Monday, May 18, 2009

Big Chuck Heston Before He Was Moses…or Ben Hur

Three Violent People (1956) // Paramount // 100 minutes

By Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Here’s a B-Western with A-list stars.

Charlton Heston stakes claim to a horse ranch in Texas, marries a whore, and disowns his treacherous brother in the last film released before The Ten Commandments would finally make him a superstar.

A Bit of Plot…
Pretending to be a lady, former dance-hall harlot Lorna (Anne Baxter, All About Eve) charms and marries former Confederate cavalry officer Colt Saunders (Big Chuck Heston). They settle into a modestly happy life on his ranch, but carpetbaggers prepare to grab all the land as part of a twisted federal tax scam during Reconstruction. Saunders’s one-armed brother (actor-turned-novelist Thomas Tryon) wants to sell the ranch and collect his share of the inheritance. He betrays the family and threatens to expose Lorna’s shady past.

As the ranchers band together to fight the carpetbaggers and conflicting desires threaten to tear the family apart, Saunders begins to suspect his wife may be less than she appears to be. The climactic showdown features Forrest Tucker (years before he would enlist in television’s F Troop) and a young Robert Blake (In Cold Blood, Electra Glide in Blue).

Historical Context and Significance
Directed by Rudolph Maté (When Worlds Collide), this B-Western with an A-list cast never cranks up much excitement, despite the promise of the title. Most of the production was shot on soundstages and the Paramount back lot, which is glaringly obvious.

This is the last movie Heston made before establishing himself as a Hollywood icon. In two years he would race chariots in the title role of Ben Hur, and a year after that he would be curiously cast as a Mexican police detective in Orson Welles’s incredible Touch of Evil. By then, Heston’s place in cinematic history was assured.

Although The Ten Commandments was released a few months before Three Violent People, word-of-mouth momentum for Cecil B. DeMille’s final epic was slow to build. This was decades before saturation marketing and a 3,000-screen opening would become common strategy for stewarding would-be blockbusters. So when Three Violent People opened early in 1957, Heston was not yet a household name. A bit of research reveals that Heston didn’t much care for his costar Tryon but didn’t have the clout to change casting as he desired. The future spokesman for the NRA would have been better served by taking a closer look at the unsurprising script, which gives Heston little to work with. His character’s primary trait is volatility, which is handy for saloon brawls and shoot-outs. This helps alleviate some of the tedium during the long passages in between, but it doesn’t create a vibrant, memorable character.

Tryon was always more a pretty face than a great actor. Today he is best remembered for penning novels, among them the hugely successful Harvest Home and one genuinely terrifying psychological thriller, The Other. B-movie fans will recognize him as the extraterrestrial groom in the silly film, I Married a Monster From Outer Space.

Baxter will always be the 1950s babe with the vaguely disquieting smile. She could pull off guileless treachery better than any of her contemporaries, and that skill is put to good use here. It’s as though her backstabbing character Eve Harrington was transplanted from Broadway and left to survive on the dusty Texas plains, armed with nothing more than lethal seduction techniques and a willingness to tell one whopper after another. Still, all her thespian heat can’t rev up this standard-issue Horse & Oater.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Not much, I’m tellin’ ya. Paramount was apparently so inspired that the studio forgot to include so much as a trailer on the DVD.

My praise is limited mainly to the digital transfer, which does justice to this rich Technicolor film. The Dolby mono soundtrack is clean.

Three Violent People hardly lives up to its title. Three Peeved People would lend greater truth in advertising.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Cinema Uprising values comments and feedback from readers. Although we cannot reply to every message, we do read comments and take your thoughts into consideration as we continuously produce fresh content.