Stranger on Horseback (1955)

Stranger on Horseback (1955)

“That’s the funny thing about the Bannermans: folks are always picking on ’em.”

Synopsis:
A circuit judge (Joel McCrea) rides into the town of Bannerman and learns that everything is controlled by patriarch Josiah Bannerman (John McIntire), whose son (Kevin McCarthy) has just killed an innocent man, and whose niece (Miroslava) is determined to protect her family at any cost. Can McCrea convince at least a few of the town’s inhabitants to give law and order a chance?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Jacques Tourneur Films
  • Joel McCrea Films
  • John Carradine Films
  • Judges
  • Kevin McCarthy Films
  • Westerns

Review:
Jacques Tourneur directed this nifty, economically scripted western about “law and order” — in the form of a circuit judge on horseback:

— arriving in a town which is bound and determined to retain the Mafia-like stronghold of its founding family. Through a series of interactions with the family’s skulking “lawyer” (John Carradine):

we’re quickly shown exactly how much of a stranglehold the Bannermans have on all aspects of life in the town — with the strong and automatic assumption that anyone daring to question the status quo will either be brought into the Bannermans’ fold or bullied out. The film’s omnipresent protagonist is Judge Thorne (stalwart McCrea):

… a man ready and willing to push back against this assumption at every turn. He may be temporarily seduced by beautiful Miroslava:

but quickly gets back on track with his investigation, fighting the forces of both irascible Bannerman Sr. (McIntire is a bully with a childishly petulant bent) and Bannerman Jr. (McCarthy is chillingly sociopathic).

Close attention is paid to detail throughout the film: a cat lounges on the sheriff’s desk in full view; McIntire sits cross-legged (he and his son are selfish children at heart) on a table outside his residence while preventing Miroslava’s would-be suitor (Robert Cornthwaite) from sitting down in a chair nearby.

The supporting roles are filled with great care, including a jumpy town drunk (Emmett Lynn) who literally can’t stay still, and a frightened neighbor (Walter Baldwin) who tries to convince his pretty daughter (Nancy Gates) that she has no realistic chance of breaking into the Bannerman clan through marriage.

Much of the film is shot on location in Sedona, Arizona and Placerita Canyon, California, and the natural sets are gorgeous — though the entire print needs a serious clean-up and restoration.

A couple of minor quibbles include the score (which doesn’t seem to quite jibe with the proceedings) and the oddly paced ending, which leaves several questions unanswered. But overall, this remains a fine and worthy film to seek out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Excellent performances by the entire cast (including minor supporting roles)

  • A strong sense of direction and detail
  • Lovely (if badly-in-need-of-restoration) Ansco Color cinematograpy

Must See?
Yes, as a dandy little western.

Categories

  • Good Show

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One thought on “Stranger on Horseback (1955)

  1. First viewing. Not must-see but it’s a solid western for fans of the genre.

    The town run by the Bannerman clan seems a strange town, indeed: it looks like there are lots of men but almost no women or children. I’m not sure I noticed any among the townsfolk proper. That doesn’t bode well for continuation (or credulity).

    Still, the film’s script has a nice, compact feel to it and fills up the 66 minutes nicely. Tourneur directs dependably and gets strong performances from his cast, esp. no-nonsense McCrea. (IMDb informs, sadly, that Miroslava had taken her life by the time the film was released.) McIntire’s performance is of particular interest since he seems to be a precursor to John Huston’s character of Noah Cross in ‘Chinatown’… the way he basically owns the town and everything and everyone it.

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