I’ve found yet another Western that I enjoy! Perhaps I should officially stop commenting on the circumstance and just admit that I like the genre. But it does demonstrate that I prefer less conventional Westerns. Rawhide was released in 1951 and stars Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward and Hugh Marlowe, but is not connected with the later TV series. It is a hostage drama in the west, taut, suspenseful and slightly claustrophobic. The entire story takes place within the confines of a relay station where convicts hold several people hostage while waiting for a stagecoach carrying gold to pass through.
Tom Owens (Tyrone Power) is the son of a man who owns a string of relay stations across the country where the stage going between the East and West Coast can stop for food and a change of mules. He has been sent to the obscure Rawhide Pass to learn the practical side of the business from Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan), a scruffy old-timer who is not impressed with Tom; he’s not tough enough for him (he can’t believe Tom still bothers to shave and bath so often – it signifies lack of grit for him).
When the morning stage comes through, they learn that the murderer, Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe), and several other convicts escaped from a prison in nearby Huntsville and the authorities are afraid that he plans to rob the stage. Because it’s against company policy to risk the lives of children, Tom and Sam are obliged to force stage passenger Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward – they do have to use force) and her niece, Callie, to stay behind at the station, much to her fury. She and Tom to do not exactly hit it off, as she moves into his room and swipes his soap (she also believes in baths).
But when a respectable man rides up claiming to be a sheriff and shows his badge to Tom, he turns out to be Zimmerman and he and his group quickly take Tom and Sam is soon murdered by Zimmerman’s gun happy, slightly crazy and unpredictable comrade, Tevis (Jack Elam). But Zimmerman warns Tevis not to shoot anymore; they need Tom alive so they can take the stage the following morning and to keep everything looking normal that evening when the other scheduled stage comes through. They also mistake Vinnie for Tom’s wife and try to use her to make Tom do what they want.
The rest of Zimmerman’s motley group is made up of Yancey (Dean Jaggers), a confused and dim kleptomaniac who’s not much use for anything apart from playing the guitar (he likes how Callie sings with him) and the stolid and unimaginatively obedient Gratz (George Tobias). It’s clear that Zimmerman did not choose this group; they were simply there when he escaped and there is tension between him and Tevis, who is a wild card who acts without thinking while Zimmerman, though ruthless, is more calculated and wants him to stick to the plan.
Meanwhile, Tom and Vinnie spend much of the time locked up in a room together. Tom is afraid to tell Zimmerman she is not his wife for fear he would just kill her. Initially, they still don’t get along and sparks continue to fly, but survival draws them together and I like that about the film. They don’t try to fit a romance into the film (though one could speculate a future one, if one wanted to, but it doesn’t have to go that way, either). Tom comes up with several plans to escape: one is to try to pass a note to the evening stage travelers and the other is to dig a hole in their room with a stolen knife, keeping the hole hidden behind the bed.
It’s not a conventional heroic role for Tyrone Power. He’s not a hero or a coward. He’s just trying to survive. Even Vinnie – who is nothing if not fiery – gets on him for allowing Zimmerman and the rest to walk all over him, but he’s not foolhardy. He primarily uses his brain, trying to figure out a way for them to live, but when the moment calls for it, he can act.
There is very little backstory for any of the characters. We learn a little about Zimmerman, who was raised as a “gentleman,” and evidently murdered his faithless lover. Hugh Marlowe (who I’ve always thought of as the playwright from All About Eve) is excellent as the calculatingly ruthless Zimmerman, who contrasts with his less educated, less bright gang, especially the wild-eyed Tevis, who keeps leering at Vinnie and threatens through his actions to upset Zimmerman’s plans. But though Zimmerman doesn’t commit any of the murders (Tevis does that), he’s equally capable of it. One has no trouble imagining that if he felt he needed to, he could murder everyone, including Callie, who’s just a toddler.
Callie (played by Judy and Jody Dunn) is completely adorable and considerably raises the stakes (especially when Tevis starts shooting at her, which is downright scary). She has no awareness of the danger and adds an element of unpredicability. You never know when she might wonder off. Her aunt, Vinnie, is returning with Callie to the west, whose parents were killed in a shootout. Vinnie seems to have had a colorful past, traveling with her sister and working as an actress and seems used to taking care of herself.
Mostly, I’ve seen Susan Hayward in her early films, before she really came into her own, but I was reading about her in Grand Old Movies, who wrote a fascinating discussion of the actress in his post about the film “Demetrius and the Gladiators” which made me curious to see some of her films. I watched on youtube two films, I Can Get It For You Wholesale (the upload I saw seems to be no longer there; only a slightly sped up version remains) and Rawhide. Rawhide isn’t the quite the showcase for Hayward that other films are, but she is still good, quite the force of nature. She is more openly antagonist against the gang, but comes to appreciate Tom’s approach, too.
Everyone else does equally well. It’s a small cast, adding to the tension. The script was written by Dudley Nichols (who wrote the screenplay for Stagecoach) and was directed by Henry Hathaway (who directed several other Tyrone Power films, such as Johnny Apollo, many adventure films and even noirs like The House on 92nd Street and Kiss of Death).
Fortunately, Rawhide is still available on youtube!