Three Violent People—Charlton Heston, Anne Baxter, Gilbert Roland, Tom Tryon, Forrest Tucker, Bruce Bennett, Barton MacLane, Elaine Stritch, Robert Blake (1956; Dir: Rudolph Maté)
This combines a romantic melodrama with a brother-goes-bad story, all set in post-Civil War carpetbag Texas. The central question is: What will happen when a respectable man discovers his new wife’s sordid past?
Capt. Colt Saunders, a former Confederate cavalry officer, is returning to the family ranch in southern Texas after the war. He sees the oppression by the carpetbaggers but is careful not to get involved himself, until he notes a well-dressed woman about to be manhandled when she tries to alight from a stagecoach. The woman is Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter), and in the ensuing fight Saunders is knocked unconscious. Lorna puts him in a hotel room and makes off with $900 she finds on his person, but on second thought she has it put in the hotel safe with a receipt made out to Saunders. It turns out the hotel and its related saloon are run by her old (and shady) friend Ruby LaSalle (Elaine Stritch), who disapproves of whatever game Lorna’s playing with Saunders.
When he wakes up, Saunders is taken enough with Lorna to marry her impulsively on the spur of the moment. Arriviing at the Saunders Bar S ranch founded by Saunders’ grandfather, they find that (a) it has been kept running by foreman, gunman and resident sage Innocencio Ortega (Gilbert Roland) and his five sons, (b) the carpetbag government has taken virtually all the Saunders cattle, leaving them only a hidden horse herd, and (c) Saunders’ one-armed black sheep brother Beauregard “Cinch” Saunders (Tom Tryon) has returned to complicate everything else.
Saunders and Lorna go off to visit a neighbor, where instead they find the local carpetbag Tax Commissioner (Bruce Bennett) and his minions, including Cable (Forrest Tucker), a gunfighter. One of the minions recognizes Lorna from St. Louis, where as a member of Gen. Benjamin “Beast” Butler’s staff he had once frolicked with her during the war. It’s a bad way for Saunders to find out, and he doesn’t take it well. Against Ortega’s advice, he orders her to leave while he’s off on an extended tour of the ranch.
Thinking better of it, especially when he learns that Lorna is pregnant, he heads back to ranch headquarters early, only to find that Cinch has persuaded Lorna to help him make off with the remaining Saunders horses, which they plan to sell for $30,000. With the help of Ortega and his sons, Saunders recaptures the herd and takes the horses and Lorna back to the ranch, at least until the baby is born. Ortega decides he must leave in the face of such stupidity. Cinch Saunders has been banned from the ranch for his perfidy, but he schemes with the carpetbaggers to take over the Saunders ranch, even as Texas’ carpetbag government is falling apart.
The baby is born, and Lorna prepares to leave as Saunders had demanded. Cinch shows up to take over but is double-crossed by the Commissioner and Cable, who plan to leave no witnesses to their shady dealings. He redeems himself by taking out Cable at the cost of getting shot himself, while Saunders, Ortega and the Ortega sons kill the Commissioner and drive off the other nefarious carpetbaggers. Cinch dies nobly, and Lorna and Colt Saunders are apparently back together. And Ortega and his sons (one of whom is played by Robert Blake) decide to stay.
Charlton Heston was hitting the peak of his career, having just finished as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956, not yet released at the time this was filming) and coming up as Steve Leech in The Big Country (1958) and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur (1959). He manages to convey the competence and implacability of Colt Saunders, although this is not on the scale of those three big productions. Anne Baxter is good as a woman with a past (The Spoilers , Cimarron  and even The Ten Commandments). And Gilbert Roland, who had been in movies since the silent era of the 1920s, played this kind of role—a polished Hispanic man of the world, good with a gun—better than anybody else, although here he verges on a stereotype. On the whole, this feels a little overheated to current audiences, but melodramas are no longer fashionable in movies. It’s quite watchable, although you wish the characters (except for Roland, who talks a lot) would talk to each other more, and that there was a little more subtlety in the relationship between Colt and Lorna Saunders. Tom Tryon as bitter one-armed brother Cinch is too much a one-note character. It would be good if glimmers of something other than the bitterness were shown. Some of the names (Colt? Cinch? Beauregard?) are a bit of a problem.
Rudolph Maté, who had started as a cinematographer in Europe in the early 1920s, was an experienced director of westerns (The Rawhide Years, The Far Horizons, The Violent Men). The screenplay was by James Edward Grant, a favorite of John Ford and John Wayne. Shot in color in and around Old Tucson, Arizona, by Loyal Griggs, at 100 minutes.
It’s not entirely clear who the three violent people are (there would seem to be more than three), but they’re probably Colt Saunders, Cinch Saunders and Innocencio Ortega. Maybe including Lorna Saunders, since the title isn’t limited to men. Not to be confused with Maté’s The Violent Men (1955), with Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck and Brian Keith.
For Charlton Heston in better westerns, see him in the sprawling The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck and Burl Ives and in the excellent character study Will Penny (1968). Gilbert Roland shows up in Anthony Mann‘s The Furies (1950) with Barbara Stanwyck, Bandido (1956) with Robert Mitchum and as a noble Cheyenne chief in John Ford‘s last film Cheyenne Autumn (1964).