Raymond Burr had a bipolar career. On TV, he was a crime-fighting hero on several shows, especially Perry Mason. In films, he was an archetypal heavy of especially frightening depths, a villain of various degrees of psychopathology in noir films and westerns. Rear Window is the most famous example. The Brass Legend is a minor one, freshly released as a made-on-demand DVD-R from MGM Limited Editions.
Burr plays an outlaw who sneaks into town to see his girlfriend (Reba Tassell, what a name), a fiery bargirl who loves the lug. They lounge on a bed while Burr remarks, “A sheriff as slow as old Bates deserved to die, him and those deputies of his. I did the county a favor by getting rid of those yellow-bellies.”
He’s captured right away by the impossibly upright, good-looking, fast-drawing new sheriff (Hugh O’Brian, TV’s Wyatt Earp). The latter has a conflict with his bland fiancée (Nancy Gates), the only other woman in town, who wants him to quit before his year is up and join her father’s ranch. He has a better relationship with his girlfriend’s adolescent brother (Donald MacDonald), who idolizes him and gleans tips on shooting and riding. This boy gets the drama going by spotting the outlaw and telling the sheriff, leading to tension that puts the kid in danger.
Although inessential, the movie has several virtues that reveal an era when these B-pictures were cranked out with professional aplomb. It’s influenced by TV in its modest character-based story, tightly plotted running time, and unpretentious style. Charles Van Enger’s deep-focus photography is good and allows director Gerd Oswald to stage scenes in depth, with characters moving from background to foreground or the camera dollying up and back.
Don Martin’s screenplay juggles many characters with nuance, to create a picture of a morally ambiguous town whose people are subject to manipulation and conflicting impulses; this is a post-Nigh Noon movie. The media is represented by a jaded newspaper editor who inflames the situation and receives karma for it.
The sheriff has a couple of insightful speeches on why he hates being a lawman (although he’s good at it) and how he looks forward to turning in his badge. He suggests that when quits, the town will get the sheriff it wants and deserves, a killer no better than the thugs he pursues. Paul Dunlap’s score uses a harmonica for the sheriff’s theme, underscoring his sense of loneliness and isolation in a job that oppresses him.
Oswald, the son of immigrant German director Richard Oswald, worked mostly in TV and did outstanding work there, including a few expressive episodes of Perry Mason and many of The Outer Limits (including the brilliant “The Forms of Things Unknown”). Much of his TV work is westerns; in fact, he’d recently done a remake of The Ox-Bow Incident, one of the original morally-compromised-towns westerns, for The 20th Century Fox Hour. Though this film is in TV scale, he directed the more startling A Kiss Before Dying in color and widescreen the same year.
Andrew Sarris praises him in the Expressive Esoterica section of The American Cinema:
“A fluency of camera movement is controlled by sliding turns and harsh stops befitting a cinema of bitter ambiguity. Oswald’s success in imposing a personal style on such otherwise routine westerns as The Brass Legend and Fury at Showdown on shooting schedules ranging from five to seven days should serve as an object lesson to young directors who complain that they lack the time to get their films just right. There are paranoiac overtones in all his films, and the anti-Nazi symbolism is never too hard to detect”.
Thus, this movie is also an object lesson in another way: the advantages of looking at a minor B-picture in the context of a director’s career. Also a writer’s career, for Martin’s several B-westerns of the decade often have elements of paranoia and community corruption. Another for the same company (Robert Goldstein Productions) is Stranger on Horseback, directed by another notable auteur, Jacques Tourneur.