MAN WITHOUT A STAR [1955]

()
Directed by:
Written by: , ,
Starring: , , ,

USA 

AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 15TH AUGUST, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT

RUNNING TIME: 89 mins

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera

On a train to Wyoming from Kansas City, drifter Dempsey Rae rescues young Jeff Jimson from being run over by the train wheels after the brakeman throws Jeff off for freighthopping. When the authorities try to arrest Jeff for murder, Dempsey proves that another freighthopper was guilty and is given half of the $100 reward for finding the murderer. Dempsey takes Jeff under his wing, teaching him important skills. They find work as cattle hands for Strap Davis the foreman for a wealthy ranch owner named Reed Bowman, but when they finally meet Reed she turns out to be a woman. Dempsey likes Reed, but doesn’t particularly want to get involved in her range war….

Did I see Man Without A Star when I was young? It’s possible. It didn’t come back to me as I was viewing Eureka’s Blu-ray of the film whatsoever, but back in the day they used to show countless Westerns on TV and and it’s possible that I’d just forgotten it. Saying that, I’d have probably thoroughly enjoyed this one, which moves at a cracking pace with an incident taking place every minute or so – in fact I’d go as far to say that it gets a bit rushed towards the end. The plot is full of familiar elements but also rings plenty of changes from the norm, especially in terms of theme. The familiar western one of the taming of the wild by civilisation is present and correct, if more subdued than some; star Kirk Douglas would far more explicitly return to that years later with Lonely Are The Brave, a film which he called his favourite out of all the ones he’d made, one in which his character is out of time. But what’s pretty interesting about Man Without A Star is not just that the action emphasises fists more than guns, it has an anti-violence theme, which is quite surprising in a genre outing from 1955. Of course it’s a tad contradictory in the way that it presents it, but it’s still there and very obvious. Of course Douglas is at his slightly swaggering, even arrogant best. He hurls his saddlebag from outside into a room only just missing the piano somebody is playing, wins a fight with Lonergan his foreman then goes up to his female boss whom he fancies and says, “You’re one man short for dinner”, and plays the banjo and sings just as in the previous year’s 20,000 Thousand Leagues Under The Sea except that he dances this time too – while all around him seem to love it of course.

The titles take place over a shot of a train while a Ricky Laine song is heard; it’s not a particularly memorable song, but the lyrics, “there’s just no sense to build a fence, not if you like to wonder” are kind of important as they sum up one of the main themes. ‘Ole Dimple Chin is first seen lying down on some hay, smoking a cigarette, quite chilled out; this is clearly a typical day for him. He hears a fracas and sees Jeff, another train hopper, being hassled by the brakeman; the guy punches him down but turns away and is thereby clunked on the head and almost ran over by the train until Dempsey saves him. He clearly just wants to to go sleep but Jeff keeps chatting, even trying and failing to impress Dempsey when he says that his saddle is a special brand which turns out to be the one Dempsey actually has. The two glimpse a fight on the train roof where someone is eventually killed, but Jeff is accused of doing the killing when the train stops by Tom Carver the Deputy Sheriff of the nearest town. Jeff won’t name the killer who’s right there [though Jack Elam looks suspicious anywhere], but Dempsey has no scruples in doing so, and even punches him out when he goes for his gun, after which Jeff is acquitted, though he’s clearly made an enemy of Tom. Dempsey, who has an on and off girlfriend named Idonee [could she be the madam of a brothel?] in this town, would clearly prefer to mooch about on his own, especially when Jeff shows up in garb which he thinks makes him look cool and tough but which doesn’t actually seem to suit him at all. Jeff is also impetuous, quick to explode and get into fights, with Dempsey playing it cooler but clearly ready to respond to anything very quickly. Sheriff Olson apologises for the poor behaviour of his deputy and Dempsey and Jeff get jobs as ranch hands.

All this is handled pretty quickly, with lots of confrontations, and even the talky scenes boiled down to their essence and usually interrupted by a dramatic occurrence. And then we get a hell of a lot of blatant sexual tension as Dempsey meets his boss and the two clearly lust after each other, though for Reed it’s more of a case of using the other person for both her own gratification and for her own benefit. She returns his obvious leers with nice smiles and lets him see her bathing, causing Dempsey to respond, “Right next to the bedroom, that’s kind of handy”. But when they do obviously have their night together, it’s more a case of him using her for his gratification, because by now he’s already decided to leave her services and head away. Reed is actually a very greedy person, intending to import far more cattle than usual and let them graze all over the plains. Legally she can do this, but it means that other cattle barons will have far less room for their own cattle. In two years the grass will be destroyed, but that’s when she’ll sell out, reap her profits and move into some other business. She hires the brutal Steve Miles and a group of gunslingers to help her out. Jeff gets involved in another fracas and some folks show up to cause trouble, but these people have only put barbed wire around an area because space is being taken away from them, and you know that Jeff will eventually realise that he’s on the wrong side. However, this becomes even more problematic when Jeff stays with Reed, maybe or maybe not becoming her lover, and is by now certainly not the incompetent oaf he once was, partly due to experience, and partly due to Dempsey having trained him. The big dramatic confrontation between the two doesn’t really come about, which is disappointing seeing as the film seems to build to one, but it’s followed by a very well mounted and exciting climax, with lots of riding and shooting around moving cattle.

At one point Dempsey gets beaten up quite roughly, and the brawls are fairly good even though they’re relatively short and the final one is speeded up, which was quite common for the time but which is rather jarring in this film seeing as no other scenes were filmed in this way. “You asked for it, when you throw a punch don’t turn away” says Dempsey to Jeff after he’s saved him from being ran over by the train. In fact Dempsey is full of advice. “Stay away from whisky and you’ll have no regrets in the morning” he says several times to Jeff, even giving him a lighter drink to consume in a saloon. However, he doesn’t always follow his own advice, finally telling him, “Do as I say, not as I do”. Co-screenwriter Brendan Chase created some memorably troubled characters for James Stewart to play for Anthony Mann; Dempsey initially doesn’t seem to have many issues, but then we learn that he hates barbed wire, even to the point of just hearing the words. To be honest, I couldn’t help but chuckle and think of Steve Martin reacting to the phrase “cleaning woman” in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, but Dempsey’s reason for hating barbed wire makes sense so much when we learn what it is, while its symbolic nature is very obvious. It means progress, something that’s not a very welcome thing for a man like Dempsey, though ironically he ends up defending the folk who first put up barbed wire and even helps erect some himself. He doesn’t like to use a gun, and the one time he draws it he has a look of anguish in his face. We never learn why, but I think we can surmise that he was once a killer. Douglas’s overall manner means that, for the most part, we don’t feel his character’s anguish, something Stewart was excellent at; he even mugs at times, as if he felt he had to lighten the mood.

It’s actually William Campbell as Jeff who’s given the most intense stuff to do; the actor, who did mainly ‘B’ movies, doesn’t quite come through, but he still gives it a good go. Barbed wire also causes trouble for his character, who rescues a man caught in it and is promptly shot at, while a bad guy winds up actually wrapped in the stuff on Reed’s doorstep, the suggestion being that Dempsey might have done the deed. There isn’t a conventional ‘good girl’ in this one; even Moccasin Mary, a presumably Native American or Mexican woman who seems a bit familiar with Dempsey, a typical Douglas character who likes the ladies, could be a lady of the night. We don’t get much of a sense of Dempsey’s relationship with Idonee. Was some of her material cut to favour Jeanne Craig as Reed? Yet this is understandable, as Craig is quite astonishing as the crooked cattle baron who uses her sexuality as a weapon, she dominates the screen even in her scenes with Douglas, which is no mean feat. These moments really sizzle. Jeff also gets some romance himself, with a lady named Tess, but this material also seems truncated, not to mention the bit when we cut to Dempsey looking pretty much okay after being beaten up. Director King Vidor still makes things seem fairly smooth and brings with him his talent for meticulous compositions involving the characters. There’s also one excellently put together shot of the farm houses with cattle grazing on the grass beyond; even in HD we barely notice the matte lines. In general Vidor shows little interest in landscapes.

Less impressive is the music score, which consists entirely of tracks from other movies written by Hans J. Salter and Herman Stein. The familiar western-style main theme is okay and is given a couple of good variations, while some other cues may have been from Universal science fiction or horror movies. I wonder why Universal skimped so much on the music? But in general Man Without A Star is something of a surprise, a greatly  undervalued western that tries to do some different things with the genre while still giving us much of what we want.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

 

SPECIAL FEATURES

1080p presentation on Blu-ray
This is probably the same 2k restoration that turned up on Kino Lorber’s Region A release. The colours are vibrant and grain evenly managed though some footage is slightly softer than other footage.

Uncompressed original mono audio

Optional English SDH

Brand new audio commentary with writers Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman
Eureka have typically commissioned a new commentary to replace the one on the North American disc and added a featurette. Western fans and experts Forshaw have a field day discussing this film and related things such as the 1968 TV remake which we hear about in great detail; I want to see it. We also learn about the far more serious source novel which had Dempsey die a third of the way through and which the film has very little to do with, that Douglas thought Vidor to not be totally on the ball and Vidor thought it a come down, and that more westerns are being made now than in a long time – they just aren’t mostly reaching cinemas! The pair are only sometimes scene specific and their chat is quite calm, but are still great to listen to.

Brand new interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard [18 mins]
Sinyard gives us a good picture of the state of the genre at the time before delving into this “rather interesting and eccentric western”. We learn that Borden wrote the script in ten days, that things were frosty on set with Douglas and Vidor having different ideas about the direction the project should go in, and have some looking at theme. He mostly avoids repeating material stated on the commentary so this is also a worthwhile watch.

Trailer

A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay on the film by film writer Rich Johnson, and a new piece by critic Richard Combs about the Western films of King Vidor

 

Not your routine oater despite not being that well known today,Man Without A Star’ has intriguing aspects, is full of action and has Douglas at his egotistical, hammy best. What’s not to enjoy? Highly Recommended!

Avatar photo
About Dr Lenera 1971 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*