Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 19, 2017)
Director Joseph H. Lewis’s final theatrical film before he entered a career in TV, 1958’s Terror in a Texas Town introduces us to the inhabitants of Prairie City. In this location, hotel owner Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) tries to take control of as much local land as possible.
In service to this effort, McNeil brings in Johnny Crale (Ned Young), a gun for hire. This results in the shooting death of Sven Hansen (Ted Standhope), a man who used to work as a whaler and who McNeil targets as an “example” to other holdouts.
After Hansen’s killing, his son George (Sterling Hayden) comes to Prairie City to take over his dad’s land. He also seeks revenge, a task he pursues armed with his father’s old whaling harpoon.
I’ll admit it: that sounds like a silly set-up for a movie, mainly due to the weapon of choice. How can it not seem cheesy that a western vigilante roams the town equipped with a harpoon?
Happily, Terror manages to pull off this choice in a successful manner, mainly because so little of the film’s running time involves George’s vengeful ways. Although the movie starts with a glimpse of the climatic confrontation between George and Crale, we don’t see George with weapon in hand again until the flick catches up with that teaser, and that doesn’t occur until the last few minutes.
Normally I’d frown on a story that shows us so much of the finale at its beginning, but here it makes some sense, mainly due to the brevity of the actual conflict. When we get to the George/Crale fight, it doesn’t last very long, and our foreknowledge adds to the tension. We know they’ll butt heads eventually, and that makes the scenes that lead to this more fraught.
Much of Terror follows a tense path, as it tends toward something of a cat and mouse construct. The scene in which George learns of his father’s death becomes all the more dramatic because Crale tells him.
Of course, the assassin doesn’t reveal his role in the murder, but the audience knows, and that adds to the sequence. Other scenes follow suit, and the whole package delivers a pretty edgy experience in that regard.
Terror also manages to elevate its characters above the basic archetypes they seem to be, and this feels most true in regard to Crale. He could come across as nothing more than the cold-blooded gun for hire, but he appears more three-dimensional than that – heck, Crale almost feels sympathetic at times.
The film loses a few points due to the decision to make George Swedish – at least in terms of Hayden’s performance, that is. I don’t mind George’s Scandinavian heritage as much as I dislike Hayden’s inability to render a believable accent.
Still, Hayden adds some force to the rest of his performance, especially when George becomes more agitated. Hayden brings a good “slow burn” quality to George and manages to make him a convincing character despite the bad accent.
For those who want subtext, Terror offers a clear reflection of the era’s anti-Communist fervor – not a surprise give that screenwriter “Ben L. Perry” was actually a pseudonym for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. I like the added layer of meaning, especially because the film doesn’t beat us over the head with it.
At times I think Terror feels a little too much like a remake of High Noon, and it can show other influences too strongly. Nonetheless, it usually brings us a tight little Western.