MORE OLD WEST NOIR
by Fred Blosser
A few weeks ago on Ed’s blog, I mentioned the great, gritty 1932 Western LAW AND ORDER as a cowboy/Noir mash-up several years before the term “Film Noir” was coined. ONE FOOT IN HELL (1960) is a relatively more recent example of Noir nihilism in a frontier setting. It isn’t the grim masterpiece that LAW AND ORDER was, and it doesn't seem to have a lot of champions, if comments on the web are an indication, but it deserves a look from genre fans.
This CinemaScope Western from Alan Ladd’s final years was scripted by Aaron Spelling and Sydney Boehm from a story by Spelling. In plot, mood, and characterization, it would have worked wonderfully well as a ‘50s Gold Medal paperback Western.
Passing through on his way to settle a new homestead, Mitch Garrett (Ladd) stops in the town of Blue Springs desperately seeking a room and emergency medical care for his pregnant wife. Because he’s a stranger, the hotel owner forces him to pay up front for a room. And then the town's storekeeper refuses to give him the medicine his wife needs because he can't pay for it: the hotel payment left him short of the necessary $1.87.
Frantic, Mitch takes the medicine at gunpoint, and the storekeeper calls the sheriff. By the time Mitch can explain his situation and get back to the hotel, his wife has died.
Mitch settles in and pretends to join the community, even getting sworn in as deputy sheriff, but it’s only a ruse. Nursing his hatred, he’s biding his time until he can exact biblical justice against the hotel owner, storekeeper, and sheriff whom he blames for his wife’s death, and pull off a bank heist that will ruin the town financially. He assembles a team of mutually distrustful misfits: an alcoholic ex-Confederate officer (Don Murray), an opportunistic saloon girl (Dolores Michaels), a coldblooded gunslinger (Barry Coe), and a wastrel Englishman (Dan O’Herlihy).
Like Delmer Daves’ THE BADLANDERS from two years before, ONE FOOT IN HELL shrewdly synthesizes Ladd’s Film Noir and Western credentials. He’s no longer the sleek young tough guy of THE GLASS KEY or THIS GUN FOR HIRE, and in fact he even looks much older than his 47 years. But his somewhat puffy, sagging features fit the embittered character he plays. The big-heist elements of the story are all present and accounted for. Icy, single-minded ringleader? Check. Team of skilled but unpredictable specialists? Check. Indications that things will fall apart violently, either during or after the robbery? Double-check.
James B. Clark’s direction is serviceable, but the script really calls for the hard-edged sensibility of a Phil Karlson or Joseph H. Lewis. Had Karlson or Lewis directed, I suspect that the film would have become a cult favorite instead of a nearly forgotten product from a time when Western movies and TV series were a dime a dozen. A negative1960 New York Times review excoriated the “soured ugliness” of the plot -- like that’s a bad thing for us fans of heist/revenge stories.
When I looked for ONE FOOT IN HELL on DVD a couple of years ago, the only legitimate commercial release was a widescreen Spanish import rather charmingly translated as UN PIE EN EL INFIERNO. Since then, it’s become more readily available in the U.S. as a Vudu and Amazon download.