'The Halliday Brand' Is a Tale of Hatred and Twisted Loyalties Befitting Greek Tragedy

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.

The Halliday Brand

Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Ward Bond, Viveca Lindfors
Distributor: MGM Limited Edition
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1957
Release date: 2011-06-27

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.