"How else anybody going to tell the men from the boys?"

"We'll manage."

We start strong with a pre-Invasion supporting role for McCarthy in this Joel McCrea-starring western directed by the great Jacques Tourneur. McCrea plays a circuit judge - an established "tough hombre" - who believes the three tools a man in his line of business needs are a law book, a horse and a gun, and that the further west a judge goes "the less he needs the first item." He rides into a such a "western" town, one positively teeming with corruption, self-governed by the cattle-rearing Bannerman family who maintain control by staying largely under the radar (their shady transfer of property deals with locals are settled for $499, since $500 or more would bring the disputes under federal juristiction.) McCrea, in town to investigate the shooting of an unarmed man in a saloon, is scrupulous in his incorruptibility and has a very strong sense of justice. For example, he turns down the offer of a free fancy hotel room and complimentary drinks from the alcoholic colonel (John Carradine) who serves as the town's welcome wagon, but also firmly snaps "I didn't tell you to keep the change!" at the hotel clerk after he's paid for the room. So it's more or less the perfect kind of morally-balanced western role for McCrea, whose late-period career gunslingers would never give in to corruption but refused to be taken advantage of. In one of the best scenes of the movie, he responds to a bully throwing water in his face by pleasantly chirping "Thanks, it's a hot day." But when the guy turns to full-on assault, McCrea knocks him straight into the trough without hesitation. A tough hombre indeed (he even reads while riding his horse - that always gives me a headache.)

Based on a Louis L'Amour story, Stranger follows the 3:10 to Yuma model of "we have to get this crook to such-and-such place to stand trial before his friends come to rescue him and kill us all." (No pressure!) The twist is that McCrea doesn't have many people he can turn to for help: the guilty party is none other than the only son of cattle baron Bannerman. Not only is nobody in town willing to join McCrea's posse, when McCrea decides to snatch the suspect and make a run for the courthouse (in another town, of course), pretty much everyone grabs a rifle and joins the party to go after him. On top of that, the few people on his side are hardly reliable warriors: an elderly farmer who witnessed the murder, the farmer's terrified daughter and Amy Lee Bannerman, the murderer's beautiful cousin, in the midst of a serious moral dilemma that pits her fondness for McCrea against the instinct to protect her condemned kin. So it's McCrea versus the entire town on a long, lawless road, but as the tagline boasts: "Thunder in the saddle...greased lightning with his guns...There never rode a man to match him!"

McCarthy plays young Bannerman, the spoiled son of a powerful cattle baron (character actor John McIntire) who guns a man down for no reason other than he can get away with it. You can see some early R.J. Fletcher-like smugness: he knows he has the power to do what he wants and finds anyone who thinks otherwise just plain amusing. He takes advantage of McCrea's judicatory principles by pushing him as far as he can, secure in the knowledge that McCrea won't shoot him down in cold blood. Bannerman would seem an intimidating villain, except that you know he would never stand up to McCrea if he expected any sort of lethal reprisal, or wasn't confident that a townful of cowboys were coming to his aide. It's an early look at the kind of weasely character McCarthy would perfect over the years: one who can really turn on the toughness, then switch effortlessly back to shriveled cowardice, a perfect portrayal of a spineless bully.

Bannerman killed his off-screen victim when the man was unarmed; the murder he commits on the trail is done by scaring the farmer's horse off a cliff (with the farmer still in the saddle) in an improvised act resembling a mean childish prank that young Bannerman never would have attempted if he wasn't positive nobody was looking. Tourneur focuses on McCarthy at this exact moment: recognizing the opportunity, cautiously checking his surroundings, grinning to himself and then striking out in one sinister and feeble, impotent gesture that ends a man's life. It brings to mind any moment someone does something spontaneously cruel: a kid pushing a playmate off a revolving merry-go-round, or watching a fish struggle to breathe after plucking it from the water. Tourneur first reveals McCarthy's Bannerman behind an uprighted table, smiling gleefully as Amy Lee shoots shot glasses as he holds them up. We see all we need to know about the character from this introduction, with Bannerman hiding comfortably, safe in the knowledge that a) a family member holds the gun and b) he has the double-protection of being behind a table. He's a spoiled little boy who flirts with danger while never exposing himself to it directly. Later, the table will be gone and he will be Amy Lee's target, no more innocent people left to stand in for the rich kid's shot glass collection.

This is also an early appearance of a familiar McCarthy prop, the cigar. It's not like he was Groucho or Sam Fuller or anything, but a stogie did go on to become a recurring item in McCarthy's hand, especially when he was playing bad guys. Also noteworthy is that McCrea arrests McCarthy in a bar, just like Claude Akins in Rio Bravo and Glenn Ford in 3:10 to Yuma (the message to all casual movie gunslingers and real-life ones like John Wesley Hardin is: don't hang out in saloons! You will be killed or arrested for murder.)

Amy Lee is played by Miroslava Stern (typically credited as simply "Miroslava"), a Czech-born actress whose family picked up and fled to Mexico at the onset of WWII. One national beauty contest crowning later, she began appearing in two to five Mexican and Mexican-set Hollywood productions a year. Miroslava played Lavinia, the female lead in Buñuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, which was released in 1955, the same year as Stranger (both movies shot chiefly in Mexico.) Miroslava didn't live to see either movie completed: she committed suicide at the age of 30. Apparently she had been jilted by her lover, famed bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin (subject of The Dangerous Summer by Hemingway), overdosed on barbiturates and was found holding three farewell notes in one hand and a picture of the two of them (with Dominguin's mother) in the other. In a grisly coincidence, the premiere of Archibaldo de la Cruz, in which a wax effigy of her is incinerated - Ernesto Alonso having told her she reminds him of Joan of Arc being consumed by flames - coincided with her own cremation in a Mexican graveyard.*

In Stranger, Miroslava isn't smoldering as she is in other films, but she's achingly pretty in a high-neck blouse and holds her own as the brawny babe who ultimately makes the right choice.

Tourneur was hand-picked to direct Stranger by McCrea, who had a contractual say in who directed the film. They had worked together previously on the 1950 western Stars in My Crown, in which McCrea played a preacher who arrives in an untamed town and starts preachin' - when his unruly audience begin to laugh, he pulls two guns on them and continues his sermon ("Take your choice...Either I speak...Or my pistols do!" was the tagline.) McCrea also played Wyatt Earp in Tourneur's criminally underseen Witchita ("Gateway to the west...Doorway to hell!") which came out shortly after Stranger and won a Golden Globe Award at the time for "Best Outdoor Drama." (Back when there was a way for those types of movies to avoid competing with those of the indoor variety.)

Stranger is weirdly shot. Tourneur watched dailies in black and white; when he saw the color workprint he said it looked ugly and it's hard to disagree with him. The colors are washed out and have that cheap, painterly look like a lot of the color cheapies of the mid-to-late 50's. But the actors and the story make up for it, and like Stars in My Crown it's an ideal vehicle for McCrea, once again cast as that spirit of the desperate western hero - always outnumbered, always outgunned - who never backs down. It's a shame that he never got to work with Don Siegel, who failed to get studio funding based on McCrea's interest in a script that Siegel called "the greatest script I ever read" which later became Bad Day at Black Rock. Of course, Spencer Tracy was very good and John Sturges made a great movie, but John J. Macreedy could have been McCrea's most iconic role, one his career had been leading up to (that role turned out to be Steve Judd in Ride the High Country for Siegel's former apprentice Sam Peckinpah.) But the next year, McCarthy would be working with Siegel, and their relationship led to a memorable little movie about aliens in Santa Mira.


* Per Alonso: "We had a ten year friendship until 1955, when her death hit me really hard. Archibaldo de la Cruz became a film of intense symbolism in my life. In it I cremated a mannequin that looked just like Miroslava and Buñuel wanted her to witness it. She got desperate and commented that she wished to be cremated after her death. Ten days after shooting the scene she committed suicide."

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