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Rawhide | Blu-ray Review

Henry Hathaway RawhideAs the popular idiom goes, ‘familiarity breeds contempt,’ which can be used to explain the disenchantment surrounding countless films across multiple periods, wherein there exists a bounty of remakes, sequels, reboots and copycats. Henry Hathaway’s 1951 Western Rawhide suffers a bit from the burn marks of the dreadful F word familiarity, despite being an enjoyable, albeit workmanlike piece of predictability. Retooled from George Marshall’s 1935 gangster flick Show Them No Mercy!, the film would have the misfortune of having its title eclipsed by the late 1950s Clint Eastwood television series, and to avoid confusion during its own television run a decade later it was known as Desperate Siege. Entertaining and violent, despite some achingly dated elements, a pair of innocent folks are held hostage by ruthless bandits at an isolated stagecoach station awaiting the arrival of a transport carrying gold. Its identity crisis is further complicated by similarities it has with other genre films, like William Wyler’s noir The Desperate Hours (1955), and has been credited by Quentin Tarantino as one of the inspirations for The Hateful Eight (2015), which borrows several narrative details.

Calculating criminal Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) makes a prison break with three of his swarthy comrades, including lecherous Tevis (Jack Elam), simpleton Gratz (George Tobias), and the amiable Yancy (Dean Jagger). While the authorities hunt them, Zimmerman and his gang make designs on taking over the San Francisco to St. Louis stagecoach relay station in Rawhide, planning to rob a stagecoach filled with gold scheduled to ride through the next day. Stationmaster Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan) is quickly dispatched by the crew when he attempts to get his rifle, leaving underling Tom Owens (Tyrone Power) to bear the brunt of their brutality, held hostage to lure the stagecoach safely into their clutches. Ironically, performer Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward), traveling with a young child, was forced to stay at the station because the stationmaster couldn’t legally allow her to leave knowing criminals were loose nearby. Since Zimmerman thinks she’s Owens’ wife, she’s allowed to live. But Tevis seems to have his own special plans for Vinnie.

Hathaway was particularly adept at film noir and Westerns, having directed quite a few of the former in the 1940s (including Lucille Ball headliner The Dark Corner), and then the vibrant color noir, Niagara, starring Marilyn Monroe. But he’s probably best revered for his contributions to the Western, particularly for The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit, both starring John Wayne. Rawhide suffers greatly from several uneven elements, particularly some hokey opening and closing narration, and a near ruinous score from Sol Kaplan, which is brash mash-up of clichéd oater tunes (Oh! Susanna, etc.) blaring indiscriminately whenever ‘good’ characters threaten to enter the frame.

Tyrone Power would only be alive another seven years, already significantly weathered by 1951, in his post-swashbuckling days following the ravages of WWII. Power’s Tom Owens is supposed to be an innocent young novice, a role he feels a bit too old for, especially in his shared sequences with Susan Hayward (who is notably outspoken and, as is revealed, hardly a damsel in distress). Oscar winning screenwriter Dudley Nichols (The Informer, 1935), who worked on thirteen scripts for John Ford, seems keen on challenging assumptions in his adaptation, with a clutch of characters forced into inhabiting the personas expected of them in their environment.

Hugh Marlowe, of course, poses as a Sheriff to gain access, but something a bit more interesting is happening with the dynamic between Power and Hayward, forced to pretend to be husband and wife, since as his property, she has a better chance of survival. Likewise, Hayward is also the aunt of the small child in her care, her deceased sister’s child. These extra complications lend the rudimentary plot a bit of extra texture, further enhanced by an established dichotomy between lascivious rapist Jack Elam and the potentially queer Hugh Marlowe, who is ‘suspicious’ of women and has no qualms about separating mother and child for heightened anxiety. When Marlowe demands Elam stay away from Hayward, the bruised criminal remarks, “Why, I ain’t been cured of women. Ain’t had your medicine, Jim.”

Disc Review:

Kino Lorber releases the restored title under their Studio Classics label in 1.33:1. Visual quality is considerable for this Blu-ray transfer, while DP Milton Krasner’s frames are clear with notable contrast. The uncompressed audio is also notable (considering a lack of subtitle options), and the blaring score. Kino also adds several bonus features to the title.

Susan Hayward – Hollywood’s Straight Shooter:
This seven minute feature is a brief tribute to the strong on-screen presence of Susan Hayward, featuring film historians David Thomson and Aubrey Solomon.

Shoot it in the Lone Pine!:
This twelve minute featurette deliberates the importance of Lone Pine, a location where over 400 film productions, particularly Westerns, were shot.

Final Thoughts:

Simple, but entertaining (including a surprisingly gritty finale featuring Jack Elam engaging in target practice using a young child), Rawhide is a generous and efficient B-grade Western.

Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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