Directed by Andre de Both; produced by Harry Sherman
A former drunk (Joel McCrea) hires on with a would-be sheep-rancher (Ian MacDonald) and his fiancée (Veronica Lake), who intend to challenge the strangle-hold the local boss (Preston Foster) has on the district. After MacDonald bows to intimidation and flees, his stronger girlfriend decides to continue the struggle, and McCrea, no stranger to Foster’s bullying, agrees to help.
Ramrod has the feel of an intended epic, set in the old American west. Certainly the talent is there: McCrea and Lake re-team several years after the delightful Sullivan’s Travels, Foster is a dependable heavy, and Donald Crisp is cast as a veteran lawman. Andre de Toth was well-seasoned as a director by then. But the movie has a curious listlessness, and the budget seemed less than it should have been. Wondrous things have been done for small amounts, but not in this case.
As capable a director as de Toth was, Ramrod has the odd characteristic of several key action scenes occurring just off-camera, or the camera catching them just a little too late. One man is shot, falls and, though the last we see of him is his struggle to lift his revolver, the following dialogue proves that he was killed. In a shoot-out in the village street, a man is gunned down; we see the shooter fire, then the victim tumble, but we do not see his face. It may be a little complaint but the action made it seem as though the death was important, but not the identity. This may be a criticism better directed at the editing than the directing, but a number of the film’s events appear to occur off-screen, as it were.
The characters are, for the most part, only adequate. McCrea, usually very watchable, is quite humdrum here, and doesn’t generate the interest that he should. Don DeFore stands out as a ne’er-do-well whose loyalty is nonetheless rock-solid. But it is Lake who gives the best performance, creating a character who is strong and determined, but whose single-minded ambition to break her enemy leads her to use whatever method she needs, and exploit whomever comes under her hand. A not unsympathetic portrait, it is a tragic character, in a minor way.
Ramrod’s scenery is excellent, but outside close-ups, for example a night-time duel when the villains are stalking their victims through the brush, are often filmed on a stage, and while the cinematography has impressive instances, these are few. The film just doesn’t give them their moments.
Ramrod could have been much better than it was; everything was in place. But through effortlessness or lack of funds or less than stellar post-production work, it turns out simply average.