Watching Harry Horner’s “The Man from Del Rio” last night started me thinking about a sub-genre of the Western, the Town-Tamer film. Now the tough S.O.B. who rides in to clean out a lawless town probably goes back to William S. Hart, if not even earlier. What is “Hell’s Hinges” (1916) if not the tale of a reformed badman who takes on former pals and triumphs over them? And in a way “The Man from Del Rio” offers a distant echo of that theme in that its protagonist, Dan Robles, is initially strenuously courted by ex-gunfighter Ed Bannister to help make the town of Mesa “a wide-open town.” Of course this film was made forty years after Hart’s, and Anthony Quinn brought his own reading to the Robles character. Because he usually played the badman in his westerns, the audience half expected Quinn to give in to his darker side–especially once he learns that the Anglo townsfolk only admire his skill with a gun, not the “Mex” who holds it.
This is another unique aspect of the town-tamer film, as opposed to the law-and-order film. In the latter, the hero always has a recognized status as a sheriff or a marshal. In the former, the hero is a free-lancer who works for pay and is both feared and resented by the people he’s protecting. There comes a point in the town-tamer film when the town turns on its “savior” and wants him just to be gone. “The Man from Del Rio” is a bit unique in that there is nothing that Robles really does to earn the town’s disapproval–it’s just that he’s Mexican and therefore an outsider. In a later, greater town-tamer film, Edward Dmytryk’s “Warlock,” Quinn, playing town-tamer Clay Blaisdell’s partner, Tom Morgan, will joke that he’s “a social pariah” when he’s excluded from a town celebration, but as Robles, his shunning at a town dance rankles him. Only Breezy, the thoroughly-disreputable town drunk (another great performance by character actor Whit Bissell) will have anything to do with him socially. This is probably as good a time as any to point up the vitally important role that character actors played in bringing these black-and-white morality tales to life. In addition to Bissell “The Man from Del Rio” boasted the talents of Peter Whitney as Bannister, the would-be Boss of Mesa, ultimately revealed as a blow-hard and a coward, Douglas Fowley as the sarcastic but ultimately compassionate town doctor, Katy Jurado as his housekeeper and part-time nurse whose love will finally make the wounded Robles whole. There was such a wealth of talent at the time that the film could afford to use up talent in bit parts. John Larch and western favorite Guinn “Big Boy” Williams were two of Godfrey’s three gunmen, Douglas Spencer (who had already played Scotty the reporter in Howard Hawks’ “The Thing” and the Swedish settler in George Stevens’ “Shane”, and would go on to play the imperious Monitor, ruler of Metaluna in “This Island Earth”) was cast as the cowardly Sheriff Tillman, run off by Whitney’s thugs. Best of all was Barry Atwater as the elegant soft-spoken top gun Dan Ritchy who once did something so terrible in the town of Del Rio that it turned Dan Robles from a peaceful farmer to a gunman living for revenge. It was Robles shame at not being able to “be a man” because he had no gun that turned him. Initially dismissed by Ritchy as just “a man sitting in front of the saloon,” he tells Robles to go find a piece of another legend. Perhaps the sad thing is, for all his skill with a gun, Robles will never become the legend that Ritchy was. He just doesn’t look the part.
Now the “nobility” of town-tamers is Henry Fonda’s elegant, faro-dealing Blaisdell who sports a pair of gold-handled six-shooters, every inch a legend-in-the-making, but the most extreme of the type is Robert Mitchum’s laconic Clint Tollinger in Richard Wilson’s “Man with the Gun.” He lets Ted de Corsia’s local villain “Frenchy” Lescaux know that he’s had enough of him in the best William S. Hart fashion by burning his saloon down. No wonder the townsfolk want him gone! In Dmytryk’s “Warlock,” which probably stands as the apotheosis of the town-tamer film, Fonda does the same, but as a funerary tribute to his dead pal Morgan, rather than as an extreme example of street-justice.
All three films, made in a four-year period, have a common narrative arc. Badman comes to town, frightens off the sheriff and makes plans to become the town boss, concerned citizens pool their resources and hire a free-lance gunman, Robles because he’s there and has gunned down three of the badman’s imported outlaws, Tollinger and Blaisdell because their unique skills are already well-advertised. Robles, the simplest of the three, seems to think that the community will open its arms to him; Tollinger and Blaisdell both know that their methods will gain them only a limited period of tolerance to accomplish what they’ve been hired to do. Thereafter they will be viewed as menaces themselves and invited to move on. In all three films the town-tamer gets the job done but in “Warlock,” the most tragic of the three, only at great personal cost. Blaisdell must kill his best friend and give up a woman who loved him before he can toss his golden pistols into the dusty main street of Warlock and move on. Robles on the other hand wins the love of the Mexican woman who initially despised him, as well as the respect of the town doctor, clearly presented as the most honorable citizen of Mesa, and Tollinger seems set to be reconciled with his alienated wife who left him rather than remain the wife of a wandering gunman, a town-tamer.
A bit of pop-psychologizing may now be in order. During the Depression when there was a widespread breakdown–perceived, if not real–of respect for the law, the town tamers are always duly appointed men with badges. Walter Huston in the 1932 “Law and Order,” Randolph Scott in “Frontier Marshal” and Errol Flynn in “Dodge City” all clean house wearing a star and in the name of the Law. In the 1950s, a period of apparent calm and respect for Law and Order, the town tamers are free-lance enforcers who follow their own codes rather than the law, as Wallace Ford’s acerbic judge constantly points out to Blaisdell. Robles is given a badge by the town council, but it’s treated almost a joke. Tollinger and Blaisdell make their rules and enforce them without benefit of badges. It would appear that in times of calm, a little of the wild side is desired.