A Lawless Street

(Check out my previous Western film review here: Dead Man)

I’m on something of a Randolph Scott kick right now. This will be the first of eight reviews of films in which he starred.

1955’s A Lawless Street was one of the last films directed by the great American B-movie auteur Joseph H. Lewis who is typically better known for his film noir works like Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955), but also worked on a number of Westerns throughout his career as a filmmaker in the 1940s and 50s. For the most part, these works are traditional Westerns with, as was typical for the time, very little in the way of genre manipulation. And although Lewis is known as something of a pulp auteur, his Westerns do not tend to incorporate the same pulpy atmosphere, street talk, and nihilistic approach to morals as his other pictures. As such, A Lawless Street is as good a place as any to broach the subject of the Trad Western, which I have mentioned time and again throughout these past three months in Western film review after review without really elaborating on its generic tendencies and conventions through the use of a specific example to drive the point home.

In A Lawless Street, Randolph Scott plays Calem Ware, a Marshall for a small town in the nation’s frontier called Medicine Bend. Before his time as a lawman, Ware made his way through the West as many cowboys of legend did: gunfighting and making a reputation for himself as a more of a legend than a mere man. Over time, his legend became too immense, too much to handle, and too much for an ageing man like Ware to continue giving a damn about keeping up. Moreover, he fell in love with a beautiful young singer named Tally Dickinson (Angela Lansbury) who disapproved of Ware’s ways and would only settle down with him if he were really willing to put his past behind him and settle down himself. Ware, being a little stubborn and trying to compromise with Tally, decided to become a lawman, a Marshal for a small frontier town where his skills as a gunslinger could prove beneficial to a community of people, and wherein he could potentially lead a life of domesticity without foregoing the occasional bit of excitement.

At least, this is what Ware had hoped he would be able to achieve. Instead, his stature as an infamous cowboy and one-time outlaw has made him something of the town’s biggest tourist attraction, and the primary tourists are young gunslingers who wish to make a name for themselves by dispatching the legendary Calem Ware. Consequently, Ware, in addition to keeping the peace between regular townsfolk, has to on take part in a shootout on occasion, which has led Tally to believe he is unreliable and will never settle down. She leaves to hit the road and continue touring as a singer throughout the West and Ware is left behind to run a town and fight young gunhands as he grows increasingly older and more disillusioned by the year.

Years pass, and the old gunslinger becomes the symbol of Law and Order in Medicine Bend: the primeval force who, through multiple confrontations with the forces of chaos, finally managed to bring order to this wild, primordial space. His gunhand is still quick and his legend precedes him in such a way that the man serves as the signifier of an omnipotent, though benevolent archetype akin to that of a god, the arbiter of good through the proxies of society, civilization, law, and honor. So when the forces of evil, of chaos emerge once more and threaten to take over the town, to overwhelm the goodness he has brought to it, Ware takes offense to the situation. He straps on his holster and once more goes forth into the town to dispatch these men through reason, brute force, or the cold, irrefutable strength of a bullet.

The first is a man named Dingo Bryant who has heard of Ware’s legend and seems to be one of those primordial chaos beast exorcised by Ware long ago, though unfortunately spared death at the time of their past conflict. Dingo enters town and everyone knows a confrontation is bound to occur. So when the Marshal is being shaved by the barber, Dingo enters the parlor to gun down the man representing law and order, in cold blood. Dingo is shown to be a criminal at heart, with no honor and semblance of justice. Because of this designation, Lewis has his metaphysical agent of good, Calem Ware, holding a gun in his lap, underneath the shaving apron. He has been waiting for Dingo, indeed has almost trapped him into this scenario, and he only knew to do so and knew that Dingo would act in the manner he did, because Ware himself was once the same type of figure: a lone wolf in a nihilistic frontier. But he has changed, has decided to make an oasis in this desert as if a Nietzschian ubermensch who recognizes the lack of morality, of civility, and of honor in the world, and has decided to respond by constructing his own moral code to protect the weak.

The second man is Dooley.  A friend of Dingo’s, Dooley is a rogue through and through. however, he has a bit more honor within him than did his deceased pal. He will not fight with a gun and instead dukes it out with the inestimable Marshal in hand to hand combat. And despite being taller and much heavier, and stronger than Ware, as well as significantly younger and more able-bodied, he is bested by the more skilled, experienced older man. The next day, Dingo’s mother pays a visit to Ware and chastises him not only for killing her son, but for taking away and incarcerating the only other person who was helping to keep up her ranch: Dooley. Ware takes the verbal brow-beating like a champ, and benevolently decides to speak with Dooley about his responsibilities to the woman, about how his life can have meaning through the kindness he could bestow upon this woman. Dooley leaves impressed by Ware’s moral convictions and uprightness, and eventually becomes a better person for the experience.

The third man is one Harley Baskam, another outlaw like Dingo who has it in for the old man and wishes to make a name for himself in the West by decommissioning the old Wyatt Earp type of lawman. This time, he seems to succeed. Baskam ambushes the old man, pulls his gun on him, and shoots him in the head. Luckily, an old physician is present. The man, seeing that Ware has merely been grazed by a bullet along the top of skull, and could potentially pull through and live to fight another day, pleads with Baskam not to shoot a dead again just for the hell of it as it would diminish Baskam’s reputation in town and might lead to unneeded animosity between himself and the townsfolk. Baskam agrees, and for much of the remainder of the film, the ‘dead man’ recovers.

After an allotted time, like a sacrificial son of the law, Ware regains consciousness within the makeshift hospital housed in the back of the town’s prison (a place no one has visited since Ware’s death, except the physician). He emerges and revenges himself upon Baskam as well as those who plotted Ware’s demise alongside Baskam in the hopes of making the town an open territory for boozing, whoring, and gambling. The now Christ-like Ware has become a hero once more, but instead of taking upon himself once more the helm of protector of this town, he departs the scene with his loved one, Tally, who has returned to the town on her singing circuit, and he leaves behind his gun. The God ascended to purify a land, betrayed by his own people, only to save them with the assistance of a few select disciples, who then departs forever to leave the remaining job in the hands of those disciples.

The analogue to a particular metaphysical process and to particular figures should be obvious at this point, as should be the gist of the Trad Western: Good vs. Evil, Evil seems to prevail, Good returns to purify the land, and the Good figure, usually disillusioned, though trusting his people to keep the peace, departs and leaves them on their own. The first few elements are pure religious metaphysics of a Western tradition known pretty well to those that Westerns were marketed toward. The final touch is a bit of existential malaise at the lived reality of life as a hellhole in which there seems to never be any guiding hand, any watcher working to ensure things go right. That is, as far as I can decipher it, the generic formulation of the Trad Western.


Cody Ward

[Next up: Seven Men from Now]


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