VILLAINS BLOGATHON…JACK ELAM IN RAWHIDE (I Watch Westerns…Take Four)

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(This is part of Speakeasy’s Blogathon on movie villains of all shapes and sizes. Beginning Sunday, May 15, I urge everyone to click over and read through their fabulous collection of posts. Please be aware that this essay on Jack Elam in Rawhide contains its share of possible SPOILERS! NOTE TO NEW READERS: This is a pop culture blog where the greatest emphasis lies on classic rock and soul music, but If you are visiting for the first time and have any interest in my further take on westerns, you may want to visit the “John Ford” and “I Watch Westerns” categories at the right. All comments, on subjects old and new, are welcomed!)

Rawhide (1951)
Henry Hathaway, Director.

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Jack Elam is billed sixth in Henry Hathaway’s taut-as-a-hangman’s-rope, 1951 western, Rawhide. He, and the movie, are lucky he was in it at all. So are we.

On one of the first days of shooting, star Susan Hayward had a long-shot scene where she was running away from Elam’s one-name character, Tevis, carrying a doll which was a stand-in for a baby. Only she wasn’t running away from Jack Elam. He hadn’t been cast. Instead the scene was being played by someone out from New York, who was enamored of the Method.

Sometime after he lit out for Ms. Hayward and her doll, he evidently began to think about what his character would really do. What he decided, rather impulsively, was that his character would tackle Ms. Hayward, already a major star, and take her and her doll to the ground.

He then proceeded to act upon his impulse.

Ms. Hayward picked herself up and dusted herself off and went about the day’s shooting.

The next morning, the impulsive young Method actor was off the set. Elam was hired in his place.

I doubt that a single person who has seen Jack Elam’s Tevis over the sixty-five years of the film’s existence has ever imagined that anyone else could have played him, not least because Elam would reprise the type so often and so convincingly over the next two decades that there was finally nothing left for him to do but spoof it, which he also did brilliantly.

But Rawhide was his breakout. And if no one can quite imagine anyone else in the role, it’s because he accomplished a hard task. It’s never easy to be the meanest snake in a snake-pit. Especially when you aren’t the head snake and the meanness has to leak out of you, as opposed to being merely “acted.”

More especially when the other snakes might yet retain human qualities, qualities that can be appealed to by helpless victims in fear of their lives.

In Rawhide, Elam has no such qualities. He’s an outlaw in a gang sure.

But the head outlaw, Hugh Marlowe’s Rafe Zimmerman, pretending to be a Deputy Sheriff,  looks like this:

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And Elam’s Tevis, standing in front of the rest of the gang (Dean Jagger’s “one horse horse thief,” Yancy, and George Tobias’s “big dumb coot,” Gratz),looks like this:

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He looks like a man who would shoot a two-year-old for fun and never lose a minute’s sleep over it. Good thing he’s convincing, right there in that first instant. Because, by the end of Rawhide, that just exactly what you’ll have to believe for the movie to grab you by the throat. And for that ending to be what it is, as harrowing a child-in-danger scene as those in Battleship Potempkin or Small Change, and more organic than either, you have to believe, without quite realizing it, that he’s been that kind of man from the moment you laid eyes on him.

Getting back to those who have seen it. I doubt one single person has ever had trouble believing just that.

Rawhide is tight by any standard. A jewel of a movie on every level. But the something extra is in Elam’s performance. He’s a walking embodiment of the Western’s great theme: What has to be done away with before civilization can flourish?

Or, put another way, who will kill the bad man, once the bad man has left you no choice?

 *    *    *   *

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By the time Zimmerman and Tevis show up, we have a clear idea of who they will be terrorizing. Edgar Buchanan (who would show his own ready capacity for spoofing himself soon thereafter), is Sam Todd, the station master at a lone outpost on a line that transports gold shipments along with the passengers.

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Tyrone Power’s Tom Owens is a greenhorn, reluctantly “learning the business” at his “supervisor” father’s request. The first thing Susan Hayward’s Vinnie Holt calls him is “Mule Boy.” Sam Todd doesn’t even think he’s that.

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That’s before Miss Holt (there’s confusion about the “Miss” because she’s traveling with a baby, who turns out to be her niece, her sister and her sister’s husband having been killed in a California mining town), knows she’s going to be stuck at the station for a day because Zimmerman, scheduled to be hung for murder, has broken out of prison with his motley crew “who just happened to be there,” and has already killed a stage driver. With the gang on the loose, the stage line can’t take responsibility for protecting the child she’s responsible for, so she’s forcibly removed from the coach. She’s a hard-bitten type and she’s played by Susan Hayward. You can guess how happy she is.

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That’s all of the set-up. Instead of holding up another stage, the outlaws show up at the station, planning to rob the next day’s gold shipment, which they’ve learned about from the driver they shot.

Everyone and everything is human scale, which means Elam’s villain, a part that begs for a corrosive “camp” approach, has to work on a human scale too. This calls for him to be unusually deft at conveying quick shifts. One, two, three, he’s a card (discovering Miss Holt’s clothes, leading to the natural assumption that she’s Owens’ wife)…

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One, two, three, he’s a killer (gunning Sam Todd in the back as he makes a break for a hidden rifle…and enjoying it)…

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One, two, three and he’s asking Zimmerman if he should “take care” of Owens, too…

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It’s a truly difficult performance: A subtle portrayal of an unsubtle man–constantly showing the audience what the people in the story know and leaving both the audience and the story wondering just how far he’ll go.

Along with everything else it is–western, noir, psychological study of men and women under pressure, meditation on good and evil–Rawhide is a horror film, one in which Tevis’s cankerous soul, rather than his comical body (made up of Elam’s then-unknown, now-iconic elements: slew-footed walk, rubbery lips, wall eye), represents the unseen monster. His almost childish delight in his own villainy reinforces his lack of moral judgment. But that shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of a child’s ready cunning, even tact. There’s a particularly tense scene (Rawhide has a lot of scenes that seem particularly tense until the next one comes along…it’s also a thriller) the stolen kitchen knife Tom Owens has been using the hack through the adobe wall in an attempt to reach a pistol Vinnie Holt has hidden under the water trough during the takeover has slipped through the hole. Vinnie takes the baby for a walk in order to retrieve it, only to be stalked by Tevis, who has already tried to force himself on her once. By now, the long night that consumes most of the plot….

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Has turned into day…

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And,naturally, the kid does what kids do…Picks the knife right up….and hands it right over.

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“Busted,” Tevis says, as he takes the knife from her, noticing its broken tip. “Busted kid!…I love kids.”

And, one, two, three, he proves it…

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He proves it to the extent that you think he might possess at least one streak of hidden decency. If he doesn’t convince Miss Holt (watch Hayward’s eyes stay the same, no matter what he does), he might at least convince you. It’s left open to the imagination whether this genial, false front might have just enough truth in it to serve as a some kind of final civilizational check against the man we’ve already seen as card, killer, lech, and…one, two, three…coward…

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Elam keeps all of this in play and, as the movie goes on, he increasingly keeps all of it in play at once. You can understand how Zimmerman keeps confidently turning his back on Tevis the coward, even as you keeping saying only a crazy man would turn his back on a man who can be all those other things….at once.

Sixth billed or not, it’s Elam’s Tevis who provides the thread of terror that ties the film together. He’s not in the scene, not visible on screen, here…

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or here….

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or here….

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or here…

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or here…

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or even here…

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But, from his first close-up, he’s present. He’s the reason the people who have seen him know they won’t get out of this alive unless they kill him and he’s the reason we know the people who haven’t seen him won’t be allowed to leave if he suddenly becomes something worse than a figment of their imagination.

This man is only looking to get out of this with his own skin…

NVE00129This man is only following orders…

NVE00181and even this man, fully worthy of his own post, only wants to have his orders obeyed so he can grab the gold that will let him disappear back into the world…

NVE00153Even he might, at a far stretch, be reasoned with. In order for Rawhide to run on maximum fuel, though, there needs to be one man for whom reason doesn’t enter into the equation. Tevis is the card, the killer, the coward, the lover of children. And he’s that man beyond reason, beyond anything and everything civilization is built to resist and contain. In one sense, Rawhide is really the story of whether he will be able to manipulate his ever-changing masks fast and furiously enough to keep his fellow outlaws from killing him before his absence of reason dooms them all. The film’s final success depends entirely on his being able to convince us that he’s capable of it. That the man seen here…

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and here…

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and here….

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and here…

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and here…

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will finally…one….

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two….

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three…NVE00310

last long enough to give himself the chance to say, “I’m boss now!”

And, when he does, it has to be credible that, having become “boss” not through strength but weakness, he will, within mere seconds and to his own genuine surprise, be boss of nothing. That, in finally seizing control, he’s unleashed a chaos he couldn’t predict and can’t control.

Gratz will need to be killed…One, two, three…

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Yancy will skedaddle…one, two, three…

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The greenhorn, Tom Owens, will be forced to find out what he’s made of…one, two, three…

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a child will crawl through a hole too big for the adults who have lost track of her in the panic and confusion and wander among the unhobbled horses…one, two, three…

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Vinnie Holt will wake up…and go searching…one, two, three….

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and Tevis, caught like a rat in a trap, literally pinned down behind a woodpile as the stage approaches…one, two, three….

NVE00329 NVE00351 NVE00356will find a way to turn his weakness, his rejection of civilization, into a horrifying, barbarous strength…one….

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three…

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before civilization reaches its last line of defense…a woman defending her family, even if she’s just a tough saloon girl and that “family” consists of a child who isn’t hers, and a man she met the day before.

One…

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three…

NVE00391I’ve seen Rawhide at least twenty times and I’ll never get tired of watching it. It offers a fine director (Hathaway), a great screenwriter (Dudley Nichols), two magnetic stars (Power and Hayward), and a fantastic ensemble cast, all at their very best in the Golden Age of Hollywood’s (or just the world’s) deepest and finest example of that silly word “genre.”

But the reason I’ve watched it so often–and will never tire of it–is for the chance to see this man die…One…

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two…

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three…

NVE00390So that these three people might live…

NVE00393In the hopes that the one world we have will carry on just a little while longer….

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and be worth living in.

14 thoughts on “VILLAINS BLOGATHON…JACK ELAM IN RAWHIDE (I Watch Westerns…Take Four)

  1. So enjoyed your review! I just discovered this film last year and have already seen it several times. It still seems tense each time I view it. You’re right, it really is hard to imagine anyone else in the role and his presents so ratchets up the tension.

  2. NDJ

    While ordering two other westerns you mentioned in THE LAST TEN WESTERNS I WATCHED, we picked up the 1971 comedy/farce SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER. Jack Elam was quite a bit older by the, by by gumbo he stole every scene he was allowed. I think the movie’s star James Garner had more fun watching Elam than watching Suzanne Pleshette (who came across like a Barbra Streisand stand-in)!

    EDN

  3. Yeah, Burt Kennedy apparently saw the comic potential and Elam got a whole ‘nother (much deserved) career out of it. The “Support” movies are a real highlight of that whole “western spoof” phase from the late sixties/early seventies. My other favorite of the type is “Waterhole #3” with James Coburn and Carroll O’Connor. Highly recommended for fans of either.

  4. This is a gem of a movie. Not a huge fan of westerns but this is more of a psychological thriller and jack elam is the most believable villain ever.

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