John Payne stars in this western as the civil war veteran and lawyer who travels out to El Paso…ostensibly to get the signature of a Judge (Henry Hull) regarding some executor and estate matters. Really, though, Payne is eager to get out there to catch up with the Judge’s gorgeous daughter Gail Russell, who he’d previously courted. When he arrives he finds that the Judge is being bullied, plied with alcohol and used by Sterling Hayden to kick people off their land, and though Russell tries to put on a brave face, she hates where they are because of what her father’s become. The plot and message is a familiar one; the outlaws rule the town until Payne the law-abiding hero arrives and tries to set things right. Unfortunately after an apparent victory the legal way, via a fair judgment by a sober judge, the bad guys, accustomed to getting their way, react as most bullies do when they’re desperate and backed into a corner; they escalate their violent intimidation, murdering the judge for starters.
Their new reign of terror throws Payne into a natural leadership role, but also into a righteous rage and into doubt about the value of following the law and taking the peaceful approach. El Paso isn’t a great western, but it has exactly what I love about the genre, and that’s the clarity immediacy of the conflict between good and bad. In this plot the specific dilemma is the difficulty of battling evil while also staying true to superior values like decency, fair play, law and order, when your enemy has no such concerns and attacks as low and dirty as their imaginations can take them. There are some valuable lessons about the inevitable stupidity of an angry mob, the usefulness of violence under certain circumstances, and the need for a cool head in all circumstances.
John Payne is a big favorite of mine so I’m really glad I saw him in his first big western, and I’m always eager to see pretty much anything with Gail Russell or Sterling Hayden, here a sneering menace in cahoots with Dick Foran as his dense, hotheaded sheriff. The movie marked some beginnings and ends for the actors involved. It came out a month after Russell married Guy Madison—it would be a short marriage, lasting only about six months– and El Paso came near the end of Russell’s most productive years; her personal and drinking problems increasingly kept her off screen and she worked more sporadically. Foran was near the tail end of his long and successful movie career, having made tons of B’s and some serials as a warm and charming singer, cowboy and supporting actor. Sterling Hayden was just 4 movies into his career here, and after El Paso truly established himself as a powerful leading man through his first noirs Manhandled and The Asphalt Jungle.
John Payne was just a year out of his long contract with Fox, where he’d mainly been a musical star and romantic idol. Wanting to stretch into tougher, more dramatic roles, Payne had in this short time already begun to prove himself one of the most versatile actors ever, making Larceny, his first of many great noirs, and The Saxon Charm, where he was a playwright nearly destroyed by complicated, selfish and manipulative producer Robert Montgomery. Even with this stellar cast, though, I’d still suggest the movie would appeal mainly to completists of westerns and of those actors. El Paso’s not boring or bad, it just felt unrefined and undercooked, despite all the right ingredients being there in plain sight. The movie was produced by “the dollar Bills,” the Paramount producing team of Williams Pine and Thomas, famous for turning in a seemingly endless run of low budget movies of varying quality but invariably successful at the box office. El Paso was their first bigger budget project and as many reviewers note, it looks like it wanted to be so much more and fell short of aspirations. Some other bits I liked: spotting the handsome John Hart (one of TV’s Lone Rangers, the lifeguard on I Love Lucy, among his many credits), the noble “Nacho,” played by Eduardo Noriega, training Payne to be a quick draw, Mary Beth Hughes as the predatory stagecoach Nell whose special talent is separating men from their wallets much to the amusement of the initiated, and Gail Russell having the stoic composure of the ideal frontier woman when her father’s body is delivered to her door in the ugliest manner. There’s a nice dramatic, pre-spaghetti western touch of having a conveniently timed haboob roll into town right as the final showdown unfolds, complete with that one person running across the street for no good reason, when everyone else has hidden or left town. Thanks Laura, whose review of El Paso can be found here.
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