May 28, 2015

On DVD: Bad Men of Tombstone (1948)

Though he played both white and black hat over the course of his career, Barry Sullivan was always at his most intriguing when he portrayed men with a dark streak. He specialized in playing protagonists too corrupt to root for, but who were exciting to watch nevertheless. In a new Western release from Warner Archive, Sullivan tackles one of these complex roles with his typical dangerous charm.

Sullivan is Tom Horn, a gambler, or whatever he needs to be to get along. He holds up a claims office, and, always the opportunist, he finds his next meal ticket in jail, when he meets cellmate William Morgan (Broderick Crawford), an outlaw with a gang and a plan. Much to the irritation of the rest of his gang, Morgan makes lets Horn stay. Morgan doesn't fully trust him, but he respects a man with good ideas.

The gang tears through the west, killing and stealing until they finally hide out with their stash in the lawless Tombstone. In this wild town, Horn falls for beautiful blonde Julie (Marjorie Reynolds) who earns his trust when she recognizes him as the man who robbed her and doesn't rat him out to the sheriff. They marry, and Tom tries to leave the gang, but it isn't that easy to quit his life of crime. The defection is just one more bad decision that haunts Horn, who never has the sense to be afraid of anything.

As arrogant as Tom is though, he isn't that way with Julie. In many respects, they have a remarkably equal relationship. While she has put a lot of her fate in his hands, she doesn't hesitate to speak her mind with him, and he listens. You can see how they could have been domestic together if they only didn't feel the world owed them a living.

It's hard to have much sympathy for Horn and Julie. They want the fine things in life, but the fact that they don't want to work for them, and their lack of compassion for their victims is disheartening. They're such an attractive couple and so deeply connected that you want them to change their ways and make it work, but they seem too deeply wounded by their impoverished childhoods. When they meet a decent man and wife who do plan to work for their living, despite a little longing, it's clear that they almost pity the pair for their industry. 

Bad Men of Tombstone is framed as a morality tale, with a corny narration about "good and bad," but it doesn't lack for thrills, primarily due to Sullivan, Crawford and Reynolds. It is their charisma that elevates this outlaw tale into something especially intriguing.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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