“If everybody want to stick together, I stick with ‘em. But if nobody want to stick together, I stick alone, by myself.” -Sven Hansen
In 1947, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (because of course there was one), a political activism group that Walt Disney co-helmed as First Vice-President (because of course he did), disseminated a pamphlet that listed guidelines for filmmakers to avoid the perception of Communist favor in their films. If the Screen Guide for Americans reads like a Ten Commandments for Ayn Rand fanboys, that’s because it is– the Fountainhead scribe penned the anti-collectivist document herself. In it, she advises producers to avoid smearing “the free-enterprise system” or “the profit motive,” while forbidding (in principle) creatives from glorifying “the collective” or “the common man.” Joseph H. Lewis’ Lilliputian B-movie Terror in a Texas Town (newly streaming on Amazon Prime) flouts nearly every one of these directives in a giant, dusty middle finger to the moral arbiters of the day.
The plot is indicative of the postwar evolution of the gunslinger picture; what was once either white-hatted cowboys singing about their horses or double-fisted shoot ‘em ups grew up to display more tonal range. Texas Town begins with what many now lament as the “Tarantino open”: a taste of the climax, to be circled back upon later. George Hansen (Sterling Hayden) marches into a town square armed with what the film’s poster calls, “Iron-hooked Fury!” With only a meathook and true grit, the hero stands tall opposite the then-faceless man in black, who would later be introduced as Johnny Crale (Ned Young). It’s a Thrilla in Manila– or Prairie City, where the story is set.
Wealthy landowner McNeil (Sebastian Cabot, whom genre fans will recognize as Pip, the genial liaison to the underworld in the Twilight Zone episode “A Nice Place to Visit”) has his lobster butter-drenched fingers all over Prairie City, and he’s looking to get a bigger piece of the pie. He enlists the services of Johnny Crale to run ranchers off of their land, after which he swoops in and reaps the benefits. Swedish rancher Sven Hansen (Ted Stanhope) is the next target on the list. He tells his neighbor Jose (Victor Millan), “A man will talk more when he’s alone with another man than when he’s with two. Stay in the shed and listen.” Jose watches as Crale attempts to get Hansen to sign over his oil-rich land; when Hansen tells him to kick rocks and lifts his whale harpoon to underline the statement, Crale lights him up like a Scandanavian Christmas tree. Mirada vows revenge. Enter Sterling “tha God” Hayden as George Hansen, the son of the slain elder.
Hayden is often celebrated (deservedly) for his roles in two Kubrick films: Dr. Strangelove or The Killing, whichever intensity tickles your fancy. But in Texas Town, the actor adapts an aw-shucks newcomer naivete that transforms into an everyman salt by the time the end credits roll. With a paper-thin Swedish accent that comes and goes throughout the crisp 81-minute runtime, Hansen Jr.’s lines are delivered with the matter-of-fact confusion of a man who stands bewildered at the contradictions of of North American capitalist society, and all that is done to protect national wealth above all else. “How can I get in trouble claiming what is mine?” he wonders aloud. The answer, he finds, is maddening to anyone not in the old boys club.
Opposite Hayden, Ned Young is a fantastic heavy. Clad in the kind of black-on-black threads that Johnny Cash croons about, Johnny Crale has that Caleb DeCotaeu vibe that Leo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton plays with such zeal in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (sans the Zapata mustache). McNeill describes Johnny as “death walking around in the shape of a man.” Every word is spoken through a grunt or a grin, growing his average stature to a more insidious one until it builds to a “Warriors, come out to play” come-hither that catapults the character to top-tier Western baddie status.
The law is an active antagonist in the film, white and xenophobic. Hansen has a letter from his father bequeathing the home to him; the Sheriff claims it won’t hold up in court. Hansen says that there’s a will in Austin saying the same– the Sheriff again dismisses it. “No foreigner is going to come in here and tell me how to run my job, you understand?” Hansen knows when to pump the brakes, but parts with a warning, “I understand justice too, and I think I’ll get it.” Turns out, law dog is heeled at the feet of Fancy Pants McNeill. The old maxim, that cops serve and protect capital and not people, remains evergreen.
If the aesthetics of the film are effectively minimalist, that stunning simplicity extends to the thematic attitude as well. Joseph H. Lewis crafts a world in which the riches of the land (literally, oil) would be bequeathed to the common clay of civilization, were it not for the voracious greed and cruelty of the top one percent and their minions. In a bit of serendipity for the miniscule budget and limited location, the good men and women of the realm are isolated physically and emotionally within the frame. Asked why she sticks around good-for-nothing Crale, his girlfriend Molly (Carol Kelly) replies “I stay with him because of what I am. I stay with him because no other man would have me. I stay with him because as low as I am, I can turn around and remember that there’s somebody lower.” Everyone holds one another at an arm’s length within the sparse, dry township.
The locals (at the behest of Crale) hassle Hansen the younger, first by invading his space. “You’re standing in my place,” grins the first hoodlum. The next feigns offense at trumped-up charges of the Swede not liking their piano tavern music. Finally, they bring his trunk down and rifle through it while telling him to leave town. Through it all, he holds his head high– until a yokel pulls out a gown that belonged to his mother. Seconds after tearing the heirloom in half, the good ol’ boy catches a haymaker to his jaw. Hansen is punished for it, jumped by the three men, beaten severely, and put on a train out of town. For many, that would have been the end of their visit to the scenic West, but not Haymaker Hansen. His wounded walk back to town, center-framed on train tracks diminishing into the hostile horizon, is positively biblical– a weary Jesus on the road to Calvary.
Like the Wicked Witch coasting to Emerald City with her flying monkeys, Crale and his mounted party visit the Hansen homestead again. All smirk, Crale casually threatens to make Mirada’s wife a widow if the family doesn’t pack their bags and leave the land by the following Sunday. With that, the ticking time bomb is in place. It’s here that the main players on the stage are presented with a definitive moral choice, to bend to tyrannical forces or to capitulate to save their skins. The crossroads is a microcosm of Trumbo’s own dilemma over a decade prior, when Crale’s “Sign this deed or I’ll shoot you,” came in the form of “Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” Trumbo’s refusal to engage with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 (citing First Amendment concerns– being a Communist wasn’t a crime, after all) resulted in his blacklisting; Ben L. Perry fronted the script for him and initially received screen credit for it.
It is through the language of community vs. individuality that Trumbo’s fingerprints can be found all over the anti-McCarthyism metaphors. In a textbook Hero’s Journey moment, George Hansen rallies the Mirada family to stand their ground with him. “There is only one reason why we must lose our farms. There is only one reason why my father was killed. You know what that reason is? It is because of fear, it is because we are afraid. We could turn this valley inside out, if only people were not afraid.” Hansen may be speaking to Mirada, but it’s really a shunned creative speaking to the Red-fearing audience through the silver screen. Mirada pays for his subsequent newfound bravery; Crale shoots him dead for refusing to kneel.
And so we come back to our Tarantino open. Hansen pulls up on the town wolf with all of the big dick energy of Brando strutting onto the waterfront to call the corrupt Johnny Friendly a “lousy stinking cheat” to his face. The collective muscle of an entire town, running on the sick-and-tired power of the downtrodden, flex behind him. For all of Crale’s talk and quick-draws, he’s no quicker than a simple man with no more than a fisherman’s implement and steadfast principles. The credits roll immediately after the showdown – a satisfying triumph for the common man that Ayn Rand and those who would create an entire committee on “un-American activities” are so frightened of.
“Terror in a Texas Town” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.