Rudolph Maté’s Branded opens with a drifting gunfighter named Choya (Alan Ladd) getting himself out of a tight spot with the use of a hostage, an elderly philosopher who could be his father. Remember this detail, for at this point we’re being told that Choya (named for cactus, “Did you ever try to pick one up?”) is willing to use anyone to achieve his ends, that other people are his tools or his enemies. This tale will follow the trope of the reformed bad man.
Our anti-hero is approached by two mysterious men. One of them, called only Tattoo (Robert Berkes), is basically imitating Walter Brennan. The other adopts the grander moniker of T. Jefferson Leffingwell (Robert Keith), who proves a relentless wheedling demon of greed and amorality, the dark grasping manipulator of the story. They propose a scam to inherit a Texas ranch by applying a tattoo to Choya’s shoulder and claiming him as the long-lost son who was kidnapped as a child.
Choya goes along with the plan but is disarmed by the love showered on him by his stereotypically wild-western new family: gruff patriarch Charles Bickford, sentimental mom Selena Royle, and spunky yet lovely sister Mona Freeman, for whom the tough, taciturn, touchy Choya feels more than fraternal impulses. He gives no details of his life since the kidnapping, saying only that they wouldn’t like it and he doesn’t either, and we sense that he’s “lying the truth”, that the implied depredations of the kidnapped son have been Choya’s real life.
This dilemma of Choya’s moral awakening, as he glimpses a life he missed and possibly could reclaim under false pretences, is the more interesting half of the film and culminates in a well-played, simply staged single shot where he confesses to the sister, who slumps her back to him and the camera. The second half is occupied with shenanigans in Mexico (played mostly by Arizona and Utah) as Choya seeks the real son (Peter Hanson), an alter ego who loves the Mexican bandit (Joseph Calleia) who raised him.
As scripted by Sydney Boehm (who wrote several films for Maté, plus The Big Heat ) and Cyril Hume (the Ladd version of The Great Gatsby, plus Bigger Than Life ) from a novel by Max Brand (credited as Evan Evans), the film is about identity and the possibility of becoming who you choose to be as well as, or more than, what you were determined to be. Mind you, that didn’t work for Gatsby.
Filial love, even for those to whom you may be unrelated (and especially so), is the plot’s most driving motive, a more powerful emotion than the negative desires represented by the antagonist and two angry, thwarted, impetuous fathers. In fact, there are three father figures when you count the Leffingwell, a dark father who taunts Choya with “You wouldn’t beat an older man.” This harks back to a fourth father, the elderly gentleman used as a hostage and shield in the opening scene.
Director Maté, who made his mark as a magnificent cinematographer, can usually be counted on for visual beauty to counterpoint the toughness and emotional cross-purposes of his films, which tend to be more talky than action-packed. This film hails from the same year he directed his finest movie, the fatalistic noir classic D.O.A., as well as No Sad Songs for Me, in which a “brave” Margaret Sullavan confronts her impending death by deceiving her family. There’s no escaping your fate in either film, but you can orchestrate your remaining time on your own terms, and that’s pushed to a planetary extreme in the following year’s When Worlds Collide.
I don’t know whether this expresses Maté’s personality or just a determined, teeth-gritting attitude in early ’50s America, a combination of war-weary cynicism with tough resolve. One certainty is that these films look unfailingly handsome. Here, Charles Lang’s Technicolor photography is lovely in a stark way, expressing immanent tenderness in a harsh landscape, like the sentiment waiting to bubble up through Choya’s self-disgust. The printing of the climactic day-for-night sequence should have been adjusted so it doesn’t still look like broad daylight.
Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review called it “a pretty dull lot of stuff” composed of “a conventional assortment of clichés” directed “with no real pictorial rhythm, splash or verve.” That seems harsh, although this film clearly isn’t a first-rank western. Even Crowther found Ladd amusing and the color good. Indeed, Ladd here is very “iconic” and invests Choya with an emotional range that’s hinted clearly while kept in check. It’s perhaps a strange comparison, but this is also what Maté helped Sullavan to achieve in her film that year.
Today, we see the movie more as a classical artifact of its era. If we accept the anodyne romantic interest and the unnecessarily protracted second half, we get the simple clarity of Ladd’s struggle with inner and outer demons, and a lesson in how the western genre, like the rough territories depicted, plays to America’s desire to reinvent itself. The previous Paramount DVD transfer is now available on demand from Warner Archive.