Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Raton Pass (Warner Bros., 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night's “feature” was called Raton Pass — “Ratón,” with an accent and pronounced “Rah-TONE,” being the Spanish word for “rat” and a location both in the California gold country (Charles remembered visiting that Ratón) and a place in New Mexico where this film was set (though the location work was done in the town of Gallup, one of the locales made famous in the song “Route 66”). Raton Pass deals with a huge ranch owned by the Challon family, which at the moment consists of father Pierre (Basil Ruysdael, whose presence puts the whole rest of the cast one degree of separation from the Marx Brothers) and son Marc (Dennis Morgan, top-billed) — I guess from the spellings of their first names that the Challon family are supposed to be French-Americans. The action of this film kicks off when outlaw Cy Van Cleave (Steve Cochran) arrives in town on a stagecoach with a woman named Ann (Patricia Neal, who did this piece of cheese the same year she made The Day the Earth Stood Still) and asks her to lunch. She declines and takes the lunch invitation with Marc Challon instead, and within a reel or so Marc and Ann are engaged and, as a wedding present, Pierre deeds them the huge Challon Ranch.

There are basically three parties fighting over the future of this huge property (one suspects the creators of Bonanza may have been thinking of this story when they created the Ponderosa and put the Cartwrights in charge of it, with Lorne Greene playing the sort of all-powerful paterfamilias Basil Ruysdael is portraying here): the Challons, a local gang of cattle punchers headed by Jim Pozner (Louis Jean Heydt — more grizzled and stouter than he was in his prime; in his prime he was actually gorgeous and had charisma to burn, and why he was never able to grasp the brass ring of stardom has long puzzled me), and outlaw Van Cleave (whose name, perhaps unconsciously referencing a later real-life star of spaghetti Westerns, I kept hearing as “Van Cleef”). The Pozners and Van Cleave both see their chance when Marc Challon invites Prentice (Scott Forbes), a representative of a bank in Kansas City, to the ranch to negotiate a loan on it that will enable him to build an irrigation dam on the property. Instead Prentice seduces Ann — we’re still only three reels into this marvelously economical 84-minute movie (writers Thomas Blackburn, adapting his own novel, and James R. Webb certainly sensed the clock ticking on their allotted running time and moved the movie along accordingly) — and the two plot to take the ranch away from Marc.

Marc agrees to sell them the ranch (at least the half of it Ann doesn’t already own from the terms of daddy’s transfer) for a $100,000 down payment because he’s got a plot up his sleeve: the ranch’s cattle are on the other side of a stretch of lava rock to which he still owns the passage rights, so Ann’s and Prentice’s ranch is worthless without the cattle stuck on the other side of the passage Marc controls. Only Marc’s scheme is dependent on the continued allegiance of the ranch’s hands, and Pozner gets them to come on his side in an attempt to bankrupt both sides and take over the ranch himself. Needing more hands, Ann invites Van Cleave to supply them — only Van Cleave has his own ideas: his plot is to drive the cattle away in a stampede, blame Marc for this (thanks to false testimony he elicits from Pozner by threatening to beat up Pozner’s Mexican wife), get Marc hung, drive Prentice from the area and get both Ann and the ranch for himself. He kills Pozner and shoots Marc — who looks like he’s at death’s door until Lena Casamajor (why is she named “main house”?”), the Mexican girlfriend Marc jilted to marry Ann, takes charge, pulls the bullet out of Marc and enables him to recover. In the end Prentice flees, Ann and Van Cleave both get shot, and Marc regains the ranch with Lena as the new woman in his life.

Though it’s little more than a standard-issue “B” (or at least “A-minus”) Western, and the roles of Marc and Ann cry out for Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck and get Dennis Morgan and Patricia Neal, Raton Pass is actually a pretty good movie. It’s directed by Edwin L. Marin (best known for his films based on British literary classics with Reginald Owen, as Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol) with a nervy intensity — though it doesn’t really qualify as a Western noir the way Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon or Anthony Mann’s Winchester .73 do, it has some of the same elements, notably the way Patricia Neal’s character morphs from seemingly harmless gold-digger to cold-hearted villainess — and it’s especially noteworthy in the characters of the villains. As Charles noted afterwards, Neal’s character has an unusual combination of unscrupulousness, intelligence and ultimate weakness, and Cochran turns in one of his usual intense performances that offers far more impact than a film like this deserves or generally gets. Raton Pass turned out to be an unexpectedly good movie that’s been lurking in the backlog of my collection, a studio product directed and acted with more intensity than the rather clichéd story really needed. It also has a musical score by Max Steiner — one of his last credits as a Warner Bros. contractee — even though it’s unusually low-keyed by his usual standards (something already signaled by the opening credits, where for once he does not underscore his own credit with a thunderous chord that says, “Music by Max Steiner — as if you couldn’t tell!”) and he had a lot of help from others, particularly Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and Sebastian Yradier’s “La Paloma.”