A Lawless Street

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The snarling beast… can’t you hear it growling out there? Listen! This town is like a wild animal in chains, Molly. It doesn’t fight back right away, it just lies there and snarls, waiting for a chance to pounce on you.

The hero stalked by his past, living with the legacy of a reputation earned the hard way but not actively sought out, is a common enough theme in westerns. Generally, the inevitable confrontation with the past is undertaken only with the utmost reluctance, with the full knowledge that destruction rather than salvation may await. What’s less common though is a scenario where it’s the cumulative effects of times gone by that are addressed, and where aspects of those times are actually yearned for. A Lawless Street (1955) has such a concept at its heart – a man haunted not by misdeeds but by missed opportunities, and slowly being worn down by conscience, regret and just a hint of fear.

Calem Ware (Randolph Scott) is the marshal of Medicine Bend, and was initially brought in to ensure this frontier town abides by the civilized values one of its leading citizens, Asaph Dean (James Bell), wants to see upheld. Ware is one of those itinerant lawmen sometimes referred to as town tamers, having worked some tough western settlements and built up a name for himself as a gunman of note in the process. One of the things I particularly like about the 50s western is the way such aspects of a man’s character or background are rarely glossed over or glamorized. The memorable opening scene has a lone horseman slowly ride along the empty main street, his body language and general demeanor suggesting he has something serious on his mind, and when the camera zooms in and focuses on his sidearm, then we know pretty well the exact nature of his business. This man is in town to settle a score with the marshal and word of what’s probably in store doesn’t take long to get around. Ware is the type who knows only too well the importance of maintaining a facade, he makes a big play of his apparent nonchalance, projecting an image of supreme confidence regardless of the danger that lie in his path, Yet the viewer knows this for what it is; the brief quote I added at the beginning is a line he lets slip to his landlady as she prepares breakfast for him before he sets off to do his duty. If we have any doubts though, it’s made clear when he returns to his office after the inevitable shooting – the stress of forever living in the shadow of violent threats and the debilitating effects of knowing he’s had to cut short another life are plain to see once he has closed the door against the prying eyes of the townsfolk. The local doctor (Wallace Ford) is aware  of this, and says as much when he later helps to tend to Ware’s injuries after a bruising encounter with the dead man’s brother. The point here is that there’s a marked contrast between the private and the public face of Calem Ware, something that’s further explored when a musical star, Tally Dickenson (Angela Lansbury), arrives to put on a show at the theater. Ware and Tally have a shared past, a framed photo of her stashed in his room alludes to that early on, but its true nature is only revealed gradually. While much of the plot revolves around the machinations of a couple of businessmen (Warner Anderson & John Emery) who want Ware out of the way, and hire gunfighter Harley Baskam (Michael Pate) to that end, the heart of the picture is driven by the relationship between Tally and the marshal, and indeed the marshal’s own intrapersonal relationship.

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I don’t believe I’ve seen a film by Joseph H Lewis that wasn’t interesting, either in terms of theme or the visual language he employed in the telling. Although the plot of A Lawless Street isn’t especially original, the way Lewis goes about presenting it elevates it all considerably. Apart from one brief sequence, the entire movie plays out within the confines of Medicine Bend, with all the significant events taking place indoors. The director, and cameraman Ray Rennahan, creates a look and mood which approach film noir at some points and contain a fair amount of symbolism. The image below is, of course, a notable example — the wounded Ware hiding out in his own jail, the shadows of his past and his sense of duty pinning him in place just as surely as the shadows cast by the bars. Note too how the real man seems small and tense next to the solid and imposing image of himself. In fact, a great deal of this film is concerned with the concepts of illusion and reality; one of the main sets is the theater where Tally performs, and what is the theater if not a palace of illusion. As Tally plays her role on the stage, and the marshal assumes his watching from the box seat, the reality is only shown when they move backstage. In the same way, Ware’s office represents his “backstage”, the sanctuary which allows him to strip away the greasepaint of invincibility. Also, let’s not forget the notion of rebirth, the allusion to spirituality, which is frequently found in 50s westerns. The climax toys with the idea of resurrection, of a man back from the dead to reclaim his position in society, and by doing so attaining the spiritual and emotional equilibrium for which he’s been yearning.

Randolph Scott has been featured on this site more than any other actor and I guess most of the reasons for his enduring appeal as a western lead have been covered in depth. For me, A Lawless Street is yet another step along the path Scott was treading in the post-war years, a path that would culminate in the iconic roles he played for both Boetticher and Peckinpah. The part of Calem Ware has enough depth to make it interesting, and Scott had acquired sufficient gravitas by this stage in his career to render his portrayal credible. Angela Lansbury has had a long and distinguished career but the western isn’t a genre that she’s had much association with. A Lawless Street is the only genuine example as far as I’m concerned, as The Harvey Girls is a musical first and foremost. I understand Ms Lansbury has been dismissive of the film and her participation in it, which is a bit of a shame. Aside from the fact the whole production has much to recommend it, her own role is a pretty good one with enough drama and internal conflict to give her something to get her teeth into, and of course there’s the opportunity to show off her singing skills in the theater number.

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Michael Pate, John Emery and Warner Anderson are a fine trio of villains: Pate gets across the cunning and menace of his character very successfully, and even outdraws Scott quite spectacularly, while Anderson and Emery are as slimy a pair of puppet masters as you could wish for. Wallace Ford is one of those character actors whose presence is always welcome, and he had a strong pedigree in westerns. As the town doctor, and Scott’s only true friend, he has a good share of screen time and is solid and reassuring throughout. Of the remaining support players, both Jeanette Nolan and Jean Parker deserve a mention for the sense of poignancy and pathos they bring to their small but pivotal roles.

A Lawless Street has been available on DVD for many years via Columbia/Sony, and looks reasonably good. The 16:9 transfer could use a bit more sharpness and some minor work but it’s quite acceptable as it stands. In my opinion, this film is as near the top tier of Scott westerns as makes no difference. The theme, built around a standard genre plot, is rich and has the kind of depth which makes it a pleasure to revisit. The direction by Joseph H Lewis has the pace, the eye for composition and the stylistic flourishes that make his work a rewarding experience. When you factor in the mature and assured performance of Scott, who was very close to hitting his peak, then the result is a deeply satisfying film. All things considered, I give this movie my strong recommendation.