Farmer and family man Johnny Cobb moonlights as a two dollar a month Sheriff with a homemade badge in the quiet little town of Firecreek. When a gang of freebooters passes through, their leader Larkin, who is suffering from a minor wound, agrees to spend the night. The gang members prove to be vicious, sadistic sociopaths who take advantage of the frightened townspeople, humiliating them for their own perverse amusement. Although Larkin disapproves of their behavior, his leadership role is tenuous, and he is reluctant to test it by exercising control over his men. The mild-mannered Cobb faces a series of challenges from the gang’s antisocial behavior. Things come to a head when Meli, an Indian woman with a mixed race child, incurs an attempted sexual attack by one of gang. Arthur, a simpleton stable boy, comes to her aid and accidentally kills the attacker. Cobb locks up Arthur to keep him safe, but when the Sheriff leaves town to visit his wife, who is struggling in labor, there is
Moving, Powerful, Unheralded Western Masterpiece
Jimmy Stewart, mystifyingly maligned in other reviews, gives a sincere moving performance. I wonder if the criticism comes at his farmer character’s reluctance towards violence–disappointing no doubt to fans of “cartoon” westerns. The gritty realism extends to the easy, natural relationship among the gang played by Henry Fonda, Gary Lockwood, James Best, Jack Elam, and Morgan Woodward. This gang is the catalyst and their details, ticks and volatile unpredictability are portrayed with beautifully understated precision. And J. Robert Porter as the town simpleton will break your heart.
There’s so much fine work by the cast, particularly Stewart, Fonda, Lockwood (who played another superb villain in the electrifying two-part “Gunsmoke” episode, “The Raid”), Best, Elam, Brooke Bundy, Jacqueline Scott, Louise Latham, Barbara Luna and Ed Begley. A dark, gritty, suspenseful western to be sure, but with a warm heart and soul at its center. Seek it out.