USA / Columbia / 96 minutes / 1955 Filmed in Technicolor and Cinemascope
Writer: Harry Kleiner (from a novel by Donald Hamilton) / Music: Max Steiner / Cinematography: Burnett Guffey, W. Howard Greene / Producer: Lewis J. Rachmil / Director: Rudolph Maté
Cast: Glenn Ford, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G Robinson, Dianne Foster, Brian Keith, May Wynn, Richard Jaeckel, Warner Anderson, Basil Ruysdael, Lita Milan, James Westerfield, Jack Kelly, Willis Bouchey
UK Title: Rough Company
A small-holder stands alone against the brutal tactics of a tyrannical rancher’s plans for expansion. Based on the Donald Hamilton novel Smokey Valley, Rudolph Maté’s vicious Cold War western stars Glenn Ford, Edward G Robinson and the formidable Barbara Stanwyck.
Robinson plays the crippled, ruthless cattle baron Lew Wilkison, who’s building an empire in the Alabama Hills. He owns most of the surrounding land, but one pocket, belonging to defiant small-holder John Parrish (Ford), remains unconquered by his bully-boy buy-out tactics. Parrish is a pacifist, however, and can’t stand to see the good people of Smokey Valley being punished for his stubbornness. So he decides to sell up. But before he gets a chance to do a deal, one of his farm hands is murdered by Wilkison’s henchmen. It’s the final straw. Determining to fight fire with fire, he rallies the troops and heads off to Wilkison’s ranch for a violent dénouement.
Made in the aftermath of Senator McArthy’s Hollywood witch-hunts, the film is a thinly-veiled allegory to America’s allegedly ‘heroic’ stance against the Communist threat. What separates Maté’s work from similar B-movie westerns of the period, however, is its vicious representation of the Red Peril. The director had already shown a delicious nasty streak in his noire thrillers, D.O.A. and Double Indemnity (also starring Robinson and Stanwyck). Now he and his actors really went to town.
In Robinson’s hands, Lew Wilkison is a hybrid of Richard III and Joseph Stalin – a snarling, crutch-wielding tyrant, scything through obstacles to his ambition with the help of reptilian hit-man Wade Matlock (Richard Jaeckel). But he’s a puppy compared to his wife.
Martha is a queen bitch, a ball-busting dominatrix who schemes like Lady MacBeth and sleeps with brother-in-law Cole (Brian Keith) on the sly. There could only be one choice of actress for the role, and Barbara Stanwyck doesn’t disappoint. 48 years old and standing all of 5 ft 5″, she’s a towering presence, sexy as sin and making mincemeat of the menfolk as they cower under her whip-wielding command. The final scene, when she refuses to give her husband his crutches and leaves him stranded in the burning ranch-house, is one of those magnificent cinematic moments.