Jacques Tourneur’s 1954 B-level Western has barely been seen since its initial release – the film’s negative is lost and the print used for this DVD presentation came from the British Film Institute.
Based on Louis L’Amour’s novel, “Stranger on Horseback” finds Joel McCrea as a circuit judge in the Old West who rides into a small town owned by the Bannerman family. The spoiled son of the Bannerman patriarch is responsible for murder, and the tough but firm judge vows to bring the killer to jail and court. The Bannerman patriarch, however, is not keen on genuine frontier justice – particularly when his gun-toting posse is ready to hit the saddles.
Is this great filmmaking? Hardly! The film’s conclusion is fairly obvious within the first 15 minutes of the opening credits. Leading man McCrea is his typically stolid, humorless self (there is a good reason why is rarely recalled as a Western icon) and his credibility-stretching late-story attraction to the equally emotionless Czech-born Mexican actress Miroslava as “Amy Lee Bannerman” (her pronounced accent is never explained) is unintentionally amusing.
However, genuine diversion can be found in John Carradine’s grandiloquent windbaggery as the town’s morals-free prosecutor, John McIntire’s melodramatically conflicted patriarch, and snarky Kevin McCarthy as the bad boy whose trigger habits put the whole situation into motion. Working on what was obviously a low budget, Tourneur pulled off a handsome and crisp production, with location shots around Sedona, Arizona, that look fine in the digitally restored Ansco Color print.
If “Stranger on Horseback” is not a rediscovered classic, at least it is a pleasant bit of old-time Western fun whose return from oblivion is welcomed.