An actress Shelley Carnes (Ruth Roman), is looking forward to an exciting vacation at a dude ranch, but she gets more than she bargained for,including a perhaps murderous new husband. Only by shear luck has Richard Trevelyan (Richard Todd), her new husband, escaped execution for murdering his first wife Loraine. In a second trial, a single juror held out causing him to be released. A local priest, Father Paul (Rhys Williams), and other eyewitnesses paint a deadly picture to the future bride but the actual murder was not witnessed and somehow, unbelievably, love wins out. Because of local expectation, Shelley ends up at a competing dude ranch run by J.D. (Frank Conroy) and Myra Nolan (Kathryn Givney). The picture of Richard over their fireplace suggests a close relationship. They loan Shelley their car and direct her to go to Trevelyan’s ranch. In route she meets Trevelyan on horseback, a handsome, but damaged, and mysterious young man.
Warner Brothers, 1951. Ruth Roman, Richard Todd, Mercedes McCambridge, Zachary Scott, Daryl Hickman. Based on the novel A Man Without Friends, by Margaret Echard (Doubleday, 1940). Directed by King Vidor.
Except for a short but crucial opening sequence, this little known black-and-white film begins (as many other noir-type movies have, as I’ve pointed out before) with someone getting off a bus in a small town in the West or South, only to find themselves in middle of a case of murder, or a situation where passions are so inflamed that a murder is about to happen.
Except that the person getting off the bus is not Alan Ladd or Glenn Ford or Dana Andrews, it’s Ruth Roman. The town is apparently somewhere in the west Texas desert country, and but Shelley Carnes is definitely a loner of sorts, an actress who’s temporarily left her troupe and who’s planning to stay at a dude ranch in the area, needing a short respite from too much traveling on the road.
The opening few scenes, which I mentioned as being crucial, are exactly that. A young man named Richard Trevelyan (Richard Todd) has been convicted of killing his tramp of a wife, only to be given a stay of execution at the last minute and granted a new trial. The new trial has ended in a hung jury, with one woman managing to persuade five others that he is not guilty.
Here Comes Shelley!
Enter Shelley Carnes. Trevelyan has returned but has gone into hiding. Shelley does not know it, but the dude ranch she is given directions to (with ulterior motives) has closed for the year. Liza McStringer (Mercedes McCambride) and her invalid brother own and operate the ranch, but they agree to let her stay.
It turns out that Liza was the holdout witness, and the local folks are pretty divided about it, since Trevelyan certainly looks guilty, nor has he said anything to anyone about the killing. So, given all this, who do you suppose Shelley meets accidentally, and who do you suppose she …
I hope you’re with me, because if I continue, I would be telling you the whole story, and that’s not what I intend to do. But as sure as Shelley is about Richard, it is obvious that some doubts still remain.
As for the players, Todd, an English actor, is miscast as a man of the desert, no matter how much is made of where he was educated or brought up, but believe it or not, his part is not the most important.
It might be Ruth Roman’s picture — and I’ll get back to that in a minute — and for the role she plays, she certainly makes the best of it. I think this is the earliest movie I’ve seen her in. I remember her most from her later days in television, where she gradually found herself playing much more mature roles. (She may be best known for her role as Sylvia Lean on Knots Landing, circa 1986.)
Here she appears slim and vibrant and not quite so sure of herself, and for each of these reasons, but particularly the latter, she’s largely sympathetic as a woman who finds herself in a situation that moves continuously (and elusively) beyond her control.
But the most fascinating character in the movie is Liza McStringer. Mercedes McCambridge was by far not the most glamorous movie star in the world, and in fact until the 1970s, she did not do many movies at all, concentrating first as a radio star, then in TV, but never in a continuing series. (She was the voice of the demon in The Exorcist, and she had to sue in order to get the screen credit she was to have been given.)
But if nothing, Mercedes McCambridge is one of the most intense actresses (she’s the one on the right) I can think of now, and that is what she is in this movie, absolutely intense. I think if I were on a jury, and she were of the other opinion, I can only imagine how easily persuaded I might be.
The romance in this movie is there only to hang a pretty good murder plot on, which come to think of it, isn’t really all that strong, either. I think that there’s a mutual symbiosis between the two, each making the other half of the story stronger, helping disguise a weakness at the center of the tale in the best possible way it might have been done.
McCambridge, Roman stand out in King Vidor’s overloaded desert melodrama
Richard Todd sits on death row, waiting execution for his wife’s murder. At the eleventh hour, a reprieve and new trial come through; he’s acquitted, thanks to one holdout juror (Mercedes McCambridge). Released, he disappears into the west Texas desert.
Enter Ruth Roman, a touring actress in search of the desert’s restorative climate. An innkeeper and his wife become solicitous of her when she stops in a small town, and lend her a car to get to the dude ranch where she hopes to recuperate. En route (in a scene prescient of Janet Leigh’s flight from Phoenix in Psycho), she gets lost in thunderstorms and takes refuge in an abandoned house — where Todd is holed up. They size one another up and, next morning, she continues on to the dude ranch. Run by McCambridge and her emotionally disturbed young brother (Darryl Hickman), it has closed down, but they agree to put Roman up for a few days. But she seeks out Todd again, despite conflicting stories about his guilt or innocence.
Director King Vidor and scriptwriter Lenore Coffee, having goaded Bette Davis to pull out all the stops in Beyond The Forest two years earlier, here take on another overloaded melodrama, with mixed results. We see too little of key events and rely instead on hearsay about other characters, who sometimes haven’t yet been sufficiently established (and the one brief flashback is a mistake — we need either more or none). And of eight major characters, two or even three (including Zachary Scott) prove superfluous. But the movie’s biggest stumble lies in the casting of Richard Todd. Remembered if at all as the title character in that echt-1950s biopic of pious patriotism A Man Called Peter, here his stiff British accent and acting falsify the whole Southwestern milieu (Lightning Strikes Twice, like Desert Fury of five years earlier, evokes the new Sunbelt of money and leisure).
Happily, the female characters fall on the plus side. Kathryn Givney shows spunk and intelligence as the strangely solicitous Mrs. Nolan. Ruth Roman, on evidence of this movie and Tomorrow Is Another Day, had more range and subtlety than she was let display in her best known role as Farley Granger’s mannikin-like fiancee in Strangers on a Train. But the acting honors, inevitably, fall to McCambridge. Looking especially tomboyish, her face registers every thought and feeling that passes through her head; she’s hyper-alert in her moods and responses. And so, as was her custom during her disappointingly thin screen career, she delivers the most memorable performance of the film.