The interrupted wedding and the barricaded avenger, "the day’s full of surprises, huh?" The "nervy cuss" (Randolph Scott) is already inside the stagecoach at the onset, as befits a work of concise genre curveballs, he switches paths and joins his partner (Noah Beery, Jr.) at the close of a three-year manhunt. The stage is a festive morning in a town gripped by intimidation and grievance (cf. Dwan’s Silver Lode), the groom is a dandyish honcho (John Carroll) with the sheriff (Andrew Duggan) in his pocket. Rifles are piled high in the church’s vestibule, his mistress (Valerie French) sits at the front pew, yet the bride’s (Karen Steele) warning comes from the visitor who couldn’t forever hold his peace: "If you marry this man, you’ll be a widow by sundown." Inside a livery stable, the interlopers face a barrage of gunfire; outside, Budd Boetticher conducts an acute dissection of citizenry slowly roused out of debased apathy. Less than 80 minutes but dozens of characterization brushstrokes, from the amateur preacher with his hidden whiskey bottle to the bartender with a biting awareness of human nature. (Typical of the film’s expressive compression is Beery’s lovely miniature portrait of a mellow sidekick, savoring a long-delayed meal and a flirtation with a saloon waitress before his rendezvous with a bullet.) A hero’s corrosion and a rake’s progress comprise the parallel illumination, unyielding obsession chips away at Scott’s rectitude while fear and loss complicate and humanize Carroll. Hawks’ Red River is evoked in the purposefully anticlimactic showdown, and then there’s the coin in the spittoon on its way to Rio Bravo. "A man’s got to draw the line somewhere if he’s going to live with himself." A very slender line separates redemption and emptiness, so it's only natural for Boetticher’s bitterest resolution to segue into his most playful composition (Buchanan Rides Alone). Cinematography by Burnett Guffey. With John Archer, James Westerfield, John Litel, Ray Teal, Vaughn Taylor, and Richard Deacon.
--- Fernando F. Croce