PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


The Bad Man in 'Branded' Is Lying the Truth

There was no escaping his fate, but he could orchestrate his remaining time on his own terms.


Director: Rudolph Maté
Cast: Alan Ladd
Distributor: Warner Archive
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1950
Release date: 2013-10-08

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.