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September 2010

Rawhide

cast: Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward, Hugh Marlowe, Dean Jagger, and Jack Elam

director: Henry Hathaway

89 minutes (PG) 1951
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Richard Bowden

Rawhide

Rawhide (aka: Desperate Siege) is a lesser-known movie by Henry Hathaway. The director's other work in westerns that's best known to fans includes North To Alaska (1960), The Sons Of Katie Elder (1965), and True Grit (1969) - each a big, colourful, brawling romantic film regarded fondly by viewers, and which still stand up well. By contrast, the earlier Rawhide is shot in black and white: a noir-ish, almost chamber piece which largely swaps the wide open spaces for the confines of a relay station, and brawling theatrics for psychological tension.

More suggestive of such dark western films of the late 1940s as Pursued, Colorado Territory etc, Hathaway's film is taut and suspenseful, well-acted and shot - just as one might expect from one of the great Hollywood studio professionals. In hindsight, it is obvious that the origins of Rawhide can be found in the director's earlier career, when he was involved with the noir cycle. After helming such classics as Kiss Of Death, and Call Northside 777, only a few short years before, it was natural for Hathaway to bring something of the same sensibility to an oater.

Rawhide is scripted by Dudley Nichols who worked for John Ford among others, over a prestigious writing career. The story is a relatively simple one: a junior waystation employee Tom Owens (Tyrone Power), and a woman Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward), with her sister's child, are held captive by a small band of prison-escapees who are waiting to rob a gold shipment. Playing husband and wife to maximise their survival chances, Owens and Holt have to find a way to escape the vigilant and murderous ringleader Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) as well as warn the approaching stage. Further down the cast list there is also a splendidly evil part for Jack Elam as the deadly and lascivious Tevis, with eyes on Holt.

Interestingly, the main action of the film is book-ended by a jaunty narrator, putting events into an historical context. This is a tale taken from the annals of the 'Jackass Mail', we are assured, a famous postal service which defied sceptics of the time to triumphantly link San Francisco and Saint Louis. But then the story shifts abruptly, to just a few people in the middle of nowhere, one of whom (Owens) has even yet to learn the business properly.

After this step change, as trumpeted, 'Jackass Mail' appears just so much romantic hyperbole. It's the events at the waystation which come to dramatise actual truths about convincing characters, even if they are often at a loss to control events. The irony is that, due to Nichols' skills as a dramatist and fine performances, we end up likely viewing the alleged history behind events as so much Hollywood window dressing, while the predations of the Zimmerman gang seem by far the more vivid and realistic. The 'real history' of sorts is displaced.

As already mentioned, Hathaway's movie recalls the director's assignments earlier in his career. But Rawhide was also a modern, and for its time, relatively adult western attempting rounded characterisation. In a dramatic scheme familiar to the genre, character concerns regularly develop indoors while critical physical action is reserved for the open air. It's a film in which room-space in general, and doors in particular, play an important part. Players are confined within rooms, are repeatedly framed through, or walk back and forth, even die, in doorways; they spark off among themselves in a side room or the communal living area, while outside they rarely stray far.

Once the Zimmerman gang arrive claustrophobia increases - a feeling helped by a sense that each room is really three-dimensional, closed in with a ceiling (reinforced by one noteworthy Citizen Kane-ish shot near the beginning). Doors and walls are uniformly sturdy, due to a fine location choice, in part of a real building. This waystation offers an increasingly prison-like atmosphere - coming to a head as Owens and Holt ultimately attempt to tunnel out through the wall. In some senses, of course, the station is a penitentiary for everyone: whether for the Zimmerman gang, who have merely transferred their former penal relationships into a different setting or Vinnie Holt, wrongly condemned as an unmarried mother travelling with child to escape society's sanction, or Owens - whose restrictions means he cannot easily warn the approaching gold stage.

The most interesting character in Rawhide is that of Vinnie Holt - stranded, with child, through company regulation. In a genre where women-kind are too often divided into contrasting or opposing stereotypes, of nice girl/ whore, bar girl/ respectable wife, and so on, Holt is more rounded, less dependent on the approval of others in general, and men in particular. A woman who is at first wrongly assumed to be of dubious virtue, lusted after by Tevis, and distrusted by Zimmerman, she is jealously protective of her sister's child, to the extent of being less bothered by other issues. Even before her true history is known, she gains the audience's respect through this single-minded independence, respect eventually matched by that of her temporary 'husband' Owens. Eventually she and he end up as a team for the mutual benefit of both, not coming together through easy romantic attachment. One feels it is a stronger bond and, given the nature of frontier life, a more likely one. Hayward's rare appearance in a western can be judged a success.

The bond which grows between Owens and Holt, based on mutual respect, is in contrast to that connecting the Zimmerman gang. United by a dubious common background, the need to escape, greed, and respect enforced by fear, it is a union which is doomed to sunder. Zimmerman himself is allegedly unable to trust women (and in fact has been sentenced for killing one) after a tortured personal history. As Tevis says to him: "I ain't been cured of women... ain't had your medicine yet, Jim" - recognising that Zimmerman is unlikely to ever form a proper relationship with the wider world and implying that female-kind is some sort of sickness. Tevis himself has a brutal, leering fixation on the fairer sex, another direct contrast to Owens' basic decency and moral strength. Out of Zimmerman's confederates, only Yancy (Dean Jagger) has any strong humanity. It is a trait which, appositely enough; means he will survive.

Rawhide's DVD edition is the usual barebones affair, albeit with excellent picture quality. But its quiet strengths make for excellent viewing and if you haven't already found it, worth adding to the saddle bags.



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