Terror in a Texas Town
For his 41st and final feature film, Joseph H. Lewis was able to combine the two genres in which he had excelled. The man in the director's chair for My Name is Julia Ross, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, Lewis was one of the all-time greats in film noir. But he was also a fine director of Westerns, having made A Lawless Street, 7th Cavalry and The Halliday Brand, all of which - especially the last - remain underrated. Terror in a Texas Town would bring his noir sensibilities to the American West, resulting in one of his finest works. McNeil (Sebastian Cabot, The Time Machine) is a greedy hotel owner who wants to take control of Prairie City, the Texas town of the title. Keen to drive the local farmers of their land, McNeil hires a gunman, Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young, who would pen the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Defiant Ones the same year), resulting in the death of a former whaler. The dead man's son, George Hansen (Sterling Hayden, The Killing), arrives in town to inherit the farm and set the stage for revenge - armed with only his father's old harpoon... Terror in a Texas Town was written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten blacklisted by the film industry and forced to write under pseudonyms or to use 'fronts'. Two years before he helped break the blacklist with on-screen credits for Otto Preminger's Exodus and Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, his work was credited to Ben Perry, but it demonstrates a psychological depth and political dimension that is undoubtedly that of Trumbo.
Joseph H. Lewis’ Terror in a Texas Town receives a new 2K restoration courtesy of Arrow, who now present it on Blu-ray through their Arrow Academy line. The film’s 1080p/24hz high-definition encode comes from that new restoration, scanned from a fine grain positive, and is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
Outside of a few hiccups this presentation looks astounding and it is probably one of the better black-and-white presentations I’ve seen recently on the format. The problems that remain are source related, at least mostly, and though the booklet only mentions the fine grain positive, it was more than likely constructed using a number of different materials: the use of stock footage is obvious, looking less refined and detailed, with a rougher grain structure, and the film’s opening and closing sequences, which sort of repeat each other, look as though they come from copies of copies in places.
But outside of these moments—which only account for a handful of the minutes within the film’s 80-minute runtime—and at least one shot ever-so-slightly out-of-focus, the level of detail to the image is absolutely staggering. It’s a razor sharp image most of the time and it has no problem when it comes to rendering the image’s finer parts. Close-ups and long shots all look equally good, showing every pore on an actor’s face or just about every blade of grass in a long exterior shot. There are a lot of outfits with tight patterns, which are all clearly represented and every texture present in the film looks as though you could reach out and feel it. The film’s grain is tightly formed throughout a majority of the film (less so in the aforementioned stock shots and possible dupes) and looks completely natural with nary an artifact.
The restoration work has cleaned it up nicely, though there are still some minor specs that flicker by here and there, and as I mentioned moments that may come from a different source don’t look as good as the rest of the film (though ultimately fine), but in all I was quite shocked by what we get. A lot of work went into this and, on the whole, it looks amazing.
The disc presents the film’s original monaural soundtrack here in lossless PCM. It sounds about as good as I would expect. Dialogue sounds fine, as does the music, though there is a flatness to the whole affair. Unfortunately the track doesn’t help Sterling Hayden’s Swedish accent.
Arrow puts together a rather fascinating special edition here despite there only being two significant features to accompany the film’s rather pulpy theatrical trailer: an introduction and a visual analysis, running about 13-minutes and 14-minutes respectively, and both hosted by film scholar Peter Stanfield. What’s interesting about both of these features is that it is pretty evident Stanfield doesn’t care all that much for the film, or director Lewis, though he doesn’t come right out and say it. In the intro he obviously stops himself from rolling his eyes at the idea that Lewis was an “auteur” and, though impressed with films like Gun Crazy and The Big Combo finds him a fairly rudimentary and visually lazy director. He does offer some thoughts on why the film is still noteworthy, and that is by placing in the context of the time it was made. The film came out around the time of the communist witch hunts and Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted, had written the script for the film under a pseudonym, while the film also stars Sterling Hayden, who had “named names.” It also features themes on the fear of speaking up to wrong doing and also has a completely foreign character as its hero.
This is all well and good but in the visual analysis Stanfield then seems to look at how Lewis manages to hold it back with some lazy visuals. He does give credit for the one or two striking sequences in the film (the standoff is a precursor to Sergio Leone’s own westerns and their stand offs, though this one also has the added benefit of a harpoon being involved) but the film otherwise repeats itself visually, seems to borrow looks from photography of the time, or falls so easily on lazy stereotypes, like the villain who he points out as looking like the type of villain you would have seen in an early “singing cowboy” film (this led to me having a sudden desire to rewatch Rustler’s Rhapsody).
At any rate, despite Stanfield’s lack of enthusiasm for the film and the director he still manages to create two fairly rich supplements that I enjoyed viewing, with Glenn Kenny providing a decent counterbalance to Stanfield’s comments in his essay featured in the included booklet (limited to first pressings). Despite only featuring barely 30-minutes’ of material (and that counts the trailer) it still manages to be a very well-rounded edition.
Arrow has put together a rather solid edition here, featuring a couple of fun and informative features and a rather striking presentation.