, MASQUERDE with L Tierney and HOUSECALL with
    Pernell Roberts. Reviews up of course. Robert Taylor was quite good here as he had the weather beaten look that worked so well in his duster and noir films.


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