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Saturday, January 31, 2015

HELLGATE (1952)

Western specialist Charles Marquis Warren flattens out a good cast and a good story in this loose reworking of John Ford’s THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND/’36.* That one’s about Samuel Mudd, the doctor who innocently set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg only to find himself jailed as co-conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination. Here, horse doc Sterling Hayden tapes up the ribcage of a South-sympathizing guerrilla and is sentenced to life at Hellgate, a sort of landlocked Devil’s Island out in the desert. Menacing Lieutenant Ward Bond runs the place; snarling inmate James Arness runs Hayden’s cell; and a tribe of bounty-hunting Indians, along with the arid setting, make escape all but impossible. Meanwhile, back at the farm, wifey Joan Leslie petitions Washington for justice just as a typhus epidemic hits Hellgate. The piece is just loaded with dramatic possibilities, and, for a low-ball production from indie outfit Lippert Pictures, an impressive production outlay in man, horse & location work. But dynamism is missing from Warren’s presentation while the compressed grey-scale b&w processing make it look like a tv anthology show. Pity.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *As mentioned above, PoSI, a perennially underrated title. Ford, and Ford scholars (unhappy with leading man Warner Baxter?), write it off as another under-realized Civil War project. But it, and Baxter, are very good.

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