vt The Rebel
US / 69 minutes / bw / Realart Dir: Rod Amateau Pr: Larry Finley Scr: Thomas S. Gries, Rod Amateau Cine: Joseph F. Biroc Cast: John Ireland, Wayne Morris, Lawrence Tierney, Dorothy Malone, Lon Chaney (i.e., Lon Chaney Jr), Myrna Dell, Frank Marlowe, Bill Holmes, Jack Elam, Bob Wood, Charles Trowbridge, Norman Leavitt, Stuart Randall, George Lynn, Gordon Wynne (i.e., Gordon Wynn), Gabriel Conrad, Eddie Parks.
Noir Westerns are a somewhat rare breed, although not as rare as perhaps one might at first assume: The OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943), PURSUED (1947), BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948), The TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), RIMFIRE (1949), SPECIAL AGENT (1949), COLORADO TERRITORY (1949), The CAPTURE (1950), MAN IN THE SHADOW (1957), The BADLANDERS (1958) and NO NAME ON THE BULLET (1959) are examples from the “classic” era, while RED ROCK WEST (1992) is notable among the more recent offerings in the subgenre. The Bushwhackers, although very much a borderline piece of noir, is obviously of considerable genre interest—not just because it has a noirish cast to die for but also because it’s full of noirish memes: corruption of the local law authorities, a ruthless local kingpin who will stop at nothing, an equally ruthless femme fatale, a plucky newspaper editor who finally speaks truth to power, a craven cop, a hero who seeks to avoid violence but is eventually driven to it . . . The list could go on.
Jefferson “Jeff” Waring (Ireland) swears to himself at the end of the Civil War that “I’ll never raise a gun against a man again.” Disgusted by the ongoing struggle in the South, he heads west, finally finding himself in butt-end-of-nowhere small town Independence, Missouri, where he’s “adopted” by Peter Sharpe (Marlowe), the editor of the Independence Journal (in one sequence it’s confusingly referred to as the Plains News). Because Jeff fought on the Confederate side, he’s sometimes called Rebel—hence the movie’s variant title. An early misunderstanding sees Peter’s schoolmarm daughter Cathy (Malone) having Jeff briefly jailed as a drifter when she discovers him—with her dad’s permission—crashing out in her bed.
Jeff (John Ireland) has a first taste of Jail in Independence, Missouri.
Settlers are moving into the area and staking out properties for which they have government grants. Even though these people are legally entitled to their holdings, powerful local rancher Artemus Taylor (Chaney) describes them as squatters and sends gangs of thugs to murder the settlers and burn down their homesteads. He knows the railroad is planning to come through here, at which point the value of the land will go through the roof. Taylor has the local marshal, John Harding (Morris), and the local banker, Justin Stone (Trowbridge), in his pocket; although Peter is revolted by Taylor’s murderous campaign, he—like most of the locals—daren’t speak out for fear of the repercussions. His spunky daughter clearly disagrees, urging him to use his newspaper to fight this evil.
Newspaper editor Peter Sharpe (Frank Marlowe) is terrified to speak out against the death squads.
Taylor’s chief thug, Sam Tobin (Lawrence Tierney) prepares to beat the stuffing out of Jeff.
Jeff, as a pacifist, decides he can’t take much more of this and determines to head yet further west, to California, even though Peter tells him it’s just as bad all over. He hasn’t gone far, though, before he’s intercepted by Taylor’s equally poisonous daughter Norah (Dell) and one of Taylor’s hands, Ding (Holmes). Norah fires on him but misses; then they take him to Taylor. Taylor spells out much of the movie’s premise to Jeff before instructing Ding to escort him to a remote canyon and murder him. Ding, unwilling, sets off with Jeff; Norah pulls Taylor’s chief sidekick, Sam Tobin (Tierney), to one side and tells him to follow the pair and kill both.
Norah Taylor (Myrna Dell), avid for a bit of bloodshed.
In the event, Ding can’t face cold-blooded murder and just fires a couple of shots in the air, letting Jeff escape; both Jeff and Ding are wounded by Tobin’s sniper fire but, as Tobin moves toward Ding to finish him off, Ding fires on him, killing him.
Local banker Justin Stone (Charles Trowbridge) is firmly in Taylor’s pocket.
Hours later Jeff recovers consciousness and makes it to the Guthrie homestead; there Guthrie (Lynn) has been planning with various others of the settlers how best they might fight back against Taylor. While Jeff is being treated by Doc Kennedy (uncredited), Harding arrives to arrest him for the murders of Ding and Tobin.
Jeff’s languishing in jail when Taylor’s thug Cree (Elam) and an unnamed sidekick (Wood) call on the Journal to intimidate Peter. Cathy drives them off, but only for so long. Peter decides he’s had enough and publishes a front-page story detailing the truth that so many of the locals know yet have been too terrorized to talk about: that the murders and arson attacks plaguing the region haven’t been the responsibility of Indians, as Harding’s dimwitted deputy, Yale (Leavitt), keeps claiming, but are crimes to be laid at the door of Taylor. Soon the two thugs are back at the Journal, trashing the offices and murdering Peter.
Cathy (Dorothy Malone) faces down Taylor’s thugs . . . but only for so long.
That’s too much for Jeff. He breaks out of jail and goes to lend his military expertise and an extra gun to the settlers’ resistance . . .
The Bushwhackers is pretty tough as Westerns of its era went. When Taylor’s thugs ride out en masse to end the “settler problem” once and for all, the settlers ambush them in the night and essentially slaughter them; even our hero, Jeff, doesn’t think twice about shooting fleeing thugs from behind. (The surviving thugs are, at least, escorted back to town rather than peremptorily executed.) Norah, who was leading the gang, flees into town to demand that banker Stone give her all the Taylor money he has there; when he stalls, she shoots him in cold blood; not yet quite dead, he follows her and shoots her in the back. While all these shootings-in-the-back are probably historically quite accurate, they were somewhat off limits for early-1950s Westerns—at least so far as the good guys were concerned.
Artemus Taylor (Lon Chaney Jr.) chews the scenery as he waits for Norah to get home with news of how the massaxre’s getting along.
The screenplay has plenty of moments of noirishly wry humor in amongst the grimness. In the later stages, as Taylor faces death, Jeff tells him: “You’ve ruined so many lives that yours isn’t even a down payment.” Earlier Jeff describes to the thug Tobin his boss’s business model: “It’s clear enough. You cut them down and [the local funeral director] plants them.” And then there’s this exchange between Marshal Harding and his deputy:
Yale: “Y’know, I got half a mind . . .”
Harding: “You certainly have.”
Biroc’s cinematography is as good as one could hope for given the budgetary constraints, but the movie’s real strength lies in its characterizations. Tierney and Dell offer us villains that are essentially from central casting—although it’s unusual to find a sociopath who’s young and attractive in vintage Westerns—while Trowbridge hardly has to struggle with his role as the sleazebag banker, but Morris, as the marshal, offers us a very much more interesting variation on the latter stereotype. Marshal Harding is a man of terminally weak character who doesn’t want to disturb the status quo both through fear for his personal safety and because “I like being marshal”; yet it’s obvious to us that within him there are shreds of decency, even perhaps of honor. It takes the murder of Peter to shock Harding out of his corrupt complacency, but it’s not until the final moments of the movie that he has the guts to face up to how verminous he has let himself become through his cowardice and venality.
The spineless Marshal John Harding (Wayne Morris).
Chaney gives a determinedly tour-de-force performance as the psycho rancher, blind and confined to a wheelchair by his arthritis; it’s the kind of bravura turn that James Coburn would in his later years make his own. Elam manages the kind of magnificently slimy characterization that was his forte. Ireland and Malone live up to their usual high standards, but it’s really Marlowe who comes near to stealing the show as the principled yet vacillating newspaper editor who dresses his unimportance up in a seemingly endless sequence of literary quotations.
Jack Elam in excellently sleazy form as Taylor’s thug Cree.
The Bushwhackers is one of those movies that, although it’s somewhat off the beaten track, lovers of film noir probably ought to consider when they’re trying to form a comprehensive picture of the genre. I was in two minds about including it in my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir, and eventually decided, for reasons of space, that it didn’t quite justify a place. If there’s a second edition of the book, I’ll probably try to find room for it. Leaving such categorization questions aside, though, The Bushwhackers is a movie well worth trying to catch.
This entry is a contribution to the Past Offences 1952 Book (and Other Media) Bonanza Thing.
On the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/TheBushwhackers