Devil’s Doorway (1950)

“An Indian without land loses his soul; his heart withers.”

Devil's Doorway Poster

Synopsis:
When Shoshone Civil War hero Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) returns home to find that he is no longer legally entitled to his land, he enlists the help of a sympathetic female lawyer (Paula Raymond).

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Review:
Devil’s Doorway holds a special place in cinematic history, for two distinct reasons: it was Anthony Mann’s first western, and, along with Broken Arrow (released around the same time), it was the first western to depict Indians as worthy protagonists rather than savage villains. As always in Mann’s work, however, nothing is black-and-white: the sheepherders who are hoping to stake claims on Lance’s land have themselves been duped by an unscrupulous lawyer (Louis Calhern) into believing they won’t meet any resistance; meanwhile, Lance — though completely justified in his desire to defend his property — refuses to compromise until it’s too late.

Although Taylor is unconvincing as an Indian (he simply doesn’t look the part), he does a decent job portraying a decorated war hero who bitterly refuses to give in to unjust laws. Less impressive is Paula Raymond as the female lawyer Lance hires to assist him in his case; she’s all quivering lips and forlorn expressions, when surely any woman brave enough to become a lawyer during this early period in American history would have been made of tougher stuff. And while Louis Calhern is appropriately sinister as the racist lawyer determined to chase Lance off his land, he’s ultimately a one-dimensional baddie. Fortunately, the performances aren’t what really count here: the brave script, exciting action sequences, gorgeous cinematography, and historical relevance more than redeem this groundbreaking film.

P.S. Listen for Lance’s final line in the film: it’s a zinger.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some exciting action sequences
  • Beautiful cinematography of the American west
  • A groundbreaking depiction of Native Americans as worthy protagonists

Must See?
Yes. While it’s listed as a cult movie in the back of Peary’s book, it’s actually more relevant today for its historical importance.

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One Response to “Devil’s Doorway (1950)”

  1. A must.

    I’d not seen this unsung classic until good ol’ Robert Osborne and good ol’ TCM showed it recently (and, as you know, if I didn’t get around to seeing something ‘worthy’, it just ain’t easy to see).

    I’m apt to be more forgiving toward it – in certain areas – than the assessment. It didn’t bother me in the least that Taylor isn’t ultimately convincing as an Indian; he works well enough. (Thankfully, more believable Indians were also cast.) As well, I’m not sure that Raymond’s character needs to be made of tougher stuff: she fell in love with law mainly out of love for her father; and her father apparently was a bit soft. (Note what wife Spring Byington says about him.) And although Calhern’s lawyer is a bit one-note, what a note! He’s still singularly slimy.

    ‘DD’ is an immediately compelling tale, almost breathlessly directed by Mann. And, as noted, he is aided in no small measure by the brilliant work of DP John Alton (whose work here is not all that removed from what he brought to ‘Raw Deal’, ‘The Big Combo’, even, oddly, ‘An American in Paris’).

    Somewhat jaded ff that I fight against being, I always find it refreshing and invigorating when I come across a film that reaffirms why I’m a committed ff. As TCM’s Bob revealed when he introduced this, Mann thought Guy Trosper’s original script was the best that came his way. The praise is steep, and merited. This film tackles some very weighty issues, goes in surprising directions, keeps the ‘action’ secondary, and essentially comes without the obligatory love angle.

    Very unique film for all ffs.

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