Ever wonder why some movies don’t quite work even when everything one might reasonably associate with success seems to be in place, on paper at least. I’m not talking about outright flops here, failures where all the flaws are appear to be almost proudly displayed. No, I mean those vaguely disappointing films, the kind we come to initially with all kinds of heightened and elevated expectations due to the pedigree of the people involved. When those expectations aren’t met there is often an aftertaste to the experience that has a tartness and bitterness to it. Such films can rankle in a way a more brazen turkey never will. Ten Wanted Men (1955) was one of those titles that had provoked dissatisfaction in me when I viewed it. The deficit between what it promised and what it delivered was a source of discontent for me for a long time, and so I thought I might revisit it to see how it would fare when approached in a different frame of mind. Read on…
Western movies whose plots revolve around range wars are legion, that collision of ambition, greed and vanity providing storylines and thematic possibilities that are ripe for exploitation. When a little extra spice in the form of romantic rivalry or sexual obsession is added to the mix, it’s not unreasonable to think that what is finally served up will be even more tantalizing. Such is the case with Ten Wanted Men, where after an exciting and tense yet ultimately deceptive opening, the character of John Stewart (Randolph Scott) is introduced. He’s just had a harmless laugh at the expense of his greenhorn brother (Lester Matthews) and nephew Howie (Skip Homeier). Stewart is a big man in the territory, and the lavish party he is hosting is a testament to his generosity and largesse. As this is a fairly quick moving picture not much time is wasted in presenting the main source of conflict which will carry the viewer through till the climax. This is embodied in the person of Wick Campbell (Richard Boone), a neighbor of Stewart’s and a rival for the right to dominate the land.
If that all sounds somewhat feudal, the theme is further alluded to by the fact that Campbell not only yearns for but also feels himself entitled to the affections of Maria Segura (Donna Martell), the young Mexican girl he has nurtured. That she does not reciprocate that feeling is one thing, but matters are brought to a head by the interest Howie shows in the girl. When she seeks sanctuary and protection under Stewart’s roof all of Campbell’s pent up resentment and thwarted passion burst forth. Emotionally burnt and humiliated, he must have vengeance, and now it won’t be enough to merely supplant Stewart as top dog, there is a debt that must be repaid in full and in kind. So it is that Campbell hires a crew of gunmen led by Scavo (Leo Gordon) with the aim of drawing his rivals into a shooting war.
So, did Ten Wanted Men fare better this time round? Well, yes and no. It is not some misunderstood and unfairly maligned gem. However, it’s not an irredeemable dud either. Director Bruce Humberstone is not someone with extensive experience of the western, I mainly think of him as the man in charge of a handful of entertaining Charlie Chan features as well as the proto-noir I Wake Up Screaming. That said, his handling of this movie is fine, if not especially remarkable. The Old Tucson locations are attractively shot by Wilfrid Cline, who has the frequently used interiors looking good too, while the essentially minimalist score by Paul Sawtell has a moody and vaguely melancholy quality to it that I found appealing. These are all more or less pluses with the sharp pace and abundance of incident contributing a little more weight to that side of the scales.
Nevertheless, it’s not a wholly satisfying experience, certainly not in the way the level of talent involved might encourage one to believe. I think it stems from the writing, or aspects of it at any rate. The script is by Kenneth Gamet from a story by Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch. Gamet had scripted a number good westerns, many featuring Randolph Scott – A Lawless Street, Coroner Creek, Man in the Saddle, The Doolins of Oklahoma to name just a few. Harriet Frank had a compact but extraordinarily strong list of credits. She was a writer on the underrated Silver River, provided the story for Nicholas Ray’s Run for Cover, would go on adapt two Martin Ritt/Paul Newman pictures in Hud and Hombre (the latter offering a memorable role for Richard Boone) from novels by Larry McMurtry and Elmore Leonard respectively, and scripted a Vincente Minnelli film I’m particularly fond of in Home from the Hill. As such, we are not talking about writers with a poor track record here. And yet some things don’t quite gel.
There is not much to fault in the performance of Randolph Scott, and in fairness there rarely was in his work throughout the 1950s, but the character itself is a little lacking. He starts out with that characteristic gallantry firmly to the fore and then later lets the harder core become more apparent as circumstances conspire to try him. However, there’s a flatness to the arc this character describes, as though the experiences he has do not appear to shape him and there is no sense that I can detect of his having learned anything about himself by the time the credits roll. Then there is Boone, a brooding and truculent presence early on, he grows more tightly coiled and repressed as he relentlessly applies pressure to his enemies. It’s only near the end though that another dimension makes an appearance, when his desperation and frustration strip away restraint as he confronts Martell and confesses the full extent of his infatuation. This is one of the better and more intense moments yet it comes too late in proceedings. Of course Scott and his producing partner Harry Joe Brown clearly saw enough in what Boone put on screen to hire him for the pivotal role of Frank Usher in The Tall T.
Skip Homeier must have made an impression too as he would also get cast in both The Tall T and the later Comanche Station. Jocelyn Brando has the biggest female role in the picture but her romance with Scott has little spark about it and it’s largely superfluous. In a crowded field of talented supporting players Leo Gordon is as malevolent as ever and one could hardly ask for a finer chief henchman. Lee Van Cleef makes the most of a showy bit part and Denver Pyle exits relatively early, but not before his slyly provocative troublemaker brings matters to a head. Finally, mentions ought to be made for the likes of Kathleen Crowley, Dennis Weaver, Tom Powers and Alfonso Bedoya.
Ten Wanted Men came out on DVD from Sony years ago, looking sharp and colorful in an open-matte presentation. If it has subsequently appeared anywhere in high definition, I don’t recall hearing about it. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never heard anything especially positive about this movie and I can’t say it enthused me much when I first saw it. Returning to it now after the passage of a good many years, I still wouldn’t go so far as to say it deserves reassessment. Nevertheless, it’s far from an objectively bad piece of work. Certain aspects of the writing and characterization lack the fire it needs to raise it yet there are points of interest and enjoyment to be found as there are in almost all of Scott’s westerns. All told, I can’t say I regretted revisiting this title.