Dir: Andre De Toth | | Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Don Defore Western | US | 94′
In 1947 Hollywood produced two remarkable Westerns, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued and Andre De Toth’s RAMROD. Both films prefigure the popular psychological westerns of the 1950s. Their pressing concerns are troubled characters with conflicting desires. If Pursued is the western’s venture into guilt and trauma forcibly shaded by psychoanalysis, then Ramrod is a head-on prairie encounter with contradiction and moral duplicity. Each is strongly noirish: with Ramrod the more talky and perhaps, in terms of all its characters, the more morally conflicted. The casting of Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake points up the tension to come: a seasoned Westerner clashing with a devious femme fatale went very much against the grain of the late forties.
Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake) is the determined daughter of ranch owner Ben Dickason (Charles Ruggles) who is controlled by cattleman Frank Ivey (Preston Foster). This powerful man was lined up, by her father, for marriage to Connie. Yet the man she really loves is shamed by Ivey. Connie forms a gang. As does Ivey. Ranch foreman Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) is hired, along with Bill Schell (Don Defore) to help Connie. Bill’s methods bend the law. Whilst the manipulative Connie seduces Dave and Bill, organises a cattle stampede and pushes on to claim her land.
Unpredictability comes to the fore in Ramrod. Throughout its violence and machinations you are never quite sure who to trust next. Characters act in their own naked self-interest – getting land, getting a partner or getting-back at a parent. Yet Ramrod is a subtly written drama of moral ambiguity. Enhancing the complexity of the scripting is a dense and tightly focused cinematic design. It’s storytelling with numerous in-depth shots, often through windows, that are as dark and troubling as the many moves of the protagonists (A climactic shoot out, executed at night, and accompanied by Adolph Deutsch’s music, has a brooding power.)
De Toth was an expert director of westerns. If not in the same high class B picture league as Joseph H. Lewis, in terms of staging, there are times when he’s not far behind. It’s difficult for a western of moral probity to avoid a strained seriousness (Some later 50’s westerns strayed into this territory.) However Ramrod’s actors obviously relished their excellent script, without ever over-acting, for even the most minor supporting player delivers a carefully considered performance. The film contains sporadic and exciting action that’s appropriate to the plot and reinforces the reaction of people making hard choices over who next to betray, or not, and what property to grab. De Toth’s direction is consistently strong and seriously engaged.
Ramrod is occasionally over-complex and forbidding (Yet, even to say that is more to praise than criticise.) Persevere beyond the ‘closed-up’ opening 15 mins and Ramrod offers you considerable rewards. Such a thoughtful western of chamber music intensity doesn’t come along very often. Ramrod would make a challenging double bill with Pursued. The blu-ray presentation is far superior to its previous DVD issue. BFI Southbank should program a Western season highlighting De Toth, Walsh, Ford and Mann’s use of landscape as they delve nature and mirror frontier psychology. My suggested title – “In Pursuit of a Rugged Dream.” Alan Price©
OUT ON BLURAY | 5 MARCH 2018 | ARROW FILMS