Ray Milland made his directing debut with the 1955 western A Man Alone. He plays Wes Steele, who’s a notorious outlaw, but we don’t know that yet. We first meet him in the desert, where he’s forced to shoot his horse, a task he carries out with obvious regret. He then stumbles across the massacred corpses of stagecoach passengers, including a woman and child, and is visibly shocked. He makes it through a sandstorm to a nearby town, where he soon discovers who is behind the killings (the ringleader is the town banker, played by Raymond Burr) but is framed for another shooting and obliged to hide out in the cellar of the local sheriff (Ward Bond) who’s also corrupt, but laid up in bed with Yellow Fever. While the townsfolk are hunting the fugitive down, he forms a tentative bond with Nadine, the sheriff’s spirited daughter, who’s played by Mary Murphy, maybe best known as the waitress who falls for Marlon Brando in The Wild One.
Apart from Milland’s “whoah boy” to his horse, there’s no dialogue at all for the first ten minutes, but this is deceptive – the film turns out to be quite static and talky, though the talk is mostly quite intelligent. “Fellers come along trying to prove that you’re not as good as they are,” Milland says to Murphy in an attempt to explain his reputation. “Pretty soon it gets out of hand and you find you’ve got to shoot to live.”
As love interest, Murphy gets a pleasingly well-rounded role, even if her aim in life is simply to meet and marry an interesting man (which is where Milland comes in). She is both a dutiful daughter and ready to stand up for what she believes in; in effect she acts as her father’s conscience, but when he slaps her, she snaps back without hesitation, “You do that again, and I’ll kill you!”
The theme of the outlaw trapped by his reputation echoes The Gunfighter (1950) and prefigures Unforgiven (1992), while the readiness of apparently peaceable crowds to morph into lynch mobs evokes Fury (1936) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). Dramatically, A Man Alone isn’t as strong as any of these, but I loved DP Lionel Lindon’s lighting and cinematography, the set decorations by Fay Babcock and John McCarthy Jr, and the costumes of Adele Palmer, which all complemented one another to agreeably painterly effect. It was filmed in Trucolor, which the studio, Republic Pictures, used on many of its westerns between 1946 and 1957, notably Nicolas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. I think I need to examine some more westerns, to see if they’re all shot in this way, or if this one only seems exceptional because I paid so much attention to the way it looked.
It’s not a film that draws its effects from action or camera movement, and, once past the first ten minutes, there are few exteriors – which in itself seems odd for a western. Instead, it’s quite theatrical; the interiors look like sets, but beautifully designed ones. It also seemed unusual to me that you could pause the DVD at any time and find yourself with a meticulous composition; this is not necessarily what one wants or expects from a western, but the cumulative effect of the chiaroscuro and harmonious colour schemes is beguiling. And will you just look at that decor in the saloon! By the time the villain is cornered in the corner of a bar, the wavy blue line on the wall behind him seems both exquisitely decorative and deliciously symbolic.