Andre De Toth’s Ramrod is a classic film licensed by Olive Films from Paramount, although this indie production was distributed by United Artists and this print for some reason opens with the MGM lion. What matters is that it’s here now, in a print a bit dusty but easily watchable. It stars De Toth’s then-wife Veronica Lake, reunited with the same Joel McCrea who supposedly never wanted to work with her again after Sullivan’s Travels.
From the beginning, it quietly shows off nice lengthy shots (from cinematographer Russell Harlan) that glide sideways for complexly staged actions, usually left to right. This gives an aesthetic unity to a first reel whose script is a confusing snarl of relations and implications based on a story by Luke Short. It’s a complicated, seething, noir-ish western in which everyone deceives everyone else about something or other, and indeed deception is sometimes necessary for survival. Shot in Utah, the story takes place in a part of the country where everybody lives in picturesque canyons that dwarf them; at the risk of making too much of it, the climax finds McCrea’s hero “reborn” from a womblike cave.
The characters are mostly doubled, a point underlined when the death of one ranch-hand is repaid by the death of a hand on the rival ranch. The doubled heroes are Dave Nash (McCrea), who tries to straighten out the land war according to the law (thus getting someone killed and having to resort to rough justice), and his shadier, more womanizing buddy, Bill Schell (Don Defore), whose moral sense is more anarchistic and jungle-bound. The good patriarchal sheriff (Donald Crisp) is doubled by Lake’s similar rancher-father (Charles Ruggles), who’s economically linked himself to bad rancher (Preston Foster), who wants to marry Lake—or, put a better way, purchase her for a land merger.
The doubled women are Connie (Lake), whose anger at her father and his tyrant/bully choice of husband for her (in order words, her rebellion against patriarchal order) sets the whole plot in motion and causes people to say she behaves like a man, and the more feminine local gal, Rose (Arleen Whelan), who, however, is also independent and owns her own business (as a milliner) and who stands up just as angrily to bullying men. So does matronly Sarah Padden in a minor role. Also in the excellent supporting cast are Lloyd Bridges, Preston Foster, Ray Teal, Nestor Paive, and Jeff Corey.
Rose and Dave resemble each other more closely in morality and are signaled for each other, while Connie and Bill resemble each other most closely, but Connie. who openly uses her sexuality to manipulate anyone nearby (just as Bill openly dallies with questionable women), has her cap set for Dave. Thus, this movie uses the western genre to explore different ways of assimilating postwar uppity women, who must combat the patriarchal in their own ways and risk becoming as violent and unscrupulous as men. The irony is that you can be violent and unscrupulous in a good cause (fighting tyranny) or a bad one (consolidating one’s power), though they become confused.
I hope you’ve got all that, because there will be a quiz.
// Notes from the Road
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