Program Notes: Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)

All Kansas City Public Library locations will close at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, November 27, and will remain closed all day Thursday, November 28, for Thanksgiving.

The Western has always held a peculiar place in Hollywood’s heart.

For much of Tinsel Town’s history, the majority of Westerns were made cheaply and quickly and aimed at boys and men. Most – including those of iconic cowboy stars Gene Autry and Roy Rogers – never found their way out of the Saturday matinee ghetto.

But there have always been filmmakers who took the Western seriously...directors like John Ford who found in the easily digested tropes of the genre the possibility for genuine artistic expression.

In the 1950s filmmakers like Anthony Mann (The Tin Star, The Man from Laramie, The Naked Spur, Winchester ’73) specialized in Westerns aimed at grown-up audiences. These oaters became known as “psychological Westerns” because they dispensed with white hats and black hats and presented complex characters who just happened to get around on horseback.

Film Screening:
Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)
Saturday, Jan. 14 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Robert Wise’s Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) rests firmly in the tradition of psychological Westerns.

Former gangster/song-and-dance star James Cagney stars as Jeremy Rodock, the virtual king of his sprawling Wyoming cattle ranch. More than 200 miles from the nearest law, Rodock is like a feudal lord who acts as judge, jury and executioner when dealing with the rustlers who plague him.

Rodock has what his ranch hands call “hanging sickness”... he’s obsessed with stringing up his enemies. This preoccupation that disturbs both his mistress Jocasta (Greek star Irene Papas) and his newest wrangler, a transplanted Easterner named Miller (Donald Dubbins) who early in the film saves Rodock from a rustler ambush and is rewarded with a job.

The film’s title may (or may not) be ironic. For despite his moments of megalomania, Rodock is an intelligent, self-aware man. He does not come off as evil; he’s certainly no more “bad” than the villains who prey on his herds.

But he’s ruled his world for so long that change comes hard. And when a romantic triangle develops between him, Jocasta and Miller, Rodock does behave badly. It’s easy to do when you have almost absolute power.

If Michael Blankfort’s screenplay often veers into the melodramatic, Wise works hard to downplay those elements.

First there’s the sumptuous physical production. Tribute... was filmed in the Colorado Rockies. In fact, the high-altitude locations were responsible for Spencer Tracy, originally cast as Rodock, dropping out for reasons of health and comfort. The widescreen cinematography by Robert Surtees (The Sting, The Last Picture Show, Ben-Hur, The Graduate, Oklahoma) is simply spectacular.

And Wise devoted much effort to creating a believable environment for his players, one in which the everyday drudgery and isolation of ranching is made clear.

In one memorable scene a ranch hand played by Lee Van Cleef (usually cast as a heavy but here playing a likable guy named Fat Jones), inquires about a new mail order catalog which he has been told features drawings of women in corsets. That’s right, 19th-century cowpoke pornography.

Boyish co-star Dubbins never did achieve star status (he only got this job when the actor first cast as Miller died in a plane crash days before filming was to commence), but in his long career as a character actor he appeared in just about every TV series. He died in 1991.

Look for other familiar faces: Stephen McNally, Royal Dano, Vic Morrow and Jeanette Nolan.

See Bob's general introduction to the Robert Wise film series.

Other films in the series “Robert Wise: Hollywood Journeyman”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.

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