Fighting Man of the Plains (1949)
Scott's Dancer in the Dark
The year is 1863 and Jim Dancer (Randolph Scott - Coroner Creek) in search of revenge for the murder of his brother rides with the Quantrell's. It is whilst with the infamous gang out outlaws that he kills Evelyn Slocom's (Joan Taylor) father after he is told by one of the gang members he killed his brother. But the truth is the real murderer was Evelyn's uncle Bert Slocom (Barry Kelley) and by riding with the Quantrell gang and killing old man Slocom makes him a wanted man with George Cummings (James Millican) of the Pleasanton detective agency hired to track him down and bring him in. It is when Cummings catches Dancer that he discovers he killed the wrong Slocom and the one he should have killed is Bert who hired him to catch Dancer. When Cummings accidentally dies when a horse rears up Dancer decides to take on Cummings' identity and on reaching Lanyard, Kansas settles down to a regular life. But when he saves Evelyn from a troublesome cowboy he becomes the town hero and is asked to become the Sheriff. Reluctantly he agrees but still has Bert Slocom hunting him down.
"Fighting Man of the Plains" has one of the best openings I have ever come across from a western made before 1950. We have an abrupt murder scene as Dancer first tries to intervene when Evelyn is being harassed by a member of the Quantrell gang and then in a blink of the eye turns the gun and shoots her father, the smoke pouring out of the barrel. It is brief but powerful and then we get a montage of scenes as we watch the years tick by and the Quantrell gang and its infamous members cause chaos nicely tells the story of how Jim Dancer becomes a wanted man. And then we get the first twist, an incident on a ferry crossing leads to Cummings death and then the next day Dancer on being found handcuffed to the dead Cummings takes on his identity. It is a smart and effective start which culminates with Dancer having to control himself when he meets Bert Slocom in the Sheriff's office.
The thing about "Fighting Man of the Plains" is that whilst many movies use that as the entire story this one develops further with more twists. Now you could say well it isn't exactly original as an outlaw using a fake identity ending up being asked to become a lawman has been done a few times as has the outlaw saving the life of the daughter who hates him but it works. There is a nice amount of complexity to it which sets up an element of surprise because you are not entirely sure how this is going to play out.
Much of the reason why this is so effective is thanks to director Edwin L. Marin who generates some wonderful atmosphere especially in the scene where Dancer comes to the rescue of Evelyn and ends up in a gunfight with a cowboy, giving us an imposing camera shot of the towering Randolph Scott walking in to the street. Scott is the other reason why "Fighting Man of the Plains" works because here he dispenses with the usual congenial side he relied upon in a lot of westerns and plays a straight laced man with a steely stare and a frightening amount of determination. Whilst Scott appeared in superior westerns his performance in "Fighting Man of the Plains" is one of his best.
What this all boils down to is that "Fighting Man of the Plains" is in many ways a western of cliches but works because of how they are handled. Director Marin brings style and mystery to the story whilst Randolph Scott plays it serious and tough which adds even more atmosphere.
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