Directed by Raoul Walsh; produced by Anthony Veiller
Bank robber Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea), awaiting transportation to a penitentiary, breaks out of jail in Missouri and rides off to the far west to meet up with his boss (Basil Ruysdael), who has another crime planned. But there’s no honour among thieves, and the gang that has been put together for the job is as much a danger to its success as is any lawman.
An entertaining western, Colorado Territory has a more complex plot than many of its genre, with changing loyalties and more than a few betrayals. As McQueen states in a good turn of phrase, there is “so much double-dealing from this deck, it’s dog-eared.” The film does not have an unusually long running time (94 minutes) but puts a lot of story into that hour and a half.
Colorado Territory is more than a little reminiscent of a film noir, which should come as no surprise as this is a re-make of High Sierra (1941), also directed by Walsh. The choice of setting – the American west of 1871 – is a good one, however, and the script does more than simply drop the plot into an earlier century; it is, for the most part, tailored for the world of cowboys and outlaws.
There is a problem with the script in that it contains words and phrases – slang, mostly – that just don’t ring true to the era. The robbers use the word ‘heist’, which, even if it had been used in that time-period, nonetheless comes off as too characteristic of the 1940s and later. In fact, here, ‘heist’ means ‘to raise’ – men are told to “heist ‘em” (put their hands up) – while ‘hoist’ is supposedly bandit-jargon for a robbery. A former Pinkerton detective is referred to as a ‘gumboots’, the equivalent of ‘gumshoe’ that I found far too early a usage.
This element aside, there is little to complain about in the film. Nothing looks like it was filmed on a stage, and some interesting locations are used, such as an abandoned Spanish settlement, the ruins of which become the outlaws’ hide-out, and an old Indian Pueblo, high on a cliff.
The characters are more than normally deep for a western; the genre often gives the protagonist a past, but a simple, one-incident past that defines his present. Here McQueen’s past is entangled with his new acquaintance of a settler’s daughter (Dorothy Malone), while his future may involve another woman (Virginia Mayo) with a strong personality of her own. The other actors are all very capable, notably Henry Hull (who was in High Sierra, as well), James Mitchell and John Archer (father of actress Anne Archer).
The direction is very good, as might be expected from the man behind the camera on White Heat and They Drive By Night. The action includes run-away stage-coaches, train robberies and shoot-outs, but also leans heavily on tension and revelation in conversations.
While its film noir origins are plain enough, Colorado Territory also makes a credible and creditable western, with McCrea on the wrong side of the law for once. Well-written, well-directed and well-acted, it is well worth a look.