A woman rides up to a man digging in the dirt in what appears to be an abandoned camp out in the mountains of Arizona. She asks if he's looking for gold. No, is his reply. He's looking for his father. The place is Gila Valley and sometime earlier, five men were massacred there by Apache Indians. One of them was his father. The two rest in the shade of some rocks. She says she'd like a cigarette. He says he doesn't smoke. She says she's got some in her saddlebag. When he goes looking for them, someone up in the mountains shoots at him with a rifle. He's been set-up. He asks the woman who the man is. She says she doesn't know. He heads up into the mountains and kills the man. He wears a deputy badge for a town called Silver City.
That's a pretty terrific set up for a movie. Unfortunately, Backlash, the 1956 film from John Sturges, never quite lives up to that beginning. It works well enough as a Sunday afternoon western with some good action set pieces and some nice performances from its actors. It's good, but after such a great opening scene, what follows comes as a bit of a letdown.
The woman is Karyl Orton (Donna Reed) and she is looking for the gold rumored to be out in Gila Valley. She figures she's got a claim on it since her husband was one of the men who died out there. The man she set up is Jim Slater (Richard Widmark). He has no interest in the gold. He's only got eyes for revenge on the man who killed his father. He figures there was a sixth man that either turned the Apaches on the others or who could have prevented it and did nothing instead.
They go to Silver City with the body of the dead deputy on the back of his horse. Arriving, they go to speak to the sheriff (Edward Platt) and Slater is asked to remove his guns beforehand. He replies that he won't be doing that and he looks tough enough and fast enough that no one bothers to ask him twice. The information they gather from the sheriff leads them to an isolated trading post where they learn a little more information from a Sergeant and find themselves under siege.
The film acts more like a mystery than a typical western with our two leads going from place to place finding more and more clues, slowly piecing together what exactly happened out at Gila Valley. They get to know each other a bit too, and like so many romances in the movies, they start out at odds and end in each other's arms. Eventually, they find out just what happened out there, but the solution to the mystery is a bit of a letdown. It all ends in a fiery showdown between gangs that feels very out of place for the really rather good mystery that preceded it.
Its main villain is a bit plain. There is a twist as to who he is that I won't spoil here which gives the conflict some emotional currency but softens his villainy. One of his henchmen, played with gleeful awfulness by William Campbell, is a lot more fun.
It is a nice little film, entertaining for what it is. Jim Slater gets all the best lines and Richard Widmark spits them out in his trademark fashion. Donna Reed is fine as Karyl. She gives the character a much-needed toughness but goes back and forth between female empowerment and gushy-eyed love interest without rhyme or reason. Filmed on location in Arizona, Sturges' meticulous framing gives the film a beautiful grandeur, but the story slags behind. I was so enthralled by that opening scene that I suppose it would have been difficult for me not to be disappointed by what followed. Backlash never lives up to that scene, but if you can get past that there is plenty to enjoy.
Extras on this Kino Lorber Studio Classics disk include an audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan and the usual theatrical trailers.