Nicholas Ray shows his hand with the insert of maquette and miniature locomotive, though the approach to the Western is already stated in the opening shot, a scenic vista that's promptly dynamited. "What's keeping you awake?" "Dreams" is the answer, the gambling hall named "Vienna's" materializes out of a howling sandstorm by a redstone mountain—the wandering buckaroo (Sterling Hayden) strolls in to the sound of roulette wheels and the laser eyes of the saloon owner (Joan Crawford), two lovers crossing paths again after five years. She's called "a railroad tramp" and he fancies himself "not the fastest gun west of the Pecos," their lair is soon invaded by the disapproving schoolmarm, here a witchy bundle of knotted desires incarnated by Mercedes McCambridge like nothing so much as Racine's Ériphile. The Dancing Kid (Scott Brady) further destabilizes the formulation, a robbery is just the spark needed for the collision of outsiders and cattlemen to go full baroque. "I'd hate to be run out of town for something we didn't do... So let's do something!" Arizona hills and Republic sets, romanticism and disillusionment and florid gravity, Hayden’s wounded Roy Rogers send-up and Crawford towering like María Casares in leather breeches, these are the components of Ray’s overwhelming ballad. Lynching parties and forced confessions pin it to the anxious era of McCarthyism, hidden waterfall portals and the Fauvist hues of Trucolor free it into the timeless realm of enchantment. "You’ve got nothing to tell me because it’s not real. Only you and me, that’s real." The heroine trades white gown for crimson shirt in a subterranean passage as her nemesis trembles blissfully before the bonfire she’s ignited, their showdown is the culminating aria. ("It’s their fight, it’s been all along," say the men while cowering in the bushes.) A thunderous fable, and an enduring crucible for the Cahiers du Cinéma group: Truffaut’s review recognizes a pervasive strain of Cocteau, Godard in Weekend name-checks it as a guerilla conjuration, Rivette has the clash of the goddesses in Duelle. Cinematography by Harry Stradling. With Ward Bond, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, John Carradine, Royal Dano, Frank Ferguson, and Paul Fix.
--- Fernando F. Croce