I don’t remember ever seeing James Cagney in a western before TRIBUTE TO A BAD MAN. I’m sure he made them before though, just never caught one. Based on the short story Hanging’s For The Lucky by Jack Schaefer, author of Shane, Monte Walsh, and many more western tales, it was directed by Robert Wise.
James Cagney is horse ranch owner Jeremy Rodock, a man who extracts a terrible price for anyone caught stealing his horses. He hangs them on the spot.
Steve Miller(Don Dubbins) is a young man come west from Pennsylvania wanting to find work as a cowboy. He rides into a valley. Dubbins does a number of voice over narrations in the film. Here he tells how he never heard it called anything but Jeremy Rodock’s Valley, if it even had another name. He hears gunshots and goes to investigate, finding Rodock pinned down behind his dead horse, two men taking potshots at him. He fires shots with his rifle to drive then off.
Rodock had been shot in the back, though not seriously. Still, if it isn’t taken care of soon, he will likely die. The bullet has to come out. Miller says he can’t do something like that, has never done anything like it. Rodock asks him if he’s ever cored an apple. When answered yes, he replies “Then core the apple!”
Getting back to his ranch to gather men to chase the horse rustlers, Rodock is convinced by Jocasta Constantine(Irene Papas) to get a few days rest anyway. Miller gets his first look at “Jo” and falls instantly in love. Obviously an educated woman, it’s mentioned she speaks several languages, they don’t say much about her past other than that she played piano and sang in a saloon. Other comments later suggest she did maybe more. It’s obvious that Rodock and Jo love each other.
The final main player in the movie is Stephen McNally who is McNulty, head wrangler and a man who wants Jo. He knew her in Cheyenne before Rodock found her and brought her to the ranch.
Rodock thinks he knows the rustlers, his old partner years back(he’s right), and heads there immediately. L. A. Peterson(James Bell) is the ex-partner, Jeanette Nolan plays his wife, and a young Vic Morrow pays his son Lars. In their conversation, we learn Rodock caught him once before and let it slide, taking the story that they just wandered onto Peterson’s land. He has some kind words for the son, Lars, remembering teaching the young boy how to ride. He gives Peterson a warning.
It’s obvious Rodock is a jealous man when it comes to Jo. They have no formal arrangement between them, but he buys her jewelry, couching the price in the terms of the cost of horses. That seems to be his first love, one he has trouble putting aside when it comes to his relationship with Jo.
McNulty keeps trying to make moves on her and is constantly rebuffed. Rodock is not an unobservant man. He notes his foreman coming out of the house one time and following her out of the barn another. It leads to trouble down the road.
Young Miller can’t write and asks Jo to write a letter to his mother for him explaining where he’s at and that he’ll send her money when he can, she being a widow. The letter she writes is a little more personal and mentions ten bucks enclosed. He doesn’t have ten bucks, she says she’ll lend it to him, then tells him she’ll lend him more if he’ll go back east where he belongs. She’s worried he’ll become hard like most of the wranglers, old and worn out before they can start a family. She also has worries about Rodock’s “hanging fever” Rodock gets when he catches up with rustlers and the effect it might have on the boy.
He gets that all to soon when they roust a band of rustler and get into a shootout. All but one is killed and he’s hanged from a big tree, amid Miller’s protests to take him into Cheyenne. And one of the dead is his old ex-partner Peterson. He takes that body back to the family ranch and offers Mrs. Peterson enough money to go back east with Lars. He’s rebuffed by Lars.
Rodock’s jealousy comes to the fore once more when he firs McNulty, beats him unconscious in a fist fight, and even extends a bit to young Miller, who he thinks is Jo’s latest conquest. He doesn’t realize he’s driving the woman he loves away.
Things come to a head when Rodock’s mares and their young are stolen. Most of the hands are off spending their money since the government had just bought a substantial herd. There was only Rodock, Miller, and one more to chase after them. When caught, it’s learned that they cut one of each mare’s hooves to the quick, making it hurtful for them to walk. Rodock explains the idea was to just leave them in this out of the way valley where they’d stay because of the damage and the colts still nursing would be there. Come back next season and you have a small herd of unbranded young horses.
I think the last section of the film may have been Schaefer’s short story, Hanging’s For The Lucky, as Rodock takes the three rustlers’ boots and forces them to walk in socks all the way, intending to take them to Cheyenne.
The ending comes out right all around, more than I’d expected, and i thought it was quite good.
As in most of the westerns of this period, there were those faces and voices one might know without being able to put a name to. Two I did recognize. Lee Van Cleef had a few lines, Royal Dano a few more.
Here’s a clip of the theme song.
For more overlooked movies, TV, and other related matters, as always, check in on Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.