Terror in a Texas Town (1958)

100% – Critics
67% – Audience

Terror in a Texas Town Storyline

Sven Hanson is one of a number of farmers whom Ed McNeil wants to run off their land (because he knows there’s oil on it). When Hanson is murdered by McNeil’s gunman, Johnny Crale, Hanson’s friend Pepe Mirada hides his knowledge of the murderer’s identity in order to protect his family. When Hanson’s son George arrives and takes up his father’s cause, not only Mirada but also Johnny Crale begin to reevaluate their attitudes.—Jim Beaver

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Terror in a Texas Town Movie Reviews

Gritty Western Noir Worth Checking Out

When oil is discovered on the properties of peaceful homesteaders, fat-cat Sebastian Cabot sends his one-handed gunman to terrorize them into leaving. When stubborn Swedish whaler Sterling Hayden’s father is killed by them, he takes on the bad guys with only a harpoon and the truth!

The premise is a bit familiar but the story is artfully told with great acting by all involved. Hayden plays an offbeat, interesting, and unconventional western hero and Cabot is a wonderfully sleazy villain. However, Academy Award winning screenwriter Nedrick Young gives the film’s best performance as Cabot’s vile hired killer.

Entertaining from start to finish, this is a really compelling low-budget movie that really knows what buttons to push, especially as Hayden tries to get his neighbors to break their fearful code of silence.

The final showdown, glimpsed in the opening scene, is both memorable and exciting

Low-budget film raises disturbing questions

There’s a lot more to this little Western than the cheap thrills the title might suggest. The film itself may have been made in black and white, but the off-beat story is shot through with shades of moral grey. Indeed, I’m not sure that it would be entirely baseless to describe it as an implicit indictment of US society.

This picture uses familiar Western stereotypes – the corrupt sheriff, the land-greedy tycoon, the sinister hired gun – in a depiction that subtly undercuts much of the entire genre. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to see the long shadow of McCarthy over the townspeople who allow themselves to be cowed and driven off one at a time, only to turn at last as a mob not on the man who bribed their silence, but on the outsider employed as a tool to do his dirty work.

(Having just read the IMDB entry for this film and discovered that the scriptwriter was himself blacklisted by the McCarthy regime, I’m now almost certain I was not imagining this!)

The whole story is framed by that final confrontation and the flashbacks (?flash-forwards?) that follow under the opening titles. After all, it’s not every Western that features a man walking the length of Main Street to face down his father’s killer… with a harpoon. This one *opens* with that image!

But as we catch up with the flash-back scenes in real-time we soon realise that things are not as they seem. This is no standard Western, there are no stand-up gunfights and no galloping horses; the only quick-draw we see is performed under duress as a humiliating party-trick. Virtue is not rewarded and those who make a stand on principle only suffer thereby. The hired killer is an aging gunman whose trade has lost him the use of his good right hand; the dogged hero is no cowboy or plains drifter but a seaman from a Swedish whaler, and the script makes it very clear just what value he can place on American justice.

Inexorably, driven by the sinister jaunty little tune of the theme music, the story winds on until we reach again that final face-down – and now the close-ups make sense, and they are not what we thought they were. That man with the moustache is not the sheriff; that blonde is not the hero’s girl; the crowd is not spilling out of a saloon.

And it is not any longer, for me at least, the clear-cut question of good and evil the genre has led us to expect. When it is all over – when the shots are called and the dice are down – the crowd pours past the Swede without a backward glance. Society doesn’t want to know; doesn’t want to face its own complicity. It wants a scapegoat to sacrifice, and for life to go on.

Morally, this film is very far from black and white. If it is a B-movie, then it is by far more unsettling than the vast majority of cheap and cheerful productions made in that budget. I cannot imagine what its intended audience must have made of it. Am I the only viewer to find myself drawn as much to the cold-blooded, isolated ‘villain’ as to the nominal hero?

One of the strangest and most compelling westerns America has ever produced

While the eye-catching poster promises “Iron Hooked Fury!” and pitting a harpoon against a six-gun, the curiously forgotten B-movie western Terror in a Texas Town, directed by Joseph H. Lewis, is a positively downbeat little movie. Starting with a handsome, square- jawed hero walking into battle with a clad-in-black gunslinger, it appears at first glance that we are on familiar ground. But the film then flashes back, and all the western tropes we had been expecting are subtly subverted, similar in many ways to Nicholas Ray’s groundbreaking masterpiece Johnny Guitar four years previous. The screenwriter is credited as Ben Perry – a name you’ll likely be unfamiliar with. Yet this was in fact a front for Dalton Trumbo, the great Oscar-winning writer who was then under scrutiny from Senator McCarthy and blacklisted from Hollywood. With this knowledge, the oddness of Terror in a Texas Town suddenly makes sense.

In the – you guessed it – small Texas town of Prairie City, the hard-working farmers earning little from their land are struggling to fight off the advances of the unscrupulous land baron McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), who is using his wealth and influence to buy up the whole area for reasons not immediately clear. Some of the townsfolk are playing hard-ball, refusing to give their homes and livelihood to a man they never see. So McNeil brings in tough-as- nails gunslinger Johnny Crale (an outstanding Nedrick Young), a broken career-criminal who is happy to caress his pistol whenever a deal doesn’t go his way. He murders Swede Sven Hansen (Ted Stanhope) when he refuses to sign a contract. A day later, his sailor son George (Sterling Hayden) arrives to greet the father he hasn’t seen in over a decade, only the learn of his murder and that the land left to him is now the property of a greedy businessman.

It quickly becomes clear that the hero-versus-villain showdown the opening scene promised us will be nothing like we expected. The dashing American hero is in fact an immigrant without the skills of a quick-draw or the wits to take on McNeil on his own, and the black leather-donning Crale may just be in the midst of developing a conscience after years of killing and the loss of his gun hand. What makes Terror in a Texas Town so interesting is the way it merely hints at the two central characters’ personalities and past, leaving these could-be archetypes as intriguing enigmas. Trumbo makes a point of highlighting the ranchers’ ignorance of McNeil’s Machiavellian role in the events, choosing instead to focus their hatred on the muscle. It isn’t difficult to imagine that Trumbo’s exile and unforgivable treatment at the hands of his own country didn’t influence this apparently off-the-conveyor-belt B-picture. It has been unfairly forgotten by the decades, but Terror in a Texas Town is ripe for re-discovery as one of the strangest and most compelling westerns American has ever produced.