Rawhide (1951)

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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.

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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.

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17 thoughts on “Rawhide (1951)”

  1. I’ve always loved this one. A great ensemble of character players to support Ty and Susan. Might be Elam’s all time lowest scoundrel and Dean Jagger a gem as usual. I also liked Marlowe here, an actor who never gets much credit. Star power in the lead roles makes it all an exciting showcase under Hathaway. I knew you’d like this one and I too made the connection to the Tarantino flick when I saw Hateful 8.

    1. It kept all the grit and tension, and the slimy baddies, of the 35 version, plus Hathaway’s touch for suspense was so good. The things with the note and the little girl were almost painful to watch!! good stuff!

  2. I’m a fan of Henry Hathaway, and I consider this one of his better ones (along with all those cool noirs he directed). I think it was this film, when I watched it long ago, that got me interested in Susan Hayward…I really liked how tough and in-charge here character was here. Thanks for reminding me that I own this one, and need to watch it again!

    1. Yes she was really good casting for this, and kind of plays it tight and guarded until the truth comes out. I think that in this case changing it from a married couple adds a lot of good extra material for when Ty and Susan are locked up and working together. Hathaway was great.

  3. Loved reading this since I just saw the film for the first time in several years last month. Such a good movie, for all the reasons you describe and more. Plus it has lots of Lone Pine! 🙂

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    1. Yes I read that, about it being shot there! Really great suspense and like I said that twist of having them be strangers having to get to know each other while captive, makes for good story. Gosh though, how stressful was it watching the little girl wander around..!!!

  4. This year I upgraded my copy of “RAWHIDE” and your interesting review reminds me a re-watch is LONG overdue, Kristina. Thanks for the nudge!

    1. I don’t know what took me so long to get to it myself. Really enjoyed, especially since I had the other version to compare to. Also I really like to spot the similarities and “echoed” imagery in newer movies. Shows how relevant and influential these classics still are.

  5. I also rate Hugh Marlowe highly.
    And unusual to have no romantic involvement between Hayward and Power.

    1. Hugh is almost TOO refined and nice for this kind of villain but it worked for me, also made it easy for him to pass himself off as a lawman. That’s true about no romance, nice to see them work together so well to plan an escape.

  6. This is one of Power’s best postwar films along with Nightmare Alley and Diplomatic Courier (also directed by Hathaway). The director keeps it so wonderfully lean, and the cinematography bleached out and harsh, so the audience gets that sense of isolation so vital to the tension of the piece.

    I saw someone else mention Hugh Marlowe and I think this is one of his better performances. In general he was a decent performer but a trifle on the bland side. But in this his surface sophistication, which is explained well by the script that he was an educated man forced by circumstances initially to go wrong, covers the fact his venality has been fully realized and now he’s rotten to core. He’s really quite detestable.

    Ty and Susan pair well. His beauty just starting to become rough around the edges and anxious frustration blends sharply with her armored toughness and defiance, and few actresses could be as tough as Susan Hayward with her guard up, so that their tentative and reluctant reliance on each other never has the feeling of conventionality. The two were paired again a few years later for Untamed but neither the picture nor their chemistry is as strong as this one. All three had bigger successes but this is a solid picture in all their filmographies.

    1. What a great bunch of observations, really appreciate you adding your thoughts. Agree about the actors, especially your analysis on Marlowe’s work and how it fit that character. Thanks!

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