Time for the monthly recommendation called the Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, when a blogger friend suggests a movie I’ve never seen and vice versa.
I reviewed the great 1935 gangster movie Show ‘Em No Mercy here, and Rawhide is a western remake of that, with more twists than the minimum required to fit the story into a different genre. In Mercy the couple in peril was actually a couple, with a sick baby; in Rawhide we have Tyrone Power as Tom, a relay station employee who is assumed to be the husband of tough, stranded traveler Vinnie (Susan Hayward), so they play along to survive. She has a cute little girl with her, Cali, who’s also wrongly assumed to be hers. So the same family unit is set up to be kept prisoner by the outlaws, with suspense about their characters and loyalties.
Maybe it’s because I just saw The Hateful Eight and it’s fresh in my mind, but I saw quite a few similarities that suggest this gritty western might have been an influence for classic movie fan Tarantino. The bad guys, headed by Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe), pretend to be lawmen and decent company as they hold hostages at a remote stagecoach stop, where they wait for the arrival of a gold shipment. The scale and design of the “Rawhide” and its dining area looks a lot like Minnie’s Haberdashery. When more travelers stop by, the outlaws claim to be “taking care of the place,” and there’s a foreigner in the gang (George Tobias), one of the many colourful and memorable characters stuck in this single-setting, one-day drama.
Director Henry Hathaway and writer Dudley Nichols do a great job planting smart little plot seeds that grow into almost unbearable suspense, then pay off really well. There’s some business with a gun dropped behind the trough that comes in handy later, and that’s just one example of the quick thinking and improvisation Tom and Vinnie do through their ordeal. As Tom digs an escape hole, hidden by a cot where the three are kept captive, the curious little girl crawls closer to see what he’s doing. At escape time, that hole still isn’t big enough for an adult to squeeze through, but a child could, and sure enough, the grown-ups are distracted just long enough for Cali to crawl out. It’s a sickening feeling to watch the girl waddle eagerly toward any number of possible dangers, including getting kicked by horses, or noticed and shot by outlaws. Vinnie’s panicked screams get attention but her attempts to get out and save the child are foiled.
Doing the foiling is Elam’s Tevis, a relentlessly creepy lech who follows, leers at and assaults Vinnie every chance he gets. It doesn’t really make sense that Zimmerman claims to trust no one, yet repeatedly, against everyone’s warnings, assigns Tevis to watch Vinnie, then claims to be stunned when Tevis attacks her and betrays him. When, in the final shootout, Tevis gleefully targets the kid, you can hardly wait for him to get blown away. In the 1935 version a parallel moment was incredibly dramatic and empowering, so I wished for a closer recreation, but still it was a satisfying release for Vinnie’s building rage and feeling of helplessness.
Something I loved was the whole bit with the help note. Tom scrawls a message about their predicament, hoping to sneak it to the stagecoach driver, but Murphy’s Law dictates that it’ll fall out of his shirt. It’s a nailbiter to watch the way the paper flutters about where it’s sure to be spotted, slapping up against a lantern, then dancing around Zimmerman’s feet. When Tom finally finds it he lies to his captor about it being a personal letter; you strongly suspect that when George Tobias’ character demands to read it, he’s bluffing and is actually illiterate, but the moment is still excruciatingly tense. Great picture, now pop over to Mike’s Take on the Movies to see which David Lean movie I recommended for him.