Thursday, June 14, 2012
"Desperate Courage" director Richard Thorpe’s adult-themed western “Vengeance Valley” (*** out ****) concerns life on a cattle ranch and the conflict between two men. This isn’t a trigger-happy gunslinger shoot’em up. Virtually every character in this tautly-made 83-minute melodrama is involved in either the cattle business or clashes with the cowboys themselves. The characters in Irving Ravetch’s screenplay, based on Luke Short’s novel, emerge as either completely good or really evil. Meanwhile, Thorpe stages this steer opera against striking, snow-swept scenery, and Robert Walker’s villain is a truly treacherous dastard. He is prepared to swindle his father out of money and land and kill the man who has shown him everything that he knows about ranching. Furthermore, he has no qualms about having unshielded sex with single women. In his first and only MGM production, Burt Lancaster delivers a strong performance as the stalwart hero. "Vengeance Valley" was Lancaster's first time in the saddle, and he looks comfortable astride a horse. Tough-guy John Ireland is a gunman searching for trouble. Interestingly, co-stars John Ireland and Joanne Dru were reunited on this trail herd western after starring in director Howard Hawks’ seminal cattle drive western.
This 'Cain versus Abel' film unfolds with the following narration from the perspective of Hewie, one of the cowhands: “I got a story to tell - a yarn about cow country, cow punchers and men. I was workin' for the Strobie Ranch, a trade of worn leather and saddle blisters and brandin' irons. A trade with some song, some fun and some luck. It was as good a job as a man could ask for. Lonely sometimes and cold - so much distance you'd have thought you'd never get back - but for me, a young kid, it was a fine time. Memories are mostly good. You're up on top of the world where the air is clean and thin - the only sound is the wind in the pines. When Colorado ranch foreman Owen Daybright (Burt Lancaster of “Brute Force”) and foster brother Lee Strobie (Robert Walker of “Strangers on a Train”) ride back into town from watching over Arch Strobie’s cattle in the winter, they run into the local doctor at the saloon. The doctor tells them that an unmarried woman Lily Fasken (Sally Forrest of “Mystery Street”) has had a baby boy. Actually, Lee had an affair with Lily, a former restaurant waitress, but he wants nobody to know about it, particularly his new wife. Owen visits Lily's house on behalf of Lee and brings $500 as well as a bag of provisions. Later, Lee tells his father he lost the money playing poker. Not only does Owen find Lee's wife Jen (Joanne Dru of “Red River”) at Lily’s place but also Lily’s pugnacious rifle-toting brother Dick (Hugh O’Brien of “The Shootist”) who is itching to plug the gent who got Lily pregnant. Dick wants to know the identity of the father, but Owen refers him to Lily. Dick believes Owen is the dad, but Jen tells him to leave Own alone.
Later, Dick confronts Owen at the saloon. Sheriff Con Alvis (Jim Hayward of “Bitter Creek”) gets the drop on Dick. Owen warns Dick, “You scared me twice tonight. Next time you point a gun at me, shoot it.” Owen and Lee ride back to the Strobie ranch and confer with Lee’s invalid father, Arch (Ray Collins of “Citizen Kane”), who is elated to see the two men. Lee leaves them alone to see his wife Jen. After Lee’s departure, Owen threatens to leave and start out on his own. Arch persuades Owen to stay. During their conversation, we learn that Arch befriended Owen about 15 years ago. Arch has relied on Owen to train Lee to take over operation of the ranch. Moreover, Arch has relied on Owen to help him.
About a week later, Sheriff Alvis watches as Dick’s brother Hub Fasken (John Ireland of “River River”) gets off the train at the depot. Hub informs Alvis he has come to kill a man. A widow woman, Mrs. Burke (Grayce Mills of “Harvey”), takes Lily in to work at her small ranch. Hub checks in with his younger sister, but she tells him that she doesn't need him. "We're this kind of family," Hub reminds her. "We don't waste any love on each other. We've fought amongst ourselves. We've even shot at each other. We got one tie. You're blood relations." Not long afterward, Owen and Hewie (Carleton Carpenter of “Summer Stock”) show up at Mrs. Burke's place to round up her cattle for the big drive. Meantime, Dick and Hub get the drop on Hewie, and catch Owen when he leaves the house. Hub and Owen swap blows, but Mrs. Burke intervenes with her shotgun. The next time Owen sees Dick and Hub, the two are sweating it out in the hoosegow. Eventually, Jen discovers in a round-about way that Lee is the father of Lily’s baby boy. This kind of infidelity had to be treated with caution in the 1950s because it was still consider unsavory subject matter by the Production Code Administration. Indeed, the doctor in the saloon refused to deliver the baby because the father wasn’t present. When Lee confronts Jen about the affair, he finds her nursing a battered Owen who has just slugged it out with Hub. Like Owen, Jen is prepared to leave the Strobie ranch, but Owen dissuades her.
Owen warns Lee about Dick and Hub. He suggests Lee vamoose with Jen, but Lee insists Owen simply wants the entire ranch for himself. The bad blood between the two men only worsens. Lee persuades his father he can handle the ranch and asks to be half-owner. An overjoyed Arch agrees. Nevertheless, he mentions that he plans to let Owen have the other half after his death. Hewie informs Owen and Lee that somebody has stolen some of their cattle and horses. The trail leads them to Herb Backett's place. Naturally, Backett (Ted de Corsia of “The Killing”) lies that he knows nothing about rustled cattle. Owen beats the truth out of him, during a brief but bloody fight. Lee tries to smooth over the fracas with Backett. He agrees to buy back the cattle. Secretly, Lee is concocting a plan to kill Owen and he uses Backett. Once again Lee accuses Owen of cheating on him with Jen, but he recants those words before the big cattle drive. Lee makes friends with Backett because he needs him to help him. He wants Backett to provide Dick and Hub with the necessary authorization to join the big drive without Owen finding out anything.
Later, Lee sells his father’s herd of 3000 head to a Texas cattleman, Dave Allard (Glen Strange of “House of Dracula”), and this move surprises Owen. As it turns out, Owen suspects that Lee is determined to cheat his father out of money. After the two herds are merged, Hewie warns Owen that the Fashen brothers are among Lee's crew. Lee changes his mind about the sale to Allard and requests that Owen accompany him so he can inform Allard that the deal is off. What Lee plans to do is set up Owen so the Fashen can ambush Owen. They bushwack Oren, but help arrives not long after the villains Owen pinned down with rifle fire. Hewie forms a posse after they hear rifle fire. Owen suffer from a nick on the sleeve. Hewie and the others thunder onto the scene and blast the two brothers. Owen pursues Lee on horseback. Lee’s horse caves in under him and he tumbles into the river. Owen challenges Lee to draw. Owen is faster and kills Lee. When he returns to the ranch, Owen explains to Arch what happened, but Arch already knew what Lee was worthless. When Arch wants to tell Jen, Owen intervenes and says he wants will break the news to Jen himself.
“Vengeance Valley” is a sturdy, atmospheric western with Lancaster as the hero and Walker as a slimy villain.