Daniel Halliday (Joseph Cotten) has been living as an outlaw. His brother Clay (Bill Williams) tracks him down because their iron-willed father (Ward Bond) lies on his deathbed and wants to forgive his prodigal son. Or so he says. Before entering the lion’s den of his father’s chamber, Daniel pauses for a flashback that takes up most of the movie. It’s a tale of hatred and twisted loyalties between two families, told at a level of intensity befitting Greek tragedy.
The Halliday brand means various things. Literally it’s a hatchet buried in a stump, a symbol of peace with the Indians brokered by Halliday, a wealthy rancher who founded the town and serves as its sheriff. His justice is rough and ready—for example, he believes in what are now called enhanced interrogation techniques. More troubling is the ambiguity with which he handles a sensitive situation that may lead to lynching, as Daniel fears his father is allowing circumstances to take care of a personal problem.
Dad is unrepentant. Maybe a few innocent people got killed along the way, he explains loudly, but you’ve got to weigh everything against the common good, especially if it’s the same as his own good. Although he fought for the Indians’ right to own land (“They’ve got to live too”), he draws the line at letting a “half-breed” marry his daughter. This prejudice, a plot device also in Edna Ferber westerns like Cimarron and Giant, precipitates a series of tragedies that drives Daniel into a single-minded outlaw campaign to destroy his father.
As the story goes along, “the Halliday brand” comes to mean a profoundly paradoxical stamp of personal qualities—proud, hard and destructive—that raised a town and a family and may just as easily destroy them. These personal qualities are intended to resonate with larger issues of national character in the way America invented and wrestled with the desires it called destiny. The brand becomes a personal and national legacy, something to live up to or to live down. In its more modest way, this film belongs to the genre of ambiguous ‘50s westerns, like The Searchers, which portray their outdated patriarchs as virtually psychopathic in their commitment to a personal vision of getting the job done.
The women are remarkable, which isn’t normal for westerns. Viveca Lindfors, a striking Swedish actress with intelligent catlike eyes, a hatchet jaw, and an accent, plays a proud half-Indian woman who stands around jutting her chin. Jeanette Nolan is unrecognizable as her Indian mother. Betsy Blair, best known as the plain, clean-cut girlfriend in Marty, is the smouldering, resentful Halliday daughter whose wholesomeness congeals to simmering rage.
Director Joseph H. Lewis and photographer Ray Rennahan keep the camera restless. There’s hardly a scene where it’s not smoothly gliding forward or back, left and right, even up and down. Many scenes of complex emotion, even with multiple characters, are staged in these lengthy gliding takes, sometimes with new people revealed entering the frame as the camera swings to pick them up where they’ve been placed like statues (or in one remarkable scene, hanging from a tree). The film avoids cutting scenes up into close-ups and reverse shots, the better to wind up the feverish atmosphere in which anything might come out of anywhere.
The script is George W. George and George S. Slavin. The former, an early collaborator of Robert Altman, became a Broadway producer. Slavin worked mostly in TV, as did producer Collier Young, and the film shows the economic black and white production values of 1950s TV. Even those elaborately staged camera sequences aren’t inconsistent with the era of live TV, when such staging could achieve its own grace notes, though director Lewis was already firmly established for the economy and violent punch of his B-picture style in a series of crime and western films—most famously Gun Crazy.
Stanley Wilson’s music anticipates the work of Ennio Morricone in its haunting use of a wordless female vocal that self-consciously pushes this horse opera into the latter end of that term, again underlining the classical, outsized ambitions of this story.
This film belongs to the MGM Limited Edition series of on-demand DVD-Rs. As such, it’s a no-frills product. You only get a gripping tale for the cultish connosseur, and a film that sticks in your head as it holds up better than many big-budget westerns of its era.