erik lundegaard

Sunday January 31, 2021

Movie Review: Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)

WARNING: SPOILERS

There’s a moment two-thirds of the way through “Tribute to a Bad Man,” when Steve Miller (Don Dubbins), the neophyte ranchhand from the east, from Penn-sai-vane-ai-ay, as ranch owner Jeremy Rodock (James Cagney) keeps saying, is trying to convince Rodock’s woman, Jocasta (Irene Papas), to run away with him. She pulls back and looks at him with sympathy. “You are so young,” she says finally.

Here are the ages of the three actors when the movie premiered in April 1956:

  • Dubbins: 27
  • Papas: 29
  • Cagney: 56

So yes. A bit young in the Hollywood scheme of things.

“Bad Man” was supposed to star Spencer Tracy, but he got sick, or the high altitude in the Rockies got to him, or he probably just had second thoughts about the script; but after many delays MGM fired him and came hat-in-hat to Jimmy—who had just starred in the studio’s hit “Love Me or Leave Me,” with Doris Day. “There were some 80 people in Montrose, Colorado, waiting to get the job done,” Cagney wrote in his memoir, Cagney By Cagney. “I was about as interested in working as I was in flying, which means a considerable level below zero, but after much gab, I agreed.

As for what he thought of the film? “The result was all right, I guess.”

Emphasis on “I guess.”

Sloppy seconds
It’s Cagney’s third and final western, and it’s not as good as the others. It’s Cinemascope—his second—and the shooting location in the Rockies is beautiful; but it feels like movie by committee. Hey, Shane worked, let’s adapt another story by that Jack Schaefer guy. Teens are popular, let’s get some kids in there and try to understand them. May/December worked in High Noon, let’s go for that.

Everyone here is a second choice: Cagney for Tracy, who got sick; Dobbins for Robert Francis, who died in a plane crash; Papas for Grace Kelly, who turned it down.

Even the title is sloppy seconds. It was a working title for Vincente Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful,” where it made more sense; here it’s a misnomer. Is he a bad man? Seems decent enough. And what’s the tribute? Steve’s voice-over? Schaefer’s original title, “Hanging’s for the Lucky,” gets at the conflict. Rodock is a rancher in the Wyoming Territory who dispenses frontier justice for horse thieves. He gets “hanging fever,” according to his men. “It’s fear that keeps men honest,” he tells Jocasta. “And with that hanging today, I laid fear like a fence 10 feet high around my property!” 

Except he didn’t. He keeps making enemies, and they keep coming around to steal his horses. No one raises this point. If hanging’s a deterrent, Rodock, why do you have to keep hanging men? Instead, their message is a mushy moral one. Jocasta just thinks it’s wrong. Steve just thinks it’s wrong, too.

Rodock: He stole my horses, didn’t he? He shot at me, didn’t he? He killed Whitey, didn’t he?
Steve: How do you know he killed Whitey? … You don’t know. You’ll never know. [looks down] I’ll never know.

Along with men trying to steal his horses, Rodock is surrounded by men trying to steal his woman. Jo is the only woman for, what, hundreds of miles? I guess there’s Peterson’s wife (Jeanette Nolan) but she actually looks like a frontier woman. The first time we—and Steve—see Jocasta, she emerges from the shadows, her body wrapped in a white, hip-tugging and low-cut dress, and Steve’s eyes practically fall out of their sockets. That moment is directed and photographed well (by Robert Wise and Robert Surtees, respectively), but it’s not exactly cinema verité.

I assumed Rodock would have to fend off some of his men, particularly after one of them, Fat Jones (Lee Van Cleef), talks up the new mail-order catalogs that have pictures of women in corsets. “I ain’t seen a woman outside of Jocasta in eight months,” he declares with menace, then turns to another wrangler. “And you ain’t gettin’ no prettier.” It’s a good bit, but Cleef barely has a role. No, it’s the smooth head wrangler, McNulty (Stephen McNally), who’s a problem. He’s actually a bigger problem for the movie. He should be two-faced—subservient to Rodock while privately making moves on Jo—but he shows just the one: smarmy and insinuating with both. “You act like a man with a lot of ideas. But all of them second rate—and not one honorable,” Rodock says, but for some reason he keeps him on. It’s a disconnect. Eventually, though, McNulty makes one pass too many, there’s a fistfight, etc. Oddly, when he returns for revenge, he wants the horses rather than the woman.

The other rival for Jo’s attentions is Steve. He should have the better shot—blonde, handsome, age appropriate—but he’s not only “so young,” as she says, but so soft. Cringingly so. His voice narrates the film, about how both Jo and Rodock helped him become a man, but I don’t see him living long enough in the Wild West to reflect back on it all. I’m shocked he made it all the way to Rodock’s place to begin with.

But that’s the movie’s conceit. Soft Steve needs to toughen up while tough Rodock needs to soften.

Turnin' of the earth
For all this, the movie still has a shot. In the final act, McNulty teams with Peterson’s son, Lars (Vic Morrow), who bears a longstanding familial grudge, and a third man, Barjak (James Griffith), to steal Rodock’s mares and foals. Rodock and Steve find the horses and the thieves in a valley; but before he can get to hanging, he realizes the mares have had their hooves cut to the bone, making it painful for them to walk. These men crippled these horses for life, in order to make sure they didn’t stray. It’s the most horrific act in the movie. I wanted them hanged. But this is when Rodock doesn’t do it. Instead, in an eye-for-an-eye moment, he makes them take off their boots and march the 100 or 200 miles to the nearest town/jail. Steve and Rodock ride behind on their horses.

The pace is relentless—a slow, steady drumbeat. The thieves begin to stagger, stockinged feet torn and bloody, but he keeps them marching. It recalls an earlier, “Searchers”-esque line of Steve’s when Rodock was pursuing Whitey’s killer. “He kept going … He kept going…” There, though, Rodock’s relentlessness fed his anger; here, the opposite. Steve counsels restraint (“Mr. Rodock, you gotta stop”; “This ain’t punishment, Mr. Rodock, it’s revenge!”), and Rodock slowly relents. He gives the prisoners water and lets them rest in the shade. His reward? Lars tells him he’s greedy and cruel. He lets Barjak, who’s collapsed, ride the rest of the way; Lars tells him “My pa shoulda killed you 20 year ago.” Eventually Rodock just lets them go—these horse thieves and cripplers. He even returns Lars to his mother personally. His reward? Lars goes for a shotgun and tries to kill him.

So maybe Rodock was right all along about frontier justice? It just takes too much to get these guys before a judge. Sadly, Rodock doesn’t point this out; he becomes good for the sake of being good. His reward? When he returns to the ranch, Jo leaves him for Steve.

Except when she finds out Rodock didn’t hang the horse thieves, she returns to him with open arms. That’s our happy ending. Good comes to the good. Or so Hollywood wants us to believe. Probably because we want to believe it.

Good deeds
I still think there’s something in that final act if they’d just finetuned it. Maybe Steve is horrified by the horse crippling and wants blood, and maybe this is why Rodock holds back on the hanging—because he doesn’t want Steve to become like him. Or sure, continue with the long march, but prove Rodock right. Acknowledge the danger in it—the long absence. Maybe deliver the men to the judge, as Jo wanted, then return to find Jo killed or missing. Just gone, and he'll never find out why.

During the 1950s, movie studios kept pairing Cagney with young, dull male co-stars whom they hoped would become stars but never did: John Derek, Roger Smith twice, Don Dubbins twice. Cagney is either learned and teaches (“Run for Cover”), or corrupt and learns (“These Wilder Years,” “Man of a Thousand Faces”), or corrupt and teaches (“Never Steal Anything Small”). Here, I guess, he’s corrupt but teaches wrangling while learning a higher moral standard. The worst part is the sense that Rodock wants the approval of the kids: not just Steve but Lars, too. Somewhere, Tom Powers spits.

Because of the Spencer Tracy overruns, “Tribute to a Bad Man” didn’t make back half its cost, and Cagney, a true outdoorsman, increasingly attracted to the western genre, never got to make another western. His good deed (filling in for Tracy) went punished. A better lesson than the mushy one the movie gives us.

Minneapolis newspaper ad from 1956. Wonder where the free parking was.

Posted at 10:16 AM on Sunday January 31, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s  
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