Dawn at Socorro–Rory Calhoun, Piper Laurie, David Brian, Alex Nicol, Edgar Buchanan, Lee Van Cleef, Mara Corday, Skip Homeier (1954; Dir: George Sherman)
This movie asks the question “What if Doc Holliday had been a nicer guy?” The famously misanthropic gambler-gunman-dentist often steals a film of the Earp story, but here he’s less misanthropic—a world-weary former Confederate gambler from South Carolina with a reputation and a way with guns. And he apparently likes to help innocent blondes instead of hanging out with big-nosed Hungarian prostitutes.
It starts with an Earp-esque framing story in 1871, ten years before the real Tombstone gunfight. In Lordsburg, New Mexico, Marshal Harry McNair, his brother Vince and gambler-gunman Brett Wade (Rory Calhoun) take on the local Ferris clan, led by Old Man Ferris and including sons Tom, Earl (Lee Van Cleef) and Buddy (Skip Homeier). As in Tombstone, the Ferrises lose, in part because their gunman-ally Jimmy Rapp (Alec Nicol) is dead drunk and unable to participate at the time of the shootout.
Having received a minor wound in the battle, Wade is now planning to go to Colorado Springs for his lungs. A young woman is brought into Lordsburg by her religious-fanatic father and told she no longer has a family; she has to make her own way in the world with few options. She is Rannah Hayes (Piper Laurie), and Dick Braden (David Brian), owner of a crooked saloon in Socorro, pounces and offers her a job there as a saloon girl when she has nowhere else to go.
Piper Laurie as Rannah Hayes in her saloon-girl phase; Alex Nicol as Jimmy Rapp.
The next day Wade, Jimmy Rapp and Rannah are on the same stage for Socorro, where Wade intends to catch the train. Wade and Rannah talk, and he hears a bit of her story. At a way station, Earl Ferris makes an attempt to ambush Wade, who grabs Rapp’s gun and kills Earl.
Once in Socorro, Wade manages not to catch the first train so he can keep an eye on Rannah. Socorro Sheriff Cauthen (Edgar Buchanan) is nervous at the presence of the notorious gunman and orders him to take the next available train, at 6:30 the next morning. Meanwhile, he plans to spend the entire night keeping an eye on Wade and Rapp.
Sheriff Cauthen: “Let’s have your gun.”
Jimmy Rapp: “I’m naked without it!”
Sheriff Cauthen: “It’s all right. I won’t arrest you for being naked.”
As Braden pushes Rannah farther into the life of a saloon girl, Wade tries without much success to get her to go the other way. She is emotionally bruised by the treatment of her father, who claimed she was coming on to the ranch hands. Wade’s old friend Letty (Mara Corday) works at Braden’s and has no illusions about where the life leads. Wade has a very successful night at Braden’s craps table, winning more than $20,000. Finally he and Braden agree to a poker game. If Braden wins, he gets Wade’s craps winnings and keeps Rannah. If Wade wins, Rannah leaves with him. As 6 a.m. looms in the tense game, Wade loses and prepares to leave town.
Station Agent: “Who’s coming after you?”
Brett Wade: “My past. Every dark, miserable day of it.”
Having won is not enough revenge for Braden, who offers Rapp $5,000 to kill Wade. Wade wins that shootout, despite having to borrow a gun again. And he takes out Braden as Braden prepares to shoot him without warning. Wearily, he gives the sheriff back his gun and gets on the train. As it pulls out of Socorro, Rannah takes the next seat and says she’s heading for Colorado Springs.
George Sherman was a lifelong director of B movies, and this one fits that description, too. However, it’s a pretty decent B movie, one of Rory Calhoun’s better films. Calhoun, whose real name was apparently Francis McCown and whose friends called him “Smoke,” was in 21 western movies and many television shows. In A movies (The Spoilers, River of No Return), he was often a bad guy. In B movies, he tended to be a good guy. He was reasonably smooth and convincing at both. He’s good here, but the movie really depends on Piper Laurie’s ability to be persuasive and engaging as naïve-but-sweet potential saloon-girl Rannah. If we don’t care about her, we don’t care about the movie. And she works well. Even Edgar Buchanan is good in a different role than his usual alcoholic reprobate judge. This may not be the most memorable western you’ll see this year, but it’s a pleasant way to spend 80 minutes. In color, with a script by George Zuckerman.
Dave Kehr characterizes it as “an audacious re-framing of the OK Corral story that imagines the Doc Holliday character (Rory Calhoun) surviving the shoot-out with the Clantons and trying to get out of the game, only to find himself in a town that exactly resembles the one he just left. There’s some highly imaginative staging here: a lot of the action takes place in a crowded saloon, where the main characters warily keep an eye on each other while nothing much happens, and there’s a stylized showdown at the end that makes use of some striking high-angle compositions that suggest Hitchcock more than Ford.”
For another 1950s variation on the Earp story using different names, try Forty Guns (1957), with Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck.