Stranger on Horseback (1955) directed by Jacques Tourneur, has McCrea playing Circuit Judge Thorne, newcomer in a town totally under the control of the cattle baron Josiah Bannerman (John McIntire). Son Tom Bannerman (Kevin McCarthy) just murdered someone in “self-defense,” and now Thorne wants to try the case, so he rounds up and coaxes info out of spooked-silent witnesses and attempts to keep custody of wild young Tom in the face of a mob of angry Bannermans and everyone owned or bullied by them. Thorne isn’t just a bookish lawman, he’s also a capable shot and fighter, with a resolve that amuses players like the Colonel (John Carradine) a Federal Attorney on Bannerman payroll, and the Sheriff (Emile Meyer) who only needs this nudge to grow back his spine. They watch Thorne work and help him to a point, careful about appearances, lest Thorne be swiftly eliminated like previous do-gooders. Thorne moves his suspect and witnesses to a more “neutral” town for trial, which takes everyone on an attractive and dangerous trek through a rocky valley, and ends in an exciting showdown between Thorne and Bannerman. That climax gets suspense from a good fake-out where Thorne, valuing life over justice, pretends to abandon his quest to try Tom, just long enough to get in a better shooting position. Miroslava plays Bannerman’s feisty sharpshooting niece who’s disgusted by the wimpy banker offered her as strategic marriage partner, and goes from being entertained by her cousin Tom’s antics to revolted by his heartlessness. Miroslava, who committed suicide at age 30, right when this film was released, was the movie’s weak spot for me. Maybe I missed an explanation for her heavy accent, but that wasn’t the only reason she felt out of place; I would have loved to see someone like Yvonne de Carlo in this role. Nice repartee between McCrea and Carradine, and McIntire gets some great scenes where he explains the hardship that made him what he is, and backs down to let his son face the consequences.
The Tall Stranger (1957) is a gripping mystery, stumbled upon by Ned Bannon (McCrea), a Union soldier on his way home to reconcile with his estranged half-brother, tyrannical land-owner Hardy (Barry Kelley). While sneaking a look at cattle that shouldn’t be in that neoughbourhood, Ned is attacked and left for dead by a man with flashy rifle and spurs. Ned’s picked up and nursed back to health by a wagon train headed for California, a group including such diverse folks as Ellen, (Virginia Mayo) a single mother trying to escape her checkered past, kindly Whit Bissell and his family, and slimy Harper (George Neise). When Harper leads them all into what Ned knows to be a dead end, then suddenly talks them into staying on Hardy’s fertile land, Ned smells trouble, but nobody believes him. Harper plans to use the settlers as pawns in a war against Hardy, and take over the land once they’ve all killed each other. By the time Ned figures that out, he’s mended the rift with his half-brother, gained the trust and love of Ellen, and through a series of tragic frameups and misunderstandings, made enemies of the brainwashed settlers, and almost triggers the very conflict he tries to prevent. This movie has great pace and action, a fine and deep cast playing interesting characters who each get their moments. They’re believably fooled by Harper’s claims and, still stinging from wartime losses, also have good reason to doubt Ned’s warnings. Leo Gordon is great as Hardy’s right-hand man, and Michael Ansara plays Zarata, the dastardly head of a gang hired to spark the violence and ensure it all goes Harper’s way. Zarata threatens to double-cross Harper but gets distracted by his lust for Ellen, and stalks her to the river where she’s helped out (tough woman doesn’t quite need rescuing) by McCrea. Back at Hardy’s ranch Ellen’s befriended by wise Indian Charley (Michael Pate), and her little boy thaws Hardy’s heart. It all ends there, in a super shootout (loved the use of a smoking hay wagon for cover). Both The Tall Stranger and Stranger on Horseback are based on Louis L’Amour stories.
In Cattle Empire (1958), you won’t soon forget the name John Cord (McCrea), because it’s repeated incredulously by all who discover he’s got the gall to return to the town his trail crew ruined five years before. There’s more to that story than they realize, and the script reveals slowly that Cord was wrongly imprisoned for the crimes and damage done. Much to everyone’s shock and dismay, John Cord’s been invited back by the man he blinded, Ralph (Don Haggerty), because he’s the only one with the skills to head a crucial cattle drive. Cord assembles a new crew, mostly made up of people with reason to hate and/or suspect him of scheming with the competition, Garth (Richard Shannon). They think Cord’s driving this herd to ruination just to get even, and at first, that’s exactly what he plans, but he’s too decent a dude to kill all those animals, so he pivots, and dedicates himself instead to beating the rival herd and proving Ralph’s faith in him wasn’t misplaced. Toward the end of this arduous trek, the truth emerges about who falsely accused Cord five years ago, a revelation that cements the already growing sense of loyalty and respect toward him, right in time for a united front against an ambush by Garth who’s vengeful over losing his entire herd at a dry river. Gloria Talbott plays the young woman with a crush on Cord, Phyllis Coates is Cord’s former flame who married Ralph but on this journey rethinks her choices, and Bing Russell is the heir who learns trail boss skills from the best in the business, John Cord. A good variation on the “we hate him but we need him” plot, and made good use of McCrea being effective with few words. He doesn’t tolerate much yakking, he coolly and decisively handles dissent, and doesn’t defend himself against accusations. His silence and ambiguity keeps the viewer guessing about his intentions, until Cord clearly goes good and then chooses to let his actions and success speak for themselves.