Watching older movies, it's fun to remember sometimes how much all media is created as much by the times as it is by its creators. A lot of times, this is basically what reviewers mean when they call something 'dated' - it looks like the time it's from. Timelessness is overrated, to my mind, and highly subjective, anyway. Terror in a Texas Town, a Western that plays a little like a film noir, shows signs of being a movie that was made very much with television in the back of its mind.
The opening sequence of the movie shows Sterling Hayden walking a long mile, from the country to the main street of town with a long, strange weapon on his shoulder (it's a whaling harpoon, it turns out). He confronts a man whom we do not see, with just his hip and the gun on it in frame. He's goading Hayden, whose name is Hansen, and he's apparently the man Hansen came in town to kill.
Boom, right to the credit sequence and music track, over which play sequences that come later in the film. It's like a television opening, with music and credits and scenes of Hansen duking it out in town. This was the late '50s where Hollywood was still trying to figure out what the heck they could do to get people out of their homes, and into the theaters. Widescreen was one difference, and content got more and more risqué compared to the relatively stifled television standard and practices censorship. But it's interesting to see TV-style techniques (enticing the audience with the end of the program in the beginning, to make sure they'll stay hooked through the first commercial break) in a big-screen picture.
Terror in a Texas Town is a lot more than a '50s curio, though. It's a Western that tells the story of homesteaders in late 19th century Texas being run out of town by a big business man from back East who claims to own the legal title to all their land. The local Deacon is sure that if they all stand together, they could make this McNeil back down. But they're too scared by his power to do so, and after burning down one homesteader's house, they're sure he's just going to escalate his assault.
And they're right. Two close neighbors, the Old Swede Hansen (not Sterling Hayden) and the Mexican Jose, whose claim on the land is a couple of hundred years of ancestors’ deep, try to help each other. But McNeil is an old-time crook, and he has an ace in the hole - a black-hatted shooter named John Crale. Sterling Hayden may be they title character, but it's Crale who has more big character moments. He's a gunslinger out of time, part of a world that doesn't exist anymore. Not terribly subtly, this is symbolized by his missing right hand - it got blown off in a gunfight, so Crale replaced it with a steel hand, always covered by a black leather glove. He's trying to navigate a world that's not his anymore, and has a lot of trouble doing it.
Not that it stops him from gunning Old Swede Hansen down on his own property, just minutes after Jose discovers the real reason McNeil is taking everyone's land: just a few feet down, the whole property is suffused with oil. It's after this, 20 minutes into the movie, that we are properly introduced to our hero, the son of the murdered man. He has just come after a long life on whaling ships to make his fortune with his father, only to be told (by the man that murdered him) that he's dead.
It's a long, interesting scene with Crale spotting drinks to Sterling, playing an enormous accented Swede, while he tells him that his father is dead, murdered, and no one was going to be punished for it. Hayden's performance takes getting used to. His accent is... imperfect, and sounds sometimes in the early going like he's just barely learned his lines. The actor overcomes this with his physicality, his determined face, and eyes that tell you, despite the man's broken English, there's an incisive mind behind them.
He and Crale have an interesting dynamic: the gunslinger is a lifelong unrepentant killer who seems to be on the verge of getting tired of it, but doesn't quite know how to quit. Hayden is a rock, who isn't willing to give an inch to the big city men coming to steal what he knows should be his.
That the villain is the character with the arc and conflict, and the hero rigid and inflexibly right, is a twist to what are basically stock characters, and is a tribute to the screenplay. Credited to Ben Perry, it was actually Dalton Trumbo who wrote Terror in a Texas Town. It was the final feature film of Joseph H. Lewis, director of Gun Crazy (1950) also written by Trumbo. Lewis spent the last decade of his career in TV, particularly on The Rifleman for over 50 episodes. Terror in a Texas Town has a hell of a lot more style than one would see on most TV productions - active use of the foreground, in particular. The difference in the way the ending sequence is shot, in the opening scene when all we see is the gunslinger’s hip, and in the actual ending when there are reverse shots, tells a whole story in itself.
Terror in a Texas Town is a lean 80 minutes, is keenly paced and has more to chew on than the average Western. There's not a ton of action (though there is a whale harpoon vs. gunslinger match, teased from the very first shots, that does not disappoint) but it makes up for it with characters that have just that extra nudge of depth that carries them away from caricature without making the whole thing a murky, feelings-drenched gab-fest. Highly recommended.
The Arrow Academy Blu-ray release of Terror in a Texas Town is more limited in extras than a lot of their fare. It contains two short video pieces by critic Peter Stanfield, totally about 25 minutes of time, and a booklet with an essay on the film by Glenn Kenny.