Subjects and film techniques: Joseph H. Lewis | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style | Genuine Detection | Sexual Orientation | Plot Structure and Romance | Goals and Plot Structure | Politics and Economics | Lewis and Murnau | Lewis and John Ford | Joseph H. Lewis: A Career Survey | Film Rankings

Feature Films: My Name Is Julia Ross | The Jolson Story | So Dark the Night | The Swordsman | The Return of October | The Undercover Man | Gun Crazy | A Lady Without Passport | Retreat, Hell! | Desperate Search | Cry of the Hunted | The Big Combo | Man On A Bus | A Lawless Street | 7th Cavalry | The Halliday Brand | Terror in a Texas Town

Early B-Movies: Courage of the West | Singing Outlaw | The Spy Ring | Border Wolves | The Last Stand | Two-Fisted Rangers | Blazing Six Shooters | Texas Stagecoach | The Man from Tumbleweeds | The Return of Wild Bill | Boys of the City | That Gang of Mine | Pride of the Bowery | Invisible Ghost | Criminals Within | Arizona Cyclone | The Mad Doctor of Market Street | Bombs Over Burma | The Silver Bullet | Boss of Hangtown Mesa | Secrets of a Co-Ed | Minstrel Man | The Falcon in San Francisco

The Rifleman: The Rifleman: An Introduction | Duel of Honor | The Safe Guard | The Pet | Shivaree | The Trade | The Deadly Wait | Boomerang | The Patsy | Eddie's Daughter | Panic | The Letter of the Law | Surveyors | Day of the Hunter | The Visitor | Hero | The Spoiler | Heller | The Deserter | Shotgun Man | The Fourflusher | Hangman | Strange Town | Baranca | The Martinet | Miss Milly | Flowers by the Door | The Actress | Face of Yesterday | The Wyoming Story | Closer Than a Brother | The Prisoner | The Vaqueros | Sheer Terror | The Stand-In | The Journey Back | Honest Abe | The Shattered Idol | Long Gun from Tucson | A Young Man's Fancy | Waste | Death Never Rides Alone | I Take This Woman | Squeeze Play | Suspicion | Sidewinder | And the Devil Makes Five | The Bullet | The Guest | Old Tony

Other TV Shows: The Fat Man | Corporal Hardy | The Hiding Place | The Oracle | The Quality of Mercy | Pompey | The Vindicators | Branded: The Credits | One Killer on Ice | Thursday's Child | Incident at Dry Creek | Plunder | The Death of Matthew Eldridge | Boots With My Father's Name | Night of the Wolf | The Man from Nowhere | The Big Valley: Plunder | Lucky Charm

Recommended Reading

Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors) | Television Western Articles

A big Thank You to Aaron Graham and Brandon Bird, for help with researching Lewis' films.

And Special Thanks to Francis M. Nevins, for research and inspiration.

The book The Films of Joseph H. Lewis is edited by Gary D. Rhodes. The publisher has a web site for the book. I wrote one of the fourteen articles!

Joseph H. Lewis

Joseph H. Lewis was a Hollywood director, especially of Westerns and thrillers. He made many films for theaters (1937-1958) and US television (1958-1966).

Lewis has two different audiences, which do not overlap much:

A hope of this web-book on Lewis is that it will bring all of his audiences together, and encourage a look at all of his over 100 films.

Please mail your comments to me at (Clicking here will bring up mail.) I am eager to hear what you think, and how you learned about this site. And please click to download a free E-book of my mystery stories in EPUB or Kindle format.

This web-book begins with what I call an "auteurist checklist", setting forth common themes and techniques in Lewis films. Hopefully, this checklist will form a useful overview of Lewis, for everyone from beginning film lovers new to Lewis, to professional film historians.

Joseph H. Lewis: Subjects

Detection and thinking:

Non-conformist Heroes - and bonding with men and women:

Society and economics:

Personal desires - with social consequences:


Water and Ground: Characters: Food and drink:

Joseph H. Lewis: Structure and Story Telling

Structure: Semi-Documentary (Please see my chart Semi-documentary crime films for a list of Semi-documentary films and their key characteristics.):


News: Maps: Portraits and Photos: Superimposition: Visions: Silence: See also the detailed discussion of these topics (in this article):

Joseph H. Lewis: Visual Style

Camera Movement:


Camera Angles:


Foreground objects:


Geometry: Grids:

Costumes and Color:


These are common characteristics of Lewis, but of course, they are not found in all works. Warning: the above list is sure to be incomplete. I have only seen a portion of Lewis' television work.

What is "Genuine Detection"?

The phrase "genuine detection" is regularly used by critics of prose mystery fiction. But it appears less often in film criticism. Since Lewis' films are full of genuine detection (also known as "real detection" or "solid detective work" by mystery writers) it is worth a look.

"Genuine detection" can be defined as mysteries that are solved by investigation, finding evidence, and reasoning about that evidence to reach conclusions, that help solve the mystery. The opposite of genuine detection is when a character discovers the truth though dumb luck, chance, coincidence, or making a lucky guess out of the blue.

Most mystery writers and readers believe that books that show genuine detection are good; books that lack it are poor (all other factors being equal, of course).

Lewis regularly structures plot developments, so that his characters learn new things, through a process of real detection.

Pompey (1964) centers on a runaway slave's encounter with Daniel Boone, in Revolutionary War era America. How does Daniel Boone first encounter the escaped slave? Through genuine detection. Daniel is in Salem, North Carolina, when he and his friend discover that someone has stolen blacksmith's tools from their supply wagon. Why, Boone's best friend asks, would anyone steal a blacksmith's chisel, when they could have stolen a much more valuable rifle from their supplies? At first the men are puzzled by the mystery. But Daniel gets an idea. He has seen Wanted posters around the city, about an escaped slave who still has a chain around his ankle. Daniel reasons that the thief is probably the ex-slave, who needs the chisel to remove the chain. Next, Daniel uses his woodsman's tracking skills, to follow the trail of footprints the thief has left in the forest. After a detailed, step-by-step demonstration of these skills, Daniel and his friend finally catch up with the escaped slave in the forest. This whole process is "genuine detection" using reasoning from evidence to solve a mystery.

Few other film directors would structure a story this way. It would be more common for the escaped slave to be encountered by Daniel through sheer coincidence. Ol' Dan could be stopping by a brook in Kentucky to water his horse, and he could suddenly meet an escaped slave, thus setting the plot in motion.

Pompey is a strong anti-slavery drama. It should be much better known.

In Pride of the Bowery (1941), Mugs is taking the rap for a crime committed by a friend. Mugs does not believe in squealing on others, to defend himself. When I saw this film, I expected one of two things might happen. One: Mugs would decide that being a stool pigeon was good after all, and speak up. Or Two: Maybe the authorities would stumble, through chance, on the real crook committing the thefts. But neither of these events happen. Instead, Mugs' friend Danny finds some evidence, and he starts reasoning out from it that Mugs is covering something up. Danny's shrewd, clever deductions finally allow truth to come out. Once again, Lewis has structured his plot so that truth is revealed through genuine detection (Danny's reasoning), rather than through the chance of an accidental discovery, or the deus ex machina of a confession.

Real detection is hard work. The sleuth has to investigate, find all the evidence they can, and use their reasoning powers to the utmost to deduce a conclusion. In Lewis, finding truth is hard work, a slow difficult process. This is not because Lewis is cynical about truth. Rather, it is because he believes that truth, like all good things in life, is only produced by hard work and using our brains.

Authors that stress real detection often show it leading first to false or only partially true conclusions, before further hard work of detection leads to the real truth. See E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913) or Ellery Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932), for some famous prose mystery examples. Lewis follows this paradigm. In his films, detectives can work and work, only to reach conclusions that are mistakes. In Lewis' The Big Combo, hero Lt. Diamond's sleuthing leads him to some conclusions half way though the film about Alicia. Further hard sleuthing eventually shows him his ideas were completely wrong! This is not a criticism of any sort by Lewis of Diamond, who is the hero of the movie. Rather, it is a realistic account of what real sleuthing and thinking are like. One has to work and work and go through false answers, before one can find the truth.

Lewis' films and Sexual Orientation

Lewis became famous among cinephiles for Gun Crazy, perhaps the most admired and most delirious portrait of sexual obsession and l'amour fou (mad love) in the history of the cinema. The couple in Gun Crazy are heterosexual - they are even married.

Lewis' other most famous film, The Big Combo, also has a heroine who has a sexual obsession for the gangster villain, including the only scene in studio-era Hollywood history of oral sex. It also has one of the few gay couples in Hollywood history, the hitmen Fante and Mingo. Despite their being villains, Fante and Mingo are oddly sympathetic, and have been called the most likable persons in the movie.

Some of Lewis' early B-movies, also have respectable characters who develop heterosexual-but-forbidden sexual relationships with lower class characters, such as the rich girl in Secrets of a Co-Ed with the mobster boyfriend, and the engineer who is sleeping with the maid in Invisible Ghost.

People who turn from these films to Lewis' episodes of The Rifleman are in for a surprise. The hero of the show, Lucas McCain, is often most gung ho when bonding with other men. Lucas has a special feeling for social outsiders. He develops a personal bond with them, and also stands up for their rights, in shows that preach liberal social values. The male bonding shows up most strongly in Duel of Honor, Shivaree, Hero, The Deserter, Strange Town, Baranca, Closer Than a Brother, The Journey Back, Honest Abe, Death Never Rides Alone, The Bullet. It is present throughout much of The Rifleman, in a lower grade intensity. Lucas sums up his feelings by quoting Proverbs 18:24, "There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother", in the episode Closer Than a Brother.

In addition, Lucas develops what seems to be similar bonding with a series of dance hall women, in the episodes Eddie's Daughter, The Wyoming Story, The Vaqueros. Like Lucas' male friends, these women are social outsiders. The detective hero of The Big Combo has a similar relationship with showgirl Rita, and one of Lewis last TV shows, The Big Valley episode Night of the Wolf, also centers on such a relationship.

Lucas' relations with his men friends are intimate and emotionally intense. It would be easy to call these relationships gay love stories. But is this accurate? Such a label runs into the usual roadblocks. None of the films show or hint that the men friends are having sex with the hero. By contrast, in The Big Combo, Fante and Mingo are strongly indicated to be having sex, since we see them as roommates, shown sleeping together at night in a common bedroom. Nor does the dialogue of the Rifleman shows ever refer to any sort of physical attraction.

In addition, while Lucas had no steady girlfriends in the first two seasons of The Rifleman, the producers introduced girlfriend characters in the last three seasons to "humanize" him, as the show's publicity put it. Angry queer theorists might describe this as "heterosexualizing" Lucas, instead. While Joseph H. Lewis actually directed the episode that introduced Miss Milly, this show and the other shows directed by Lewis mainly avoided showing much of Lucas' romance with these women.

On the other hand, the imagery of The Rifleman shows about Lucas and his male friends is often intensely physical, of a kind that can legitimately be labeled as "homoerotic". Watching Lucas slug it out with the lead of Baranca, do full contact wrestling with the lead of Honest Abe, or share a hotel room with the lead of Duel of Honor, suggests strong gay feelings that have evaded the censors of 1960. Combined with the strong portrait of friendship, works like Baranca and Duel of Honor do indeed seem like gay love stories.

Where does all this leave us? Lewis is a director who spent much of his career focusing on transgressive romantic relationships, whether these are forbidden heterosexual alliances, or tales of male bonding. His work does not fit easily into any categories known to me. Lewis is the director of both Gun Crazy and Duel of Honor. Trying to make his work as a whole align neatly with either heterosexual or gay norms is going to be difficult.

Plot Structure and Romance

Fritz Lang pointed out to Peter Bogdanovich that M (1931) was one of the few movies that did not have a romance. Observations about the ubiquity of romance in Hollywood films are a truism.

Film historian David Bordwell built on such observations, to point out that most traditional Hollywood feature films have a dual plot structure. Hollywood films almost always have a main plot, and a separate subplot in which the hero and heroine have a romance. For example, a whodunit might have a main plot, in which a cop tries to figure out who committed a murder, and a subplot in which the cop and a woman reporter fall in love. These plots can interact, of course: the reporter heroine might share what she knows about the mystery with the policeman hero, during one of their love scenes, say. Still, the two-plot structure is a norm in Hollywood feature filmmaking.

How does the cinema of Joseph H. Lewis fit into these norms? Many of his features fit clearly. The Big Combo has a main plot in which the hero tries to bring down a mobster, and the subplot in which he romances Susan. A Lawless Street has a similar two-plot structure. Lewis' early Bob Baker and Charles Starrett Westerns, have subplots in which the hero has romance with a woman.

But some of his B-movies, especially, evade such a structure. They use a variety of strategies:

A few of Lewis' Rifleman episodes have a main plot / romance subplot structure. In Sheer Terror, Milly is held hostage by robbers who plan to rob the stagecoach; in a subplot, she and hero Lucas have a simple romance.

But most Lewis Rifleman episodes do not have any sort of heterosexual romance subplot. The shows are only 25 minutes long, and one could argue that there is too little time to fit a love story into each episode. Also, love stories in Hollywood feature films often tend to imply marriage will soon follow the conclusion of the picture. The producers of The Rifleman had no intention of marrying their hero off. They wanted him to be in the same single state in each episode.

I do not know what a systematic study of series television shows would conclude about the presence or absence of romance subplots, as a norm. There is a good doctoral dissertation in this, for somebody!

But what is notable is that such Rifleman shows as Duel of Honor, The Deserter, Baranca, Closer Than a Brother, have both a main plot, and a male bonding subplot. In the main plot of Duel of Honor, the visiting Count has to deal with local bullies; in the subplot, Lucas and the Count male bond. The male bonding in Duel of Honor, has the exact same role in the plot structure of Duel of Honor, that heterosexual romance has in a typical Hollywood feature. This is another reason to consider Duel of Honor a gay love story. Its male-bonding plays the same structural role that straight love does in a conventional movie.

Goals - and Plot Structure

David Bordwell sets forth his ideas on narrative structure, in his book Narration in the Fiction Film (1985). I've been trying to compare what he describes as norms of Hollywood narration, with Lewis' films.

One of Bordwell's key assertions is: "The Classical Hollywood film presents psychologically determined individuals who struggle to solve a clear cut problem or to attain specific goals....The story ends with a decisive victory or defeat, a resolution of the problem, and a clear achievement or nonachievement of the goals."

Trying to find such goals in many of Lewis' films can be difficult. The heroes of his detective stories such as The Undercover Man, The Big Combo and The Bullet have clear goals: find evidence that will allow the killer to be convicted. And the heroes of Border Wolves, My Name Is Julia Ross and The Stand-In are trying to escape from the false identities that have been imposed on them: also a clear problem. But quite a few of Lewis' other films do not seem to open with a clear cut goal, that is resolved at the end. What is the goal in Duel of Honor, Shivaree, or Gun Crazy?

(It is important not to read such a statement as a disagreement with Bordwell. Bordwell's neo-formalism asserts that there are group norms that appear in art movements, such as the Classical Hollywood film, and that there will be artists or groups of artists who violate or bend such norms. So the appearance of a filmmaker like Lewis who violates a norm is to be expected, and is consistent with Bordwell's ideas.

Which brings up the Big Disclaimer. I am not in a position to evaluate whether "most 1915-1965 Hollywood films have protagonists with goals". It is easy to see that a LOT of Hollywood films have such protagonists with goals. So looking at "whether a film has a protagonist with a goal" is a worthwhile research question to ask. But I don't know whether it is true that MOST or nearly all Hollywood films have "heroes with clear cut problems" - or what patterns of exceptions exist to this proposed norm.)

Subjects - rather than goals. Films like Duel of Honor and Gun Crazy have subjects, rather than clear cut goals. In Duel of Honor, the subject is "how society treats, and should treat, people who are different - especially people who seem gay". In Gun Crazy, the subject is "a couple who are obsessed with guns, and where this leads them". Duel of Honor and Gun Crazy are focused clearly and firmly on these subjects. But it is hard to translate such subjects into goals for the protagonists.

Films like Shivaree push this approach to a greater extreme. Shivaree deals with "the difficult transition to adulthood, and mistreatment by grownups" - a big diverse subject that is hard to summarize as some sort of goal.

Films About Everything. Some Lewis films have so many apparent subjects, that it is hard even to describe in one sentence what they are about: Pride of the Bowery, Invisible Ghost, So Dark the Night, Old Tony. I can't tell you who the protagonist of Old Tony is, let alone whether he has a goal.

The Complex Resolution. Lewis' films about young men who raise race horses, That Gang of Mine and The Fourflusher, open with seemingly clear cut goals for their protagonists: the young man wants to win the Big Race riding the horse he is raising. A thousand sports films have similar goals. However, the resolution of these films surprise. The hero neither succeeds nor fails at his goal. Instead, ingenious plot twists move the story in unexpected directions. There is nothing modernist about all of this: the plot is fully and clearly resolved. Lewis' message seems to be: life is more complicated than we originally thought - and we have to modify our plans as we grow up. Lewis' polo movie The Spy Ring, similar in many ways to his horse racing films, also subverts its Winning the Big Game goal through plot twists.

A Mysterious Protagonist. We don't learn till around two thirds of the way through Face of Yesterday, Closer Than a Brother, The Journey Back or The Vindicators what the protagonist knows, or what his goals are. The hero of The Vindicators turns out to have a clear cut goal; the other protagonists are faced with difficult situations in which it is difficult to formulate clear goals.

Multiple Protagonists. Gun Crazy has a couple as the leading characters. The scenes are often structured to show the man's point of view - but both characters are prominent throughout most of the film. Similarly, Retreat, Hell! starts out as if Richard Carlson will be the hero, but Russ Tamblyn and Frank Lovejoy soon get equal weight. The Rifleman is structured to have two protagonists, rancher Lucas and his son Mark. Several of Lewis' episodes have both characters involved in the same storyline - but with differing points of view on how to interpret events and judge the issues they are seeing. Examples include Surveyors, Day of the Hunter, Hero, The Deserter, Shotgun Man, The Fourflusher, all from the second season of the show.

The Erupting Plot Event. Plot events often erupt suddenly in Lewis films. In Gun Crazy, the hero is visiting a carnival for fun, when a chance encounter with a female shootist triggers overwhelming sexual excitement, and a lifelong commitment. Lewis has carefully foreshadowed this - much of the early part of the film presents the hero's obsession with guns. But this is the first indication such interest could be sexual. It is not a "goal": it is something that erupts from his subconscious, and which suddenly drives the story. Lewis' films are full of forbidden sexuality, that often seems to erupt. Such sexuality is not linked to a goal that opens the story. Gun Crazy was apparently first discovered as a classic by French surrealist Ado Kyrou, who wrote about Gun Crazy in his book Le Surréalisme au cinéma (1953). Surrealism, which celebrates the eruption of unconscious drives, is deeply in tune with Lewis' delirious treatment of sexual impulses.

However, it is not only sexuality that suddenly erupts in Lewis. It is also politics. The hero is suddenly confronted at the end of Shivaree with a choice between violence to solve problems, and non-violence. This is a political decision, related to Lewis' consistent support in his films for the non-violence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Once again, this political conflict was:

Political issues mushroom up in the later sections of other Lewis films, such as The Silver Bullet, A Lawless Street, Day of the Hunter, The Deserter, Pompey. They are foreshadowed by Lewis, but do not seem to be set forth as an initial problem. These political conflicts are not dry - they are as dramatic, unexpected, and emotionally disorienting as the eruptions of sexuality.

Resolving the political conflict is often the climax of the story. This is just as dramatic and definitive as any other Hollywood climax. But it does NOT resolve a problem stated at the opening of the film.

A Lawless Street opens with a seeming goal: the Marshal hero (Randolph Scott) has to deal with outlaws in his Western town, including the one that rides into town in the opening shot. But half way through the movie, there is a violent coup, and the town government is taken over by bad guys, who institute a reign of terror. Now the hero has to deal with something that goes far beyond his original problem or goal. It is linked to his original goal: preserving law and order in town. But the story now has a political dimension that goes far beyond what we thought was happening in the opening scenes.

The unexplained causes of urges. Lewis characters often have strong enthusiasms for something. Sometimes it is for some form of sexuality. Sometimes this seems like a non-sexual emotion, such as their liking for coffee and pie, or the young people in Lewis who love raising and racing horses. Other times, it is not given an explicit sexual link, but one suspects sex might be present, such as the enthusiasm for boots or uniforms. Few of these urges are "explained" psychologically: they are just there, powerful and driving.

Not an Art Film. Lewis films also have lots of plot, and the plot typically follows a logical chain of cause and effect throughout the film (even the surprising sexual or political events are logically foreshadowed). And although Lewis characters' sexual obsessions are not explained in Freudian or other terms, the audience usually has a clear, complete explanation of most other aspects of the film by the end. All of these are Hollywood norms, according to Bordwell. So Lewis' films are closer to Hollywood than to 1960's art films. Lewis is far from being a "modernist who de-emphasizes plot, stripping it of logical causality", some of Bordwell's main characteristics for art films (such as those by Fellini, Antonioni, Resnais, etc.).

Lewis: Politics and Economics

Many of Lewis' films contain political, social and economic commentary. Lewis can certainly be considered as a "socially conscious" director.

But nailing down Lewis' political beliefs, as expressed in the films, can be difficult. Films are works of art, and it can be difficult to align them with political ideas. But my best guess is that Lewis' films reflect:

Lewis is certainly left-of-center. The sinister conspiracies by the rich to steal ordinary people's property in many Lewis films make that clear. Lewis would choke on the belief of many contemporary conservatives that rich people are a benevolent force, whose financial actions usually benefit the average person. Lewis' concern for the victims of war is also in direct opposition to the pro-war views of many contemporary conservatives, with their nauseating "give war a chance" propaganda. The consistent support for racial minorities in Lewis' films, made during the Civil Rights era, is a further strong indication of Lewis' left-of-center views. The pro-gay subtext running through Lewis, and his support for working women, also places Lewis in opposition to conservative points of view.

But within the left-of-center political continuum, where does Lewis stand on economic issues? Is he a liberal, a democratic socialist, an anarchist or a Communist?

I frankly don't know. But so far, I have not seen any conclusive evidence that Lewis is any more left-of-center than being a liberal. I see little evidence that Lewis films support socialism, anarchism or Communism. Instead, Lewis seems like a liberal.

The one real life historical figure that appears in Lewis' films, Mark Twain in Shattered Idol, was a staunch liberal, but not a political radical.

The Conspiracy Films. The biggest difficulty in interpreting Lewis' economics, is ascribing a real-world political meaning to Lewis' Westerns about sinister conspiracies of the rich and powerful to take over or destroy the property of others. It is easy to say that the villains in these films are financiers, speculators, crooked bankers and the big rich. Maybe one can even say they are "capitalists". But do these films constitute a denunciation of capitalism as an economic system, as some critics have said? I have my doubts.

One problem is that the victims in these films are ALSO businessmen, usually. And they and their businesses are treated sympathetically:

In other words, Lewis films like some capitalists, like ranchers, small businessmen and telegraph companies, but find big-money capitalists sinister and evil.

This point of view is also expressed by a work that is not a conspiracy film: The Silver Bullet. The Silver Bullet is about an election, in which one side represents the "big money interests", and the other side "the small ranchers", to quote the film's dialogue. One might also note Lewis' support for the small bank and its banker in The Safe Guard and Boomerang. He is treated with the sympathy Lewis extends to other small businessmen.

An exchange in Squeeze Play might also be relevant. The big-time financier who is trying to buy up hero Lucas McCain's land tells Lucas that, after all, both of them are just landowners. Lucas disagrees. I actually work my land, Lucas says, but you buy up land just to speculate with it.

A deep suspicion about big-money financiers was shared by liberals, anarchists, socialists and Communists. Lewis' views on the subject do not indicate specifically to which such group he adheres. Lewis' support for small businessmen, even well-to-do ones like bankers and wealthy ranchers, suggests that he is a liberal, not a socialist, anarchist or Communist.

The above discussion perhaps distorts the politics of Terror in a Texas Town. Terror in a Texas Town is clearly the most "radical" of Lewis' conspiracy films. Its rancher victims are the poorest in Lewis. And its villain is not just a financier: he also owns the town hotel, and is constantly referred to in the film as a "businessman". So the film has an "evil businessman oppressing the poor" theme. Still, its plot centers on supporting the small ranchers' claims to their property, which the villain is trying to take away from them through legal swindles. So Terror in a Texas Town is a film in favor of Private Property. And its small landowner heroes are exactly the sort of folks that Stalin would treat as Enemies of the State during his forced collectivization of farms, and who Mao would target during the Great Leap Forward. So it is also hard to see how Terror in a Texas Town can be read as a Marxist tract, however sinister its portrait of big businessmen.

A Lack of Alternative Economics. So far I have not been able to find any labor unions in Lewis films. Or any cooperative-run business enterprises. While I have not been able to see all of Lewis' films, so far there are no alternative economic models in any of them: no labor unions, cooperatives, social security or welfare systems. One exception: Lewis likes the jobs the New Deal provided for the unemployed, in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Pride of the Bowery.

Lewis' fundraising film for Israel Man On A Bus (1955) highly praises Israeli farms and infrastructure building. But it doesn't include the word "kibbutz", and never discusses any economic underpinnings of such enterprises.

Lewis told Francis M. Nevins that his father and uncles were Jews who had to flee Russia, due to their Socialist politics. And that his parents' apartment building was one of the first cooperatives in New York City. So Lewis was well aware of economic alternatives. They just don't seem to appear in his films. This is a another reason to feel skeptical that Lewis films in any way advocate socialism, anarchism or Communism. These economic doctrines just don't appear in Lewis films.

Public Works. Lewis glorified the road-building US Government-run Civilian Conservation Corps in Pride of the Bowery, part of Roosevelt's New Deal. And the road-building by the Chinese people in Bombs Over Burma. Bombs Over Burma also has a school teacher heroine, the grandmother in The Undercover Man pays tribute to the free schools in America, and there is a brief, neutral depiction of an American public school in Gun Crazy. The political dispute in The Silver Bullet is about water rights and building a dam. So Lewis was supportive of government programs. Belief that government should support public infrastructure like roads or water was a liberal crusade in that era. See the Tennessee Valley Authority, for instance, which was championed by liberals, and loathed by conservatives.

Lewis: a pro-religion director. Lewis' consistent support for ministers, monks and priests also separates him from Communists, who typically loathe religion. One can compare the admirable Buddhist monk in Bombs Over Burma, and the Taoist priest in Night of the Wolf, with a Communist film like Pudovkin's Storm Over Asia, which portrays Buddhist priests as human swine. The opposition to the evil businessman in Terror in a Texas Town meets in the local church, presided over by the town's sympathetic minister.

Lewis and Murnau's Sunrise

A number of features in Lewis recall the famous film Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927): Lewis was already working in Hollywood, when Sunrise was made (he arrived in Hollywood around 1924, when he was around 17). Sunrise was hugely influential on many people in Hollywood. It might well have impressed the 20 year old Lewis. See Tag Gallagher's book John Ford: The Man and His Movies (1986) for a discussion of the influence of Murnau and Sunrise on John Ford and Frank Borzage (pp 49-54). For a look at Murnau's The Last Laugh and its influence on a wide range of world filmmakers, see Lutz Bacher's book The Mobile Mise-En-Scène: A Critical Analysis of the Theory and Practice of Long-Take Camera Movement in the Narrative Film (1978).

Lewis and early John Ford

Hangman's House (John Ford, 1928) is said to be influenced by Murnau. It has a few features that anticipate Lewis - but the connections are not too close: Hangman's House is full of mental imagery - mainly seen in the fireplace. Such mental imagery is common in Sunrise. But it is rare in Lewis: the only mental image I can recall in Lewis is the vision of the Sergeant in the champagne glass in The Spy Ring. The vision in the window at the finale of So Dark the Night might also qualify - but it is different and innovative.

The section on Courage of the West discusses its possible influence from the Western film 3 Bad Men (John Ford, 1926).

3 Bad Men has its hero and heroine looking at each other through a wagon wheel they are repairing. Wagon wheel shots are common in Lewis.

Ford's films often contain moody nocturnal cityscapes, beautifully composed, and with shining islands of light from geometric street lamps. These nocturnes seem like the ancestors of the equally beautiful ones in Lewis. Such nocturnal cityscapes are in such Ford films as Seas Beneath (1931), The Informer (1935) and Stagecoach (1939).

Lewis and Fred Niblo

Mysterious Lady (Fred Niblo, 1928) is a spy thriller silent movie, starring Greta Garbo. It has a few scenes that anticipate Lewis:

William Wyler and Lewis

Francis M. Nevins' book on Lewis documents Lewis' intense admiration for director William Wyler, especially Wyler's film The Little Foxes (1941). Lewis had made all of his films up through and including Arizona Cyclone before The Little Foxes premiered in August 1941.

Subject matter that appears in The Little Foxes before it does in Lewis:

Lewis, who had made two sympathetic films about black people before The Little Foxes, probably also liked the Civil Rights aspects of The Little Foxes, denouncing blacks being exploited by whites.

By contrast, I've looked for possible sources for aspects of Lewis' visual style in Wyler's film, but only found a few. After all, by 1941 Lewis had been directing for five years, making fifteen pictures, and many aspects of Lewis' style had long been fully formed.

Lewis had used fairly complex stagings in mirrors (The Spy Ring, Invisible Ghost) before The Little Foxes, which is rich in such shots.

The issue of depth staging is more complex. The Little Foxes is famous for its depth staging in interiors, and also in street scenes that are actually interior-like studio sets.

There are kinds of depth staging in Lewis before this. Right from the start in Courage of the West (1937), Lewis shoots through every sort of foreground object in his films, earning the nickname of "Wagon Wheel Joe". Lewis also shot through doors and windows, right from the beginning of his career, including two-level deep shots of a doorway seen through a doorway in The Last Stand (1938). All of this is long before The Little Foxes.

Lewis' first feature, Courage of the West has a shot where horsemen ride from the rear of a shot towards the front (the reprise of the song "Ride Along, Free Rangers"). A similar shot of Bob Baker riding from back to front of the screen occurs in The Last Stand. Such background-to-foreground shots will play a major role in later Lewis, often times involving even more extreme distances and foreground close-ups.

But the radical interior depth filming in The Little Foxes is different from Lewis' early films. It might have encouraged Lewis to use extreme depth filming in his later works.

It is clear that the depth staging and mirror shots in The Little Foxes might have excited Lewis' admiration. But they do not seem to be uniquely ancestral to his film techniques.

Some visual style aspects of The Little Foxes that reappear in later Lewis films:

Years later, the murder than opens Lewis' The Visitor (1960) has some echoes of the one in The Little Foxes. Both are shocking, cold-blooded killings of a sick man, for greed. Both are mastermined by an evil, calculating woman. The methods are different: the victim in The Visitor is smothered. But he knocks over his medicine bottle: a detail that seems more relevant to a homage to The Little Foxes, than to anything in the plot of The Visitor.

Godard and Lewis

In his article on Lewis, Robert Keser speculates that Gun Crazy influenced Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou (1965).

The circular tracking shot around the farm courtyard in Godard's Weekend (1967) resembles Lewis:

All of this could well be a coincidence. But this shot definitely would fit in with Lewis' work.

Joseph H. Lewis: Career Survey

This article was appeared in the book The Films of Joseph H. Lewis (2012) edited by Gary D. Rhodes, published by Wayne State University Press. Its goal was to survey Lewis' television films. The article evolved into a broad survey of Lewis' entire output, highlighting his themes and visual style.

The article benefitted greatly from suggestions by editor Gary D. Rhodes, who asked for expansions in several sections.

The article was cut in the book, presumably for reasons of space. This version below is an "Author's Cut", my preferred long version of the article. It very much incorporates the suggestions of editor Gary D. Rhodes.

The Joseph H. Lewis Nobody Knows: The Television Films

Joseph H. Lewis' feature film career ended in 1958. But his filmmaking was only at mid-point. By 1958, Lewis had made roughly 40 of his 106 known films. The rest of his career would be in television.

Lewis directed 49 episodes of the series The Rifleman. Lewis also directed at least 17 episodes of other series. The exact number is not known: researchers like Francis M. Nevins are still discovering new works in Lewis' TV filmography. A few of these have not been seen in decades: but most of Lewis' television work is available in good prints.

Television gave Lewis artistic opportunities not available in feature filmmaking. US television in 1960 allowed openly political left-wing themes and commentary. Lewis was among the most politically outspoken liberal TV directors of his generation. Lewis' television work is one of the most politically varied, explicit and detailed body of works of any commercial narrative American filmmaker. Lewis' television work is far more explicit about politics, than much of what is often labeled as "political cinema". Political ideas are openly expressed in Lewis, and central to their narratives. Watching TV films like Duel of Honor, The Deserter and Pompey offers a direct look at what an openly political cinema of the future might be like.

The artistic quality of Lewis' television films is enormous. They are consistently rich formally, with complex camera movement, depth staging, and elaborate, geometric composition. Lewis was able to work with first rate scripts, actors and cinematographers.

Television also served as what biologists call a "refuge" for endangered species of filmmaking. Lewis was able to direct works in the film noir mode in the medium, in an era when noir was fast disappearing from theatrical films. His TV Westerns reflect traditions that stretch back to his B-Western beginnings in the 1930's.

Lewis was able to work in black-and-white, and traditional aspect ratios, when theatrical films were in a mass conversion to widescreen and color. Lewis' love of depth staging was enabled by black-and-white TV filming, which allowed much deeper focus than most color film technology of the era. Lewis took rich advantage of filming on the huge studio set of The Rifleman, allowing a kind of studio-created world in a tradition that goes back to Murnau. This set depicts an entire small Western town.

Lewis was better qualified than many Hollywood theatrical directors in 1958, to work meaningfully in television. Lewis started as a B-movie director, and most of his theatrical work is short, often no more than an hour for his B-movies. Lewis had a fast-paced, compact storytelling approach. He knew how to pack in rich detail of plot, character and social commentary in little screen time. Consequently, his 23-minute Rifleman episodes seem to have the same content as other directors' feature length films: maybe more so! They are not "anecdotes". Instead, they seem like full-fledged works of story-telling, with beginning, middle and ends, and meaningful choices for the characters.

Both The Rifleman, and some other shows for which Lewis directed such as The Detectives and The Big Valley, were produced by Four Star Productions. Four Star was among the highest quality American TV companies of the era. They employed theatrical film directors like Lewis. They also seem to have either indulged or encouraged the theatrical "look" Lewis gave his TV films. Lewis' work for them is full of immensely complex camera movement, depth staging and lighting. Lewis work for Four Star thus shows a personal visual style, different from the other directors on The Rifleman. They also employed many talented screen writers, whose work is today little known, buried in rarely seen TV series.

Lewis had his worst luck at imposing his personal style, on his single episode of the TV series Bonanza (not a Four Star series). His episode The Quality of Mercy seems pictorially like generic TV, with little of Lewis' normally utterly individual visual approach. Lewis was not alone: the great stylist Jacques Tourneur also produced visually routine footage in Tourneur's sole Bonanza episode, as well.

A few words on The Rifleman: This 1958-1963 Western TV series stars widowed father Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) and his teenage son Mark McCain (Johnny Crawford). The McCains are owners and sole workers of a small cattle ranch, in post-Civil War New Mexico. They live near the small frontier town of North Fork, where the Marshal (Paul Fix) is Lucas' best friend. Both father Lucas and son Mark are brainy and heavy readers; Mark wants to be a writer when he grows up. Both Lucas and Mark are startlingly articulate, having an awesome ability to express ideas in words - reflecting Lewis' long term emphasis on thinking heroes. The Rifleman was one of the most popular TV shows of its era, and is still the Lewis work best known to the general U.S. public, far more than any of his feature films. Both Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford were brilliant in their roles.

The following discussion contains SPOILERS. Readers are advised to see Lewis' wonderful television films themselves, before reading further.

Joseph H. Lewis: A Personal Filmmaker

How personal is Lewis' television filmmaking? Does it reflect subjects, themes, visual style and film techniques found in his theatrical work? The answer to this question is Yes!

My web-book on Lewis ( documents over 150 subjects and film techniques, and where they occur in Lewis. In most cases, Lewis subjects and techniques are first seen in his B-movies; recur in his bigger budget 1945-1958 theatrical films, and persist throughout his television work.

Let's give some examples.

Lewis liked to have his camera move through walls. The camera will go from one room of a studio set, seemingly through the wall to another room. This spectacular effect starts in such early Lewis B-movies as The Spy Ring and Blazing Six Shooters. Twenty years later, Lewis is using it for The Rifleman episodes The Hangman, The Actress, The Wyoming Story, and for his Daniel Boone episode Pompey. Working in television seems to have only encouraged Lewis' love of complex camera movement.

Similarly, the circular camera movements that begin in such early Lewis films as Courage of the West, Invisible Ghost, Boss of Hangtown Mesa, persist in The Rifleman episodes The Deadly Wait, Honest Abe, A Young Man's Fancy. This gloriously flamboyant aspect of Lewis' visual style is in his final works for television, just as in his early days.

Lewis liked to build backgrounds out of hay. Key Lewis scenes are full of hay, stacked in geometric patterns that form visually rich backgrounds for the action. This seems to begin with Lewis' B-Western The Man from Tumbleweeds, whose finale is full of elaborate hay constructs. It persists in such Lewis non-Westerns as So Dark the Night, The Return of October, Gun Crazy, whose lovers flee in a train car filled with hay. Lewis had not forgotten such ideas by the time of The Rifleman. Part of the town celebration in The Fourflusher is a huge wagon covered with banners and bales of hay, recalling a somewhat similar wagon in The Halliday Brand. The Fourflusher wagon is first introduced in motion, soon counterpointed with a moving camera moving in the opposite direction. The effect is delightful and complex. The hay wagon shows up in static shots later on, covered with cowboys rhythmically swinging their boots. Lewis employs what looks like a similar hay wagon in a later episode, The Actress, and hay also plays major roles in The Rifleman episodes The Pet, Heller, Baranca, Face of Yesterday, The Shattered Idol, A Young Man's Fancy, The Bullet, Old Tony. When Lewis made one of his last films, Night of the Wolf for The Big Valley, the climactic murder plays out against bales of hay.

Hay is just one of dozens of architectural motifs than run through Lewis. These motifs serve as building blocks of Lewis images, making striking geometric compositions. One could write a whole article about peaked roofs in Lewis, which run through at least 36 of Lewis films, from his first to his last. The roofs range from single peaks that make dramatic triangles in Lewis compositions, to elaborate buildings with numerous peaked gables. The roofs make a sort of visual music, that delight the viewer. The two types of Lewis fences are equally varied in their uses, both field fences with wire strung between short posts, and white picket fences around yards. Rooms and small buildings with glass walls, wash hanging on lines, wells with covers on top, alcoves, swinging gates and doors, all show up in countless Lewis films, usually in beautiful and imaginative ways. Lewis films' imaginative architectural backgrounds, built up by permutations of favorite Lewis building blocks, form a personal architectural world. They anticipate the Environments created by avant-garde artists since the 1960's, which form unusual geometric locales in which spectators can wander, such as Allan Kaprow's Yard (1961) filled with tires, Athena Tacha's geometric city park Connections (1981-92), Rachel Whiteread's cinema-inspired Embankment (2005-2006) with its rows between boxes, Carsten Höller's Test Site (2006) with its tubular slides. The public can walk through Environments, while they can only explore Lewis' virtually through his camera - but one suspects that most art lovers know Environments primarily through photographs in art books, such as Kaprow's pioneering Assemblage, Environments & Happenings (1966).

There are favorite Lewis foods, too. Coffee is as ubiquitous in Lewis TV work as his theatrical films. A giant coffee pot serves as a phallic symbol in front of Little Joe (Michael Landon) in the Bonanza episode The Quality of Mercy. The Lewis sweet-tooth is in evidence. Cake, which appears in difficult, often troubled family celebrations in Lewis features (Minstrel Man, Retreat, Hell!) shows up at another such tension-filled TV gathering (Honest Abe). Pie, associated with joy and a favorite food of Lewis characters, is in B-movies (The Spy Ring, Texas Stagecoach, The Return of Wild Bill, Invisible Ghost), and nine Rifleman episodes. It is a favorite of young Mark McCain, along with his craving for candy. One has to laugh, when near the end of the Gunsmoke episode One Killer on Ice, Marshal Dillon, Doc and Festus gather to discuss the mystery case, and do some darn good detective reasoning, in the Lewis tradition. They are all appreciatively eating some pie and coffee! Lewis has a bigger love of pie than any director before David Lynch.

Men in Lewis love to cook, and are frequently shown serving this food to other men (9 features, 14 TV shows). While contemporary American men have embraced cooking with fervor, in the 1950's this was in violation of gender norms. There are frequent Rifleman scenes of both father Lucas and son Mark cooking. The gourmet detective hero of The Fat Man also has a big scene as guest chef in a restaurant.

The Thinking Hero: Detective Work

Lewis' television work centers on men who think. The Lewis hero is a man who uses his mind, and who works long and hard at difficult questions. One way the Lewis hero uses his mind, is to perform detective work.

This is not the image some people have of the "typical Western hero". However, there are many books, television films and comic books about cowboys who are detectives, or other kinds of thinkers. While The Rifleman appeared on TV, Merle Constiner was writing his paperback Western novels about cowboy detectives, and Edward D. Hoch created his cowboy sleuth Ben Snow. TV programs like Maverick often showed their leads solving mysteries. Comic book series like Pow-Wow Smith, Indian Lawman featured its Sioux sheriff solving mysteries in the Old West. Such early Lewis B-movies as The Last Stand and Blazing Six Shooters starred cowboys who solved mysteries.

Lewis' detective films, whether Western or modern day, and from all stages of his career, are notable for their rigorous standards of detective work. Lewis' detective films resemble the best prose mysteries, with their emphasis on reasoning out solutions to mysteries from clues. The Lewis hero does not guess. He investigates, discovers evidence, and deduces solutions to mysteries from them. The Lewis hero follows the same intellectual process as Sherlock Holmes or Ellery Queen.

Such reasoning from evidence is known as "genuine detection" or "real detective work", among prose mystery writers. It is highly prized, and often considered a key criterion separating good mysteries from bad ones. Of all film directors, Joseph H. Lewis is likely the most insistent about having such genuine detective work in his films. It immediately separates his films from those of many other directors. A great deal of screen time and character energy in Lewis films, is lavished on plot developments involving real detective work. One can find real detection in at least 14 of Lewis' theatrical features, and 16 of his TV films.

While the Lewis detective hero is good at thinking, he is not necessarily an impressive figure, in the worldly sense. Danny in Pride of the Bowery is a slum teenager, one of the East Side Kids. But his detective work would do credit to Sherlock Holmes. Charles Starrett in Blazing Six Shooters looks like any other B-Movie cowboy leading man. Mark McCain (Johnny Crawford) in The Rifleman episode Surveyors is a thirteen year old, and a modest, quiet, well-behaved one at that. But his snowballing deductions from evidence he encounters bring him closer and closer to the solution of a mystery, one that no one else in town even realizes exists. Even such police heroes as Lt. Diamond in The Big Combo and the Marshal in The Rifleman episode The Bullet face uphill battles and skeptical colleagues, as they laboriously reason their way through cases. The unpretentiousness of Lewis detective heroes sometimes works against critical recognition of these films, one suspects. Can Surveyors, a gentle detective tale about a 13-year-old sleuth, be a major work of cinema?

Lewis detective stories, are also unusual among film detective tales, in their close adherence to subgenres of prose mystery fiction. Both Texas Stagecoach and The Rifleman episode The Pet contain "dying messages". These are cryptic clues left by dying characters, that have to be interpreted by clever detectives. Dying messages are common in prose mysteries, such as those by Ellery Queen, but rare on-screen.

Similarly, The Bullet is a pure "scientific detection tale", in which lab work and ballistics are used to develop evidence against a culprit. Lewis had included police lab work in The Undercover Man, and carried on this tradition in his TV work. The Bullet even has a striking shot through a magnifying glass, echoing a similar shot in The Undercover Man. The reporter in Lewis' pilot for Branded, The Vindicators, uses photography in his quest for truth.

The Fat Man

Lewis made an hour-long pilot, for an unsold TV detective series called The Fat Man. It is unclear when the show was filmed, maybe around 1958, and it was apparently never broadcast on television. But it has survived and is available on DVD.

The Fat Man has many links in plot, character and setting with Lewis' theatrical films The Undercover Man and The Big Combo. All three star determined urban good guy detectives, who work tirelessly to find evidence that will convict corrupt mobsters. Sympathetic, poor Italians are victims of the mob in all three films of what we might dub Lewis' Detective Trilogy. Robert Middleton, who plays the police chief in The Big Combo, moves to center stage as the detective hero of The Fat Man.

But The Fat Man also has key differences with Lewis' theatrical work. It has the first major private eye hero in Lewis, rather than police heroes. And, more crucially, the sleuth is apparently the first genuine intellectual hero in Lewis. The private eye plays Bach and Scarlatti on the harpsichord, collects Shakespeare editions, and is a gourmet chef. He is also really, really good at thinking, being one of the brainiest detective heroes in Lewis. The hero of Lewis' The Return of October was also an intellectual, a professor of animal psychology whose scientific concepts are surprisingly deep and well-researched. But the professor in The Return of October is mainly a comic character, one who only gains heroic stature in the courtroom scenes at the end. By contrast, the Fat Man is an idealized, admired intellectual from the first frames of the film.

The Fat Man might be Lewis' first work for television. If so, it marks a turning point in Lewis' work. It records a new commitment in Lewis, to intellectualism and the power of thought.

The Detective Trilogy is rich in metaphors, for the mental work of their leads. The police heroes of The Undercover Man and The Big Combo are compared to adding machines. The Big Combo also compares its sleuth to a classical pianist, whose concert the hero attends. The Fat Man is himself a keyboard musician, and he gets the key clue to his case, reasoning by analogy from a sonata he is playing on his harpsichord.

The Fat Man contains a group of honest citizens, who band together to try to help the heroine's family. Such mutual aid is a persistent Lewis theme. It is unclear whether such ideas were seen by Lewis as explicitly political. They might or might not relate to such left-wing economic traditions as cooperatives.


One major strain of Joseph H. Lewis' politics, is a commitment to Gandhian non-violence. This runs through many of his films. Bombs Over Burma glorifies non-violent resistance to the Axis invasion of China, with Chinese peasants building the Burma Road, and American volunteers working to keep public services open in Canton. Gun Crazy is best read as a Gandhian parable about the evils of using force, with the gun violence of the couple leading to death and destruction.

Non-violent political ideas reach new visibility in Lewis television films. The Detectives episode The Hiding Place (1959) opens with a sign on a Los Angeles auditorium announcing "Peace Rally 11 A.M.". The plot follows the police as they try to track down and defuse a bomb left by a fanatic opponent of the rally.

The Daniel Boone episode Pompey (1964) is a trenchant anti-slavery drama, with Brock Peters in the title role as a slave in 18th Century America.

The hero of the pilot for the Western series Branded, The Vindicators (1965), makes huge personal sacrifices, to prevent war-mongers from starting a war with Native Americans.

Lewis' most remarkable film about non-violence is The Rifleman episode The Deserter (1960). When an Army deserter shows up at the McCain ranch, it triggers an escalating resistance from the hero. One could impress readers with a synopsis of this show. But it would be wrong to spoil a remarkable viewing experience. Few films show such a deep commitment to the philosophy of non-violence. The Deserter is a jaw-dropping experience. It builds and builds and builds, in one of Lewis' most powerful story-telling works. Audacious, politically committed and original, it is one of Lewis' most important films.


The dual side of non-violence, is a recognition of the disasters caused by war and violence. Lewis films are full of massacres. His early Bob Baker Westerns Courage of the West and Border Wolves depict wagon train massacres. This subject is soon connected to the modern world, with Bombs Over Burma condemning the Axis bombing of Chinese civilians, and Retreat, Hell! focusing on a real-life Korean War disaster in which Marines were massacred in record numbers. Lewis next made 7th Cavalry, dealing with the massacre of Custer's troops at Little Big Horn.

Lewis television includes two more films in the direct tradition of 7th Cavalry: The Rifleman episode The Journey Back and the Branded pilot The Vindicators. All three films deal with Cavalry massacres by Native Americans, all focus on the aftermath of the massacre, rather than the battle itself, all three are critical of white men's behavior. Along with Lewis' other TV film about the Cavalry, The Deserter, all four star Harry Carey Jr as a Cavalry soldier.

Other Lewis episodes of The Rifleman deal with the aftermath of the US Civil War. Like the Cavalry films, these focus not on battle scenes, but on the bitter aftermath of war, with chilling looks at its high costs. Face of Yesterday, The Prisoner, Honest Abe are not dull tracts, however. They bring out Lewis' surrealist side, with startling events, weird characters, bizarre scenes and black humor. Face of Yesterday shows Lewis' typically gung ho hero suddenly and mysteriously stopped, and struck emotionally to the bone, by his first sight of fragile looking Ben Cooper. Face of Yesterday eventually invokes one of Lewis' surreal images, the dead man who seemingly comes back to life, a motif that runs through Lewis features from John McGuire in Invisible Ghost to Randolph Scott in A Lawless Street. The suspense drama The Prisoner climaxes with the Rifleman Lucas caged like an animal, a frighteningly literal version of the many shots through bars in Lewis. Honest Abe centers on a sympathetic man, deluded since the Civil War, who believes he's Abe Lincoln. Honest Abe's high points include two full contact wrestling matches, one staged in a saloon with circular camera movements.

Duel of Honor: Gay Hero and Gay Liberation

Lewis' best television work is his first episode of The Rifleman, Duel of Honor (1958). This episode asks a simple, obvious, but audacious question: what would happen if a gay man showed up in a town of the Old West? Duel of Honor explores the results, with a mix of suspense, high comedy, characterization and trenchant political depth. Duel of Honor, along with the theatrical film Tea and Sympathy (Vincente Minnelli, 1956), seems to be the only classical Hollywood film that examines discrimination and prejudice against gays.

The visiting Count gets strong support from the Rifleman, Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors). In a subplot, the two also form a close personal relationship.

Duel of Honor contains one of Lewis' best camera movements, the complex long take showing the stage passengers enter the hotel. This follows a Lewis tradition, of camera movements that swing back and forth, from left to right and back.

The shot also embodies another Lewis tradition: shots that link the indoors and the outdoors in one unified view. Much of The Rifleman was shot on a giant studio set, representing the Western town of North Fork. This set includes both the town's main street, and the interiors of many businesses that open on the street. Throughout The Rifleman, Lewis created shots that linked the "outdoors" of the street, with its horses and buggies, with the "interiors" of the hotel, the general store, the blacksmith's or the Marshal's office.

The Count takes off his jacket, leaving himself in a pure white shirt and pants. He becomes one of Lewis' men in white clothes, who are often wily non-conformists. In his feature films, these include the devious undercover hero of A Lady Without Passport, and the determined and independent cop in The Big Combo, whose white dress shirt seems to glow in Alton's photography. The Rifleman episode Hero will also put a sympathetic individualist in white garb.

The climactic duel is one of Lewis' best set pieces. It recalls the first meeting of the hero and heroine in Gun Crazy, when they take part in the shooting contest in the carnival. Lewis films are full of duels with strange weapons, always upbeat, off-trail and exuberant. The harpoon duel on a Western street finale of Terror in a Texas Town is famous, and famously surreal, and the comic jujitsu training scene in Retreat, Hell! is fun. Lewis television films have a number of such grand contests. They recur in The Rifleman episodes Strange Town, Baranca, Honest Abe, The Shattered Idol, Death Never Rides Alone, and Sidewinder, and the Daniel Boone episode Pompey, where fugitive slave Pompey (Brock Peters) unexpectedly fights by attacking people with the slave manacles he is still chained to. Many of these contests allow the director to develop full-tilt surrealism. The strange content of the duels can be equaled by dynamic filming techniques: the first contest in Honest Abe is shot through wagon wheels, the second is filmed with two camera movements that circle around the action, plus a pulsating lateral track. The characters and the viewer are caught up in an unfolding process, that unwinds like a music box or piece of clockwork.

Social Outsiders and Male Bonding

Duel of Honor combines two themes that show up, separately or together in many other Lewis Rifleman episodes. Sometimes the Rifleman speaks up for social outsiders, in a liberal crusade for their rights and welfare. In other shows, the Rifleman hero male bonds with social outsiders.

In such episodes as Duel of Honor, Shivaree, Panic, Hero, The Deserter, a social outsider appears in town, and is subject to public opposition. Lucas McCain speaks up and defends the outsider, advocating unpopular, liberal principles in his speech. Lucas often risks personal injury, ranging from social opprobrium, to violence or governmental arrest. There is also a small but distinct male bonding between the Rifleman and the social outsider in Shivaree and Hero, echoing the much more intense bonding in Duel of Honor.

Variations on these themes appear in other Rifleman episodes: in The Deserter, Lucas both speaks up and risks violence for a young Cavalry deserter, but Lucas' male bonding is not with the deserter, but with handsome Cavalry officer Harry Carey Jr. In Baranca, Lucas shows courage in standing up for the rule of law against violent opposition. But his bonding is not with a man-in-trouble, but with the visiting Baranca. Baranca is indeed a racial Other, however, keeping with Lucas' bonding with the socially marginalized. Strange Town and The Bullet, combine defiance against socially powerful criminals, with male bonding.

There are also some Rifleman episodes about Lucas and his male bonding, in which the relationship is not linked to politics or expressing unpopular opinions: Closer Than a Brother, Honest Abe, Death Never Rides Alone, although the last two are indeed about social outsiders.

I have been using the words "male bonding". But perhaps such films should be described as "gay love stories". How can one tell the difference between male bonding, and a gay love story? It is not easy. Censorship codes and opposition from film producers, sponsors and the public made it hard to have explicit gay content in pre-1968 commercial narrative film. It is plausible that filmmakers who wished to include gay characters or relationships, would avoid explicitly labeling such content as "gay". Instead they would present as much gay content as they could, without an explicit gay label. Unfortunately, there are no widely accepted methodologies or criteria today, which unequivocally identify such hidden gay content in old films or books.

Still, there are some aspects of Lewis' work, that form evidence in favor a gay reading of several of his films. The virulence of the town's reaction in Duel of Honor makes little sense, unless it has an anti-gay component. Male relationships in Lewis TV films can be intensely physical. The Rifleman and the Count in Duel of Honor share a hotel room over night, and the Rifleman sits on the Count's bed, while the Count is on it. The Rifleman and the guest stars of Baranca and Honest Abe have physical contests, with much body contact. The Rifleman in Closer Than a Brother makes an intense speech, about how he opened up to the Marshal emotionally. A milder version of this is reprised in the A Man Called Shenandoah episode Incident at Dry Creek, in which the Sheriff talks about how he learned to trust the hero.

Structural aspects also support a gay reading. Duel of Honor has a main plot about the Count's trouble with the town, and a subplot about his growing relationship with the Rifleman. This subplot is analogous to the male-female romance subplot, in a conventional Hollywood movie.

On the other hand, one can point out, that non-Lewis episodes of The Rifleman regularly depicted the hero as heterosexual: see Milly's Brother (Richard Donner, 1962). The Rifleman had steady girlfriends, in the last three of his five seasons on TV, and they sometimes play heterosexual roles in Lewis episodes, notably Sheer Terror and I Take This Woman. Two episodes of The Rifleman were partly written by star Chuck Connors, and depict his character having romances with female guest stars. These shows, The Visitor and The Actress, are among Lewis' poorest episodes. Much better are three episodes, in which Lucas bonds with dance hall women: Eddie's Daughter, The Wyoming Story, The Vaqueros. These women are all social outsiders, like the men Lucas male bonds with. They recall the hero's dancer girl friend in The Big Combo.

The closest ancestor to the Rifleman in Lewis theatrical features is the hero of The Man from Tumbleweeds (1940). Like the Rifleman, the hero (William Elliott) of this B-Western is a social crusader, publicly standing up for unpopular opinions and social change. Also like the Rifleman, he is brilliantly articulate as a public speaker, as well as being determined and macho in manner. Although there is a heroine in The Man from Tumbleweeds, there is no romance between her and the hero. Instead, the hero bonds with a male social outsider. The Man from Tumbleweeds is the birth of the queer hero, in the films of Joseph H. Lewis.

The Deadly Wait

The Deadly Wait (1959) is another episode of The Rifleman. It shows Lewis' skill with pure visual style, away from any political themes. It has a simple plot: an old enemy (Lee Van Cleef) of the town Marshal shows up, waiting to isolate and kill the Marshal, whose arm is disabled.

The Deadly Wait gives us the best overhead view of the Rifleman's home town of North Fork. Most viewers of The Rifleman will probably want to draw a map of the town. It has a consistent geography, although it varies slightly from season to season of The Rifleman, and new buildings have a way a mushrooming up when they are needed by a plot. One of the themes of all of Lewis' work is the exploration of a town, its businesses and its people. This ranges from the Western towns of Boss of Hangtown Mesa and A Lawless Street, to modern day cities like Havana in A Lady Without Passport and Chicago in The Undercover Man. Lewis had a field day in his 49 episodes of The Rifleman, with his own town of North Fork to explore. In a few of his episodes, such as The Deadly Wait, Lewis makes the town geography clear, through beautiful overhead shots. But in many other shows, Lewis positions his camera wherever he feels like it in the town. Viewers will do better, if they create a map to orient themselves, and always know the background location of each and every shot.

Lewis showed an astonishing ingenuity, in finding new ways of shooting the town of North Fork. Episode after episode features views and compositions, different from any previous show. Creating such shot variety was part of the standard skill set of many classical Hollywood directors. The great Fritz Lang will show up on a seemingly minimal set in The Big Heat, and start manufacturing a wealth of compositions. But if Lewis is thus within standard Hollywood norms, he at least deserves credit for the endless ingenuity and visual beauty of his varied shots.

The Deadly Wait also features one of Lewis' most beautiful subjects: cityscapes by night. Lewis street scenes are full of glowing lanterns and street lights. These lights are geometrical in themselves, and often form parts of elaborately geometrical compositions. Lewis perhaps learned such lamps and nocturnes from John Ford, and such Ford films as Seas Beneath (1931), The Informer (1935) and Stagecoach (1939). One can see such lights on the streets of London in My Name Is Julia Ross, and in most Lewis films set in modern day cities, such as The Falcon in San Francisco. The North Fork set could be lit for any time of the day or night, simulating high noon or the moodiest nocturnes. Lewis took full advantage of this, to create his compositions.

Mark McCain makes a pair of wagon trips down North Fork's main street. One shows him moving from one end of town to the other. Much later, a second shot shows him leaving along the same street, but in the reverse direction. Such path / reverse paths are a Lewis signature (14 features, 17 TV episodes). They usually are shot with camera movement, as they are in The Deadly Wait.

Two other Lewis staging techniques have outstanding instances in The Deadly Wait. The first three shots of the villain at the saloon, have him almost entirely with his back to the camera, except for some quick glimpses in passing of a profile. Two of these shots are complex camera movements. And at the climactic shoot-out, hero Lucas is first heard as an off-screen voice, before a pan brings him into view. Both characters with backs to the camera, and off-screen voices, run through all of Lewis.

Several other episodes of The Rifleman have variations on this same simple plot structure: a bad guy shows up in town, provoking a climatic showdown with the hero. Some of these are intense, such as the re-working of High Noon in Long Gun from Tucson. There are also versions with comic undertones, such as Death Never Rides Alone, with Lee Van Cleef returning as a famous gunslinger whose personality is quite different from his character in The Deadly Wait.

Surveyors: Growing Up

Several of Lewis' films show the hero entering into manhood. Lewis first solo directorial effort Courage of the West has the hero passing into adulthood right on camera, as a musical number fades out on his boyish soprano, and fades in on his adult voice. This all while he is riding with a group of singing rangers! There is nothing this audacious or demented in Lewis' subsequent work - although the hero's transition to adulthood in The Jolson Story is also represented by his changing singing voice. But difficulties growing up remain a constant Lewis theme. Young Mark McCain is a sharply observed character, at the center of many Rifleman shows. Mark is the archetypal good kid, like nearly all of Lewis' youthful heroes: see The Jolson Story, The Undercover Man or Retreat, Hell!. Lewis young people are intelligent, determined, moral, polite, quiet but courageous.

In Surveyors (1959), young Mark is interested in a possible career as a surveyor, on crews that lay out plans for new railroads. People who build infrastructure are glorified in early Lewis B-movies. There are no less than three early Lewis films about road builders: Texas Stagecoach, Pride of the Bowery, Bombs Over Burma. Plus the company laying telegraph wire in Boss of Hangtown Mesa, and the plans for the new dam in The Silver Bullet.

Surveyors is typical of Lewis detective films, in that truth does not come easily. Young Mark, the detective hero, has to go through many stages, in which he reasons out more and more of the truth. People learn truth gradually, after huge effort and thought. Nor does his skeptical father recognize the truth immediately either. Lucas McCain too has to go through a huge mental struggle, to begin to see the light. Even after he gets wise, Lucas has to do investigation, to learn the details about what is going on. Truth, learning and discovery in Lewis come only after the hardest work, persistence through partial success and failure, and a deep commitment to thinking, reason and the life of the mind.

Surveyors is a work of great visual beauty. The conversation between Lucas and the Marshal on the town streets is a visual high point. Lewis follows the two with the camera, while the buildings of the town of North Fork unreel in the background. Beautiful, ever-shifting compositions appear, as the architecture is used to create geometric patterns.

An earlier camera movement opens with a deep focus shot down a covered sidewalk: a beautiful architectural image. The camera then begins to move, crossing from one side of a row of pillars to another: a Lewis device that is always visually gripping to watch. The shot then accompanies the bad guys as they cross North Fork's main street, enter the bank, and continues panning outside the bank along a window through which we see the villains move inside. The shot thus moves through five different types of visual imagery or zones, always keeping its steady propulsive movement. The combination of deep focus sidewalk shots and crossing rows of pillars occurs in A Lawless Street, the Rifleman episode Sheer Terror, and the Big Valley episode Night of the Wolf. Pillars are also crossed outside the sister's home in Gun Crazy, inside the family living room in The Halliday Brand, and in the Rifleman episode The Trade.

Signs are everywhere in Hollywood film. But signs play an especially conspicuous role in Lewis (21 features, 20 TV films). In the Rifleman comedy episode Suspicion, a sign-painter (Kevin McCarthy) is the main character. In Surveyors, there are signs on the windows of the bank that is the locale of the finale, and on the bank's safe that is robbed. The surveyors' wagon has a sign on its side. The North Fork town buildings are full of elaborate signs. So is a shack out in the countryside, near a long fence that Lewis uses for beautiful perspective shots. Letters from the bank window are projected inside the bank as shadows. They are also used to mask shots through the windows. The signs are part of Lewis' visual design.

The bank interior, with its angled grillwork teller's cage, is a source of compositions throughout Surveyors. Lewis introduced the bank to North Fork in the episode The Safe Guard, and continued his scrutiny in Boomerang. It is a locale peculiarly his. In Surveyors, the bank's architecture is fully explored in a long, start-and-stop camera movement, showing the robbers entering the bank at the finale.

Surveyors has the single most extreme depth staging in Lewis. This is the second shot of the film. We are outside, with two surveyors talking in the foreground. A third surveyor is seen in the far distant background. He steadily walks toward the camera. Eventually, he reaches the close foreground. His arrival is synchronized with plot events. The whole unbroken long take is like a film structured around a staging technique. It anticipates avant-garde films like Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1966), which is built around a long zoom. However, Surveyors was made long before any of the structural films of Snow or other Sixties directors. Long take sequences in Lewis, in which a character moves either from foreground to background, or background to foreground, are common in his cinema. They are a basic building block of his cinematic language. They appear in at least 14 of his theatrical films, and 22 of his television episodes.

Lucas' final investigation at the bank involves staging in a mirror. Lucas discovers the truth about the mystery while looking into a mirror. Truth emerged in mirrors in early Lewis crime films: The Spy Ring, The Silver Bullet. Mirror shots also are used for suspense in Lewis: the heroine has a confrontation with the carnival owner in Gun Crazy in front of her mirror. The mirror sequence in Surveyors is also notable for its formal complexity. It is probably the most complex mirror shot in Lewis, since the mirror-staircase camera movement showing the wife in the basement in Invisible Ghost. The mirror inside the bank in Surveyors is seen by Lucas from outside in the street, through the bank's window. Lewis stages this as a Point-of-View camera movement, shot through the window, that gradually sweeps through the bank interior till it encounters the mirror reflecting a hidden bad guy. "Camera movements staged through windows" are a Lewis tradition (9 features, 17 TV films); this one is unusual in being combined with a mirror. The shot is made more complex by writing on the window, that forms an Ophuls-like mask in front of the image, and grillwork for the teller's cage inside the bank.

My Name Is Lucas McCain

Some of Lewis' TV shows repeat plot ideas from his theatrical films. And none more so than The Stand-In (1961), which revisits the premise of My Name Is Julia Ross. Just as Julia Ross was kidnapped and forced into a new identity, here it is Rifleman Lucas McCain who is abducted and coerced into a new name and prisoner's status. It is startling to see giant, macho Lucas (Chuck Connors) starring in a remake of a woman's role in My Name Is Julia Ross. It is a testimony to a deeply non-sexist director.

While there are negative depictions of alcohol in a few Lewis theatrical films, such as The Big Combo, warnings about the dangers of alcohol and alcoholism become a major theme in Lewis' TV work, appearing in a dozen shows. These reach their extreme in The Stand-In. The villains' problems are caused by their alcoholic incompetence, and they make an appalling case study of what alcoholism does to human beings.

The Stand-In contains a beautiful shot of Lucas, filmed through a spinning wagon wheel. One of the few things that most film fans seem to know about Lewis, is that in his early B-Western days he liked to shoot scenes through the spokes of a wagon wheel. Lewis was soon known in the film industry as Wagon Wheel Joe.

Until I saw Lewis' B-movies, I thought this was some sort of casual nickname, maybe based on a scene or two in his films. Lewis' movies tell a different story. Wagon wheel shots are prominent in nine of Lewis early B-movies. What's more, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Lewis loved to shoot through an astonishing array of geometrical objects: hanging baskets, chandeliers, ceiling fans, candelabra, clocks, fireplaces, triangles, buggy reins and steering wheels. There are whole worlds of Lewis shots through every sort of bars and grill work, from jail cell bars, wire fences, ribbed chair backs, barred windows or multi-paned windows. Lewis also liked to shoot through architectural features: shelves, the insides of closets or sleeping berths on trains, blacksmith's shops. This whole style of shooting is preserved and extended in Lewis' television work. The wagon wheels, which largely drop out of Lewis 1945-1958 feature films, make a triumphant return in The Rifleman episodes The Deadly Wait, The Stand-In, Honest Abe, The Shattered Idol, Long Gun from Tucson.

Squeeze Play

The Rifleman episode Squeeze Play (1962) revisits one of Lewis' most persistent plots: big rich crooks trying to force ordinary people out of their homes and businesses. This plot seems to begin with the B-Western The Man from Tumbleweeds, and gets an in-depth treatment in A Lawless Street and Terror in a Texas Town. Such films clearly reflect left-wing skepticism, about vicious, oppressive actions of the rich. However, such Lewis films also tend to depict the victims of the rich as sympathetic small businesses, such as the freight company in Arizona Cyclone, or the telegraph company in Boss of Hangtown Mesa. In Squeeze Play, cattle rancher Lucas McCain is the target. Hero Lucas is a landowner, not a peasant farmer or a sharecropper, recalling the landowner victims in A Lawless Street and Terror in a Texas Town. All of these Lewis films are left of center - but they sure do not seem Marxist, with their respect for property owners and small businessmen. Also non-Marxist: Lewis' glorification of the town bank, in The Rifleman episodes The Safe Guard and Boomerang.

One of the most beautiful features of Lewis films, are the shots through trees. Often, these are tree branches, that arch over the rest of the composition. Other times, Lewis shoots through wiry shrubs. Lewis work on The Rifleman is full of gorgeous tree shots. Beautiful images of vegetation are at their richest in Lewis in Squeeze Play. One pan showing tree branches over grasses, is a Lewis high point.

Lewis also shoots through a lace-curtain over a door. The curtain is full of the spirals, that are a Lewis signature in his compositions (12 features, 17 TV shows). There are also spirals in the villain's bed - metal work is the most common location of Lewis spirals.


Lewis began his career with singing cowboy movies. Some of these had joyous musical numbers: Bob Baker sings "Ride Along, Free Rangers" in Courage of the West, "Blaze Away, Cowboy" in Border Wolves, and "Adios, O Kid from Laredo" in The Last Stand. His enthusiastic laugh at the end of "Blaze Away, Cowboy", is the "Lewis smile": that dynamic, energetic grin practiced by so many Lewis heroes. Best of all is the ecstatic "Hill Country" with The Sons of the Pioneers in Texas Stagecoach, a musical number that would be famous, if it were not in a B-Western. These are all professionally composed, original songs.

Lewis TV films do not usually have this sort of budget. Instead, they echo a craze of the early 1960's: folk music. Americans liked to sing folk songs, often in family groups. Honest Abe has a sing-along in the saloon to "Jimmy Crack Corn", one of Lincoln's favorite songs. Mark McCain (Johnny Crawford) gives a fine performance of "Greensleeves" in Old Tony. The Cartwrights have a family sing-along to "Sweet Betsy from Pike", in the Bonanza episode The Quality of Mercy. The only original song spotted anywhere in Lewis' TV work is "The First Time I Saw Her", a folk-like ballad sung by Johnny Crawford in A Young Man's Fancy. Related to the folk songs: the powerful opening of the Daniel Boone episode Pompey, a politically charged suspense sequence accompanied by the black spiritual "My Lord Delivered Daniel".

Night of the Wolf

Night of the Wolf (1966) is the best of Lewis' episodes of The Big Valley. A work of unholy force, it is a tragic story of remarkable emotional power.

Night of the Wolf benefits from the lead performance of Peter Breck. Breck is an actor who spent most of his long career in television. He is known to lovers of Hollywood theatrical films, almost entirely through his leading role in Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963). Breck is more like a silent film star than what we think of as a modern actor. He acts with his whole body, unleashing sweeping gestures and dynamic body postures.

Breck's hero runs away from home. So do characters in at least 29 Lewis films. In six of these, children are abandoned, as is an issue in Night of the Wolf.

Breck is the hero of Night of the Wolf, but he shares the characteristics of several Lewis villains. He is the one of the first Lewis heroes to be dressed in the gunslinger garb often worn by Lewis villains. He is wealthy, and has lavish living quarters, also like Lewis bad guys.

The sympathetic Taoist priest Po-hsien is one of the admirable clergymen who run through Lewis' films. Lewis, who was Jewish, includes such sympathetic figures as the Buddhist monk in Bombs Over Burma, and the Christian minister who is a community organizer against economic oppression in Terror in a Texas Town. Po-hsien is also one of many Lewis characters who are shown reading. Lewis values the life of the mind.

Unlike most of Lewis' television films, The Big Valley was shot in color. Lewis' work shows his distinctive approach to color. The hero's costumes in Night of the Wolf are in color-coordinated shades of brown. This "symphony of brown" approach recalled Glenn Ford's 1940's sports wear ensemble in The Return of October, as well as his brown suit and sport coat, and Marshal Randolph Scott's outfits in A Lawless Street. Brown costumes for men return in another Lewis The Big Valley episode, The Man from Nowhere. Brown clothes for American men are atypical, both on and off screen, where brown is viewed negatively by fashion experts, who recommend blue and gray for men instead. In the films of the great color stylist Vincente Minnelli, brown clothes tend to be worn by men behaving badly, such as mob enforcers, or sexual oppressors like the mean coach in Tea and Sympathy.

The overall color design of scenes also reflects Lewis' unusual approach to color. A contrast with Minnelli is revealing again. Minnelli tends to have an over-all color scheme for a scene. Everything will be in red-and-green. Or another scene will be in blue-and-orange. Alfred Hitchcock will use a similar approach in his color films. By contrast, Lewis is unafraid to include nearly every color in the rainbow in a shot. Whether it is a cityscape of town buildings in A Lawless Street, or the deep-focus geometric composition of sidewalks and porticos seen under the credits of Night of the Wolf, there will be more colors on-screen, than will typically be allowed by Minnelli or Hitchcock. One even suspects that Lewis had the road in A Lawless Street painted reddish pink, with gold sometimes mixed in, the way Max Ophuls had the roads painted in Lola Montès.

In Night of the Wolf, Lewis sometimes color-coordinates characters with their backgrounds. When Breck first shows up in his brown gunslinger's costume at the family dining table, we see a hall behind him with brown curtains and red furniture. By contrast, his loving siblings have no idea yet of Breck's problems. They are in light colored clothes that coordinate with the cool, serene light green walls behind them. When Breck goes up to his bedroom, the screen erupts into blazing red furnishings and books, orange chairs and sofas, and brown walls. Curtains are always a geometrically complex feature of Lewis' world. Breck's bedroom has brilliant red curtains with elaborate gold trim. Gold, orange, red and brown: Breck is associated with the colors of fire.

Night of the Wolf shows visual echoes of earlier Lewis films. The elaborate rope structure used to tie up the horses at the start, recalls the one all the way back in Texas Stagecoach (1940). The finale, with its encounter between Peter Breck and young Ron Howard, is staged, right down to camera set-ups, like the final meeting between Lucas McCain and his son Mark in The Rifleman episode The Wyoming Story. There are other plot links. Both Night of the Wolf and The Wyoming Story deal with towns that have suffered an economic collapse.


This article is only an introduction to a very rich body of achievement. It barely mentions important TV films such as Shivaree, an emotionally powerful story that packs a surprising number of ideas and feelings in a brief running time. Or Day of the Hunter, with its ecological concerns, and its portrait of the Rifleman Lucas McCain at his most thoughtful and committed.

Nor does it much discuss such works of pure story-telling as Sheer Terror, an old-fashioned suspense thriller that shows what Lewis can do with the "bad guys take someone hostage in their home" plot, a motif that runs through all of Lewis' work. The Wyoming Story mixes film noir plot and imagery with the Western.

I have seen all 49 of Lewis' Rifleman episodes, and all the Lewis films and TV episodes mentioned in this article. But there are still Lewis TV episodes I have been unable to track down. Where is Lewis' work for Alcoa Theatre, The Investigators, or The Dick Powell Show? One hopes that all of these survive somewhere. Lewis' work on these TV shows might well contain films of substance that will shed new light on his career.

The sheer size of Lewis' output is still not widely understood. Lewis' 106+ films are among the largest bodies of work of any major film director. Lewis made more films than Josef von Sternberg, Howard Hawks and Luchino Visconti put together. The more Lewis films one sees, the more one appreciates his artistry as a film maker. Lewis made outstanding films during all three periods of his work: his B-movies, his feature films, his television episodes.

This is a golden moment for people who love Joseph H. Lewis. Almost all of the films discussed in this article are widely available, either through DVD, cable television, or other media. I urge all readers to seize this chance, and discover Lewis' full range of achievements in the art of film.

Ranking Lewis films

In his book on Lewis, Francis M. Nevins justly complains that most film historians are only looking at Lewis feature films made in 1945-1958, and that they are ignoring his early B-movies and later television work.

Lewis made more films for television than he did for theaters. Lewis' television films are among his finest works. Lewis becomes a vastly more interesting filmmaker, when one starts looking at his 100+ films as a whole, rather than just the 16 theatrical features from My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) to Terror in a Texas Town (1958). (One cannot give an exact count of the films Lewis directed. Lewis' filmography still has gaps: there might well be television films directed by Lewis not known.)

Here are my rankings for the Joseph H. Lewis films I have seen. The ratings go from **** (best) to "no stars" (a bomb). Anything with at least **1/2 is recommended viewing.

Early B-Movies:


The Rifleman:

Other TV Shows: All ratings have their arbitrary side, and most Lewis films have interesting shots or scenes.

Most of the assertions in this Lewis book are assertions of fact, or of fairly low-level categorization (this shot is a lateral track with foreground objects, this scene shows one of Lewis' duels with strange weapons, this background is full of peaked roofs, the hero and his friend male bond). Readers can judge the truth or falsity of such statements by comparing them to the films themselves. Because of this, I hope that most of the contents of this book can be considered as knowledge: ideas that are backed up by solid evidence.

By contrast, ratings are far more vague. The above ratings don't explain what factors caused me to give one film a high rank, and another a low one. And many readers would use other criteria than I did, anyway, to rank Lewis' films.

Because of this, it is not really clear that the above ratings have the slightest value, accuracy, or any real informational content.

I am including these rankings, despite this, for two reasons:

My Name Is Julia Ross


My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) is the B-movie thriller that made Lewis' reputation. It is the archetypal Lewis film about people held hostage, often in a home. Lewis would also deal with this subject in The Falcon in San Francisco and The Big Combo, and in The Rifleman episodes Shivaree, The Patsy, The Spoiler, The Prisoner, The Stand-In, Sheer Terror and I Take This Woman. Note how often the hostage character is in the title of these Lewis films. Here the hostage is a woman, but both men and women become hostages to bad guys in Lewis. The bad guys try to coerce the hostage heroine of My Name Is Julia Ross into a new identity: a similar plot gambit will occur in The Stand-In. The villain of My Name Is Julia Ross keeps falsely telling the heroine that he is her husband. This is a bit similar to I Take This Woman, whose villain keeps telling the captive heroine that he is going to be her future husband.

In Lewis, the hostage taking is often a component of a larger scheme, one that illegally benefits the villain. This is true in My Name Is Julia Ross. It is not a direct attempt to brutalize another person. The villain of My Name Is Julia Ross married his first wife for her money, a motive that will return in I Take This Woman. There is a feminist dimension here, showing male exploitation of women.

The villain in My Name Is Julia Ross is a suave, soft-spoken sophisticated man. Such suave villains are typical in Lewis. The bad guys also have two servants to carry out their orders. Here the servants are a man and a woman, rather than the two men that are most typical in Lewis. The servants also preserve a certain British gentility; more often, Lewis henchmen will be thug-like. So we are close in My Name Is Julia Ross to Lewis' paradigm for villains, without being entirely there.

Links to other films: Rebecca and Gaslight

My Name Is Julia Ross has plot elements that recall two giant hits of its day: Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) and Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944). Like Rebecca, it takes place in a gigantic old mansion in an isolated part of the seacoast of Cornwall; it has a middle class heroine much bullied by a whole houseful of representatives of old money; a heroine who is trapped in the role of a previous mistress of the family; and monograms of the previous woman are everywhere.

Like Gaslight, we have a suave, sinister man bullying a woman, at home. We also have a conspiracy by that man to create sinister illusions. However, the villain of Gaslight is trying to drive his wife mad, while the villain of My Name Is Julia Ross is mainly trying to delude other people. There are signs near the beginning that he is trying to delude the heroine, as well, but this plot soon vanishes with the heroine's forthright refusal to be fooled.

My Name Is Julia Ross is based on Anthony Gilbert's mystery novel The Woman in Red (1941). "Anthony Gilbert" was the masculine pseudonym of the prolific British woman mystery author Lucy Beatrice Malleson. The Woman in Red is one of a series of prose mystery thrillers of the era that dealt with an "innocent young woman forced into a new identity": see Helen McCloy's The Dance of Death (1938), and Rufus King's Design in Evil (1942).

Before and after My Name Is Julia Ross, Lewis used the subject of men forced into new identities. See Border Wolves (1938), and The Rifleman episode The Stand-In (1961): a show that makes a direct contrast with My Name Is Julia Ross. Variations on the plot also show up in late TV shows like Pompey and The Man from Nowhere.


Detective work is done throughout My Name Is Julia Ross by the good guys. Such detection is a Lewis tradition. The heroine, her boyfriend, and unexpectedly, her landlady, all do detective work throughout the film. As is typical in Lewis, the detection involves hard thinking that advances truth by small steps. People have to keep battering away, making very deep efforts, to get close to the truth.

Sleuthing by the heroine uncovers more and more of the hidden personal lives of the characters. She gradually learns the back story of the villains and the villain's wife. Personal information about the characters is also the subject of ongoing revelation in The Falcon in San Francisco, The Big Combo and A Lawless Street.

Strong Women

The women in My Name Is Julia Ross are far more effective then the men. The villain's mother is far more formidable than the villain. Everything successful about the crime scheme comes from her. The detective work done by the heroine, and later by her landlady, is always effective, whereas the hero's sleuthing always comes to a dead end. And the heroine escapes by her own efforts, although there is a coda where she is partly rescued by male policemen, preserving sexist clichés of the day of "women rescued by men".

Men in My Name Is Julia Ross are associated with phallic symbols:

Despite this phallic display, neither hero nor villain is very effectual.

The heroine, by contrast, helps herself through using large phallic objects:

Conventional Thinking

Everyone is the village is easily convinced that the heroine is crazy. It is not true. But despite all her efforts to convince people otherwise, no one in the village ever budges an inch in this popular conviction.

Lewis films frequently criticize people who engage in conventional ideas. Heroes are often people who defy such ideas, and who think differently from the crowd. Examples include The Rifleman episodes Duel of Honor, Shivaree, Eddie's Daughter, Panic, Hero, The Deserter, Strange Town and The Bullet.

The vicar is part of this conventional thinking - and criticized for it implicitly by the film. He is a contrast to later, sympathetic clergymen: the minister in The Rifleman episode The Martinet, the Taoist priest in The Big Valley episode Night of the Wolf (1965). Both of these later clergymen are without permanent assignments, while the vicar is deeply established in the "proper" social life of the town.

In My Name Is Julia Ross, conventional thinking is not linked to any political issues. In some of Lewis' later work, conventional thinking often involves rejection of outsiders. And its criticism becomes politically charged: conventional, conformist thought is linked to rejection of minority groups by bigots, and people with original ideas by the small minded.

Knives vs. Guns

The villain is obsessed with knives. These are the creepiest scenes in the movie: this guy is clearly one sick puppy.

Many Lewis films, such as the famous Gun Crazy, deal with men who get pulled into the "gun cult": an obsessive interest in the world of guns. The villain's knife fetish here has something of the same effect. There are some differences, however. Gun "culture" is a whole organized world, a subculture to which people can be drawn. Macready's knife fascination has no such social organization. It is just one man, and his interest in sharp objects.

When the mirror is shattered, the villain picks up one of the sharp pieces. The villain also stands next to the shattered mirror in Gun Crazy.

The Opening

The film opens in a rain storm. The heroine slowly moves from the front of the image to the far rear: a Lewis trademark. She then moves up some small steps, and we have a new shot, with the camera moving with her, typical of Lewis' love of staircases. The opening camera angles are slightly tilted: something fairly rare in Lewis. Next comes a shot that moves from outside to inside: common in Lewis. It moves through a pair of doors: almost like the swinging doors Lewis loves.

The entrance hall, with the steps going up on the right, is a bit like the one in Invisible Ghost. The rain also recalls that earlier film.

Later scenes in the hall, allow us to see from the hall into the hero's room. Just as Lewis likes to connect outside to inside, so does he like to connect areas within buildings, such as this hall and room.

The hero's fireplace contains a statue of a horse and rider. Such equestrian statues recall The Spy Ring. In both films horse-and-rider statues are associated with good guys. Oddly enough, a cowboy statue will be in a bad guy's office in The Wyoming Story.

The square is seen in a shot, that contains a close-up of a street light on its right. Such geometric lights and lanterns run through Lewis.

At the house in the square, we see the hero through some grillwork on the door. This recalls the shots through the grillwork in the monastery door in Bombs Over Burma.

The panning shot in the square that shows the hero walking behind the metal fence is notable. It is one of many shots in My Name Is Julia Ross that show the characters behind bars or grillwork.

Later, there will be a lateral camera movement behind a fountain in the square. Camera movements around fountains anticipate A Lady Without Passport.

In the London house of the bad guys, Lewis makes some striking compositions out of lamps and the fireplace.

Signs are common in the opening: at the landlady's, the square and the employment agency. Lewis regularly uses signs to tell the story, in his films. We see the shadow of an employment agency sign on the wall: something common in police stations in other Lewis films (The Undercover Man, The Fat Man).

Tilting and Tree Branches

The opening is not the only titled camera angle in My Name Is Julia Ross. There is also a shot of a car, that is strongly tilted. This shot is also another standard kind of Lewis shot: one viewed under an arching tree branch.

The Mansion

The mansion front is seen in numerous scenes. It anticipates the crooked lawyer's mansion in The Undercover Man.

The mansion is full of gables. These form some of Lewis' beloved peaked roofs. These gables form angles, adding to many compositions in My Name Is Julia Ross.

The Bed Room

A camera movement goes from the left side of the bed posts, over to the right side (just barely). Shots that move from one side of a row of posts or pillars to the other are a Lewis standard.

The lamp with a circle of hanging prisms is similar to one that will return in Old Tony.

White and Black clothes

The heroine frequently dresses in white. Lewis has men who are non-conformists and individualists in white clothes. The heroine here has to struggle against social opinion that she is crazy, so she perhaps has a bit in common with other Lewis nonconformists.

Macready's shiny black dressing gown makes him one of many Lewis villains dressed in black. He also frequently changes his clothes, something associated with Lewis crooks and bad guys.

The Village

We only get a glimpse of the village. It is hardly one of Lewis' cities. Yet, its geography is similar to that of several Western towns in Lewis work: one street goes off in the distance, straight back from the viewer and the camera, and a second street goes to the right, perpendicular to the receding street. This is the same street layout as Boss of Hangtown Mesa and The Wyoming Story.

The opening shot of the village is through a store window. This anticipates the opening of Gun Crazy.

The Cliff Scene: Staging

The cliff scene opens with a dissolve, to a shot in which the villain and heroine are walking down a path. The slant of the path is one of many indoor and outdoor diagonal ramps or paths: many of the interior scenes are centered around the huge staircase in the mansion. Foliage is in front of the characters as they walk: the "foreground objects" that Lewis loves. When they reach the bottom of the path, in front of the cliff rail, there is a cut.

What follows is a long take dialogue shot. During this shot, the actors sometimes face and sometimes turn away from the camera. As is often the case in Lewis, he keeps the camera going, allowing characters to speak while their back is turned to the camera. Such as strategy, a bit heretical in Hollywood, allows Lewis to preserve his long takes in dialogue scenes, rather than breaking up shots to show first one character, then another.

During most of the dialogue shot, the actors keep turning around, and changing the direction they are facing. But they almost always are either:

Such Lewis staging based on 90 and 180 degrees is a common feature of his work.

Towards the end of the shot, the heroine does turn slightly at an angle towards the villain, different from 90 degrees. This makes a slight challenge to the consistency of the staging.

The Finale: Camera Movement

The last fifteen minutes of My Name Is Julia Ross are full of camera movement. This is one of the Lewis sequences, in which many small, individual camera movements have a cumulative kinetic effect.

Some of the camera movements involve the staircase: always a favorite Lewis subject for tracking. When the nurse ascends the stairs, the camera makes a lateral movement along the upper landing. The two types of movement combine in counterpoint.

When the villains break into the bedroom, they are first seen at the door. Then the camera pulls forward, and moves out through the bedroom window. Now we are seeing the room from outside, through the window. This is typical of Lewis' interest in camera movements that unite both interiors and exteriors.

The camera movement that starts in the closet, moves on into the bathroom. This is a linking, not between exterior and interior, but between two rooms. It seems to be a shot that moves through a wall: a stylistic device that runs through Lewis. Soon we see a shelf in the foreground, filled with bottles. Shooting through this sort of "foreground material" is common in Lewis' filming.

The swinging doors in the bathroom are like those of a Western saloon, a somewhat unexpected effect. Lewis gets mileage out of such saloon doors in Westerns like A Lawless Street, and The Rifleman episode Shivaree.

Changing Architecture

During the finale, the architecture of the building keeps changing: These had an odd cumulative effect. It is as if an area we think we know is undergoing expansion and changes. People sometimes have dreams, in which they discover new doors or rooms in their houses. The finale has something of the same feel.

The camera suddenly moves to the left, when the villain is about to kill the heroine at the end. This discloses two new characters, who we have not seen before. This too has a disorienting effect, of changing the basic plan of the movie.

Unseen Voices

The heroine hears the voice of the villain at night, pretending to be her boyfriend. She cannot see who is calling. This is like the voices of the hero's childhood friends calling to him from out of the mist at the end of Gun Crazy. In both cases, the voices are pulling the protagonist into a deadly situation.

Water and a very small island

Fred Camper has pointed out how many Joseph H. Lewis films reach their climaxes in swamps. The wetland finales of Gun Crazy and A Lady Without Passport are examples.

My Name Is Julia Ross takes place on a beach, not a swamp. But there is still something of the same effect. Lewis' wetlands show small regions of land, surrounded by shallow water. This is the same as the beach. The heroine is stretched out on a small sandy region surrounded by water; this is like the small tuft of grass with the couple at the end of Gun Crazy, also surrounded by water.

The Jolson Story

The Jolson Story (1946) is more a curiosity, than a coherent movie experience. Lewis directed the musical numbers in this biopic of real life singer Al Jolson; Alfred E. Green directed the non-musical dramatics. The whole thing does not really gel. There are some pleasing musical numbers here, but it is hard to argue that much of it is Essential Joseph H. Lewis.

The film is low budget, by the standards of Hollywood musicals; most of the numbers consist of little more than Jolson (played by Larry Parks) standing and singing. Parks is lip synching to performances by the real Jolson.

I confess I have never "gotten" Al Jolson as a singer. Jolson seems like a moderately talented man who over-stylizes songs in a peculiar way. Many of the songs in this picture were later recorded by Judy Garland in her Carnegie Hall album, and sung so much better by Garland than Jolson, that it is hard to enthuse about Jolson's versions. Still, it is a historical fact that Jolson, in his day, was one of the most popular entertainers who ever lived. Audiences were as crazy about him as this film depicts. Charlie Chaplin, who saw Jolson on-stage at his peak (years before Jolson's movie debut), says that Jolson was the greatest entertainer Chaplin ever saw (see Chaplin's autobiography). Even I can enjoy Jolson's energetic performances here of "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" and "California Here I Come", upbeat works that are guaranteed to bring a smile.


The Jolson character shows the gung ho enthusiasm of many Lewis heroes. His intense smiling and emphatic emotions recall Bob Baker, John Dall in Gun Crazy, the Fat Man, the Count in Duel of Honor, and Baranca. His confidence also ties him to Lewis villains like Mr. Brown in The Big Combo, although there is nothing villainous about Jolson's character.

The two priests who run the orphanage in Baltimore resemble a bit the older man in authority / younger good looking deputy in Lewis films - although this dramatic section was presumably done by Alfred E. Green.

Links to Lewis

Several of the numbers have ties to later Lewis approaches, characters and themes.

On the Banks of the Wabash. The early numbers in the film, sung by a performer representing Jolson as a young man, are sincere, gentle, and beautifully sung. They resemble the performances given later by young Johnny Crawford in A Young Man's Fancy and Old Tony. Like Crawford, this young man is gentle, respectful, dignified, sincere - an adolescent nice guy. These early song numbers are old-fashioned, turn of the century standards, like "On the Banks of the Wabash". Lewis will have a flair for nostalgic songs in films like Old Tony.

William Demarest's comic character here resembles Kevin McCarthy's performance as the zany Western pitchman in Suspicion. Both are comically exaggerated characters, both are full of energy, both engage in odd motions: Demarest's tumbling on stage anticipates McCarthy's hopping and skipping about.

Demarest causes spot lights to be shone, first on himself, then on young Jolson. This echoes scenes in Lewis crime thrillers, in which lights are shown by one character on another - see the end of The Big Combo.

After the Ball. This number is set to a striking montage, showing the young singer's face superimposed over old postcards, showing the cities where he is traveling and performing. The montage is original: I have never seen anything else quite like it. Having a performer in front of postcard cityscapes, anticipates all the Lewis films in which characters are shown in front of real architectural complexes with peaked roofs. On the other hand, this sequence might be by the film's Montage Director, Lawrence W. Butler. It would be interesting to see production records on The Jolson Story, to see who actually did what.

When You Were Sweet Sixteen. The adult Jolson celebrates getting his new, grown-up voice for the first time, by singing this song. It is in a hotel room shared with Demarest, who is on a bed full of Lewis' beloved spiral metal work. There are also spiral shadows on the walls. Two men sharing a hotel room at night, with one man sitting on the other's bed - with spiral metal work - anticipates Duel of Honor. It is a most unusual way to stage a scene celebrating a hero's passage into manhood. In both films, it conveys a strong, intimate sense of male bonding, a Lewis tradition. The song about Sweet Sixteen echoes the transition to the adult state.

Every Little Movement Has a Meaning All Its Own. Two dignified ladies in light red dresses dance to this tune briefly. The hoops they carry remind one a bit of the circular hanging baskets in Bombs Over Burma. In both films, the circular objects are associated with female characters. The circles form "female symbols", a counterpart to the phallic symbols linked to men elsewhere in Lewis.

Also: the title of this song perhaps has a double sense for film lovers, who enjoy every camera movement in Lewis and other filmmakers.

The Jazz Number. This opens with a lateral track down a New Orleans street, with objects such as food in the foreground - a Lewis standard. Many of the objects are pushcarts, anticipating a lateral track down a pushcart-filled urban street in The Undercover Man.

Next, a view into a New Orleans music club, through a door with spiral metal grillwork. This recalls views into the monastery through its gate in Bombs Over Burma.

My Mammy. When the hero gets down on his knees, a famous styling of the real Jolson, it oddly anticipates Lewis films like Face of Yesterday, with overwhelmed heroes on their knees. Mainly, however, I've always been baffled by the popularity of this Jolson signature tune. Why would millions of Americans want to see a white man in blackface, singing a fake Southern song about a mammy? One suspects racism, that's what. It's a grotesque chapter in US taste.

Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye. This is staged to a series of news clippings in scrapbooks, that feature photos of Jolson. Is this another example of Lewis' interest in photographs and newspaper articles? Or is this too the work of Montage Director Butler?

Liza. This stage number is set on a giant gold, geometrically stylized staircase. Lewis loves staircases. This is the most abstract one in any of his films. The number is also notable for the brightly colored costumes, with the heroine in gold, surround by a chorus line of men in powder blue evening clothes.

A Latin from Manhattan. Bright stage number has good choreography by Jack Cole, and is perhaps the film's number most closely resembling a full production number in a more conventional movie. It is shot in one long take. The take shoots from head on, moves laterally from left to right and right to left, and also rises to elevated views. Very nice camera movement merged with dancing. The shot resembles a bit in its motion the long take in the courtroom in Secrets of a Co-Ed (1942).

About a Quarter to Nine. After an establishing shot, this dance number for the hero and heroine is also in one nice long take. Like "A Latin from Manhattan", this song is from Al Dubin and Harry Warren. One of the few scenes anywhere in Lewis of a hero in white tie and tails. (The villainous, wealthy criminal in The Fat Man is described as being part of "the white tie set," but we never see him in anything more than a tux.)

Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody. Jolson is shown singing, superimposed over camera movement showing his enraptured audience. Great staging that merges an entertainer with his audience, a powerfully evocative scene.

The whole nightclub finale reminds one of the dance hall scene near the end of Gun Crazy. There is an orchestra seated in front of a dance floor, largely on the same level as the audience. Both orchestras feature male string players. A singer stands in front of both.

So Dark the Night

WARNING: This discussion contains SPOILERS.

The Story

So Dark the Night (1946) has a whole series of subjects, that occur one after the other, in various segments of the film:

It starts off as a film about a workaholic hero, like the protagonist of The Undercover Man and the Colonel in Retreat, Hell!. However, those men were slave drivers to their subordinates, while the exhausted detective in So Dark the Night pushes only himself. All of these men use work to destroy or interrupt personal relationships and a sex life. The hero is also known as the best detective in France - which aligns him with warnings in later Lewis films about the danger of trying to be publicly recognized as The Best: see Gun Crazy, The Big Combo, Day of the Hunter.

The older hero falls in love with a young woman, to whom he proposes marriage. The young woman is interested in the old man's money: a plot that returns in The Actress.

Delirious sexuality erupts, with the young woman and her handsome young boyfriend - like the erupting sexuality of the young couple in Gun Crazy.

A serial killer strikes: as in Invisible Ghost and Flowers at the Door. The plot here is very close to that of Invisible Ghost, right down to its solution, and the identity, psychological state and modus operandi (strangulation) of the killer.

We now have a detective story, with the hero using his detective skills to track down the killer - like many other Lewis detective films. There is a struggle not just to learn who the killer is, but also to develop clear evidence against him: like The Undercover Man, The Big Combo and The Bullet, which focus on evidence-gathering.

Tragedy - and The Halliday Brand

So Dark the Night resembles The Halliday Brand in Lewis' work. Both films are tragic dramas, in which relentless forces push casts of characters to tragic destruction. The films are like formidable machines, which trap their characters into paths that lead to horrific ends. Both films have a somber, low key tone. This tragic destruction links So Dark the Night to film noir.

Both films take largely negative views of the police. The police detective hero of So Dark the Night and the family which control's the Sheriff's office in The Halliday Brand wind up hurting and destroying many people around them. This is more deliberate in The Halliday Brand, with its racist, power-mad officials, than in So Dark the Night, where it results from madness.

This criticism of the police perhaps also involves a criticism of state power.

The Halliday Brand also resembles So Dark the Night in other ways. Both take place largely in country areas. The inn in So Dark the Night and the family ranch home in The Halliday Brand are grim places, gloomy, uninviting and with furnishings that seem to depress their inhabitants. Both are filled with large, square rooms.

Both films have frequent vertical camera movements. These movements go straight up or down. They add to the trapped feelings of the characters. These are not left-to-right movements, say, that show people in motion through rooms or landscapes. They show instead people locked into positions, unable to go anywhere.

Lewis will soon be more optimistic about detective work. His Detective Trilogy of The Undercover Man, The Big Combo and The Fat Man will show sleuth heroes whose detective work accomplishes positive social good. All of these films are much less tragic than So Dark the Night, and far more energetic in their approach to life.

Influence from Fritz Lang

So Dark the Night resembles films by Fritz Lang - although it is far from being any sort of slavish copy:

"Stunt Construction" of the mystery plot

The well known mystery critic Jon L. Breen has coined the useful term "stunt construction" (Breen used it in his review column in the November 2007 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine). Breen did not offer an explicit definition, but I think it refers to mysteries which use clever twists to change, extend or violate the standard paradigm of mystery construction, which is "mystery occurs, detective solves mystery". Breen also might be referring to works in which we think we are seeing one thing, but which we later learn is something else: say a character whose thoughts we are following turns out to be misleadingly presented, say a character who we think is a cop, turns out to be a horse, small child or angel instead. The mystery public today apparently loves stunt construction - for example, readers of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine often vote in the annual awards contest for stories which twist the ordinary mystery paradigm, or conventions of narration.

So Dark the Night is a classic example of stunt construction. At first it looks like a normal "detective solves a mystery" movie, but eventually plot twists are introduced that violate standard patterns of the mystery genre.

I have mixed feelings about stunt construction, in general. It is not wrong, or inherently bad. But I suspect that some people automatically overrate stunt construction, and underrate mysteries constructed according to normal paradigms. Such a phenomenon seems to happening sometimes with Lewis films. Such good "normal mysteries" in Lewis' oeuvre as The Last Stand and The Falcon in San Francisco seem to be ignored. And the delightful A Lawless Street, a film that is full of mystery-like plot revelations, is also often dismissed. A big mistake!

Genuine Detection

If the plot is constructed around a gimmick, the use of genuine detection to track down the killer is skillful, rich in detail, and both rigorous and generous in invoking the classical detective tradition. The hero never guesses in his detective work. Instead, he is always discovering evidence, and using it to reason things out about the killer. Even when he has found the truth, he gets no intuitive realization or psychological discovery. It is all based on careful rationalistic discovery.

Police sketch artists will return in A Lady Without Passport and The Hiding Place. Lewis understandably finds such sketching fascinating. It is an important part of police technique. Lewis's films are full of portraits of people: sketches, paintings, photographs and even portrait statues. So Dark the Night also includes a photograph. Portrait paintings are also a major motif running through the whole genre of film noir.

The footprint and its plaster cast are also visually compelling examples of detection. Lewis films are full of boots; Boots With My Father's Name centers on a man's symbolic decision, of whether or not to wear his father's boots to a ceremony. Here footwear, and matching suspects' shoes to a cast, plays a major role in the detective work.

Foreground Objects

So Dark the Night is rich in shooting through foreground objects:

Camera Movement

The shot of the hero walking down a Paris street, follows his feet. Most such Lewis shots show groups of men marching in unison; this is unusual in that it has a solitary hero. The kid who offers to shine the hero's shoes will return in Night of the Wolf. Lewis' camera moves up, then down, repeatedly, while it is tracking back and forth.

The first shot of the inn interior moves right through the wall: something Lewis regularly did, especially in his early B-movies. One suspects there is a cut here, while the camera is behind the wall - atypical of such through the wall shots.

At the end of the film, the hero repeats this camera movement. But it is more elaborate, with the camera stopping and starting while the hero pauses behind upturned chairs. This camera movement finally goes upstairs.

When the hero and heroine kiss, the camera moves in a circular arc behind them.

The big confrontation between Leon and the hero mainly consists of a long take. Leon is filmed so that the huge wine bottle rises up in front of him. This phallic symbol appears when he is threatening the engagement with his sexuality. Unlike the hero's ten gallon hat in front of him in The Last Stand, which seems good naturedly romantic, this is a angry, sinister phallic display. Before the threat, Leon walks from the background to the foreground; afterwards, he reverses his path back to the background.

Lewis follows the hero across the inn, then upstairs, with simple camera movements. A later shot shows the priest moving along the reverse path, down the stairs, and across the inn.

There is a most unusual tilted camera angle, that starts a camera movement across the town street, from bank to police station.

The housekeeper is first seen behind the bar, partly reflected by the mirror. In her last scene at the end of the film, she and the hero are also seen in the mirror in her room.

Camera Movement through Windows and Doors

So Dark the Night is especially full of shots through windows and doors. These often incorporate camera movement.

Shots show the musicians through the inn window. At the middle of the film, we see both in and out through that window, watching the hero and the heroine. At the film's end, there is a very complex scene involving that same window.

We see first see the hunchback, cross the inn yard, then through the window inside we see a pantomime conversation.

We see out through the window of Leon's locked farmhouse. The camera moves from the window, to the door, then back to the window. We last see a huge mound of hay. Hay is often used in Lewis films (mainly Westerns) to structure settings.

The barn door is used for three camera movements:

  1. the hero rises and kneels by the body, the camera moving up and down with him;
  2. the police enter the barn, then leave, with the camera moving in and out with them, in a tiny version of Lewis' paired camera movements, to and fro on a path;
  3. the camera rushes towards the hero from inside the barn, meeting him by the door.
In the town, the camera moves down from a light, down so that we are looking through an arched gate. Further small camera movements follow, adjusting views through the gate.

The tiny window outside the hero's bedroom, recalls the tiny openings in doors and gates in other Lewis. The camera will pass right through this window, into the hero's bedroom.

At the police station near the end, we see through the hero's door, then through that through his boss' door. Lewis likes such door-through-door stagings. The shot winds up in a downward pan.


The uniformed chauffeur is introduced, and often filmed, from the rear - like many Lewis gunslingers. His uniform gives a touch of militarism, along with the fact that he is a police employee. He also wears giant boots.

The boyfriend Leon is also in a costume with militaristic feel: a high peaked cap, jacket with patch pockets and belt. There are signs that this gives him an advantage with the heroine.

The hero is in a tuxedo, at one point: something rare for a Lewis protagonist.

The Swordsman

The Swordsman (1948) is Lewis' only swashbuckler. It is the second of three films in color Lewis made in the late 1940's, along with The Jolson Story and The Return of October.

Time and Place

The Swordsman takes place in Scotland, in the late 1600's. Lewis' episode of Daniel Boone, Pompey, transpires in Colonial America in the 1700's, and Corporal Hardy involves the US Civil War. Most other Lewis films are either Westerns, apparently set in the 1865-1899 era, or modern day films. Of the modern day films, The Jolson Story reaches back in time to show us the hero's youth and the vanished show biz traditions of that era. Most of the other modern day films are set in strictly contemporary time.

The Swordsman is one of a series of Lewis films set in foreign countries: The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942) in a tropical island, Bombs Over Burma (1942) in China and Burma, Minstrel Man (1944) partly in Cuba, My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) in England, So Dark the Night (1946) in France, The Swordsman (1948) in Scotland, A Lady Without Passport (1950) in Cuba, Retreat, Hell! (1952) in Korea, Desperate Search (1952) in the forests of Western Canada, Man On a Bus (1955) in Israel. Before and after this period, Lewis' films are mainly set in the United States. Much is made of the foreign settings in most of these films, and Lewis lays the country's atmosphere on with a trowel. In all of these works, the foreign country and its citizens are treated with the greatest respect. The idea seems to be that "one of the great things about the movies is that they can transport us to a foreign country, and show us that wonderful place's traditions, settings and customs". While some of Lewis' international films have critical champions today, none is as prestigious as Lewis' USA-set film noirs, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo.

According to Lewis' comments in Francis M. Nevins' book, the original script for The Swordsman was a Western. It was Lewis' idea to transpose the story to Scotland. This suggests both Lewis' personal eagerness to make films with international settings, and perhaps also Lewis' desire not to make more Westerns at this stage of his career.

Nevins aptly describes The Swordsman as a "disguised Western". The treatment of the scenery in The Swordsman strongly recalls Lewis' B-movie Westerns, especially his films with Bob Baker. We see "magical"-feeling forests, lakes, with plenty of atmospheric trees and vegetation. The big difference is that in The Swordsman these are filmed in color. Robert Keser points out a number of connections to Lewis Westerns, such as the way the entrance of the hero is a replay of a scene in the Bob Baker Western Border Wolves.

Detection: A Detective Heroine

Lewis films often contain genuine detective work. The heroine has a brief scene, in which she is trying to figure out which of two men might have committed a murder. She reasons this out by comparing their alibis and whereabouts at the time of the crime. This sort of detection might have come straight out of a mystery novel. It is perhaps not typical of swashbucklers as a whole.

Later, the heroine tracks the bad guys' path, by questioning witnesses along their route. This too is a form of detective work.

In her first scene, the heroine deduces that the hero has given her a false name. This prefigures her detective work later in the film.

It is only the heroine who performs detection in The Swordsman. This gives her a structural role in the plot, counterbalancing the hero, who is the only character to take the lead in political activity.

Politics: Peace and Social Change

The hero actively campaigns for peace, throughout The Swordsman. His campaign for peace is public, and is carried by him forcefully to both his allies and the enemies he has inherited. As a man who publicly stands up for unpopular liberal opinions and social change, he anticipates many episodes of The Rifleman, and its similar liberal hero and his defiance of public opinion.

Peace is specifically the goal of the hero of Lewis pilot for Branded, The Vindicators. The hero of The Vindicators makes huge personal sacrifices to work for peace. But he does not make a public campaign.

The Swordsman also anticipates the peace rally mentioned in The Hiding Place.

The way the hero is originally opposed by his family, anticipates a bit The Halliday Brand. Both films pit a liberal hero with new ideas, against his family who support a bad, traditional way of doing things. However, the hero's family eventually is persuaded by him in The Swordsman, and we never get the deep opposition between hero and family that dominates The Halliday Brand.

The Swordsman is unusual among swashbucklers, in that the hero is not fighting against an evil regime. Quite a few swashbucklers have their hero leading a revolt or revolution against unjust government. By contrast, we never see any government in The Swordsman beyond the two clans themselves, and the hero and the picture's sole goal is to get these two clans to stop fighting and make peace.

The advocacy of peace in The Swordsman, is surely designed to support peace and peacemaking in real life. It is consistent with the advocacy of non-violence and peace in other Lewis films.

The minister, at the opening, enforces a no-killing, no-fighting truce in his church. This anticipates a bit ministers in later Lewis, who advocate non-violence.

The Contest

The athletic contest at the May Day festival, recalls the cowboy contest that opens Singing Outlaw. The heroes of both movies win the contests, and are publicly recognized as The Best. However, Lewis was already showing skepticism about being known as The Best in So Dark the Night (1946), and such skepticism would only grow in later films.

In several later Lewis films, the hero and heroine enjoy outdoor activities tougher, as a couple. Both the hero and heroine take part and socialize in the May Day festival in The Swordsman, but countless other people are also present. And the hero and heroine don't actually perform any activities together: the athletic contests are restricted to men, with women watching and awarding prizes.

Throwing the javelin in The Swordsman anticipates the harpoon in Terror in a Texas Town.

New Identities - and Running Away from Home

Lewis characters frequently take on new identities. The hero of The Swordsman does this for the most light-hearted reason of any such transformation in a Lewis film: he wants to meet with his girlfriend and avoid their family's feud. Such dashing gestures are frequently made by the heroes of swashbucklers.

Later, the hero contemplates running away from home: also a Lewis tradition. His motive in The Swordsman is to avoid the feud. Previously, he has spent ten years away from home at school: not quite "running away", but a bit related.

Settings: the Big Fight

Half way through the film, the villains pursue and attack the heroes, as they are leaving the May Day festival. The kinds of landscape settings are familiar from Lewis' Westerns:


The kirk (the Scots term for "church") has the peaked roofs that run through Lewis. These are peaks over the doorways, rather than the roof gables in so many other Lewis buildings.

The kirk also has one of Lewis' wells in front. Like many Lewis wells, this one has a cover.

One of the castles has roof peaks all over it. Unlike many Lewis roof peaks, these are outlined in a series of horizontal and vertical steps, in the stonework.

There are small bridges near a number of the buildings.

The tents at the (non-military) May Day celebration anticipate the military tents in Retreat, Hell! and The Vindicators.

Inside the hero's home, we see nested doors: through the doorway from the main hall, we can see the entrance door to the building.

Camera Movement

The Swordsman has beautiful camera movements, many of which fall into standard Lewis categories: A striking camera movement in none of these categories, is the long track down the table of food at the May Day festival. It recalls a bit the track down the New Orleans food market in The Jolson Story, both shots emphasizing an abundance of food.

Villain George Macready's false testimony is delivered by him as an off-screen voice. Only when he has finished, does the camera move over to show him.


When the hero is introduced, he is wearing the biggest pair of boots in all Lewis. These go up over his knees, like boots Douglas Fairbanks wore in silent swashbucklers. These boots express familiar meanings in Lewis for boots, but in ways modified and unique to The Swordsman: The hero is in very dressy red-white-and-gold clothes in this entrance. His boots are a shiny black. His tie is elaborate and snow white, and resembles a bit the ties worn with the modern day costume, white tie and tails.

Later, for the outdoor celebration, the hero switches into less dressy clothes. He will be taking part in athletic contests at the celebration, and his clothes can actually be classified as "sportswear", admittedly of a traditional Scots kind. In Lewis' next film, The Return of October, a light-hearted film in contemporary America, hero Glenn Ford will be in modern day sports wear. The outfit in The Swordsman includes a sleeveless jacket, and trousers in a matching color and fabric: an actual suit. They are both in brown, and the hero wears with them a set of very high boots, in a different but color-coordinated shade of brown. "Heroes in color-coordinated brown clothes" run through Lewis' color films.

The hero rides a black-and-white horse. Such horses recall Lewis' Bob Baker films, and anticipate The Vindicators.

The hero repeatedly has his horse rear up, like Bill Elliott in The Man from Tumbleweeds. This is a dramatic, macho gesture.

The Return of October

The Return of October (1948) is a pleasant little film, about a young woman who believes the race horse she is training is the reincarnation of her late uncle.

The Return of October is always described as a "comedy". If a "comedy" is defined as a picture that actually tries to make people laugh, then The Return of October is not a comedy. Rather, it is a cheerful, light-hearted piece of storytelling. This charming movie is definitely what people today call a "feel-good film".

Lewis told Francis M. Nevins that he was fired in the middle of shooting The Return of October; the film was reportedly finished by Rudolph Maté. It is unclear how much or how little of the film was actually directed by Lewis. Many of the most personal Lewis touches in The Return of October are matters of design, costume and setting. These would all have been set during pre-production, while Lewis was preparing the film. They would have survived into the film itself, whether Lewis was on the set directing the scenes that contained them, or not.

Sets and Props

The Return of October is full of typical Lewis sets and props:


Glenn Ford is in brown clothes, throughout much of this color film. Lewis' color Westerns often featured heroes in brown cowboy clothes. This contemporary story also puts its hero into shades of brown. Today, brown is frowned on as a color for men, making them look unsuccessful and a bit unmasculine. I don't know what style ideas about brown were current in 1948. But the brown suits and sport coats do make Ford's professor look a bit like a prissy wuss - which is the character he is portraying. Later, Ford gets to wear a snazzy light gray double-breasted pinstripe, that is far more upscale and macho. And at the finale, when the hero miraculously changes into a crusading courtroom defender, Ford gets an authoritative blue suit, making him look like a classic leading man.

While playing horseshoes, Ford is seen in sports clothes: a shirt and trousers in different but color-coordinated shades of brown. This anticipates the color-coordinated cowboy clothes of multiple shades of brown, worn by the Marshal in A Lawless Street, and Nick in The Big Valley. Also, sports clothes seem fairly uncommon in Hollywood films, which typically prefer their heroes in suits. The stylish shirt and trousers in The Return of October are full of elegant features - they are definitely high fashion. Photographs of Lewis sometimes show the director in sports clothes.

Ford also gets to be one of Lewis' heroes in white clothes. He wears an unusually spiffy long white lab jacket. And a white robe before swimming. Later, in Gun Crazy. it will be the heroine who wears a white robe. The heroine of The Return of October also wears a white jacket briefly.

There are numerous policeman and guard costumes throughout the film: a Columbia Studios tradition in the 1940's. The motorcycle cops are in black uniforms, something that will return in many of Lewis' crime films.

The jockey is another Lewis character wearing elaborate boots.

The Auction

The auction scene shows staging that embodies Lewis' techniques. It is one scene whose visual style makes me sure that it was personally directed by Lewis.

A deep focus staging shows us a window, which is in turn seen through a door. Such double level views are typical of Lewis.

The heroine moves on a pan through the crowd, while people at the auction make foreground objects in front of the pan. Such "camera movements with foreground objects" in Lewis are more typically lateral tracks rather than pans.

At the end, we are outside the auction barn, looking into to the barn through a large doorway. This is typical of how Lewis uses depth staging to link inside and outsides of rooms.

Camera Movement

Some other scenes have typical Lewis camera movements:

Doing Things Together

The couple enjoy doing outdoors activities together, such as swimming and horseshoes. This anticipates the montage showing the hero and heroine of The Undercover Man doing things together outdoors, and the outdoor date of the young couple in Old Tony.

The hero and heroine do the dishes together. Dishwashing is a common activity for the characters on The Rifleman, although it is not usually linked to romantic pairings.

Thinking Characters

The two leads start out as variations on the couple in Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938). She's a relentless in-your-face zany; he's a wuss of a professor, whom she corners and pursues romantically. The way she is stronger than the man anticipates Gun Crazy.

But the characters develop some unique aspects. The hero may be pompous when talking, but he is both a genuine lover of animals, and a person with original scholarly depth on the subject of animal psychology. The research that has gone into his dialogue is impressive. Unlike scientists in Hawks, who tend to be dismissed, this guy is a genuine thinker about his field. At the end, when he suddenly develops into a determined champion in the court, he reminds one of the Rifleman to come, and his articulate support of various causes. Both men are genuinely independent thinkers, who try to go deeply into subjects.

And the heroine in court also stands up for open-mindedness, and looking at both sides of an argument. This Lewis virtue was celebrated in Bombs Over Burma.

Men and Institutions

Both Glenn Ford's scientist in The Return of October, and Cornel Wilde's policeman in The Big Combo, are the handsome heroes of their movies. The character lineups in both films are similar. Both heroes have an assistant, who is also young, and who treats the hero with friendliness. Both men work for a large institution (the university, the police department), and have a boss there. In both films, the institution is skeptical about the hero's activities, and gives him a hard time.

Lewis' early Westerns, Courage of the West and The Man from Tumbleweeds, also have characters who work for institutions, and who face funding difficulties with their work from the authorities.

The encounter between a man of science who has a lab and works for a big institution, and a zany outsider who comically ties him up in knots, anticipates The Hiding Place. The Hiding Place has Tige Andrews as a policeman with a police lab, and Jay North as a little kid who leads him on a merry chase.

A Heroine Under Control

When the heroine goes to live in her aunt's mansion, her life becomes controlled by its denizens, and she has to sneak away. This recalls, in a very mild way, the heroines of The Falcon in San Francisco and My Name Is Julia Ross, who are under the sinister control of villains who run the mansions where they live. The crooks who run the mansions in both My Name Is Julia Ross and The Return of October, try to persuade the world that the heroine is insane.

The heroine dislikes the classical music and ballet, to which she is exposed by the inhabitants of the mansion. This anticipates in a comic way, the heroine of The Big Combo, who rejects her life as a classical musician, with tragic results. It will not be until The Fat Man (1958?), that a Lewis hero unequivocally endorses the worlds of classical music and intellectual culture.

Lewis Subjects

The illness of the uncle, and the mourning done by the heroine, are Lewis subjects. And the way the heroine thinks the uncle has returned as the horse, is perhaps related to those Lewis films in which a character apparently dies and comes back to life.

The Undercover Man

The Undercover Man (1949) is a crime film, which tells the thinly disguised story of the attempts of federal agents to send gangster Al Capone to prison.

The Undercover Man anticipates The Big Combo, being a portrait of a determined policeman, seeking evidence that will send a mobster to prison. The hero of The Undercover Man uses genuine detective work to develop evidence against the villain. In this he resembles the cop hero of The Big Combo. However, The Undercover Man differs from The Big Combo, in that it lacks mystery. Both the hero and the audience of The Undercover Man essentially know everything about the gangster villain right away. The hero's efforts are to find evidence, not to unravel some mysterious situation.

A Semi-documentary

The Undercover Man is partly in the Semi-documentary tradition. Like other semi-docs, it focuses on agents of a US Government institution, here the Treasury Department. And it attempts to give a realistic, inside look at how they operate.

However, there are many ways in which The Undercover Man does NOT follow semi-doc conventions:

In both The Undercover Man and The Big Combo, the hero sticks to pure detective work. He solves his problems neither through undercover assignments, nor through using violence. The hero has to show tremendous persistence, visiting the same witnesses again and again, to make the slightest headway.

The early scenes of The Undercover Man show the dark, dark photography pioneered in T-Men, especially a movie theater illuminated only by the projection beam. And also that film's squalid urban settings, including a really cheap hotel room for the heroes, even tackier than the one in T-Men. There are encounters between police and crooks in men's rest rooms, also a prominent locale in T-Men. However, the film seems to lose interest in imitating T-Men after the opening Zanger episode, and The Undercover Man becomes less of a pastiche as it progresses.

Scientific Detection

The Undercover Man keeps to both semi-documentary tradition, and that of Lewis' own crime films, in showing scientific detection going on in government crime labs.

Detectives without guns

What is most unusual about the heroes of The Undercover Man is that they do not seem to carry guns. Until the final shoot-out, they never use guns or violence in the course of the film. They are among the most non-violent detectives in film history. Instead they use subpoenas, adding machines, and labs to do their detection.

The Final Shootout is a Western film tradition - one that shows up regularly in Lewis' work. In The Undercover Man, we see Ford strapping on his gun holster before he goes out for this last encounter. And using it in self defense at the end.

Taxes - and Infrastructure

The detective heroes of The Undercover Man are described as "bookkeepers from the Treasury Department". A sign on their office door says they work for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the branch of the Treasury Department that collects taxes in the United States. However, this IRS connection is not stressed in the film. The opening narrator does NOT describe their branch of the Treasury, the way a film like T-Men did; instead, the narrator describes the heroes as "ordinary people" who stood up to crime.

Most semi-docs, and most crime films in general, show "policemen" going after "criminals or spies". The heroes of The House on 92nd Street (Henry Hathaway, 1945) target Nazi spies; the heroes of T-Men pursue counterfeiters. By contrast, Lewis' semi-docs have heroes that are part of the infrastructure of American society, rather than being cops in the pure sense of the term. The heroes of The Undercover Man collect taxes; those of A Lady Without Passport enforce immigration laws; in Retreat, Hell! we see US Marines fighting the Korean War. In addition, Gun Crazy takes us inside a meat-packing plant, giving us an inside tour of the beef-eating part of the US food system. This is a round trip through America's infrastructure.

While these characters are mainly presented sympathetically, Lewis does not try to hide down-sides of their work. A Lady Without Passport explicitly concludes with its hero realizing that attitudes towards immigration need to be changed, and that immigrants need help. In Retreat, Hell!, the Marines die in record numbers in the massacre at Chosin Reservoir. Gun Crazy criticizes low pay at the meat plant. The Treasury agents of The Undercover Man mainly work by offering payments to tax informers, a distinctly unglamorized view of their profession.

The Undercover Man also sets forth the infrastructure of the Mob. We get a detailed look at the Mob's financial and legal teams, and how they do business.

Other Lewis films also look at infrastructure. Bombs Over Burma pays tribute to the US volunteers who helped keep China's infrastructure going during the Axis invasion. The Last Stand includes US Customs agents, somewhat unusually for a Western. And many of Lewis films have heroes who build infrastructure, such as telegraphs, roads or railroads.

A City and its small businesses

Lewis films often portray a whole city, and the businesses within it. The Undercover Man shows a traditional urban American area, with people packed in tenements. Street peddlers and stands are everywhere, selling everything from newspapers to fish. More stands are inside the train station. We also see ice haulers. All of these small businesses seem to be honest. They are largely treated sympathetically, although the film mildly criticizes them for not standing up to Capone and his hit men.

The grocery store also pushes "numbers" on its pathetically poor clientele. The sinister grocer is one of the few small businessmen anywhere in Lewis, who is viewed negatively. He is severely criticized for being part of the gambling racket. This recalls the hair salon that doubles as a gambling joint in Railroaded! (Anthony Mann, 1947).

Mrs. Rocco works as a janitor in a squalid tenement. This recalls the rooming house and its bitter maid in My Name Is Julia Ross.

When the hero and his wife go to the country, it is seen as a place where farmers do business, NOT as a tourist destination. A sign announces we are in the "Dairyland of America": probably Wisconsin, although The Undercover Man coyly refuses to name its locales. The hero talks about buying such a dairy farm himself. Lewis sees the countryside as a place of business, just like the city. The dairy farmers here complement the cattle ranchers that run through Lewis Westerns.


The detective hero is compared to an adding machine. Later, the ledger that contains the key evidence will be compared to a school arithmetic workbook. Both the detective, and truth itself, are compared to the mathematical process of Addition.

In some other Lewis films, the plot gets a metaphor: in The Fat Man, the mystery plot is compared to a Bach "Theme and Variations", for example. Here in The Undercover Man, the metaphors center on the detective and the evidence, instead.

The Hotel Room and Phone Call

Near the start, the good guys and the heroine are packed into a small hotel room.

James Whitmore is seen on the bed, from the back. He is seen through the bars of the bed's head. The bars take up a smaller amount of screen space, than do bars in many other Lewis films. Still, shooting through bars is a standard kind of Lewis shot.

James Whitmore is in his undershirt, looking terribly casual and under dressed. Her proceeds to get dressed in his suit. In a later Lewis detective film with ties to The Undercover Man, The Fat Man, a mob henchman changes clothes on screen, moving from a chauffeur's uniform to a suit.

The wife is present in this scene, as are other men. The wife is a refined, respectable woman. But she makes no fuss about a dressing man, who is definitely rough in appearance. This indicates the wife's character: she is willing to support her husband, and accept situations that are not ideal, as part of supporting his work. A more selfish, fussier, more self-concerned woman might have made a "lady-like" issue of such an event. But the heroine's gutsy realism is determined to support all sorts of things.

Soon, hero Glenn Ford takes a phone call in the room's entrance hall. The hall is long and narrow, and shot so that it recedes from the viewer into the distance. The hero is as the phone in the back of the hall; his wife is in the foreground of the shot, in the front of the hall. The hero and heroine are on a long straight line or axis, stretching from the front of the screen to the background. In the gun contest that introduces the hero and heroine in Gun Crazy, the couple are also often on a straight line axis from front to rear of shots.

After the call, the hero walks from the background to the foreground: a common staging in Lewis films. Soon, he reverses course, and moves from foreground to the background. This too is a standard Lewis staging effect. The distance from foreground to background in these shots, is not as long as in some similar stagings in other Lewis films.

Camera Movement

In the train station, the camera moves in a circular arc, around one of the characters. This movement goes through nearly 90 degrees.

The line-up contains a lateral track down the line-up, with watchers in the line-up audience serving as foreground objects. And the police identification room has a lateral track, with filing cabinets serving as the foreground objects.

Glenn Ford moves down the street to the Rocco apartment. The camera tracks with him, shooting Ford through people and stands on the street, that serve as foreground objects. The track is a bit on the diagonal, rather than the pure lateral track more often seen in Lewis. This shot also has a slightly elevated angle. It anticipates the great tracking shot through the carnival people in Lewis' next film, Gun Crazy.

Later, when Salvatore Rocco is attacked by mob hit men, the camera moves in the reverse path down what looks like this same street (it might be different). These tracking shots are a reverse of the earlier track with Ford. They are example of a Lewis standard: a pair of tracks, one that that moves forward along a path, a second shot that moves in the reverse along the same path.

When the wife arrives at the train station in the middle of the picture, the camera moves with her, around the corner of the train station building: also a Lewis standard. A second camera movement soon reverses the path, showing the wife and husband moving back around the corner. This second shot includes one of Lewis' fervent reunion scenes.

The killing of the lawyer near the end, has two camera movements shot through the window of a moving car. Such shots will return in even more spectacular form in Lewis' next two pictures, Gun Crazy and A Lady Without Passport.

Location Shots - and relations to other Lewis crime films

The heroine's departure on the train, near the start of the film, anticipates the first shot after the credits of The Fat Man (1958?), an hour-long TV detective pilot Lewis directed. The train in the background is full of elaborate windows and other rectilinear patterns, like the apartment buildings in The Fat Man shot. Both the train and the buildings are viewed on the diagonal. In the foreground of each shot, a short path leading straight to the camera makes an angle to the diagonal background. Stan walks straight from the background to the foreground, in The Undercover Man shot, in the Lewis manner; a sidewalk stretches from background to foreground in The Fat Man.

When the lawyer drops the Feds off at the post office, the shot anticipates a related shot in The Hiding Place (1959), an episode of the TV series The Detectives. The Undercover Man shows a car pulling up, stopping, just before the detectives get out; in The Hiding Place, a bus drives up, stops, and the villain gets off the bus at the end of the shot. Both shots are pans; both start at angles; both end with the camera in a frontal, straight on view of the characters. In The Undercover Man, this frontal shot shows the post office in the background. In The Hiding Place, the bus and a hill behind it are at the end of the shot. In both shots, the transition from an angled view, to a straight-on composition, is visually striking.

The lawyer's huge estate, and tree-lined grounds, recall the mansion in My Name Is Julia Ross.


The early shots through merchandising stands in the train depot, anticipate the shot through the store window that opens Gun Crazy.

The morgue shows a door in the background, seen through a pair of door-like arches. Such doors seen through doors are a common Lewis staging.

The police station has high, arched windows, like the stations in So Dark the Night and The Big Combo.

The grid at the line-up perhaps recalls the grids of windows that run through Lewis, such as the crook Evans' window in The Last Stand. It also looks like the grid of dates in Heath's notebook in Night of the Wolf: both grids are full of numbers, both are used for measurement. See also: the grid-like floor plan drawn on the newspaper in Gun Crazy. (Historical note: what looks like the same police line-up grid turns up in The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk, 1952).) The line-up sequence is notable for its many elaborate compositions, that succeed one after the other, as separate shots. While it contains a striking camera movement, the scene shows that Lewis can also build episodes out of a series of short, creatively composed shots.

Lewis shows the complex lighting fixtures of the line-up room, and shows the room in different lighting schemes.

The outside doors of the police station are swinging doors.

The lawyer's mansion features many complex peaked roofs and gables. Such peaked roof complexes used as backgrounds are a Lewis staple.

The chairs and table support framework at the mansion seem to have small spirals in their metal work. Spirals also appear over the outside entrance to Rocco's cellar apartment.

The apartment shared by Salvatore Rocco and his girlfriend has an alcove in its rear.


Signs are everywhere in The Undercover Man, helping to tell the story, in the Lewis manner.

A room at the coroner's office has a sign projected as a shadow on the wall, allegedly from an unseen window. A similar sign-shadow will recur at the police station in The Fat Man.

The Idyll: Water, Guns and Hunting

The country sequence midway in The Undercover Man forms a contrast to the urban ugliness which surrounds it. It has a lyrical lake scene, associated with romantic love: a Lewis standard. And we see the hero and heroine under a tree with arching branches, also a Lewis standard. The hero soon sits and leans against the trunk, as in Old Tony to come.

Just before this the hero and heroine have gone hunting together: a scene presented with a straight face as a nice, romantic activity for a husband and wife to do together. This romantic scene with guns anticipates Lewis' next film Gun Crazy. - but without the irony and criticism of guns found in all Lewis films from Gun Crazy (1949) on. Similarly, Lewis' later work from Gun Crazy on will take a consistent anti-hunting position. And in The Rifleman episode Old Tony, the hero and heroine will once again enjoy roughing it together around the countryside, but they will be collecting old Indian arrowheads for their outing, rather than using guns or hunting.

The Undercover Man also shows the hero and heroine fishing together. Lewis will show characters enjoying fishing throughout his work: it is the favorite activity of young Mark in The Rifleman.

Costumes - and the Gordons

Costume designer Jean Louis did the spectacular suits Glenn Ford wore in such films as Gilda and The Big Heat. But The Undercover Man is set in the seediest urban districts imaginable, like many semi-docs, and Ford's look has been toned down. He wears the dowdiest, cheapest looking suits as possible, in keeping with his "Federal Agent just getting by financially" character, and just manages to look decent enough to be a movie hero.

Sympathetic young bookkeeper Sydney Gordon and his wife do better, costume-wise. We see them both in black bathing suits, with husband Sydney being another Lewis hero with his shirt off. Then Sydney Gordon switches over to a black leather pilot's jacket and light-colored pants, while his wife is in a white dress. Such black and white clothes run through Lewis. They often signal things about character (white clothes for non-conformist heroes, black for gunslingers), but the white-and-black clothes of the Gordons do not seem to have any such meanings. They instead seem to mark out the couple as glamorous, and being "sympathetic young lovers".

The Gordons are young married lovers on the run. They anticipate the couple in Gun Crazy.

Sydney Gordon is played by future director Leo Penn. Quite a few Lewis actors will go on to careers behind the camera: Lamont Johnson (Retreat, Hell!), William Conrad (Cry of the Hunted), Cornel Wilde (The Big Combo), Brian G. Hutton (Long Gun from Tuscon), and Dennis Hopper (One Killer on Ice) as directors, Lewis regular Ned Young as a scriptwriter. Most of these performers are cast as nice young leading man types, mainly in supporting roles.

Cops stationed in public places, such as the train station and outside the movie theater, also wear black leather jackets. Police in later Lewis TV shows will sometimes wear black LAPD style uniforms, including a leather-jacketed motorcycle cop in The Hiding Place.

Social Issues

The crime empire here includes bookies, crap games and the numbers racket. This is consistent with the many anti-gambling films Lewis made, which show gambling as part of a crook's evil sway. There are also scenes of crooks gambling themselves, with the vicious lawyer betting at the track - also a Lewis tradition.

The grandmother's soliloquy about the evils of mob rule in Sicily, will return in The Guest. Both describe reigns of terror, in which a loved one of the speaker was killed because he stood up to the Mafia. Both embody Lewis' thesis that ordinary people need to stand up to crime and oppressive leaders, and help establish decent government. This view will be central in A Lawless Street and Terror in a Texas Town. They also reflect Lewis' general belief in mutual aid among citizens.

Influence on later Al Capone films

The Undercover Man is a based-on-fact version of the government attack on Al Capone. This subject would be treated a decade later in Phil Karlson's 1959 pilot for the TV series The Untouchables. (Karlson's pilot is also known as The Scarface Mob.) Karlson's film in turn would be remade as The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987).

Both The Undercover Man and Karlson's version tell a similar story. We see a dedicated Federal Man arrive in Chicago, and set to work uncovering evidence against Capone. In both versions, the Fed has little personal contact with Capone, interfacing instead with Capone's lawyers. Eventually, the Capone case is brought to trial with the Fed's evidence, which convicts Capone. In both, the Fed is a low key, businesslike man, who wears stuffy suits with vests. The Fed has a loyal, sensible wife who gets in danger of mob reprisal, in both films.

Karlson's film has a much more violent hero, however, in that his Fed is constantly staging raids on Capone establishments, something the hero of The Undercover Man never does. In fact, The Undercover Man never shows a Capone night club or distillery - although it does get to a non-Capone burlesque theater. The Undercover Man concentrates entirely on Capone's gambling enterprises. Capone is never named in The Undercover Man, being referred to as the Big Fellow.

Gun Crazy

Camera Movements: Inside and Outdoors

Gun Crazy (1949) opens in the night and rain - almost the archetypal image of film noir! (My Name Is Julia Ross also opens in the rain.) More personally for Lewis, this is a picture of a city street. The camera moves straight forward - and we see that we are now looking outward, from inside a shop window. This combined exterior and interior, with a camera movement encompassing both, is also a trademark of Lewis' visual style.

The young anti-hero throws a brick - it makes a circular hole in the window. This is like the circular hole that another young boy, Mark in The Rifleman, will rub out on the stained glass window in Waste (1962).

The business-with-the-gumball-machine robbery shows the couple backing out of the store, the camera moving with them. Eventually we reach the door, and can see the street through the window. We watch as the couple move out into the street.

The most famous shot in Gun Crazy is the long take sequence, showing the bank robbery from the car. Like many Lewis camera movements, this combines both outdoors and indoors, with the "indoors" here being the interior of the car. Lewis shoots through the windows of the car: showing the outdoors from the "indoors". And in the middle of the take, the camera shoots out of the car along with the heroine, waits with her on the sidewalk, then pulls back into the car. This is an even richer movement between indoors and outdoors.

After the robbery, there is a moving camera shot in the country, where the couple switch cars:

Foreground Objects and Lateral Tracks behind them

The tracking shot introducing the carnival, is shot through many foreground objects, looking down at the hero and his friends walking along. Both the tracking and the foreground activities are Lewis stylistic signatures. The giant carnival in Gun Crazy will get a small echo in The Hangman, in which a medicine man comes to town. Lewis has a tracking shot past his wagon there, too.

When the hero enters the payroll office, the camera tracks laterally with him. Many people at their desks are in the foreground, as the camera tracks past. It really conveys the sense that his path is surrounded by people.

A third lateral track is at the dance hall. The couple and camera move from left to right. Other dancers serves as foreground "objects" in the shot.

Moving Camera Shots in "reverse"

1) The second half of the bank robbery shot is like a mirror image of the first. It is in two parts: Lewis like such symmetry in his staging, with people coming to an area, then leaving it.

2) The tracking shots during the meat plant robbery also contains a mirror image of its opening:

The second half is a direct reversal of the first half, in the path it follows through numerous locations.

However, this extended sequence is more elaborate than most such path / reverse path combinations in Lewis. Each path is broken down into a series of camera movements, rather than the usual single camera movement following the path. And the camera movements during the reverse path involve different set-ups from those of the entrance path, even though the path itself is an exact reverse.

3) A third pair of moving camera shots take place at the sister's house, at the end. When the couple first arrive, they and the camera move from right to left. They go through the porch, then continue on to the side of the house, looking through the window.

When they leave the house for the last time, a virtuosic long take moves roughly along the same path - but in the reverse direction, from left to right. The hero comes out the door on the far left, and moves right to the car. He is joined by the heroine, and they get in the car after discussing the baby. The camera moves around to show them in the car. They and the car leave, revealing the reporter and sheriff, still standing on the porch, at the far right.

Cities as protagonists

Cities are often "protagonists" in Lewis: shown in detail in his films. In the opening shot of a city street, we can see many individual buildings, in the Lewis tradition. There seems to be a feed store, and a small restaurant, just like in the main street of Lewis' Western series, The Rifleman.

The bank robbery shows much of a town - another Lewis city as protagonist, shown in detail. The car goes up and down numerous city streets.

Other robberies also show much of other towns, as do the tracking shots near the end, depicting the couple fleeing the dance hall.

Posture and Staging

The young hero at the start will slip and fall. As he tries to raise himself from the pavement, he will see a policeman has caught him. Agonizing experiences and sinister revelations that come to Lewis heroes while they are near the ground are a Lewis image.

In the court, the hero and the hero's sister are both facing in the same direction, not looking at each other. This is an example of a geometric principle of staging common in Lewis. Soon, the hero's two young friends will be at right angles to each other at the table in the courtroom: also a common Lewis staging.

The Gun Cult

The hero in Gun Crazy is obsessed with guns. Unlike later Lewis films about the gun cult, no one tries to lure him into the cult. In fact, his sister and the court try to wean him from it, unsuccessfully. But people do try to pressure him into the next step: killing with a gun. First his buddies put macho pressure on him. Then his wife uses her sex appeal. These are both tremendous forces.

The gun cult is linked to sexuality in Gun Crazy. Clearly, the hero finds guns sexually exciting. Like the heroine of The Big Combo, he has a strong need for a non-standard kind of sexuality.

The gun cult was already present in writer MacKinlay Kantor's original prose short story, "Gun Crazy" (1940), and later appeared in Kantor's 1947 first draft of the screenplay for the film version of Gun Crazy (see Jim Kitses' monograph Gun Crazy for details). There has always been a consensus that Kantor was the inventor of the gun cult, as a subject of storytelling. Lewis likely first encountered it in Kantor's screenplay circa 1948.

While Lewis did not invent the idea of the gun cult, there are elements in his pre-1947 films that reflect some parallel, related ideas:

After making Gun Crazy in 1949, Lewis returned to the subject in many later works:

When the hero tries to explain early in the film, why he is interested in guns, he says that he wants to be The Best at something. Such a craving to be publicly recognized as The Best is usually seen as leading to bad consequences, in Lewis films. It is linked to the gun cult again, in Day of the Hunter.

After Gun Crazy, other directors took up the subject of the gun cult. Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954) has a hero trying to escape from his gunfighter past. But the heroine is dubious about whether he has really changed his gun-use compulsion: "You're still gun crazy!", she tells him.

Militarism - and its links to the gun cult

The hero joins the US Army, and works exclusively with guns there, as a shooting instructor. Lewis himself reportedly made training films about the M-1 rifle for the US Army during Lewis' 1943-1944 Army service in World War II: six hour-long films about the rifle that explored every part of the gun in exhaustive detail. See Francis M. Nevins' book for Lewis' account.

A later Lewis episode of The Rifleman, Honest Abe, will make connections between the gun cult, and the seductive appeal of militaristic life styles, although the connection is not close. Militarism appears in The Spy Ring, Pride of the Bowery, A Lady Without Passport, Retreat, Hell! and The Rifleman episodes Panic, The Deserter, The Martinet, The Prisoner and Honest Abe. Militarism and its seductive appeal are explored most deeply in The Deserter.

The hero of Gun Crazy winds up disguised in a stolen naval uniform. Discussions of militarism in Lewis often center around uniforms: see dialogue in The Deserter. Like the gun cult, there are suggestions in Lewis that the appeal of militarism is partly sexual. Like many other things the hero does in Gun Crazy, his wearing of this uniform is a transgressive sexual fantasy, the acting out of a forbidden sexual impulse.

The connection between uniforms and sexuality is made explicit in Lewis' The Spy Ring (1938). The Mata Hari villainess seductively tells the Army officer hero, that she is attracted to him because she has a "uniform complex".

Uniformed policemen are everywhere in Gun Crazy. The hero's friend the sheriff seems to live inside his leather uniform jacket - it's rarely off during the entire movie, even when he's a kid! While there are no comments on this, it is clear that lots of groups of men are finding psychological satisfaction in their uniforms.

Gun Crazy is not the first crime thriller in which a bad guy dons a stolen uniform. The naval officer hero of Honeymoon for Three (George Blair, 1948) has his stolen by a killer, who wears it as part of his crime schemes. This is faithfully based on the mystery novel Puzzle for Puppets (1944) by Patrick Quentin, a writer whose work frequently explores gay imagery.

And in Lewis' own Boss of Hangtown Mesa, the bad guy steals the hero's cowboy clothes at gunpoint, also so that he can pass himself off as something he is not.

The Contest

The delightful shooting contest, in which the hero meets the heroine, is a splendid set piece. It is one of many strange "duels" in Lewis, that use unusual weapons - here a contest over lighting matches. Such duels occur in Gun Crazy, Retreat, Hell!, Terror in a Texas Town, Pompey, and in The Rifleman episodes Duel of Honor, Strange Town, Baranca, Honest Abe, The Shattered Idol, Death Never Rides Alone and Sidewinder. The boxing match in the early Pride of the Bowery, also has elements anticipating such duels. This is not counting all the "routine" gun battles or fist fights in Lewis films. The contests with strange weapons all have a comic side. They deliriously present something the audience has never seen before, and are comically over the top.

Like the duels in Baranca and Duel of Honor, the Gun Crazy contest involves alternate actions between the two contestants. This duel is unusual in that involves a man and a woman: most of the later contests in Lewis are between two men. Like Baranca, it leads to strong feelings of friendship between the two contestants. Earlier, the hero shows off his English dueling pistols: such weapons will return in Duel of Honor.

The duel is staged along a strong axis: a straight line connecting the man and the woman. This is true as well of the contests in Baranca and Duel of Honor.

Costumes - and Changes of Identity

The hero's wonderful fringed Wild West outfit is fun, but not quite real. Buckskins almost never show up in Lewis' Western series, The Rifleman. Exception: In Sheer Terror, a man wears one, and the hero comments on how they are never seen in his town. It turns out the man wearing the buckskin is a fake - a bit like the carnival costuming here.

The hero's cowboy outfit comes with huge, conspicuous boots. These are much bigger than they need to be - part of the "boots as a bravado display mechanism" that runs through Lewis.

Gunslingers in Lewis Westerns are often shown from the back, and often followed by a moving camera. When the hero first wears his cowboy clothes, he is shown from the back, during such a tracking shot. Later, the Sheriff will also be shown from the rear.

The couple, and especially the hero, keep putting on new clothes and disguises, as part of their hold-ups and getaway attempts. The bad guy in Boss of Hangtown Mesa also changes his outfits to aid his schemes. And the mob killer in The Fat Man changes from a chauffeur's uniform to a business suit, right on camera.

This perhaps relates to Lewis heroes who take on new identities.

The non-Lewis film comedy Ride 'Em Cowboy (Arthur Lubin, 1942) has a good-natured Eastern entertainer who's a fake cowboy, all dressed up in cowboy clothes for his singing act, who meets a "real" Western woman who's tough and skilled. Their personalities remind one a little of the leads of Gun Crazy, especially as she's tough and hard in manner, and he's a genial, mild galoot, albeit big and good-looking.


The opening finds the young hero unable to shoot an animal, while out hunting with his friends. A variation on this incident is discussed in Lewis' Bonanza episode, The Quality of Mercy. Lewis would later express systematic skepticism about hunting for sport in one his most powerful works, Day of the Hunter.

The hero and heroine are themselves hunted by dogs at the end. This is one of many Lewis films in which humans are in danger from animals. This ranges from the bear attack at the end of Day of the Hunter, to shows like The Pet and Night of the Wolf, in which heroes are infected by diseases by animals. In some ways, these films show animals turning the tables on humans, endangering them instead.

Violence, Non-Violence and Pacifist Anarchism

Lewis' films show a consistent adherence to the non-violent philosophy of social change, advocated by Shelley, Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

And like most such proponents of non-violence, Lewis shows a deep skepticism about the use of violence.

Shelley, who was one of the founders of non-violence, wrote two poems that sum up two different roads of possible social change:

These two choices are very much on the minds of everyone who follows non-violent ideals. How do they map onto Lewis' films?

Some Lewis films have positive portraits of people who use non-violence to solve social problems. These films are Lewis' Prometheus Unbound:

What about the negative side? Are there Lewis films about social activists who mistakenly use violence, thus leading to tragedy, as in Shelley's The Cenci? Yes and no. In some ways Gun Crazy is such a film. Gun Crazy can be read as a Gandhian parable about the dangers of violence. The couple embrace violence, and it leads inevitably to their death. However, this interpretation of the film is far from any sort of perfect fit.

For one thing, the couple in Gun Crazy differ from the heroine of The Cenci in that they are far from being any sort of idealistic social reformers. They are bank robbers. They are out to better themselves, not to improve society. As the remorseful hero of Gun Crazy says, "We are killing other people so we don't have to work!" In general, Lewis' positive films about people who use non-violence are often about social idealists, whereas his tragic, negative portraits of the violent are about protagonists that are less socially committed.

This is not the whole story. The heroes of Gun Crazy are explicitly presented as working class. And working people in Gun Crazy are shown to have real problems, especially low pay. In some ways, the couple can be seen as people in revolt against low pay: they reject the $40 per week the hero could earn at an honest job, and turn to robbing banks, instead. Still, they only try to help themselves, rather than trying to change the system, build a labor union, or do any other sort of social activism.

Whatever elements of legitimate social revolt exists in the heroes' actions, it is doomed by their embrace of violence. Their choice of guns and violence leads their revolt to both failure and death.

One might also note that Lewis films are consistently against stealing. So are most Hollywood films, so this is hardly unusual. But Lewis also makes a personal stand on this issue. The remarkable civil disobedience drama, The Deserter, explicitly condemns stealing, for example. A number of Lewis films have couples who use violence and theft to try to get rich: see The Visitor and Boots With My Father's Name. These films make no excuses for their villains at all: they are seen as purely and simply rotten. The films do not show their crimes as having any political dimension. This makes it likely that Lewis views the bank robbing couple in Gun Crazy as also being morally wrong.

The Negotiation - and Leaving the Gun Cult

Towards the end of Gun Crazy, the hero's friends, the policeman and the reporter, try to negotiate his surrender. They emphasize that this would prevent bloodshed - their main motive. The hero refuses. In effect, the friends are giving the hero a chance to leave the gun cult. He refuses, and stays in the gun cult till his death.

A number of Lewis films have heroes who escape the gun cult. Usually this happens near the end of the story. The hero's escape is a narrow one, and usually means he has just managed to escape with his life. Such films include A Lawless Street, and the Rifleman episodes Shivaree, Boomerang, Face of Yesterday, Sidewinder and Old Tony. The escape is often linked to a solitary, alienated man in the gun cult rejoining the human race and society. One gets a similar perspective in Gun Crazy. The friends emphasize that the town is "their community" - and that they want no one to get killed in it. By contrast, the hero's rejection of their plea alienates him and the heroine even further from society, driving them out to the mountains.

The hero's choice here is also between violence and non-violence. The hero of Shivaree is faced with a similar choice at the end of his story - one presented in starker and more explicit political terms than in Gun Crazy. In both films, the hero is also asked to think about the future: what will the consequences be of his choice?

Considering other Lewis films, it is likely that Lewis feels sympathetic to the cop and reporter and their offer in this scene.

Labor and Capitalism

A wide variety of kinds of labor and work are seen in Gun Crazy: The couple explicitly reject all such employment, when they go on their crime spree.

Marxist interpretations of Gun Crazy (by critics other than myself) depict the hero and heroine as "attacking capitalism" when they go on a crime wave. But these interpretations present too narrow a picture of the kinds of labor shown in Gun Crazy. The couple are not merely rejecting work at capitalist enterprises like the factory: they are rejecting every sort of work, including kinds praised in other Lewis films, such as teaching and infrastructure building. I think such Marxist views are just plain wrong.

The chase finale pits the fleeing couple against the sort of workers glorified in other Lewis films:


Gun Crazy also shows Lewis' fascination with the infrastructure of society: Infrastructure workers appear systematically in Lewis films. Please see the discussion on The Undercover Man for a detailed account.

Mirrors and Suspense

The confrontation in the heroine's dressing room between the hero and the carnival owner, is one of several suspense pieces in Lewis that involve mirrors. Others include the bank robbery finale of Surveyors, and the shoot-out with the mirror in Waste.

The State and Separating Families

The court near the beginning of Gun Crazy forcibly removes the hero from his sister's home, where he is much wanted, and places his in a reform school. Similarly, in Retreat, Hell!, the US Government calls up the hero during the Korean War, and forcibly separates him from his wife and children.

The Rendezvous

The hero and heroine plan to split up. Then they change their mind, and drive their cars towards each other. It is a delirious moment. It is choreographed similarly to the convergence of the vicar and villain in their cars in My Name Is Julia Ross.


A number of architectural motifs that run through Lewis are present in Gun Crazy. Most do not play big roles in the film. Still, they are part of Lewis' visual style. Please see the "auteurist checklist" of Lewis subjects and techniques that opens this book, for documentation of where these architectural features occur in other Lewis films.


Spirals run through the films of Joseph H. Lewis. They are almost a personal artistic signature. Gun Crazy is rich in them:


Lewis films emphasize genuine detective work. There are no mysteries to be solved in Gun Crazy: the audience always knows everything that is going on. But the police have to try to figure out what is going on, and track down the bank robbing couple. This never happens by magic in Gun Crazy: it always involve step by step reasoning from evidence: All of this reasoning from clues is very much in the Lewis detective tradition.

Semi-documentary crime thrillers: a partial relationship

More superficially, Lewis includes some aspects of the Semi-documentary crime thriller, then at the height of its popularity: This echoes how semi-docs give inside looks at government crime fighting institutions, and the technology they employ. It is a fairly minor part of Gun Crazy. Unlike a true semi-doc, the police are not protagonists, and there is no undercover work.

Scientific detection will return (briefly) in A Lady Without Passport and more centrally in The Bullet. And all the use of communication equipment in Gun Crazy recalls the telegraph company at the center of Boss of Hangtown Mesa, and the importance of sending telegrams in The Deserter.

Many semi-docs have a finale shot on location, at an industrial or technological facility. In Gun Crazy, the robbery at the meat packing plant is similar, even though it happens in the middle of the film. The year before, the semi-doc thriller Bodyguard (Richard Fleischer, 1948) had a finale in a meat plant. However, the meat plant in Bodyguard was shot on small, shoddy looking studio sets, unlike the spectacular real factory used in Gun Crazy.

A Lady Without Passport

A Lady Without Passport (1950) looks at an INS agent investigating the smuggling of aliens from Havana into Southern Florida. This is long before Castro's rise to power in Cuba, and the film involves none of the political complexities that the subject of US-Cuban immigration holds now. Most of the people being smuggled are refugees from Eastern Europe, who have come to Cuba hoping to leave from there for the US. This is hardly a new theme for Hollywood pictures: see Mitchell Leisen's Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and Herman Shumlin's Watch on the Rhine (1943) (two films I didn't especially like, by the way). Roberto Rossellini's Stromboli (1949) also deals with displaced persons who move from locale to locale.

Genre: Semi-documentaries

A Lady Without Passport can be seen as a mixture of the semi-documentary film noir, with the tale of exotic adventure.

Semi-documentary features include:

However, there are some important differences here from the semi-doc tradition, as well. Most gangs in semi-docs are monsters. The murderous spies in Henry Hathaway's The House on 92nd Street (1945) and counterfeiters in Anthony Mann's T-Men (1947) are especially terrifying. By contrast, George Macready's smuggler here is genteel and civilized. He is a Bad Guy, and up to no good, but he is a representative of a far different tradition of suave, sophisticated and articulate movie villains. Macready is a member of a theatrical family - he's a descendant of the famed 19th Century Macready the Tragedian - and he is one of the gifted classically trained actors that old Hollywood loved to employ as character actors.

Macready is a suave villain with two thug-like henchman, a Lewis tradition. One of the henchmen tries to persuade him to murder the hero. This recalls the insidious villain of The Patsy, who also tries to incite a murder.

Another key difference between A Lady Without Passport and semi-docs. Usually, the hero of a semi-doc goes undercover as a mobster, and tries to infiltrate the gang. Here the hero pretends to be a refugee hoping to be smuggled into the US, and poses as a customer of the gang. This gives the film a very different feel. Semi-docs are full of men who discover new, macho and often frightening personalities when they go undercover as crooks. Our hero instead is impersonating a sophisticated, world weary Hungarian refugee, one of many fleeing from the Communist takeover of that country.

This does all sorts of things. It helps him gain new sympathy for the refugees the INS deals with. He gets to see the other side of refugee issues from the inside, and causes a moral awakening in the hero. In the final, tracking shot of the film, he decides to identify with refugees, and help them - like the way the hero of The Rifleman repeatedly identifies and bonds with social outsiders.

It also helps the hero bring out a sophisticated side of himself that is buried deep within. In real life he is a Hungarian-American, named Peter Karczag, and probably of poverty stricken, Depression era working class origins. It is clearly a good experience for the hero to express such intellectual yearnings. It is part of the great movement of ordinary Americans after World War II to get an education and make something of themselves. The hero's experience here mirrors in a fictional way the real life experiences of many Americans of the era, in getting an education and opening up new horizons for themselves. It also helps him meet Hedy Lamarr, who is also an East European refugee hoping to get into the United States.

Genre: Exotic Adventure Films

This brings us to the film's biggest difference from both semi-documentaries and noir films in general: the elements of exotic adventure here. The tale of adventure in an exotic, often tropical clime was a standard Hollywood genre. It lacks a catchy name, such as "film noir", but it is a recognizable Hollywood film genre all the same. Hedy Lamarr often specialized in such films. Her The Conspirators (1944), directed by Jean Negulesco, is a classic of the kind. I confess I miss such films today. Contemporary Hollywood thrillers all seem to be set in some hick town full of good old boys who hang out in the town's only lunch room - bar - pool hall. They never take us to Lisbon or Vienna or Caracas or Kuala Lumpur. Especially with today's color cinematography and location shooting, such films could be visually spectacular, as well as wonderfully escapist.

A Lady Without Passport (1950) resembles Josef von Sternberg's Macao (1952) in its combination of noir with exotic adventure. Both films are also very sympathetic to their heroines, who are straightforward, decent women. Exotic adventure films always tended to have a likable leading lady at their center. These were not the destructive femme fatales of film noir. Rather, usually they were good women in trouble. Both they and the hero would struggle to solve their problems.


Unlike such Lewis films as The Falcon in San Francisco (1945) and The Big Combo, A Lady Without Passport is basically a thriller, not a mystery story. There are few if any mysterious situations to be solved in A Lady Without Passport, and both the hero and the audience know all of the information about the criminal gang right away. The policeman hero does little that resembles true detective work. The operation of the INS is sophisticated and shown in great detail in the second half of the movie; but they are basically conducting a large scale manhunt, not solving a mysterious crime.

Most of the true detective work in A Lady Without Passport occurs in its brief opening section, before the entrance of the hero and the INS into the film. This sequence shows the New York City police investigating a killing, using both investigative and high tech lab work.

Characters: A Comparison with The Big Combo

The characters of A Lady Without Passport resemble those of The Big Combo (1955), at least when looked at in broad terms. Both films have a young policeman hero, who is investigating a criminal gang run by a sophisticated, menacing villain. In both cases the heroine is a basically decent woman who has become romantically involved with the gang's powerful leader, in both films the hero falls in love with the heroine, and tries to get her to leave the gang and the villain. In both films the villain has a pair of murderous henchmen, who operate as a team, and who do the villain's dirty work, violent killings and mayhem. The henchmen are much more lower class acting than the suave villain. In both the policeman hero has a boss; in both police organizations there is also a colleague who collaborates with both the hero and the boss.

However, the characters in the two films have strikingly different personalities, when looked at up close and in detail. The hero of The Big Combo is a man of straightforward directness, and also of a maniacal intensity. By contrast, the hero of A Lady Without Passport is a suave, wily trickster. He is a low key person who approaches life with wry humor and a sense of confidence. He is a smooth, fast talking con man, always coming up with a slick scheme to manipulate the situation. He is fast on his feet, always with a tricky, manipulative story, and a benevolent con game to pull, rather like Sgt. Bilko. He is also always beautifully dressed. He is basically a comic character. The hero's ability to play roles, and to appear to be something other than he actually is, link him to the hero of Lewis' A Lawless Street. The scene where the hero flirts with the landlady here anticipate those between the hero and his landlady in A Lawless Street.

The heroine's motivations in the two films is different, too. In The Big Combo the heroine is perversely involved with the evil gangster. But the heroine of A Lady Without Passport is involved with the villain only because she is desperate to be smuggled into the United States. She has no emotional feeling for the villain; she is simply another one of his customers. She also has a far less privileged background than the heroine of The Big Combo. In fact revelations about her refugee history are a political and dramatic highlight of the film. These revelations are also one of the few places in A Lady Without Passport in which hidden truths come to light. As usual in Lewis, these hidden truths are deep, all-important parts of a character's mind and life.

Camera Movement through Vehicles

Some of the long take camera movement shots of A Lady Without Passport recall the celebrated long take robbery sequence in Gun Crazy (1949). The opening of A Lady Without Passport tracks a man walking along the streets of New York City. He is seen through the window of a car moving along side him. The car is stalking the man. Throughout this long take shot, the camera stays entirely inside the car. Eventually, both the car and the man stop, and the action moves inside the car, as the camera pulls back more deeply into the automobile. Then the action leaves the car again, and the camera pans within the car to photograph more action on the sidewalks outside the auto. The robbery shot in Gun Crazy also depicted action outside of an auto from within a moving car. The shot in A Lady Without Passport is not as elaborate, but it shows some of the same gung ho, experimental quality as Lewis' camera movement in the earlier film.

Perhaps the most unusual camera movements in A Lady Without Passport occur towards the end of the film. The villain's plane has just landed in the Everglades, and we see the passengers leaving it. We see this through the eyes of a good guy Navy pilot from above, who is watching them from the skies while he is piloting a small aircraft of his own, just a bit above the ground. He repeatedly circles above the landed aircraft. We can see all of the characters below; each is a distinctive, recognizable figure, as they scramble over the huge landed plane, and move through the complex Everglades landscape around it. I do not recall seeing such moving aerial shots of figures on the ground in any other movie. The circular motion of the watching plane / camera, the intricate movements of the characters below, and the complex landscape all combine to make beautiful visual patterns. There are two such main overhead shots; each executes a nearly 360 degree complete circle around the landed plane. Such circular camera movements are fairly rare in film history, let alone from a moving plane above the action. These shots recall the robbery sequence in Gun Crazy, in that both are shot from within a moving vehicle: a car in Gun Crazy, a plane in A Lady Without Passport.

Sets - and their use in filming

The Havana interior sets for A Lady Without Passport include elaborate staircases. The one at the hero's hotel has a curved, sweeping staircase; the villain's cantina has a rectilinear staircase that is enclosed in a cage of barred grillwork. Lewis exploits the staircases for all sorts of moving camera shots. He is constantly finding new ways to move his camera along the staircases, tracking the movements of the characters up them. And the characters do move up: they are often ascending, but rarely shown descending in this film.

Two spectacular moving camera shots show the Cuban police arriving at the hotel. First they go up the exterior staircase, then a second shot follows them as they move around the hotel's interior circular staircase, then up it.

Both the tall, pillared banister at the hero's hotel and the grilled cage at the cantina allow Lewis to shoot his characters through grill work, also a favorite device of Lewis', one that will return in The Big Combo. An early scene here in a police lab is also shot through shelves full of lab equipment. Lewis has shown a consistent fondness for such masking objects in the foreground of his compositions.

Macready's cantina has arched, semi-circular windows; we see a similar shape in the police building in The Big Combo.

The walk the hero takes through Havana at night is one of the most visually complex scenes in the film. We see both a geometric street lamp, something favored in Lewis' Westerns, and also neon lights. The hero passes by a white picket fence, also a Lewis favorite. The man singing with his accordion to a woman, is one of many gentle Lewis men, who sing accompanying themselves with an instrument.

The Border Patrol office has a giant wall map, like the Marine headquarters to come in Retreat, Hell!.


The hero's bed is full of spiral metalwork, a Lewis tradition. Once again, the spirals seem to be a different shape, and arranged in different patterns in the bed frame, than in any other Lewis film.

During the first fight in the hero's room, spiral shadows from the bed are projected on the white clothes of both the hero and the villain. It is a unique effect. The spirals shadows change as the two men move around. There will be spiral shadows on the walls from a bed in The Safe Guard.

During the final fight, we see the bed spirals themselves.

The Border Patrol: Characters and Camera Movement

Back at the Immigration headquarters, we see two agents: an older, highly knowledgeable man Frank Westlake (James Craig), and his handsome young assistant Jack (Steven Hill, who would go on to a long television career). This is like the Marshal and his good-looking young deputy to come in The Bullet. Like the Marshal, the older agent is an expert at technology. He also likes coffee, with a pot on his desk, recalling Micah in The Rifleman. The younger man is far from being dumb, unlike the deputy in The Bullet. Instead, the young agent is dressed up in a snazzy black uniform, making him resemble one of the black-clad gunslingers in Lewis Westerns. Like them he is always conspicuously armed, with a gunbelt here, and a rifle he carries erect in the swamp boat.

When the hero is on the phone with the older agent, there is an elaborate camera movement following the young agent. First we see him at a file cabinet, with a jutting drawer. Then he moves behind a giant pillar. Lewis loves foreground posts and pillars in his traveling shots: this is one of the thickest and most gigantic. When the young agent emerges from behind the pillar, he has turned around, so that we see a side view of him, centered on his gun. The camera movement stays on his gun while he crosses the room. This is like the gun-focused camera movement on the gunslinger in Squeeze Play. It includes a full figure view of the agent, unlike the close-up on the gun in Squeeze Play. As in some other Lewis films, the black leather gunbelt is echoed by black leather chairs in the room. There are also black, phallic looking objects: telephones, the jutting file cabinet with an open drawer.

There is also a complexly staged shot, in which the older agent walks completely around his desk, while talking to the younger man. The camera often faces the younger agent, while the position of the older agent slowly revolves during the shot.

Other shots with the young agent also serve to show his uniform in the round. This includes the one where he walks back and forth in front of the older agent's desk, and finally sits down in a chair in front of it. The INS is a non-military government institution, run on quasi-militaristic lines. In this it resembles the Civilian Conservation Corps in Pride of the Bowery (1941). Lewis shows enthusiasm for uniforms and militaristic discipline in both movies. There is also the man in an airplane pilot's uniform standing at attention, when the New York policeman flies in to meet Westlake near the start of the film. In later works, such as The Deserter, Lewis will show great skepticism about military life and militarism.

In the wall behind the young agent's desk, there is some sort of high tech equipment. It has a wheel inside, that looks for all the world like a small wagon wheel. Perhaps this is an inside joke from Wagon Wheel Joe. The arched, spoked windows at the American embassy also look wagon-wheel like.

The Airplane - and Windows

In the airplane, Lewis uses his staging at 90 and 180 degrees. There are three rows of passengers, each sitting at 90 degrees to each other. At first, Macready has his back to the heroine: 180 degrees. Then he turns around, so now he is facing in the same direction as the heroine. This recalls the conversation by the cliff in My Name Is Julia Ross, in which Lewis characters make similar spins.

The passengers look out of a window, which also reflects the government airplane tagging along. This combines reflections with through-the-window staging.

At the Jackson airport, Lewis gets complex staging out of a shack whose walls seem nearly all windows. Lewis has several shots that look through two windows of the shack at once. Such two-levels deep staging through windows or doors in a Lewis tradition. One such shot also involves camera movement around the corner of the shack, to look in the window. This shot also includes some reflection in the window at first, before the moving camera makes the window transparent, allowing us to see inside. This transition from reflection to transparency invokes the "mystery of movement", the way things suddenly change when things move. It is an effect that anticipates Stan Brakhage's Wonder Ring (1955), although it is not identical with any camera shots in the Brakhage film.

The swamp

The finale of the film resembles that of Lewis' Gun Crazy, with the characters moving through the tall grasses and vegetation of the Everglades while a mist covers everything. The mist and pier also recall the finale of The Conspirators. I think mist and fog were considered appropriate backgrounds for the glamour and mystery of Hedy Lamarr.

Some down-the-river shots are Lewis straight-line lateral camera movements shot through foreground objects, here vegetation. Some shots of the heroine and Macready walking through the misty vegetation at the end are also of this form.


The hero seems to be the only person in Havana wearing a white, tropical suit. However statistically unlikely this is, it does serve to focus attention on him in every scene in which he appears. There is usually extra light on the hero as well. His white suit stands out blindingly in shot after shot.

This is the exact opposite of many films, in which the hero is wearing the darkest suit in the scene. The dark suit makes the hero similarly stand out. It also makes him look like an authority figure, and the most important man in each scene.

The heroine is also in white clothes. The similar colored clothes are a visual sign of "bonding" between the hero and heroine.

The white suit and courtly, old world manners assumed by the hero when he goes undercover, link him to the visiting Count in Duel of Honor, a man who also dresses in elaborate white clothes.

In general, the costumes here show the well known MGM "gloss", the lavish design that engulfed many MGM movies. A Lady Without Passport at least looks as if it had a bigger budget than many Lewis films. It is not expensive by Hollywood standards, but its middle range budget seems bigger than the ultra-cheap productions of many Lewis movies.

The airport attendant in South Jackson wears a cap with a jagged crown. This is similar to the cap worn by Jughead in Archie comic books.

The hero's INS boss is played by James Craig. Craig appears here with his mustache. James Craig sometimes appeared with mustache and sometimes without it. He looks completely different with and without it, virtually like two different people. The mustache is the sort of idiotic thin one worn by 1940's Society playboys, such as Zachary Scott's spineless Society leech in Mildred Pierce. In films without it, such as Sam Wood's Kitty Foyle, George Marshall's Valley of the Sun and Anthony Mann's Side Street, Craig seems like a strikingly handsome leading man. With it, he looks ridiculous, I think.

Retreat, Hell!

A War Film: about a Massacre

Retreat, Hell! (1952) is set in the Korean War, and is Lewis' sole film to deal with modern-day ground combat. The subject of Retreat, Hell! is linked to Lewis' Cavalry films. 7th Cavalry, The Journey Back and The Vindicators all deal with Native American massacres that left few US Cavalry soldiers alive. Retreat, Hell! similarly shows a disastrous campaign in Korea, that decimated the US Marines' First Battalion. The Cavalry films largely concentrate on the bitter afterwards of the massacres, and look at who was to blame for the military disasters. By contrast, Retreat, Hell! shows the actual massacre itself, a slow, step by step process of annihilation that takes up the final third of the film. And Retreat, Hell! offers no criticism of the military tactics. Instead, it concentrates on showing that the Marines involved were heroic fighters.

Although Lewis was a political filmmaker in much of his work, Retreat, Hell! avoids any discussion of politics. The situation is treated simply as a military one. The politics of the Korean war are never broached; there are no patriotic speeches glorifying the United States; and the enemy in the film is never discussed in political terms: the word Communist is never even mentioned. There are some stirring, but non-political, speeches by the Colonel (Frank Lovejoy) glorifying the Marines and their willingness to fight, and take care of their wounded. And a tribute is paid to the British Royal Marines, once again for their fighting and support of the American Marines.

The Colonel's speeches at first seem admirably defiant. But actually, throughout the whole movie his speeches are always about how his men are going to survive. They don't: their casualties are huge. Everything the Colonel says about survival turns out to be false.


The film is mercifully free of the slightest racism in its portrayal of the North Korean and Chinese enemy soldiers. They are simply depicted as a formidable fighting foe, and nothing else.

The film gives a sympathetic depiction of South Koreans. This is consistent with Lewis' pro-Civil Rights, respectful treatment of non-whites point-of-view throughout his work.

A Southern US soldier briefly compares the North-South conflict in Korea to the US Civil War, and points out that he is once more fighting on the Southern side. As best as I can tell, this is simply a comic observation, of no significance. It does not seem intended as a political commentary on either the Korean War or the US Civil War, and has no unintended political depths either. The Southern soldier is simply there to establish that cliché of war films: that soldiers from every part of the US are serving. Lewis' Rifleman episodes would emphasize that his hero Lucas McCain had served in the Northern (Union) Army during the Civil War.

A Government-approved film: and attitudes towards war

Retreat, Hell! is set entirely within the point of view of the US Marine Corps. The film opens with Marine generals at the Pentagon making emergency preparations for the Korean War, and the rest of the picture never leaves Marine Corps characters or settings, aside from brief glimpses of the US Navy or British Marines. The Marines' job is to fight, not to get involved in politics, and the film adheres to this approach.

Retreat, Hell! was made with the cooperation of the US Marine Corps, and has one of those official US Armed Forces "technical advisors" credited whose job it is to ensure that the film reflects official US Government doctrine. The presence of such a government censor was the price Hollywood always paid for US Armed Forces help with men, material and locations. Early scenes contain interesting location work at Camp Pendleton, one of the two main Marine Corps bases in the United States. And Lewis told Francis M. Nevins that many of the "Korean" locations were actually reconstructed in outdoor areas at Camp Pendleton, as well.

The Wikipedia article on the 1950 battle of Chosin Reservoir (the subject of Retreat, Hell!) says that Chosin was a famous and publicized battle in its time, with Western media being especially admiring of the Marines. This perhaps explains why the film Retreat, Hell! (released early 1952) got made about it, even while the Korean War (1950-1953) was still raging. The article also says that even today, the US Marine Corps regards Chosin as one of its finest hours.

I am not an expert on military history, the Korean war, or Hollywood war films. So you will not be learning here anything about the portrayal of military events in Retreat, Hell!.

But even an ignoramus like myself can be startled by the differences in US Government views between 1952 and 2007. Retreat, Hell! is a mournful film, that concentrates on the sacrifices of countless Marine Corps lives in a disastrous battle that led to a retreat, not a military victory. By contrast, the right wing Bush administration does everything it can to cover up military casualties. When ABC News broadcast a program showing photographs of soldiers who had died for their country in Iraq, many right wing owned TV stations refused to show it. While Retreat, Hell! makes a big deal of the Marine Corps' concern for its wounded, the Bush administration abandoned wounded soldiers to scandal-plagued hospitals.

Most conservative, Bush Administration era doctrine about war promotes the idea that "War is an easy, effective and inexpensive way to solve political problems." The Iraq War was sold by conservatives as a quick, easy way to get rid of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and to build a prosperous democracy there. The war would be cheap, and maybe even pay for itself. As I write (2007), the Iraq War has been going on for over four years, has cost nearly a trillion dollars, killed over one hundred thousand lives, found no weapons of mass destruction, left Iraq in ruins, and led to an endless civil war. Conservative ideas about "easy, effective" war have been proved wrong, and have led to a huge disaster.

By contrast, Retreat, Hell! suggests that war is very difficult, costly and slow - and does not comment on whether the Korean War is effective at achieving any goals or solving any problems. Or even winnable. Instead, its message seems to be "The US Marines are brave fighters, even in nightmarish circumstances." Retreat, Hell! seems to have been made to glorify the US Marine Corps. It is not made to promote the current right-wing line that "war is easy and effective at solving political problems".

Lewis Themes

Aside from its links to Lewis Cavalry pictures, Retreat, Hell! has an isolated position in Lewis' work. It shares remarkably few of the characteristics that run through most other Lewis films. Most of the shared characteristics are related directly to warfare: gun use, the injured, mourning.

Guns. Combat in Retreat, Hell! is almost entirely in terms of rifles, although hand grenades make an appearance too. The film's most frightening scene is the one where the Marines run out of ammunition. I've never seen anything like this in any other war film. This seems like a personal scene for the director of Gun Crazy. Lewis spent World War II making training films about Army rifles, so guns and ammunition are definitely a core part of his view of combat.

What is perhaps stock footage of a huge naval gun being loaded is also interesting.

However, Retreat, Hell! is not about the gun cult, and does not show anyone with an obsession with guns, unlike other Lewis films. Instead, it shows the military use of guns.

Injury. Lewis films often show sick or injured people; the wounded and their care are a major part of Retreat, Hell!.

Mourning. Lewis also often showed mourning for the dead; it plays a role in Retreat, Hell!, as well. There are also characters thought to be dead, who come back to life - also a Lewis tradition.

Infrastructure. The hero wants to use his skills as an electronics expert, and work in communications. This perhaps links him to the infrastructure specialists in other Lewis films, such as telegraph installers and road builders. He is forced into a rifle company leadership role, instead, and never gets to do any infrastructure building, unlike other Lewis films.

Strange means of combat. The early scenes where the sergeant trains the recruit in jujitsu are one of Lewis' comic duels involving unusual means of combat. This scene offers some welcome comedy respite in what is otherwise a grim film.

Photograph. The hero has a photograph of his wife and kids, the way the hero of The Wyoming Story has during his separation from his son.

The Entrance of the Hero

The three main characters are summoned by a ticker-tape teletype. Such mass communication devices are a favorite in Lewis semi-docs.

The Colonel leaves for his duty by train - like the hero of The Undercover Man.

The hero enters the film outside a Marine Reserve center. The center has two giant lanterns on its front, glowing in the twilight: a Lewis motif. The hero soon walks from the background to the foreground, a common Lewis staging.

The Camp: A "City" and its Architecture

Camp Pendleton is treated as one of Lewis' "cities". Its entrance gate contains a building that is all glass walls, like the airport building in A Lady Without Passport.

The first view of the Camp's interior shows a street leading back into the distance, and another street stretching off to the right. This is the same layout as the Western towns in Boss of Hangtown Mesa and The Wyoming Story.

The hero's Quonset hut has a white picket fence around it.

The peaked tents relate to the peaked roofs that run through many Lewis films. The tents form a well-composed Camp cityscape, in the shots outside the headquarters. The hero once again walks from the background to the foreground, near the headquarters. This gives us our first full view of his elaborate dress uniform. His walk echoes his previous foreground walk at the Reserve center, where his walk showed off his snazzy civilian suit and tie. Parallel walks also occur in Shotgun Man.

Lewis gets compositional mileage out of the camp amphitheater. This is perhaps like the boxing arena in Pride of the Bowery, a place where public events can be witnessed by crowds.

There are signs everywhere, also a Lewis tradition.

Forced into a military role

The commanding officer Colonel Corbett (Frank Lovejoy) and the hero Captain Hanson (Richard Carlson) are another instance of that familiar Lewis pair, the tough older man working for a government institution, and his younger, good looking deputy. (Actually both actors were the same age in real life - but the Captain seems younger on-screen.)

The hero is gradually forced by the Marine Corps to give up his civilian life as a family man, with wife and kids. The whole process is a bit like the way Julia Ross is forced to give up her old identity. The hero of Retreat, Hell! loses his family life, however, rather than his actual identity.

Retreat, Hell! is like the anti-Gun Crazy, in that the hero allows the government to separate him from his wife. By contrast, the outlaw couple in Gun Crazy defiantly stay together, no matter what. Retreat, Hell! also anticipates Lewis films about men who separate from their children under pressure, such as The Wyoming Story and Night of the Wolf: always a totally wrenching experience for a Lewis hero. To be fair to the hero, he has little real practical choice in any of this. The government here is just way too powerful. It is determined to send him to Korea, and that's that. One might note that unlike other Lewis films, there is no fervent reunion between the hero and his loved ones. In fact, it is not really clear at the end that the hero is going to get back alive from Korea...

While many Lewis films deal with the seductive appeal of militarism, here a desperately unhappy hero has to be forced into a military role, every step of the way. The hero does seem to like his spectacular dress uniform, in which he looks great. But he only gets to wear it for five minutes, before being forced out of it and into dungarees by the Colonel, in an act of military discipline. The Colonel keeps on wearing his own dress uniform. This is perhaps a bit like the way the villain of Boss of Hangtown Mesa forces the hero to change clothes with him.

The hero spends the first half of the film relentlessly being chewed out by his tough commanding officer. Despite this, they eventually come to male bond a bit in the second half. This is quite different from most male bonding in Lewis, which involves spontaneous connection between the hero and social outsiders.

Camera Movement

The opening shot is a one-take shot, moving down from a giant map of Korea, to a room full of generals. The giant map, hovering over officials in a war-room, recalls the D-Day map of Europe in Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1943) - and the giant wall map of the Caribbean in Lewis' own A Lady Without Passport. The opening seems modeled on that of Courage of the West, Lewis' first feature. Both take place at a US Government wartime planning conference in Washington, with all participants seated around a table. Both open on a map, both are one take, moving camera sequences.

Many Lewis camera movements are a bit less spectacular in Retreat, Hell!, than in much of his cinema.

A pan shows the hero entering headquarters at the camp for the first time. We see other soldiers in the foreground, including the entrance into the film of Sgt. Novak (Ned Young), who is at 90 degrees to the hero and the Major. These soldiers are not placed as systematically as the "foreground objects" in front of many Lewis tracks. And this shot is a pan, not a lateral track. The pan ends with the opening of a door, through which we see the Colonel for the first time in the film.

Inside the Colonel's office, the characters sit at three sides of a table, showing Lewis' fondness for 90 degree angles in staging.

Poles and Wires

The urban combat scenes are filled with hokey heroics. But they also show some good compositions, centered on telephone poles with cut wires, that droop to the ground. Both the poles and the hanging wires are creatively arranged. They recall Boss of Hangtown Mesa, with its telegraph poles being installed. In Boss of Hangtown Mesa, the wires are hanging down because they have not yet been connected. In Retreat, Hell!, they are being destroyed in war. Some of the compositions in Retreat, Hell! are first rate. They benefit by putting the film on Pause, and allowing one just to look at them - they go by fast in the movie. The compositions also show rectilinear building facades, of a kind often not seen in Lewis. They perhaps recall a bit the facades in The Vindicators.

The wires recall the posts and bars that Lewis likes to shoot through - but they are much thinner, and more curved. They also recall the beaded curtain doorways in Lewis films.

Only after the combat is done, do we see a building in the background with three peaked roofs. Such roofs are a Lewis favorite. But they are not part of the compositions with poles and wires.

Soon, we have scenes staged around the corner of a building - a common Lewis architectural background. We eventually see rows of covered bodies on the ground. This image will return in One Killer on Ice.


The final third of Retreat, Hell!, the relentless massacre, is set in the snow. These are the only snow scenes in Lewis that I can recall. The mise-en-scène suggests death. The only comparable scene is the nightmarish, surreal icehouse in One Killer on Ice (1965) - also a scene of death.

The Colonel loses consciousness after being shot, and there is a gap in story continuity while he is out. This is like the traumatic scenes of the hero being drugged in The Falcon in San Francisco, My Name Is Julia Ross and The Big Combo.

The Chinese Army enters the film as an off-screen fanfare by military bands. As often in Lewis, such off-screen sounds are menacing.

How Good a film is Retreat, Hell!?

Retreat, Hell! is mainly nightmarish in feel, especially after the first half hour of training, when we move into actual combat. I find it hard to imagine most people "enjoying" it, whatever the word "enjoying" might mean. Could anyone make - or want to make - an "entertaining" movie about a tragedy like Chosin Reservoir?

Retreat, Hell! has a simple subject: people are shot at in combat, and lots of them die.

Retreat, Hell! suffers from a lack of two things found in Lewis' best work: brilliant storytelling and camera work. It cannot be considered one of his better films. On the other hand, the films succeeds at its own apparent goal, which is to show the War Is Hell side of combat. Lewis deserves credit for showing the dark side of mass death in war.

In addition, the training scenes are lively and visually inventive. And the final third has a nightmarish power.

Still, Retreat, Hell! and 7th Cavalry are among Lewis' least typical films. Despite some real merits in Retreat, Hell!, one can be glad that Lewis made so few war films, and concentrated on Westerns and crime films instead.

Desperate Search

Desperate Search (1952) is a suspense drama about a hunt for two children who are missing in the forests of Western Canada after a plane crash.

Desperate Search is one of Lewis' poorer films. Its visual style is underdeveloped. The story is simple.

The scenes of a mountain lion menacing children are unpleasant. Lewis made several films about animals attacking humans.

Desperate Search suffers from sexism:

One way to tell the ex-wife is evil: she actually throws away a cup of coffee the heroine gives her (gasp!). Coffee is always treated as something happy in the rest of Lewis.

Open Minds

When deciding where to look for the downed plane, conventional logic says one thing, and the children's pilot father guesses another. At first, he feels he has to go along with conventional ideas. The film criticizes this approach. Lewis films stress the importance of open minds, and not making snap judgements.

Unfortunately, this initially interesting debate gets subsumed in in the hero's family problems: his evil ex-wife pushes for the conventional approach.

Later, another pilot, with great confidence and certainty, says he has found the missing plane. It turns out to be a false identification. In Lewis, the search for truth is difficult, and includes false steps, intermediary stages, and many ideas that don't pan out. Lewis' depiction of the search for truth is accurate, and shows how much effort and open mindedness is needed.

Technology: Links to A Lady Without Passport

Desperate Search recalls A Lady Without Passport:


Desperate Search is one of the earliest Lewis films to treat alcoholism as a serious problem.

The State and Separating Families

Desperate Search echoes Gun Crazy and Retreat, Hell!, in showing the government forcibly separating families. In Desperate Search, the court allows the divorced father hero custody of his children for only two weeks each year.

The father is joyously reunited with his children at the film's end. This anticipates the emotionally fervent reunion finales of The Rifleman episode The Wyoming Story, and The Big Valley episode Night of the Wolf.


The air search ground center is one of Lewis' offices with glass walls. Outside at the airfield, there is also a shack near the entrance with large glass windows in the walls.

After the kids board the plane, there is a camera movement looking through the windows of the airplane.

The film's best architecture is probably the dock. The dock posts contain the sort of lanterns associated with Lewis nocturnal cityscapes - only these are in the country.

Leather Jackets

The pilot heroes Howard Keel and Keenan Wynn are in leather jackets. This was common in Hollywood films of the era: for a detailed list and history, see my article on Leather Jackets in Film. But it also recalls other leather-jacketed men in Lewis movies.

Cry of the Hunted

Cry of the Hunted (1953) is about a hunt for an escaped convict. It is part film noir crime thriller, part personal drama about the official doing the hunting and the hunted man.


Lewis films often look at infrastructure. Hero Tunner (Barry Sullivan) and his assistant Goodwin (William Conrad in good form as another film noir baddie) are examples of the not-quite-policemen who run through Lewis. Although they behave like cops, they are actually security officers in a state prison. Like the Treasury agents in The Undercover Man and the INS officials in A Lady Without Passport, they are police-like characters who work for a Government agency, rather than actual police officers.


A persistent Lewis theme is "characters who resist speaking up and telling what they know". Sometimes in Lewis this is attached to a subplot: "police interrogating such characters". Cry of the Hunted embodies both of these subjects. While earlier Lewis films like The Spy Ring and The Undercover Man had played such interrogations for bizarre laughs in brief, comic scenes, in Cry of the Hunted the subject gets a full scale and fairly realistic treatment.

Both The Spy Ring and The Undercover Man suggest that there is kinky fun in a police tough guy going after another tough guy male crook. There are undertones of this in Cry of the Hunted in Jory's introductory scene in the jail cell. Jory "asks for it", and ignores Tunner's apparently generous offer to skip the whole fist fight. Jory doesn't seem to be enjoying the actual fight - but perhaps he craves it at some level. By contrast, Tunner repeatedly tells everyone how much he hates this part of his job: his boss who assigns it to him, prisoner Jory, and finally his wife. Tunner's disgust recalls that of Robert Ryan's cop with this part of his work in On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1951).

However, the film soon counterbalances this with a serious, political criticism of the use of force by the police to extract information, with the sinister activities of Goodwin.


The Sheriff thinks that Jory is dead, after the shooting. As is easy to guess, he isn't: otherwise the story would come to a halt. Still, his later reappearance is an example of the Lewis subject, "characters who seem to come back to life".

Metaphor: Human and Animal

The prisoner is compared to an animal, near the film's start. This is the opposite of the metaphors comparing a detective hero to a machine, in some other Lewis films.

A Grid

When the heroes have their fight in the prison cell near the film's start, the prisoner's bed is folded up against the wall. The bed has a wire grid, supporting the mattress. When the two men sit after the fight, the grid is right behind their heads.

The Car Ride: 90 Degree Angle

William Conrad takes the prisoner for a car ride through Los Angeles. We see a busy street through the car's rear window. The background footage shoots straight down the street. Perpendicular to this, there are several cross walks, filled with pedestrians crossing the street. The composition is very rectilinear: a street receding straight back from the camera, crosswalks at a 90 degree angle to the street. This is an example of Lewis stagings emphasizing 90 degree angles.

Angels Flight

Cry of the Hunted has location footage, showing the Angels Flight funicular railway near downtown Los Angeles.

Jory runs and jumps onto the funicular. Men who jump on a moving vehicle are a Lewis tradition.

Lewis shows the street corner leading up to Angels Flight. Lewis films are full of street corners, and they tend to have a common geography and layout: a main street receding away straight back from the camera, a second street branching off to the right at a 90 degree angle. In Cry of the Hunted, it is this second, branching street that contains the Angels Flight tram and tunnel. The streets at the top of the funicular also have such a similar street corner layout.

A number of Lewis films have characters hiding under bridges, and The Last Stand has a secret tunnel-like pass. The Angels Flight tunnel is perhaps linked to these.

Some Lewis TV films will also show Los Angeles locations, notably The Fat Man and Lewis work for The Detectives (1959). Lewis has a real flair for such material, and one wishes there were more of it in his work.

Links to Semi-documentary Films

Cry of the Hunted has aspects linking it to Semi-documentary crime films. However, it is far from a full or standard example of a Semi-documentary.

As in a Semi-documentary, the detectives belong to a government organization: state prison officers.

Semi-documentary crime films often have a climax in an industrial or technological location. Both Angels Flight and the railway scene in Cry of the Hunted would have made good locales for such a finale - but they appear early in the film, rather than its end. Cry of the Hunted does have a brief epilogue in a prison factory, although this is not a suspense sequence: the main chase story of the film is over.

Cry of the Hunted does not emphasize the high technology typical of Semi-documentary crime films.

The Dream

Cry of the Hunted has one of the few dream sequences in Lewis. Its imagery anticipates the main, non-dream action in Lewis' later The Deadly Wait. Both include: In The Deadly Wait, such imagery is worked into a realistic drama, rather than a dream.

The dream is full of Jory's shadow. Shadows of people are not that common in Lewis. Shadows of spiral metal work, and of signs on windows, are far more frequent.

We see Jory through the bars of a bed. Shooting characters through bars or grillwork is a Lewis tradition.


After the first capture at Jory's shack, Tunner stands on the shack's porch. Lewis has one of his camera movements, that go from one side of a row of posts to the other. This movement goes a bit shorter distance, than analogous camera moves in other Lewis films.

Casting: Links to The Rifleman

Barry Sullivan was an established American actor in tough roles; Vittorio Gassman was a successful actor in Italy who was trying to break into Hollywood. Later, Lewis will have success with similar casting on The Rifleman: macho American lead Chuck Connors will play against Italian leading man Cesare Danova in three episodes, including Duel of Honor and Baranca. Connors and Danova are ideally matched, and make a great team. It is unclear that Sullivan and Gassman make a really good pair, however. The two never quite seem to mesh.

In The Rifleman episodes, American Chuck Connors is plainly dressed, and Danova gets the fancy costumes. By contrast, in Cry of the Hunted, it is American Barry Sullivan who gets the sharp suits, while Gassman is in simple prison gear: a rare example of a leading man in a studio era Hollywood film acting in a plain white tee shirt. Both Sullivan in Cry of the Hunted and Danova in Duel of Honor are introduced though vertical camera movements, that start off at their feet, and which reveal every detail of their spiffy outfits.

Gay Symbolism

Cry of the Hunted is loaded with gay symbolism. The film repeatedly suggests that the bond between security officer Tunner and escaped convict Jory has gay overtones. It also repeatedly suggests there are sexual "dominance and control" aspects to the relationship, with Tunner in charge of Jory. Both homosexuality and sadomasochism are taboo subjects in the cinema, and Cry of the Hunted is structured to serve as a symbolic look at these subjects, one whose metaphors can evade the censor.

However, for better or worse, much of Cry of the Hunted lacks emotional conviction on these topics. The plot developments and imagery keep hinting at forbidden sexuality. But the characters never express much in the way of feelings for each other, or for alternative sexuality.

Both leading actors, Barry Sullivan and Vittorio Gassman, seem absolutely clueless in this regard. Neither ever manages to suggest that they feel a sexual attraction. In fact, these dimensions are completely lacking in their performances, as if no one making the film had informed the lead actors of any subtext. Sullivan has no problem expressing two aspects of his character: that he's a cop devoted to his job, including catching crooks, and that he's a humanitarian determined to uphold civilized standards and opposed to harming or mistreating convicts. But Sullivan never expresses any gay sensibility or sexual affection at all.

Cry of the Hunted is thus something of a failed experiment. It is seemingly an attempt to make a gay film in the tradition of the heterosexual Gun Crazy, one that would present homosexuality in a crime drama, the way Gun Crazy shows forbidden kinds of heterosexuality. But while Gun Crazy is an emotionally convincing masterpiece, Cry of the Hunted has endless symbolism on its subject, and little emotional depth. Lewis will have much greater success later with Duel of Honor (1958), in making an emotionally powerful gay film that succeeds on all levels.

Characters: Links to The Big Combo

Robert Keser's article on Lewis in Senses of Cinema compares the heroes of Cry of the Hunted to the leads of Lewis' next feature, The Big Combo. He points out that both pairs are a cop and a criminal, with unexpected ties. However, one can also see some differences: In The Big Combo, mobster Mr. Brown talks about his early career as a prison guard. It is odd: mob bosses (at least in films) rarely if ever have backgrounds as prison workers. And this prison guard work plays no role in the plot of The Big Combo, making it odder still. But it does establish a parallel between Mr. Brown and the prison security official Tunner (Barry Sullivan) in Cry of the Hunted. In the same monologue Mr. Brown discusses his failed relationship with his wife, during his career as a prison guard. This also links Mr. Brown to Tunner, who is conspicuously married in Cry of the Hunted.

Possible Influence on The Defiant Ones

The Defiant Ones (1958), directed by Stanley Kramer, is a famous film about a pair of escaped convicts, one white and one black, who are chained together. It was co-wriiten by Nedrick Young, an actor-writer friend of Lewis, who acted in six films directed by Joseph H. Lewis.

The central idea of The Defiant Ones, the men of two races chained together, is original with that film. But many aspects of the manhunt for the two convicts recall Joseph H. Lewis films, especially Gun Crazy (in which Nedrick Young played the reporter) and Cry of the Hunted:

The Big Combo

Many of the scenes in The Big Combo (1955) seem designed to reveal the personalities of their characters. Many of the scenes are interrogations, where either the police or the mob grill someone. Others are confrontations between the police and the mob. The point of most of these scenes seems simply to show the hidden tics of personality in the characters. Typically, the characters in these scenes do not know each other very well. Often times, the interrogators are trying to find out some simple facts from the person they are grilling: it is an attempt simply to get to know the person, and some basics of their lives. The film treats this as an opportunity for character revelation. There is also an effect of separation between characters: the policeman seems to have few close friends, and spend all of his time with strangers, for instance.

Relationship to The Racket and The Big Heat

The overall structure of the film seems directly reminiscent of Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953). Both films in turn recall John Cromwell's The Racket (1951). They deal with an isolated solitary but incorruptible cop who is trying to bring down a powerful mob leader. He is obsessed with this quest to the point of delirium. The films center on his search for evidence against the mob leader, evidence that will lead to a conviction. In Lang's and Lewis' films, the cop falls in love with the mobster's girlfriend; in The Racket, a decent young newspaper man falls in love with her. In earlier, 1940's film noirs, when this happened, the sinister girl friend led the hero into a life of crime and corruption. In these mid 1950's films, the opposite occurs: the girlfriend rejects the mobster, and aids the hero on his quest. The girl friend is virtually a prisoner of the mobster in these works, menaced by his henchmen. There is often a feminist subtext here, showing the oppression of women by the mobster.

In the 1950's mob films, the mob seems to have powerful social ties, and to be deeply entrenched. The Big Combo lacks the emphasis on social corruption found in The Racket or The Big Heat, but its mobsters seem as open and as untouchable as these. The mobsters in all of these films use dynamite as a principal weapon.


The world initially depicted by the film seems grim. Mr. Brown and the Combo he controls seem both all-powerful and invulnerable. The film literally refers to the mob here. One also suspects that there is a political allegory. The Big Combo was released in 1955, and it emerged from a world menaced for decades by totalitarian dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Consciously or unconsciously, the portrait of the viscous Mr. Brown reflects such dictators.

Mr. Brown runs a corporation, to conceal his criminal financial activities. He also refers to his room full of money as his "bank". The dialogue emphasizes the huge amount of money that underlies the mob's power. It is unclear whether the linking of the evil Mr. Brown to a corporation is a critique of corporations as a whole, or not. At the least, The Big Combo reminds us that behind a bland corporate facade the most monstrous criminal activities might be lurking.

The dialogue compares the huge tide of mob money to a "swamp". This perhaps echoes all the swamp imagery in Lewis, especially his previous feature film, Cry of the Hunted.

Comparison to the Semi-Documentaries

Like the semi-documentaries, the police have high technology equipment to aid them in their quest: the hero of The Big Combo uses a lie detector and has help from a photographic enlargement lab. The squad room outside the hero's office has a police radio center, although the hero never sends a radio message, unlike many other Lewis crime movies. Maps are prominent on the walls in the police station - but they play no role in the story, unlike other Lewis films.

Although they have honest policemen heroes fighting crime, these mid-1950's films like The Racket, The Big Heat, and The Big Combo differ from the earlier semi-documentaries in several ways. Their police hero is an isolated cop with little help from the rest of the force, unlike the team oriented semi-docs. In fact, his superiors are often critical of his investigation, and try to have it shut down. He works for a city, not the national organizations of such films as T-Men (the Treasury Department) or The Street With No Name (The FBI). He does not go undercover. His identity is known to all the mobsters right from the start, and he operates in public. Similarly, he seems to know all about the mobster and his organization, lacking only evidence to convict. By contrast, in the semi-docs the villainous gangs are often shadowy, dimly understood organizations about which the police know little.

A Detective Story: A Step-By-Step Search for Truth - and the Unconscious

The Big Combo is structured as a mystery story. It is not a whodunit: everyone knows from the start that Mr. Brown is the sinister mob head. Instead, it tries to track down Mr. Brown's secrets, secrets that will allow police Lieutenant Diamond to break his power and send him to prison. These secrets slowly emerge from inside people. They are locked deep in their emotional being. Only personal revelation of the deepest part of their psyches will open these hidden truths up.

A number of mechanisms come into play here. The truth sometimes emerges from altered states of consciousness, such as the heroine's delirious remarks while hospitalized. These remarks are straight from her unconscious. They start the whole mystery unrolling, and are the key breakthrough in the case. Their source in the unconscious mind of a basically innocent woman suggests surreal truths about the world: that the human mind is deeper and more powerful than all organized forces, including the mob and its money. The goal of bringing the unconscious into the open is one of the main aims of the surrealist movement. This story is a hopeful tale about the positive forces that emerge when people unleash their subconscious ideas, feelings and knowledge. Other use of unconscious truth occurs in the lie detector scene, in which Mr. Brown's secrets are partially revealed.

There are other sources of truth in the movie. Rita, the kind hearted burlesque dancer, hears information from the street. Such info has become a cliché in movie and TV crime dramas. Yet there is also something profound about the idea that people, ordinary people without money, know things that can change the world.

Photography also reveals truth here. These scenes invoke the semi-documentary tradition, that crime labs can use high technology to make discoveries. But even the human eye of the hero Diamond reveals truths from photographs: his analysis and understanding of the photo of Alicia gets everyone closer to reality. The discovery of every photograph is an elaborate, highly dramatized moment. Photography leads to truth, especially when it is interpreted by human intelligence.

The structure of the plot in The Big Combo emphasizes detection. It shows the step by step detective work by which the detective hero and his allies gradually uncover the truth. Such step by step detection was also the main subject in a large group of detective stories contemporaneous with The Big Combo. This is the detective comic book Big Town, a now largely forgotten comic book (1951- 1958). Big Town is perhaps the greatest of all detective comic books. It is not a noir work. But its reporter hero behaves very similarly to Diamond in the film. He uses endless intelligence and effort in the step by step, logical uncovering of hidden truths and mysterious secrets.

The Big Combo is among the purest detective and mystery stories in the history of film noir. Its hero is a detective, and he does detective work throughout the whole movie. His detective work is successful, and he uncovers the truth at the end. The detective work is successful in another way: it makes the world a better place at the end, by breaking the power of Mr. Brown.

Unlike those semi-documentary films, where the hero's undercover work makes the often makes the film as much as an adventure story as a detective work, this film sticks to pure detection. There are other examples of film noir that also emphasize detection, such as Edgar G. Ulmer's Murder Is My Beat (1955) of the same year. Such semi-documentaries as Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948) also concentrate on detection.

Lewis' Mob Films

The Big Combo shares subject matter with a number of other Lewis thrillers.

The Undercover Man, The Big Combo, The Fat Man all feature determined good guy detectives battling urban mobsters. All three films contain sympathetic, poor Italians, who are victimized by the mob, and who the detective heroes try to get to speak up against the mobster villains. We see the poverty stricken living quarters of the Italians in all three films.

In The Undercover Man and The Big Combo, the police stage mass arrests, in the hope of extracting some unknown knowledge. In both films, mob lawyers get writs of habeus corpus to get people away from the clutches of the police.

In The Undercover Man and The Big Combo, the detective hero is compared to an adding machine. Both detectives are also workaholics - unlike the gourmet and culture-loving hero to come in The Fat Man.

Both The Big Combo and The Fat Man feature character actor Robert Middleton as a sympathetic, good guy sleuth: the police Captain in The Big Combo, the private eye hero of The Fat Man. In both films, the detective hero reminds a bad guy that we will be judged by a Higher Power. Both films have scenes in a fancy restaurant, showing a chef. Both films have climaxes at airports.

Both films use classical music performed on a keyboard as a metaphor. In The Big Combo, Diamond's intensive lecturing to Susan at the concert, is compared to the fierce hammering of the pianist on stage. The Fat Man contains even more elaborate metaphors, comparing the plot structure to classical music played on the harpsichord.

In both Secrets of a Co-Ed and The Big Combo, a mobster insists on carrying a gun, despite his superior's orders not to. And in both films, this leads to a shooting.

Both Secrets of a Co-Ed and The Big Combo have a respectable upper crust woman carrying on a transgressive romantic relationship with a mobster.

In all of The Spy Ring (a spy, not a mob film), Secrets of a Co-Ed, The Undercover Man, The Big Combo, The Fat Man there is internal dissension among the bad guys. They quarrel and disagree among themselves, and scheme against each other.

Interrogation and Thirst

In Diamond's first interrogation of Susan in the hospital, he feeds her coffee. Coffee is a ubiquitous Lewis subject. In this scene in The Big Combo, it helps save the heroine's life, as a medical treatment after her poisoning.

But soon Diamond is refusing the heroine water, insisting she answer questions first. This using of thirst as an interrogation technique is morally wrong. It parallels a scene in the early Lewis film The Spy Ring, which also use this tactic. This brief episode of the water, is the only scene in The Big Combo where the hero clearly steps over the moral line, and uses interrogation techniques that are unequivocally morally wrong.

Most typically, when Diamond interrogates people, he forces them to look at or think about the ugly results of Mr. Brown's crimes. This approach is brutal - at least as brutal and rough as denying water, or some of the other morally wrong interrogation methods in The Spy Ring and The Undercover Man. One could argue that this brutality makes these interrogations in The Big Combo morally wrong.

But one can also argue the opposite. Everything Diamond is telling people about Mr. Brown is true. They are in denial about reality: Diamond is trying to get them to face facts. These people need to start showing some moral responsibility to the world around them. They have a duty to speak up.

In The Undercover Man, there is a powerful scene late in the movie, where the witnesses are recognized in court as heroes. No such recognition occurs in The Big Combo, where the people getting interrogated simply experience pain and suffering. In both films, the people who speak up are among society's least powerful groups. SPOILER: In The Big Combo, this includes two women, and the gay man Mingo.


Diamond's approach is non-violent. He is using facts, reason and persuasion to affect these people, and moral arguments. He is not using force and violence to attack Mr. Brown, but reason and morality. This is radically different from many other crime films.

Men Cooking for Other Men

The Big Combo is full of a kind of imagery that runs through other Lewis films: men cooking for other men. Such Lewis scenes often emphasize one man dishing up and serving the cooked food to other men.

The hero elaborately prepares a cup of coffee for his boss Robert Middleton, in their opening scene.

The boxing arena has a food stand, where a man is serving food to the largely male customers.

In the restaurant, male waiters serve elaborate plates of food to Fante and Mingo. Soon, in the background we see a man dressed as a chef, carving up what seems to be beef for customers. Fante and Mingo's meals center on fancy cuts of beef. Beef also plays a big role in Gun Crazy.

Mr. Brown pretends friendship with Fante and Mingo in hiding at the end, by claiming to bring them food.

The pathetic Bettini is cooking spaghetti on a hot plate in his lonely room. Unlike the other male (or female) cooks in most Lewis, he is cooking only for himself, a sign of how socially isolated he is. He does have a concern for the other tenants in the building, pleading to what he thinks is a mob hitman to let him turn off his equipment, so that it doesn't start a fire.

For himself, the hero peels an apple. Apples occur in several Lewis films. The hero uses a knife: a perennial Lewis image.

It is unclear what meanings these scenes of men cooking for men have, or what role they play in The Big Combo. The Big Combo is full of another Lewis theme: non-standard sexuality. The "men cooking" scenes show men in defiance of 1950's gender roles, which insisted that women should cook for for men.

The scenes also give the actors something to do with their hands. Films often need "bits of business", that flesh out scenes by giving the actors some visually interesting physical activity. In Lewis, such activity can come from men cooking and serving food.

Visual Style: Staging

Many of Lewis' scenes show the characters alone in a big space. This space is an interior, and often surrounds the characters with emptiness. At the concert, for instance, the heroine seems to be entirely alone, except for the performer on stage. This could just be an artifact of low budget filming, but it still has an emotional effect on screen. Similarly, the interrogations seem to take place in rooms in which there is lots of empty, unoccupied space. The characters are often in the center of this, instead of near some wall. The hero is often photographed framed against an arched window in his office; its unusual, non rectilinear shape suggest a troubling lack of support for him - he is not backed up by the geometry of architecture anywhere.

The simplest archetypal style in The Big Combo shows a character in one plane of the picture, then another character much deeper into the shot. These two characters are often on a rough diagonal, receding either to the left or right of the frame. There are many variations on this. Sometimes there is a whole group of characters instead of a single person, either in the foreground or background of the picture. One scene with the hero and his former girlfriend shows them both seated; the girlfriend is stretched out towards the back of the frame, isolating the two characters just as in the typical Combo two shot.

At the end of the film, there is a striking variation. First we see the heroine standing, with the hero standing further out, just as we have seen countless separated characters throughout the film. Then she moves forward and draws abreast of him. They walk together from this point on.

The character in the foreground often has a desk or a table. This helps orient the shot, create a rectilinear coordinate system, that is often different from the view angle of the frame. Walls of rooms sometimes help with this coordinate system as well, for example in the shot with the projected photographs in the police lab.

Lewis often positions his characters according to strict 90 degree coordinates. Surprisingly often in the film, they will be positioned so that they are at sharp right angles to each other. On other occasions, they will be at 180 or 360 degree angles, so they are facing each other, or both facing along a common axis. Group scenes might have characters at all of these angles. Furthermore, all the angles of the characters will tend to be parallel with the rectilinear coordinates of the scene, as established by walls and tables. Chairs sometimes help keep the characters in these strict orientations. For example in the scene where the heroine confronts Alicia, the hero places a chair for the heroine at a 90 degree angle to Alicia's. Surprisingly, when the characters are standing, they also form into strict 90, 180 and 360 degree angles. The characters often slightly turn to look at each other; a head might be turned, or a torso slightly twisted. But still not enough to disrupt the fundamental rectilinearity of the staging.

Most often, the camera is on an angle to the coordinate system of the characters. Occasionally, as in the hero and Mr. Brown's confrontation at the bend of the hospital corridor, the camera is pointed directly at the characters, making the plane of the screen be parallel to the planes in which the characters stand. Oddly, here the characters are at an angle to the corridor itself; they are not parallel to anything in the background of the image, which is somewhat unusual in Lewis' style here.


People in the film are often lying down, due to sickness or fear or romance. They also stand up a good deal, especially the heroine and the hero. The men are often seated; it is a common posture for them.


Cornel Wilde is often photographed in a way that shows his upper body, from the waist up. Alton sometimes has a blindingly bright light on his white dress shirt, that emphasizes his torso.

Fante and Mingo are in matching suits and ties at the opening, that makes them look like a pair.

Fante has his shirt off, when he is phoned at night. Later in The Rifleman, it is always hero Lucas who has his shirt off. This makes Fante be a "hero character" in The Big Combo, an index of his sympathetic treatment in the film. The boxer is also shirtless, recalling the boxers in Pride of the Bowery.

The dialogue discusses Dreyer's career as a sea captain, and mentions that he seemed to disappear as an individual, when wearing his ship captain's uniform. There will be later discussion of uniforms in The Deserter. Dreyer is in a tuxedo during his one scene: something uncommon in Lewis.

Long Takes

Lewis loved long takes, and often employed them in his films. Nothing in The Big Combo is as spectacular as the long-take robbery in Gun Crazy. Still, perhaps the majority of the scenes in The Big Combo are filmed in single long takes. Oddly enough, this is not especially noticeable - it took me several viewings of the film to catch on to this. Maybe I'm just dense!

Lewis sometimes "interrupts" these takes to insert close-ups. For example, when the hero is interrogating Bettini, the long take is cut into on two separate occasions to show close ups of the hero (Cornel Wilde). After the close-ups, the camera resumes its original position it had when the long take was going on, and the long take shot resumes. The effect is almost as if the scene where originally shot in one long gigantic take, and the close-ups were only inserted much later. It is not clear if this is true, however. Long take shots present tremendous burdens to actors, who have to hit all sorts of cues and who have to sustain their performances over many minutes. It is possible that by breaking his shot up this way with two close-ups, the three long take segments remaining became easier for the actors and crew to shoot that a single humongous take would have been.

Sometimes these interruptions proliferate. The scene towards the end, where Mr. Brown grills his men over the shooting of Dreyer (what a name!), starts outs as a long take single shot sequence, like so many others in the film. However, it is eventually interrupted by shots of Mr. Brown and other shots of MacClure. The camera cuts back and forth between these views, and occasional resumptions of the camera position of the long take, which fitfully resumes and goes away throughout the rest of the scene.

A brief scene in an elevator is similarly interrupted by so many kinds of shots that it becomes a virtual montage sequence. After so many long takes, its change of technique seems very unusual.

Whenever there is a change of set, for example when a character walks through a door to go into a new room, Lewis cuts, and starts a new scene and a new long take. Whether for reasons of budget or style, he does not track a character from one room to the next, weaving his camera along with him, as do some moving camera stylists. In any case, this means that for Lewis here, a scene and a take is confined to a single room and studio set. This "single set" approach to long take filming is also found in Frank Tashlin's comedy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter (1957), a film whose subject matter is completely different from Lewis', but whose camera approach is oddly similar.

Within a scene, Lewis tends not to employ continuous camera movement, except for a few scenes showing his characters entering or leaving. Instead, he constructs his long take through a series of static positions. First the characters will be in one tableau, standing or sitting at fixed angles to each other. Then the characters will move into a new position; sometimes the camera moves here too, to reframe the image. Then both the characters and the camera become relatively still again, until the next change of position. Both the actors physical positions relative to each other, and their framing by the camera, tends to be significant. Lewis will sometimes move his camera closer in, to get a tighter shot of the characters' faces. He also experiments in moving the actors to the far rear of the set. Bettini at one point moves to the rear and faces away from the camera, for all the world like a character in a 1930's Mizoguchi film. It seems unlikely that anyone in America was studying Mizoguchi's Osaka Elegy (1936) in 1955, but Lewis' effect is startlingly similar. The characters can also move up to the far front of the image, too. This includes the memorable scene in the hero's apartment mourning the killing. This scene shows some of Lewis' most virtuoso restaging of events within the set and his single long take.

Camera Movements Through Elaborate Environments

There are a number of sequences in The Big Combo that involve camera movements through visually elaborate environments. These scenes are in the tradition of complexly designed moving camera shots found in such directors as Josef von Sternberg and Max Ophuls. The sequences in The Big Combo involve the passage of people through the outer office that leads into Wilde's private office at the police station; and the scenes backstage at the burlesque theater. What is most notable about these scenes is their rich visual design. Both sets are visually complex, and loaded with every sort of wall covering, tables full of objects and paraphernalia, and complex lighting, just as in Sternberg and Ophuls. The backstage sequences also involve shooting through elaborate grill work in the foreground of the scene, a device frequently employed by both Sternberg and Ophuls.

These sequences are relatively brief in The Big Combo. They usually involve the rapid passage of some character through the set. While they are unbroken long takes, they are not typical of the long takes in much of the rest of the movie. Lewis did much experimenting with all sorts of long takes and camera movements throughout his career. His films are not confined to one approach; instead, they are wildly eclectic, experimental, and imaginative in terms of their use of mobile camera work.

There are no dramatic confrontations going on during these highly designed scenes. They simply show a character walking calmly through a complex environment. They briefly change the mode of the film, away from intense dramatics, and towards a contemplation of visual beauty. They are like jewel like bits inserted in the storytelling.

Path / Reverse Path

A number of camera movements go down a path - then later the camera moves along the same path, but in the opposite direction. Such path / reverse path movements are a Lewis favorite.

The shot that opens in the secret bank room for the first time, moves out of the room, to the left in the apartment, and over to the door. Then the same shot reverses direction, and moves back along the same path, back into the secret room.

A Non-Architectural Film

The Big Combo seems non-architectural. In many films, the architecture of the sets is used by the director to create a visual style. This is not true here. Lewis and Alton evade this by a number of strategies. For one thing, most of the sets of The Big Combo are remarkably plain. A corridor or a room will be bare, just plain walls with a door in it.

Also, the photography tends to obscure the architecture. Often times, the background will be simply dark, or misty. This obscurity tends to de-emphasize architecture in the composition. By contrast, the people in the shot are intensely emphasized.

A number of standard types of Lewis architecture do occur in The Big Combo:

Alcoves, a Lewis favorite, appear in a number of scenes. These are often modified so that they are not strictly alcoves in the traditional sense:

Foreground: Objects and Grillwork

Another approach: many of the scenes have objects in the foreground. These are more important to the composition than any background imagery. These objects tend to be free standing. The coffee paraphernalia in front of the policeman hero in his office is supported by a table that can be barely seen, it is so dark. The coffee pot and stuff seems almost to be floating in space. Similarly, when the policeman interviews Alicia, her flowers are shown in front of them. These are numerous free standing spikes. We do not see the ground supporting the flowers; the spikes just seem to be standing up in the foreground of the frame. For all we know, the flowers are on an unseen wheeled cart that the director is positioning in front of the image, and not in the ground at all. Or they could have been added by process photography.

These objects are always in the lower part of the screen. They do not form a "frame", surrounding the actors. Instead, they form a low wall or boundary in front of the image. They serve as another row in the depth of field. Just as the two characters tend to be seen at different depths of the image, so does this low wall of objects form another planar layer in the foreground. It serves to underline the receding depths of the image even more.

Other sets have foreground barriers ranging from floor to ceiling, notably the jail and the backstage corridor leading to the dressing room, which contains a large wire mesh cage in the foreground behind which the hero passes. People are often in movement through these. They do not form static compositions; instead they form scroll like images that unroll in time, as people pass through these regions. The same is true of the outdoor path bordered by the flower spikes, the path through the outer police office leading to the hero's private room, and the walking through the antique shop. These scenes almost seem to swallow up the characters, to suggest that they are passing through a maze. The objects in the foreground tend to have a "soft" look to them: flowers, wire mesh. Such foreground visual effects remind one of Ophuls and sometimes Sternberg.

Dreyer's antique store has a shelf of knickknacks on it. Lewis treats these as foreground objects, through which he shoots tracking shots of the character. The shelf recalls the bathroom shelf near the end of My Name Is Julia Ross.

The Opening

Towards the beginning of the film is a genuinely architectural montage. This is a series of shots showing the heroine running, chased by Fante and Mingo. These shots show considerable architectural/compositional flair, in the tradition of film noir. They go by very rapidly. Using the pause button will help you slow down and linger over these beautiful compositions.

Especially beautiful in these scenes is what seems to be a lunch room or food vending area, in the wall of some sort of auditorium or giant lobby. Alton has lit the lunchroom and other segments of the wall, so that beautiful geometric patterns of light and darkness are created.

In the opening, the heroine often moves from the background to the foreground of the frame: a Lewis tradition. Later, we will see Rita similarly move to the foreground of the alley outside the theater.


There are only a few genuine exteriors in the film. Shots that take place "outside", such as in the entrance to the theater, or the flower path, tend to be on sets that are as enclosed as any of the interiors of the film. This avoidance of exteriors also aids in the lack of any architectural quality to the film: few buildings are shown.

There are a few genuine exteriors. When Diamond goes to visit Bettini, we see his apartment building along side one of the huge aerial storage tanks that frequently show up in noir movies, especially the semi-documentaries. A similar tank occurs in the background, near the end of The Undercover Man, when Ford and the mob lawyer talk outside. This circular structure also occurs in Anthony Mann's T-Men (1947), Richard Fleischer's Follow Me Quietly (1949), Robert Parrish's Cry Danger (1951) and Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential (1952). These tanks are virtually a signature of noir. It is as if the filmmakers thought, "We're making a film noir, we better put in a storage tank somewhere".

Similarly, we see a nearly obligatory shot of a street at night, with cars streaming through, followed by a pan showing Diamond walking along the storefronts along the street. Such night in the city shots are also typical of noir. The Big Combo is full of lighted signs, rather than the street lamps which are typical in Lewis.

The shots of suspects being taken to the police station use the same covered, arched outdoor area as Anthony Mann's He Walked by Night (1948) and Richard Fleischer's Follow Me Quietly (1949). This shows the film's link to the semi-documentary tradition.

Man On A Bus

Man On A Bus (1955) is a fundraising picture for Israel, that Lewis directed for the United Jewish Appeal. It is short, just under 27 minutes long. The film is a scripted fictional drama, with characters played by well-known Hollywood actors. Documentary footage is cut in, showing events the characters talk about. The film's credits capitalize all four words of the title Man On A Bus.

Joseph H. Lewis spent most of his career on genre films: Westerns, crime thrillers, an occasional sports movie. Man On A Bus is a rare excursion by Lewis into realistic drama.

Much attention is paid in Man On A Bus to building infrastructure in Israel. A central purpose of the film's fundraising is to raise money for either farming or such infrastructure projects. This is consistent with the longtime Lewis theme of building infrastructure. As is typical in Lewis, everyone who works as an infrastructure builder is seen positively.

The Camp

Man On A Bus has a flashback scene, showing Jewish prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp. The scene is very simple, showing a few starved prisoners sitting near the camp fence. It does not attempt to explain the history of the Holocaust: presumably, most viewers of Man On A Bus would know this history.

This must be one of the earliest depictions of the Holocaust in an American fiction film.

It anticipates Lewis' look at another major historical tragedy: slavery. Pompey opens with a few chained slaves sitting around, with one making a slow, desperate attempt to cut through his chains and escape. The scenes in Man On A Bus and Pompey are both quiet, solemn and filled with suspense, as seated characters try to evade a terrible fate. Both draw on inspiring stories from the Bible: manna in the desert in Man On A Bus, Daniel in Pompey.

The Boy

The boy Tobias is one of several good kids that run through Lewis' films. Like the others, he is tireless in wanting to play a responsible role in society.

He has an enthusiastic interest in making music, like other Lewis "good kids" such as the young Al Jolson in The Jolson Story and Mark McCain in Old Tony.

Stephen Longstreet, who wrote Man On A Bus, previously was a scriptwriter on The Jolson Story. Longstreet likely is responsible for some of these common elements.

Tobias is one of many Lewis characters who run away from home.

The Bus

Broderick Crawford's hero drives a bus, like the American hero of Bombs Over Burma.

Seeing Crawford driving around in desert regions immediately brings to mind his TV series Highway Patrol (1955-1959).

The bus has a sign on it: one of the many signs that run through Lewis' films. The lettering on the ancient boundary stone can also be considered a sign.

Camera Movement

The most bravura visual style in Man On A Bus are the shots looking out of the bus. We have a typical Lewis pair of camera movement along a path, followed by a second movement along the reverse of this path: The bus doors are not the swinging doors that play such a big role in Lewis - but they are related.

Crawford cleaning the bus window so that more can be seen though it, anticipates Lucas McCain wiping the dust off the mirror in Waste.

A Lawless Street

A Lawless Street (1955) is the first of the four Westerns that make up Lewis' final feature films. A beautiful looking film in color, it does not on the surface much resemble The Big Combo, made in the same year. Like Lewis' next Western, 7th Cavalry (1956), the film stars perennial Western hero Randolph Scott. Lewis would go on to direct a large number of Western TV shows over the next decade. Lewis' switch from film noir to the Western was hardly a simple personal choice. The emphasis in the whole American film industry tilted from crime films to Westerns in the early 1950's, and other directors such as Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher made similar changes of genre.

A Mystery Without a Detective

The plot structure of A Lawless Street resembles a mystery, without a detective. As in a mystery film, the plot is full of secrets and surprises. These are gradually revealed over the course of the film. As in a good mystery the plot is both logically constructed and surprising, with each new development logically based on, and consistent with events and characters that have already been established; yet surprising and unexpected. Unlike most mysteries, however, there is no detective figure here. No one in the movie is working to solve the mysteries of the plot, and uncover its secrets. Rather, the script uncovers the secrets themselves, with most scenes revealing some new hidden fact about the plot.

The mystery construction here resembles those in other Lewis mystery films, such as The Falcon in San Francisco (1945) and The Big Combo. As in those films, the mystery is solved gradually. Its solution is revealed step by step, throughout the course of the film. Each step, each new secret revealed, brings us one step closer to understanding the truth. As in The Big Combo, the mysteries involve secrets in the past lives of the characters, secrets that are deeply buried. Many of the secrets involve the inner lives of the characters, what they are feeling deep inside of themselves. As in The Big Combo, many of the secrets involve characters' romances. Other secrets involve corruption, people engaged in the sort of mob-like criminal conspiracies that also appeared in The Big Combo.

There are also differences in construction here from The Big Combo. In The Big Combo, nearly every plot revelation was linked to uncovering the truth about the sinister Mr. Brown. Here, the story has a multiple focus, instead. Nearly every character has some sort of secret, and the plot gradually brings them all to light. There is not a focus on one central mystery or character. Instead, each person in the plot gradually has some sort of secret revealed.

As in The Big Combo, there is also an emphasis on the revelation of character. Even when a person in the plot has no actual mystery secret, often times what they are like as a personality and human being is not fully revealed on their first introduction. The film gradually brings to like the deeper aspects of their character and personality. These revelations are interspersed with the uncovering of actual plot secrets throughout the film.

A Lawless Street shows Lewis' flair for mystery storytelling. Lewis was a director deeply oriented towards the mystery form.

Kenneth Gamet

A Lawless Street is based on a novel by Brad Ward, The Marshal of Medicine Bend (1954). I've recently learned that "Brad Ward" is a pseudonym of the well-known Western writer Samuel A. Peeples.

The film's screen writer, Kenneth Gamet, has a long history of credits. During the 1930's and early 1940's, he frequently worked on Warner Brothers mystery films, especially those with female sleuths. He did the film that inaugurated the Torchy Blane series, Smart Blonde (1936), with Glenda Farrell as the brainy reporter sleuth, and all four Nancy Drew films (1938-1939), as well as an unusual Western-crime drama about a highly effective little old lady sheriff, Granny Get Your Gun (1940). During the 1940's he did a number of war films about aviators. In the 1950's, he mainly worked on Westerns, including two directed by André de Toth, The Man in the Saddle (1951) and The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953). He was clearly no stranger to either the mystery or Western genres, and it is not surprising to see him as the scriptwriter of a movie that combines both.

A City

The opening scenes of A Lawless Street resemble the early Havana sections of A Lady Without Passport. Both films introduce a city and a cast of characters together. Both films contain a sort of mini-travelogue, exploring the buildings and streets of a city: Havana in A Lady Without Passport, Medicine Bend, Colorado in A Lawless Street. At the same time, we first meet the characters of the film. Many of the characters are linked to a certain building or locale within the city. Their work or profession centers on this building.

Both A Lady Without Passport and A Lawless Street thoroughly depict and explore the exteriors of the buildings in the city. They contrast with The Big Combo, which virtually excluded exteriors from its construction.

As the film's title suggests, one of the main subjects of A Lawless Street is the operation of the city as a whole. We see a sort of documentary in the opening, showing the whole normal operation of the city. Later, the film's finale will again explore the workings of the city, this time under a changed or transformed operation. The depiction of negative social change here is powerful.

The opening shot of the film shows the main street of the town itself. It is an excellent camera movement: the camera is high on a crane above the city during much of the credits, showing a long panorama of the town's main street, then swoops down to the level of a lone horseman riding into town.

In Pride of the Bowery (1941), Lewis treats the camp in the film as a miniature city, showing us all of its buildings and activities. He also takes us into the local town, and gives us some documentary-like glimpses of its main street.

In Gun Crazy, the long-take bank robbery sequence gives a guided tour of the streets and buildings of the city where the robbery takes place. There are briefer glimpses of other towns in later robbery sequences, and when the couple leave the dance hall near the end of the picture.

Later, in Lewis' Western TV series The Rifleman, we meet the entire town of North Fork, New Mexico. The series was shot on a gigantic standing set, that includes both the exteriors and interiors of the buildings on the town's main street. The people who work in the buildings are mainly series characters. This too is a portrait of an entire city and its people.

The hero visits other small cities in The Rifleman episodes Strange Town, The Wyoming Story, Waste and The Bullet. The Big Valley episode Night of the Wolf also visits a town, and discusses much of its history.

Image and Boots

Randolph Scott's Marshal in this film presents an all-powerful image to deter lawbreakers. This image is far removed from reality: Scott's hero is an exhausted stressed out person. An early scene shows him getting dressed up in his cowboy clothes in his room. This is set-up to underscore the fact that an image is being constructed. We see Scott putting on shiny black leather cowboy boots: a bit too fancy to be real work clothes. This reminds us of Rita's fancy shoes in The Big Combo, and the hero putting them on her feet. We also see Scott adjust his neck kerchief in the mirror. Scott's image is just as much an artificial construct as that of the undercover detective in A Lady Without Passport. Both men are police officers who are doing their deceptions for a good cause.

Kenneth Gamet scripted a strange musical-cop movie hybrid, Tear Gas Squad (1940), directed by Terry Morse. In it, night club singer Dennis Morgan wears a sharp police uniform as part of his act. Eventually, he decides to join the police himself, for real. This film also deals with the creation of a police image as an artificial construct, and how it intersects with reality.

Boots show up in episodes of The Rifleman. Lewis opens The Prisoner with a close-up of one of the visitors' military boots, recalling a similar close-up in The Martinet. The hero has his boots stolen in The Vaqueros and Waste. The punk gunslinger in Death Never Rides Alone is always challenging people by displaying his black cowboy boots, and the arrogant gambling czar villain of The Bullet puts them up on his huge desk. And there is a moving camera close-up of the bad guys marching in unison in Long Gun from Tucson, concentrating on their feet.


Both the Marshal and the bad guys are deep into the use of guns. A Lawless Street is an anti-gun film: the heroine left her husband because she could not stand his use of violence, and Dooley is presented as a good man because he does not believe in guns. The Marshal gives up his guns at the end, being one of those select Lewis characters who manage to escape with their lives from the use of guns, rejecting their use. In this they differ from the protagonist of Gun Crazy, whose gun use leads to his death.

However, there is no organized "gun cult" in A Lawless Street, unlike Gun Crazy or other Lewis works. The Marshal only uses guns for his job. This also gives him a certain moral step up, although as the doctor warns him, gun use will still probably cause his death if he stays on his job and keeps using his guns.

The Marshal refuses to shoot the unarmed Dooley. He takes the hard route instead, trying to beat the giant Dooley in a fair fist fight. The Marshal's refusal to use guns is seen as a moral victory. It redeems Dooley. It oddly anticipates Daniel Boone's refusal to shoot or harm the giant bear in Pompey, also seen as a productive act. Hero Lucas refuses to shoot the bad guy in Day of the Hunter, the heroine refuses to kill her tormentor in Heller, and the hero refuses to shoot Mr. Brown at the end of The Big Combo.

The Marshal's "giving a lickin" to Dooley is also seen as needed discipline to a character like Dooley who never had any. This idea will recur at the end of Sidewinder. This seems like a dubious idea to me. Be that as it may, there are times when it seems both the Marshal and Dooley are enjoying their saloon fight. Parts of it anticipate the wrestling-match-for-fun in Honest Abe.

Dooley has scars, from a cougar attack. Animal injuries are a Lewis theme.

The end states that gun fighting should be replaced by "mutual aid", with all citizens in town supporting law and order.

Being Best

Villain's Thorne's sinister actions and downfall stem from his trying to be best: to be publicly recognized as Number One in everything he does. He is chewed out for this by Cody. Hero Lucas gives a similar anti-being-best lecture to young Mark in Day of the Hunter. Lucas says it is merely important to be good at what you do, not to be better than other people, or to be recognized as The Best.

Staging: The Opening

The opening credits show a man riding from the far back of the screen towards the front - a Lewis trademark. This shot will include a vertical camera movement, straight down.

The shot shows the street layout of the town. It emphasizes the geometric pattern formed by the buildings and sidewalks. There will be similar overhead, geometric view of a town in the Rifleman episode The Deadly Wait. Both views have sidewalks that turn at slight angles to the main street, making for a polygonal line in the composition.

The town buildings in the opening shot of A Lawless Street are mainly in pink or gray. The road is in a matching reddish pink. One wonders if it were painted, to create a color harmony, the way Max Ophuls painted the road in Lola Montes. There are some peaked roofs in the background, but not anywhere as many as in many Lewis shots of buildings.

Soon, there is a camera movement, focused on the man's holster, a movement that will recur in some Rifleman episodes. It then does a whiplash pan around, to show a man emerging from the livery stable.

Both this gunslinger in this pan, and later Marshal Scott and gunslinger Baskam, are featured in rear shots that show us their gun belts - as are almost all gunslingers in Lewis. Good guy Asaph is shown with decorated pants pockets - like the bad guy in A Young Man's Fancy.

Later on in the movie, gunslinger Harley Baskam will enter the film riding down the same street that the original gunslinger took during the opening shot. This is a typical Lewis "echo", showing a repeated use of the same path.

Off-Screen Voices

The Marshal's voice is heard off-screen, during the final shoot out with the gunslinger.


When the Marshal leaves the hotel at the start, we see a cityscape full of complex peaked roofs in the background. The shots from the saloon porch near the start also show a peaked church steeple, and later an ordinary building with a peaked roof. Peaked roof backgrounds run throughout Lewis.

Suspense scenes in a barbershop will return in The Patsy. We see through the barbershop windows, in moving camera shots.

Asaph's ranch includes several types of white fence around its buildings, including a white picket fence. The fences, and the front yards they enclose, resemble other such front yards with picket fences in Lewis. These fences are most shown during the attack on Asaph's men.

Both the Marshal's room, and the kitchen below, have alcoves in the rear - a Lewis tradition.

There are signs everywhere, on the various buildings.

A remarkable long take, during the rioting, includes gunslinger Baskam smashing a saloon's multipaned window (recalling the smashing window at the end of So Dark the Night). The moving camera travels from one swinging door of the saloon to another - an example of a Lewis camera movement that oscillates between left and right. It also shoots an outdoor conversation, through the smashed window: an example of Lewis staging that joins indoors and outside.

Crossing the Street

One of the most beautiful shots has Scott crossing the street.

The shot shows Lewis' multi-colored approach. It has a whole rainbow of different shades. The street looks painted in streaks of pink and gold - just beautiful. The wagon is in dark green, with bright yellow-gold wheels and trim. The cafe sign is in a bright, light blue. The brick of the Marshall's office is red. There are all sorts of cowboys on foot, or on horses, in colorful clothes, that take part in the shot. One cowboy near the start is in blue denim, talking to another in orange and beige.

The buildings across the street are in a rich variety of architectures. The cafe has huge arches, an arching sign "cafe" is painted on the windows, and circular wagon wheels are prominent.

The end of the shot moves from one side to the other of the row of pillars in front of the Marshal's office - a common Lewis staging. We then see a perspective view under porticos, down the sidewalks. The sidewalks move along polygonal angles. Such sidewalk views will be common in The Rifleman. The shot as a whole is one that most closely anticipates The Rifleman.

Costumes and Color

Randolph Scott switches part way through to an outfit in color-coordinated shades of brown. This is typical for Lewis heroes: Glenn Ford wears brown sportswear in The Return of October, and Nick Barkley (Peter Breck) is often shown in brown gunslinger's gear on The Big Valley. Smooth bad guy Thorne also wears a brown suit.

The entertainers are in bright clothes, in the musical sequence. The heroine wears a purple outfit that merges into silver-gray. And the chorus girls are in red outfits with gold capes, and contrasting green hats. They all perform against a pinkish curtain. The theater boxes have yellow backgrounds, and Cora is in a red dress.

During the late camera movement, while the heroine chases the villain through the theater, the theater is in a mix of orange, red and blue walls above: Lewis' typical mix of bright colors.

The saloon is full of a reddish wood. It provides bright color during the many interiors at the saloon.

The drummer has a blue drum, and a uniform with matching blue and bright red.

When Harley Baskam negotiates in the office with Thorne and Cody, nearly everything is in some shade of beigeish-yellow or dark red. This scene is "color-coordinated" - it is built around a handful of colors that pervade everything. This is a common strategy in directors like Vincente Minnelli. It is not always followed by Lewis, who is capable of building a shot out of a whole profusion of multiple colors.

A Long Take

A few scenes in A Lawless Street resemble shots in The Big Combo. The scene towards the end, in which Angela Lansbury and Ruth Donnelly talk in Scott's room, opens with a long take in a style very close to The Big Combo. Instead of cross cutting between the two women, Lansbury's back is simply kept to the camera, just like some conversations in The Big Combo. We hear her voice, but we do not see her face. The lack of cross cutting allows a long take to go forward without a cut. When Donnelly moves in close to Lansbury, the two women are positioned at an exact 90 degree angle. There are several repositionings of the two women throughout the shot, followed by camera movements within the take as well. All of this is very close to the style of The Big Combo. However, Lewis eventually stops the take here, and introduces a succession of shorter shots featuring the two women. If he had followed the style of The Big Combo exactly, he would have filmed the entire scene in the room in one huge take.

In scenes such as this, and many in The Big Combo, the camera movement is exploratory. The camera explores the scene, moving around to bring new details to the viewer's attention. The director might move in to a close-up, or shift the camera to one side to create a new composition. The camera movements tend to enable the viewer to see the action in some new way. The result of such camera movements, what they show when they are finished, is more important than the movements themselves.

By contrast, the camera movements in the finale of A Lawless Street, discussed below, are kinetic. The experience of watching the actual camera movement is all-important in them. It conveys a delightful sense of motion to the viewer, conveying energy and excitement. The visual effects during the actual camera movement, the flow of screen composition created by the movement, the motions of characters during the camera movement, are all-important.

The distinction above is not entirely true. Even in the exploratory scenes, the graceful flow of Lewis' camera movements is a visually gratifying experience. Lewis certainly intends the movements to be visually interesting. Conversely, in the kinetic scenes, it certainly does matter where the camera is ultimately headed. Lewis often arranges the camera movement so that it stops on some visually revealing tableau; and a fixed camera piece of action will follow. The camera movement was not just fun in itself; it also brought the camera to a useful position, which shows some interesting event. Lewis has certainly arranged even his kinetic camera movements so that they support his staging of the action, and the exposition of information in his film.

Still, there is a genuine contrast of emphasis in the two kinds of scenes. They are at opposite poles in Lewis' work. The mood of the two types of scenes tends to be different as well. The long take, expository types of scenes tend to be grim and dramatically intense. The kinetic scenes tend to be entertaining, with dynamic storytelling and excitement.

The Finale

The finale of A Lawless Street is filled with camera movement. Except for a few close-ups, nearly every shot contains a pan or a track. This is the big, final confrontation between the hero and the bad guys. It starts with heroine Angela Lansbury's visit to the jail, and ends with the capture of the villain. The camera movements here are within Hollywood norms. It has long been standard practice to add motion and kinetic energy to shots by moving the camera. And it is traditionally appropriate for a suspense sequence like this finale. But Lewis executes these camera movements with uncommon skill. The whole sequence is like a wind-up toy or machine, that never fails to delight with its beautifully staged shots and camera work. Lewis' years of experimentation with moving camera work pays off in these gracefully executed scenes.

One subsequence has the heroine and villain in a room up above, while the hero is in the street down below. Lewis takes advantage of this to create overhead shots, that pan along with the hero's motion below. These shots have an exciting dynamic quality. Lewis also shoots upward from the street level, and combines this with small camera movements too. Later, he will execute a graceful shot down a staircase, that reminds one of the cantina staircase shots in A Lady Without Passport. This shot, which is followed by a pan into another room, is one of the high points of the whole finale.

The shots in the finale tend not to have a continuously moving camera, in the manner say of Ophuls' Lola Montès. Rather, the camera will move along to a position, then stop for a while, then maybe move again later. Both the moving and fixed parts of the shot are closely tied to the movements of the characters on screen, and to the dramatic events that are unfolding in the story. The whole pattern of camera work, character motion and story development makes graceful, delightfully intricate patterns. They have a kinetic quality that seems exactly right. They are never over bearing or overpowering; but they always have plenty of energy and motion.

Lewis temporarily breaks the pattern of camera movement for the big shoot out. Here, we see a rapid succession of fixed shots, showing what the coming shoot out looks like from the point of view (more or less) of the two participants. This sequence builds up real suspense. The most striking shot here is a shot of the door of the saloon through which the unseen hero will soon come. This shot is utterly empty of motion. There are no people in it, and no motion at all. The music stops too, and we have dead silence. The shot's suspenseful stillness is powerful. The shot has an Ozu like stillness, like one of the transition images in his films.

One does not want to over-sell this finale, or misrepresent what its contains. Most of the tracks and pans within it are simple. From a technical point of view, most are within the standard repertoire of fairly conventional filmmaking. There are few moving camera shots here of the jaw-dropping elaborateness one finds in Murnau, Ophuls or Mizoguchi, or in the robbery sequence in Lewis' own Gun Crazy. But everything is gracefully done. Lewis' framing, composition and tracking are beautiful and dramatically effective. They both tell the story vividly, and create exciting visual patterns.

7th Cavalry

7th Cavalry (1956) is a film I don't like. It has the least appeal of any of Lewis' post B-movie work, due to its mix of mournful tone, and subject matter glorifying military bravery and General Custer. Lewis will return to the subject of bravery and alleged cowardice in the Indian Wars, in the Rifleman episode The Journey Back (1961), another one of his most problematical works; and in his Branded pilot The Vindicators (1965). All of these look at the aftermath of a massacre of Cavalry troops by Native Americans. All contain performances by Harry Carey, Jr, as a Cavalry man.

The Opening

The opening of 7th Cavalry is perhaps its best part. Its eerie exploration of the deserted fort is rich in atmosphere. These scenes often show Scott standing alone, in huge empty spaces: a Lewis tradition.

The scenes also form a mini-version of a Lewis detective story, with:

These are all characteristics of detective work in Lewis.

Also strange is the way in which the fort is slowly repopulated.

Several of the best shots in the opening feature compositions built up out of peaked roofs at the fort:

There are also shots where Scott moves from the extreme background of the frame, to the foreground:

Lewis pans when Scott climbs the outdoor staircase to headquarters, an example of his mix of camera movement and staircases. The base of the staircase has wood painted yellow, which echoes the gold in Scott's uniform.

Nolan's speech in the barracks embodies two kinds of funeral rituals. It is set against the empty bunks of the dead men. And she talks about the Sioux rituals among the bodies.


In the next sequence, hero Scott is branded as a possible coward, and ostracized by everyone at the fort. In some ways, this reminds one of the ostracized heroes to come, of such Rifleman episodes as Panic. Scott goes through the same social horrors as these later heroes. But there are key differences in cause. Scott is falsely accused of something he did not do (cowardice). While the Rifleman characters are usually criticized either for being "different" or for taking an unpopular stand - something they did do. The Rifleman shows look at genuine social nonconformists, and people who stand up for unpopular ideas. They are far more trenchant, and have more real substance.

Scott also faces opposition from his future father-in-law, as in Hero.

The map on the wall during the inquiry, recalls those in other government offices in A Lady Without Passport and Retreat, Hell!.

Scott hits a fellow officer after he says things Scott does not want to hear, then regrets it. This recalls scenes in That Gang of Mine and Night of the Wolf.

Scott's fiancée joins him, sitting down on his bed while he is lying on it. This recalls The Jolson Story and Duel Of Honor. However, in those films two men are on the bed; here it is a man and a woman.


The raising of the flag recalls the ceremony in Pride of the Bowery. These formal ceremonies are highly militaristic.

Scott's hero is far more interested in militarism, than is anyone else in the film. He enjoys saluting, turning on his heel with military precision, etc. None of the other officers seem interested in this. And Scott is regularly contrasted with enlisted men who are completely out of order, when it comes to discipline. He keeps trying to whip them into shape.

The other officers instead treat the Cavalry as a social club. They are of a higher social class than Scott, who is a former riverboat gambler recruited into the service. They never let Scott forget this class distinction. The other officers are obsessed with drawing this class line. This status is their main interest in the military - the sort of militaristic ceremony Scott loves means nothing to them.

Lewis heroes tend to be fascinated with militarism. Scott here is typical. But we also see that Scott is out of tune with everyone around him, who instead are deep into class privilege.

Lewis heroes often follow personal obsessions. This is most famous in Gun Crazy, but it is a central theme in much of Lewis. Lewis heroes tend to care far less about social perks such as class status. Here we see that contrast underscored.

The Finale

The finale has the Cavalry trying to dig up the coffins of their dead, so they can be transferred back from the battle field. This embodies Lewis' theme of mourning and funeral rituals.

It also seems like almost a dark parody of Lewis' interest in infrastructure. Lewis made several films glorifying men building roads. Such work crews always carried shovels and other work implements. Here we have a Cavalry crew carrying shovels, but they are not building roads or laying telegraph wire, as in other Lewis films. Instead, they are digging up the dead.

The wagons used by the Cavalry have the 7th Cavalry insignia on their sides. This is another instance of Lewis' deep interest in signs.

Camera Movement

There is a nice camera movement towards the middle, which follows the hero and heroine talking outside, and gradually walks along with them till they go through the giant gate of the fort. This is like one of Lewis' camera movements linking indoors and outdoors. Only here, "indoors" and "outdoors" are the two sides of the fort's wall and gate. The shot is full of peaked roofs, again.

Another elaborate movement is what seems to be a circular pan, around the Cavalry hunkered down below their wagons. We see the Native Americans in deep focus in the background. Parts of this movement show Cavalry men through Lewis beloved wagon wheels.


Color in 7th Cavalry is not quite as rich as in A Lawless Street. But it is still unusual and complex.

The film is full of Cavalry troops, in blue uniforms with yellow trim. Some Cavalry Westerns de-emphasize yellow, by showing characters without their scarves or gloves. But 7th Cavalry does the opposite, by always having the characters wearing these accoutrements.

Warm, light brown wood is everywhere in the background. So is yellow grass. These form color harmonies with the yellow in the Cavalry uniforms. The hay in the early drunk scene is also bright yellow, to the point that one wonders if it were painted. Lewis loved structuring backgrounds out of hay; here is a rare chance for him to show it in a color movie.

There are also jarring notes added to this simple harmony. The heroine's clothes are in completely different colors. She is first seen wearing a dark green dress, with dark red trim. She makes an utter contrast to Scott, in his blue and yellow uniform. Such contrasts will run through much of the first half of 7th Cavalry. The heroine has numerous dresses, many of which emphasize dark red. Her Native American maid also is in red.

In addition, Indian rugs on the floor are full of dark red, mixed with stripes and zigzags of white and black. These continue the red motif of the heroine's clothes. And a dark green lamp and a bottle of green liqueur also maintain the red/green touches. All of these green and red colors are dark - none is at all pastel.

Once again, we have a Lewis film that does not look like the work of anybody else. We once again have a color design, with more colors on screen than are often seen, with the colors seemingly more clashing.

During the final encounter, many of the horses seem to be red. The main lance of the commanding Native American is full of blue and red, along with a touch of green. A row of Native American riders seen from the back shows them in reddish shirts and blue trousers. Red-and-blue are a vibrating color scheme that catches the eye.

The Halliday Brand

The Halliday Brand (1957) is the third of Lewis' four late Westerns. Its tone resembles that of The Big Combo. Both are intense works that take place in a grim, dark world. In both, the hero wages a lone, all out struggle against an evil but powerful person who controls much of the society around him through a reign of terror. Here, however, the hero is not a policeman; instead, he is an ordinary civilian. The villain here instead is the policeman: he is the crooked sheriff of the region. And the drama has a family background for the first time: the villain is the hero's father. All of these factors greatly shift the sociological coordinates of the two films. The hero here is not as sympathetic as that of The Big Combo, either. He is just as obsessed as the hero of the earlier film, but his tactics are more dubious and illegal, and his motives are less pure and admirable. He is a hater, and is criticized for it by the heroine.


The policeman hero of A Lawless Street had to create a tough, artificial image to keep lawbreakers in line. He was a completely sympathetic character, and did this only to manipulate bad guys. Here we see the sinister other side of such a character. The crooked sheriff of The Halliday Brand is also obsessed with his constructed image as all powerful boss of the community, but he also uses it for much darker purposes. He sets out to destroy anyone who challenges him, with an especially venomous hatred of Native Americans. This look at police and state power working against minority groups is a theme that echoes through much of history.

Authorship of The Halliday Brand

The Halliday Brand is credited to Lewis as a director on-screen. And I have never seen the slightest production history evidence that suggests otherwise.

Still, signs of Lewis' personal approach in The Halliday Brand are fewer in number, than for many other films Lewis directed. (We will itemize some of these apparent Lewis subjects and techniques in later parts of the article.) The visual style of The Halliday Brand is often good, but it is not always obviously Lewis-like. If The Halliday Brand had been shown to me without credits, I would have a hard time recognizing it as Lewis' work.

This is not to suggest The Halliday Brand is a bad film. Far from it. The Halliday Brand is a movie with several virtues, in terms of social commentary, acting and visual style. I respect it. But it only intermittently seems very Lewis-like.

Perhaps all this means is that Lewis experimented with new approaches on The Halliday Brand.


Lewis seems to be a follower of Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence. The hero's campaign in the second half of The Halliday Brand can be seen as being in the tradition of non-violence. It is not strictly non-violent: it involves crimes against property, but none against people. This campaign is also political in its goals: it is an attempt to break the political power of the Sheriff, and his violent enforcement of racial discrimination against the town's Native Americans.

Such a non-violent campaign is highly unusual in a 1950's Western. I have never seen anything like it.

In real life, Martin Luther King's non-violent campaign against racism enforced by state power was underway in 1957. It is likely that the son's campaign in The Halliday Brand is an allegorical reference to it.

The first half of The Halliday Brand starts out like an Anthony Mann Western such as The Furies or The Man from Laramie. We see a family tearing itself apart over rivalries that escalate into horrendous violence. However, the second half of The Halliday Brand plays out in drastically different ways. While Mann films tend to have the cycle of violence continuing, the good characters in The Halliday Brand all move to break the cycle of violence. The hero engages in his unique non-violent social resistance. The sister Martha (Betsy Blair) also moves in directions of peace making.

One does not want to obscure, that the hero's campaign involves crimes against property. The burning of the silo is especially questionable, and has to be categorized as "violence", even if no people are injured. In other Lewis films, it is always crooks who are terrorizing towns who use fire, not heroes.

The Gun Cult

The villainous father tries to get the hero to become his deputy Sheriff, by giving him a present of guns. This seems to be an attempt to lure the hero into the gun cult. Depictions of the gun cult run through Lewis, centering on Gun Crazy. In The Halliday Brand, gun use and the gun cult are directly linked to sinister political violence by the Sheriff.

The co-writer of The Halliday Brand, George W. George, will go on to script one of Lewis' most powerful condemnations of the gun cult, The Rifleman episode The Letter of the Law. In that film, a man will also try to lure a younger male into the gun cult.


The Sheriff gets some of his corrupt political power, from the false confessions he forces out of detainees in his jail. The Halliday Brand repeatedly condemns this.

Interrogation is a theme that runs through Lewis. There are many characters who refuse to speak up, and reveal what they know. The Halliday Brand makes the political dimension of interrogation explicit.

Plot Structure: A Comparison to Wuthering Heights

The structure and plot approach of The Halliday Brand recall Emily Jane Brontë's novel, Wuthering Heights (1849). Both start out by showing a bizarre, horrifying but fascinating family situation. Then a long flashback reveals the step by step development of the situation, showing how an ordinary family turned into the characters seen at the beginning. This flashback takes up most of the work. In both stories, the working out of the plot is almost mathematical, with the characters and their relationships forming a grid or mathematical pattern that undergoes an almost pure formal development. Both tales' patterns of relationships are full of symmetries and characters who echo others. Both tales are full of ferocious characters who attack each other with a savagery rarely seen in fiction, let alone within the members of a single family. In both stories, considerable political issues are directly embodied in the family's struggles: in Wuthering Heights, class warfare; in The Halliday Brand, race relations. The second half of both tales offers a politically pointed, non-violent alternative, to the violent actions of the first half.


The formal working out of the plot in The Halliday Brand has some similarities to that in A Lawless Street. A Lawless Street is a mystery story, in which we keep learning new and surprising facts about the characters and their relationships to each other. In The Halliday Brand, the "mystery" is how the characters developed the situation shown at the beginning of the movie. Each new plot event in the long flashback shows how another piece of this relationship developed. Each new fact about the characters in The Halliday Brand that explains this situation, and each new relationship that develops between them, adds another piece to the puzzle. The new relationships are often surprising and unexpected. Both films consist of a series of dramatic new relationships and facts, each of which helps make up a larger pattern.

The dying declaration of a cowboy, claiming that Jivaro Burris was involved in the rustling of the cattle, recalls the opening of Border Wolves. In both films, innocent men are falsely accused of crimes, by dying men who sincerely but mistakenly believe they are involved.

The discussion of whether Jivaro Burris is guilty of the crime, is conducted by everyone strictly in terms of evidence. Even his supporters look for police evidence, after his story is over. These supporters follow the Lewis tradition, of keeping an open mind, and trying to follow where evidence leads. However, they do not do any of the detective work found in other Lewis films. They simply ask the Sheriff about what the actual criminals had to say about Jivaro Burris' involvement. This is sound reasoning, worthy of any detective, and fully morally admirable. But it is not the creative deduction found in many other Lewis films.

Camera Movement

The camera moves straight down, showing the tomahawk in the tree stump. Several Lewis films have vertical camera movements: but they usually start from a height, and work down to eye level. By contrast, the tomahawk shot begins at a moderate height, before moving down a shorter distance.

An early shot, follows riders as they move in front of a row of bushes. This is largely another of Lewis' lateral camera movements with foreground objects.

In the house, the camera moves from one side of a row of pillars to another. This is a familiar Lewis trope. However, it is more often seen outdoors, using the pillars of a porch. Interior pillars as in The Halliday Brand are less common.

There are also camera movements around the tall bed posts, another Lewis favorite.

The house front is seen through the buggy, when the characters leave. This is a striking deep focus composition. It also involves no less than four small camera movements, each of which adjusts the perspective a tiny bit. These adjustments seem like a formal, stylistic device. They are not "necessary" to re-frame the image, or follow characters. Instead, they seem to be there to make unusual figures of style.

The general store has an outdoor staircase. Late in the film, there is some simple, small camera movement involving the staircase, also a Lewis tradition.

Foreground Objects

The big final confrontation scene between the sheriff and his son takes place outdoors. The sheriff is shot through a row of tall grasses, that rise up in the foreground of the shot. These recall the row of flowers that filled the foreground in The Big Combo, when the hero is talking with Alicia for the first time. Both the flowers and these grasses are tall, stand straight up in a spike, and are in a regular row. And the grasses also recall the tall vegetation through which the characters pass at the end of Gun Crazy and A Lady Without Passport.

The second appearance of the noose, makes another Lewis foreground object. Lewis shoots through the noose, to make some striking shots.

The Hay Truck

A hay truck is seen in the street, making for a striking shot. Lewis keeps a fairly long take running, while the truck moves from the foreground to the background. The shot also has an opening lateral camera movement.

Lewis films often have backgrounds built out of hay. Hay trucks will return in The Rifleman episodes The Fourflusher and The Actress.

A later shot shows a rider moving from background to foreground, near the same Sheriff's office exterior we saw earlier with the hay truck. This shot ends with a pan to the left. It seems to reverse many of the actions in the earlier hay shot.

There are also some other foreground-background moves: other shots feature the hero or the grandmother moving.


That Lewis favorite, fences with short wooden posts and thin wires running between them, returns in The Halliday Brand.

The steep staircase at the jail, recalls the one in My Name Is Julia Ross. Both have high balconies at top.

We see the prisoner in the jail, through barred doors: also a Lewis favorite.

The Chad Burris and Son is one of the many signs that play such a role in Lewis' cinema. The Rifleman episode Long Gun from Tucson will end with such a father-and-son sign being erected. The word "Halliday" on the tomahawk stump is also a sign.

The music rack on the piano, has the spirals that run through Lewis.

Terror in a Texas Town

Links to The Big Combo

Lewis' Terror in a Texas Town (1958) was his last feature film. A low budget, black and white Western, it resembles his film noir work, especially The Big Combo (1955). As in that film, a gang leader with killer henchmen is terrorizing a community; much less powerful good guys try to stop him. The black and white photography in Texas also makes it look noir like. There are some differences in the pattern from The Big Combo. In The Big Combo, the suave gang leader is the chief villain, and the one with psychopathic problems. His henchmen are much more normal, at least relatively. In Terror in a Texas Town, the chief henchman is the more important character. He is the one who is crazy, not the suave head crook played by Sebastian Cabot.

The change of emphasis relates to their molls, as well. In both films, a decent woman is helplessly devoted to the crook, and needs to find the self esteem to leave him. In both films, involvement with the hero helps her do this. However, in The Big Combo, she is the moll of the gang leader; in Terror in a Texas Town, she is the girl of the hit man.

The specific plot of Terror in a Texas Town, a crooked businessman throwing farmers off their land, is repeated in The Rifleman episodes Baranca and Squeeze Play. In all three shows, the farmers' homes are burned by the villains. A similar attempted burning is shown in The Big Valley episode The Man from Nowhere. In Terror in a Texas Town and Squeeze Play, fences are torn down and the farmers' cattle are stampeded off their land.

A detailed look at the rich-versus-farmers politics of Terror in a Texas Town can be found in one of the opening sections of this book, in the section "Politics and Economics".

The town Marshal is a tool of the villains who run the city. Such a bought-and-paid-for Marshal will reappear in The Rifleman episode Strange Town. And when we first see the Marshal in The Bullet, we suspect that he is also such a tool.

The Mexican-American Family

One of the most sympathetic characters in the film is the Mexican-American farmer. In 1958, inclusion of such a character in a film sent a strong Civil Rights message to the audience. Related Mexican-American characters will appear in Baranca.

The Mexican-American family are in a familiar situation in Lewis films: they have to decide whether to speak up, and tell what they know. In this they recall the sympathetic Italian-American family in The Undercover Man. Both families wind up with wakes in their homes, filled with Roman Catholic religious imagery. In general, the Mexican-Americans in the Western Terror in a Texas Town, play an analogous role to the equally poor Italian-Americans in Lewis' modern-day anti-gangster films, The Undercover Man, The Big Combo and The Fat Man.

As a married couple in trouble, the family also resembles the bookkeeper and his wife in The Undercover Man.

The wife is expecting. Pregnancy and birth plays little role in the cinema of Joseph H. Lewis. Oddly, the next pregnant woman in a Lewis film will also be Mexican, in The Rifleman episode Waste. The two films do not have much in common: the characters in Waste are villains. Waste is one of Lewis' worst films, and people who study it in an attempt to gain insight into Terror in a Texas Town will be disappointed.

Mutual Aid

The scenes of the ranchers organizing at the beginning, and in the church, embody one of the most important themes in Lewis: mutual aid. Lewis films stress the need for communities to band together and assist one another.

Terror in a Texas Town is filled with political ambiguities, and that extends to the scenes of the ranchers' meetings. The ranchers take no specific actions in the film, except for following behind the hero in his final confrontation. Nor do they ever even formulate a specific goal. Consequently, it is hard to link them to any one political philosophy: liberalism, labor unions, anarchism, Communism, Gandhian non-violence. They are clearly left-of-center, but beyond that, it is hard to specify further.

The way the ranchers march through the street behind the hero at the end looks like the real-life street protests of the era, either for Civil Rights or peace. But is it really a protest march? The ranchers are not actually protesting anything explicitly. And whether they are gathered for peaceful protest, or there to use physical violence againt the henchman, is also unclear.

The street crowds in Terror in a Texas Town can also be seen as the people rising up against their oppressors. But once again, since the crowds don't actually do anything, it is hard to make an iron-clad case for this interpretation. One recalls the Chinese farmers rising up against the Axis agent at the end of Bombs Over Burma (1942).

People who are interested in the scenes of street crowds should see Lewis' The Rifleman episode The Deserter (1960) immediately. It is one of Lewis' most important works.

One can say that the ranchers' meetings are intended to encourage the audience to take part in communal organizations in real life. And the finale in the street is a generalized endorsement of street activities, probably including protest marches and sit-ins. The film is full of vivid left-of-center imagery. But it is hard to align this with any concrete political orientation.

I am impressed with these scenes in Terror in a Texas Town, and view them as significant. But also feel that caution is in order, in giving them too-specific political interpretations.

Ecumenical Religion

The meeting in the church is explicitly one of "many faiths and one hope". The church's iconography is mainline Protestant; the Mexican-American family is Catholic. This ecumenical association, of people of many faiths who join together, will return in The Fat Man. The "thirty-two friends of Gina Lardelli" who band together, will include a Jewish member, as well as Gina's fellow Catholics.

No Romance

Unlike The Big Combo, the moll's encounter with the hero in Terror in a Texas Town has no romantic aspect. In fact, Terror in a Texas Town is unusual in a Hollywood feature film, in that the hero is not involved in any love story. Other Lewis films also have heroes without romance: see the discussion in the introductory sections of this book.

The hero of Terror in a Texas Town also does not engage in male bonding. He gets to know the Mexican-American farmer, but seems to form a friendship with the farmer's whole family, not with the farmer per se.

There is, in fact, no clear indication of whether the hero of Terror in a Texas Town is heterosexual or gay. This is actually not unusual in Lewis films: the detective heroes of The Fat Man also are without any clear sexual orientation. By contrast, both Sebastian Cabot's villain and the henchman are straight men with girlfriends. And the Mexican-American couple are married.

The hero of Terror in a Texas Town does have the phallic imagery one finds in many Lewis men. While demonstrating how to use the harpoon in the Miradas' cottage, he holds the harpoon at a phallic angle. A couple of points about phallic symbols in Lewis are in order:

The hero corrects the sexist views of the little boy. The hero tells the boy that girls know a lot, and should be respected. The hero also treats the henchman's moll with respect. He talks to her as a human being with moral and personal issues, not as a woman or as a potential romantic partner. He compares her to "people he has known around the world": also a comparison that ignores gender. Such views of the hero can be seen in two ways:


The hero is Swedish-American. He is a former sailor, now retired: in this he recalls the Scandinavian Dreyer in The Big Combo. However, he is a good guy, not a villain like Dreyer. He looks forward to such Rifleman good guy characters as the Scots banker introduced in The Safe Guard, and the blacksmith Nils Swenson introduced in Duel of Honor. Such characters are part of the Lewis world view.

The hero speaks two languages, Swedish and English, and the dialogue with the Marshal shows that he can read legal documents both two languages. Like the banker in The Rifleman, he brings a worldly business knowledge to this small Western town. His conversation with the henchman's moll stresses that he knows people all over the world.

The Contest

The finale is a classic example of Lewis' interest in "duels with strange weapons".

Terror in a Texas Town is not the first use of this weapon. A pulp detective short story "Death on the Hook" (1937), by John K. Butler, came earlier. The story is available on-line, at:

We see the henchman cross the street before the duel. The camera follows along, with a moving camera close-up of his holster. Such camera movements focused on holsters appear in other Lewis films. (See the auteurist checklist that opens this Lewis book for details.) The shot ends with a rear view of the gunslinger: also a common Lewis angle.


Nedrick Young's henchman has lived his life as a gunslinger. Villain Sebastian Cabot imports him to shoot people. Cabot also demands a display of marksmanship from Young.

Both men can be seen as members of the gun cult, a key Lewis theme. Both men meet a fate reserved for members of the gun cult in Lewis, too.

By contrast, Cabot's other three henchmen, while rotten, don't seem to use gun violence. And they escape with their lives at the end, being paid off and leaving town.

The big duel at the end, can be seen as pitting a gunman, against a working class man using a work implement - not a gun:

Another work tool seen in Terror in a Texas Town, Mirada's log splitter, will return in Honest Abe. And in both films, an unarmed farmer using the tool, will have his work interupted by an armed killer.


The hero is smart enough to figure out that a mystery is going on: why does the villain want all of this poor land? This is enough to get him to keep asking questions around town, looking for missing information. This is a simple mystery plot, but it does serve to show a hero using his brain to perform detection: a subject that runs through many Lewis films.

The little boy has a mistaken idea about the hero: first he thinks he is one of the killers, and only gradually learns that the hero is the farmer's son. This is another example of the Lewis concept, that our first ideas are often wrong, and need to be revised. In some Lewis films like The Big Combo, this idea-revision is worked into the detective plot: but in Terror in a Texas Town, it is just part of a simple scene, not connected to any detection.


In several Lewis films, metaphors are linked to detection, and center around the hero and his activities. By contrast in Terror in a Texas Town it is the henchman who gets the metaphor: he is compared to "Death Walking". This is a frightening image.

Near the Ground

Mirada refuses to kneel to his killer: an act of defiance. One might note that Lewis films will soon be full of men kneeling due to emotional crises. This kneeling imagery is seen from films from Face of Yesterday (1961) on. These later Lewis men are not kneeling to another man - they are simply kneeling by themselves, due to being emotionally overwhelmed.

The hero winds up prone on the ground, after the final duel. The young hero of Gun Crazy winds up flat on the ground after the robbery in the rain at the film's start.

Lewis Regulars

Several members of the cast appear in other Lewis films:

Long Takes

The visual style in Terror in a Texas Town also has much in common with The Big Combo. Both films are filled with long takes. In both films, Lewis sometimes stages a scene so that one character is facing a camera, and the other has its back to it; other times both characters are facing the camera, with the closer one having his back to the farther one. In both cases, Lewis maintains a stable camera, instead of angle / reverse angle cutting back and forth between the characters. If a character has their back to the camera, they do their dialogue facing away from the viewer, then the dialogue passes back to the facing character; this looks quite avant-garde compared with many films.

The use of long takes is less consistent in Terror in a Texas Town than in The Big Combo. Lewis will mix in a long take with edited shots. It is a much jumpier, and apparently more arbitrary mix, although the overall effect creates a fine rhythm. The two techniques can be blended in a single scene, with both long takes and cutting used to stage the scene as a whole.

Camera Movement

The long takes in Terror in a Texas Town have much more camera movement than the relatively fixed ones in The Big Combo. Lewis often does very unexpected things with his camera. An early shot in Cabot's room follows the motions of his henchman's arm while drinking. The camera moves in three line segments, quite jaggedly, here. Is there a plot point? Not that I could see it. It is done for the joy of movement, and the unusual visual pattern it creates.

A shot towards the middle of the film, in which Sterling Hayden talks first to the moll, then to bad guys, in the saloon at the bar, moves laterally down the bar in short bursts. It, too, is most unusual and different from conventional camera movements. This movement follows the staging of the confrontations - they move down the bar as well - but the over all effect is startling. It is of a camera that can make short direct changes, wait awhile in a fixed position, then make more changes. It is like a nervous rabbit, or perhaps more like a watchful but jumpy tiger.

Depth Staging and Joined Sets

Lewis sometimes uses depth staging here. Hayden's hotel room is connected up with the hotel corridor set; we see the room from the corridor, instead of entering the room. Such joined sets will be deeply explored in The Rifleman.

We also see action from within the shed, with a deep focus landscape framed in the huge door opening.


A recurring visual motif in the picture is the tree. Both of the good guys' houses have solitary trees outside them. The shots often show these trees in the background. The shots are beautiful. The leafless tree is shown in full, with its branches spreading out in both directions, against the sky. The Rifleman will be full of tree shots.

Architecture and Sets

Terror in a Texas Town has a number of standard Lewis architectural features: The curving street of the town is highly unusual in Lewis. He makes some unique perspective shots, down covered porticos, which open out on the street which has curved behind them.

The railroad tracks pass in front of the Miradas' farm house. The hero moves from right to left on them, in a direction perpendicular to the house and the farmer in front of it. This geometry recalls the way the hero swoops in and robs the robbers in The Last Stand. However, the hero of the The Last Stand is on horseback and lightning swift; the hero of Terror in a Texas Town is on foot, beaten up, and painfully slow.

Foreground Objects

Some shots are through foreground objects:

The Annoying Soundtrack

Terror in a Texas Town has the least likable musical score of any Lewis film. Gerald Fried's blaring brass becomes less endurable every time one tries to watch Terror in a Texas Town again. A cynic could compare it to the sinister fanfares that marked the entrance of the Red Chinese Army in Retreat, Hell!. Sterling Hayden's fake Swedish accent is an endurance test, too.

Courage of the West

Courage of the West (1937) is the first of the four Westerns Lewis made with singing cowboy Bob Baker. And Lewis' first solo outing as a director (after doing some retakes on another director's film, Navy Spy). Courage of the West is full of original touches, most of which presage later Lewis subjects and techniques. Lewis' staging, camera work and visual motifs in Courage of the West are more inventive than the story or the characters, which tend to the routine.

Camera Movement

The opening camera movement is highly unusual. In fact, I don't recall anything like it in a 1930's Hollywood film. It starts out on a map, like the giant map to come at the opening of Retreat, Hell!. Then it rises up, to give an overhead view of people sitting at the table. The camera shoots through the chandelier, one of many foreground objects in the cinema of Joseph H. Lewis. The camera then moves down towards eye level. It starts making a roughly circular camera movement around the table, showing the various characters. Finally, the camera movement closes on Buck Saunders, and dissolves from his face to a spinning wagon wheel. The whole spectacular shot is both complex and original.

A later nearly circular camera movement opens on Bob Baker singing to the heroine. The camera circles around Baker, then moves behind a post to reveal the heroine in a hammock.

There are a number of camera movements from the moving train. Some are from the train side; another looks through a train window. These all anticipate the moving camera shots from cars in Lewis' noir thrillers, such as the famous long-take bank robbery in Gun Crazy.

The Rangers' song around the campfire includes some free form, exploratory camera movements, moving from the fire to the singers, and down along the row of the Rangers' faces.

A pair of pans shows the villain riding through water, then later on, moving in the reverse direction through the water on the same path. While simple and short, these camera movements are templates for much longer path / reverse path camera movements to come, in Lewis.

Some camera movements connect outdoors and indoors, in the Lewis tradition. At the Free Ranger headquarters, the camera follows Baker through the door, then moves in as he throws himself casually on his father's desk. His posture on the desk is like nothing else in cinema, either in Lewis or films as a whole: Baker kicks up his heels. It also represents the enthusiasm of a Lewis hero.

Baker immediately opens a second door, looking into Fuzzy Knight's bath. Baker's huge grin here also anticipates many smiling Lewis heroes to come.

While they are mainly fixed shots, the telegraph office scenes also link indoors and outdoors. One shows us the street outside, through a plate glass window. A later scene shows the street through an open door. The shot from inside the bad guy's cabin also shows us a curtained window, looking out on an outdoor landscape.

Staging: Background to Foreground

Lewis films as a whole are notable for deep focus scenes, in which characters move from background to foreground, or the reverse. There are no extreme scenes of this sort in Courage of the West, but there are some shots that anticipate this sort of staging:

Staging: Right Angles

Lewis often sets characters at 90 or 180 degree angles to each other. He is already doing this in some scenes in Courage of the West.

After a song by a group of good guys, villain Jed enters on horseback. His path is at 90 degrees to the camera, and the group of good guys. This anticipates a more emphatically staged scene in The Last Stand, where hero Baker rides past bad guys on a similar path right in front of them. In both films, the right angle of the path makes vivid the opposition between the rider in front and the crowd motionless behind.

The Birth of Wagon Wheel Joe: Foreground Objects

Right from the start, in his first feature Courage of the West, Lewis has a song framed through the spokes of a wagon wheel. Similar group stagings will be seen in the song in Boss of Hangtown Mesa, although that film will be more rigorous, with each singer getting a different section of the wheel. The same song includes a campfire, almost, but not quite, in the foreground of the shot.

Earlier, we saw parts of the first massacre, though wagon wheels.

The massacre also includes a striking wagon wheel shot, that is NOT a view though it. We see a spinning wagon wheel from the edge, which makes spectacular light patterns below. This recalls some of the odd lighting effects on the monastery staircase in Bombs Over Burma.

There are also some shots through arching tree branches. These are simpler and more tentative than the elaborate compositions in later Lewis pictures.

Architecture and props

Several favorite Lewis architectural features and props make their seemingly first appearance in Courage of the West:

Lewis subjects

Several favorite Lewis subjects make their apparently first appearance in Courage of the West:

The Transition to Manhood - and an Off-Screen Voice

One of the most startling scenes is the montage showing the hero's transition from a boy to adulthood. This is staged entirely as shots of the Rangers riding and singing the song Ride Along, Free Rangers. At the start, we hear the boy's childhood soprano, as he rides in the midst of the rangers. This fades out, and is eventually replaced by the adult Bob Baker's voice.

The scene anticipates The Jolson Story, which also focuses on its singing hero's changeover to his adult voice. In The Jolson Story, this occurs while the hero is sharing a hotel room with William Demarest. As in Courage of the West, the hero is with other men, during his transition to adulthood. In the Rifleman episode Baranca, teenage Mark's wisdom teeth - also seen as a transition to manhood - come out in a scene he shares with two grown men, his father and the dentist.

This is also the entrance of Bob Baker into the film, and into Lewis' world. Baker is first heard briefly as an off-screen voice, a kind of staging that will run through all of Lewis.

Courage of the West falls into two parts, a prologue showing the youthful hero, and a main film set many years later, depicting him as an adult. Other Lewis theatrical films will have such a construction: Minstrel Man, The Jolson Story, Gun Crazy. None of Lewis' Rifleman episodes has such a time gap, however, and neither do any other of the Lewis TV films I've seen (The Vindicators and The Death of Matthew Eldridge include flashbacks, but only to events a few years in the past.)

Militarism - and Costumes

The Free Rangers are the first of several "non-military, US Government institutions organized on militaristic lines" in Lewis. The Civilian Conservation Corps in Pride of the Bowery, and the INS in A Lady Without Passport, will follow. One can speculate that such groups embody the appeal of a militaristic life-style, without the horrible consequences of war that attend actual military institutions.

The Free Rangers all wear what might be termed a cowboy uniform: matching black shirts, white hats, and white neck scarves. In addition, they all ride pinto ponies: black-and-white horses. A line of dialogue explains that this allows them to recognize each other at a distance, during fights. Francis M. Nevins writes: "The "uniformed cowboys" bit is commonplace in Thirties Westerns directed by Robert N. Bradbury, like Westward Ho (with John Wayne) and Riders of the Dawn (with Jack Randall)."

The hero keeps to the same general uniform plan, but his shirt is much fancier, with white trim, and he has a fancier, if still white, cowboy hat. And he has cowboy boots, which can be seen best when he is leaving the general store with Fuzzy Knight.

In the next three Bob Baker films, Baker plays new characters, and the Free Rangers are nowhere in sight. Baker reuses his snazzy black-and-white outfit from Courage of the West in his third and fourth Lewis films, Border Wolves and The Last Stand. However, the clothes no longer have any "uniform" connotations: they are just a spiffy cowboy outfit for the hero in these later films.

The Captain of the Free Rangers, and his adopted son and second-in-command, played by Baker, form a pair that will run through Lewis: the middle-aged man who runs some Government institution, and his young, good-looking deputy. Baker is in a fancy uniform, just like the deputy in the dress uniform in A Lady Without Passport.

Fuzzy Knight shows up with his shirt off, after a bath. Such shirtless men will be frequent in Lewis.

Runaways - and New Identities

As a work of storytelling or characterization, Courage of the West has many problems. Despite its creativity with the camera, as a narrative it is still an apprentice work for Lewis.

The villain is the first character in Lewis to run away from home, and like some other Lewis runaways, he abandons his child. This leads to a more tragic conclusion than in later Lewis films, with the hero and his biological father at each other's throats. I confess I did not enjoy this plot at all, either here, or where it is partly reprised in Minstrel Man - in both films, the abandoned child winds up getting adopted by others. It is too downbeat to enjoy, and in the words of Andrew Sarris on another movie, "too clinical for comfort".

Both the outlaw father and abandoned young hero wind up with new identities, another Lewis staple. Unfortunately, the new identities do not lead to much here, other than the aforementioned father-son conflicts. Lewis will treat this subject much more inventively in later movies.

No Politics

Unlike many later Lewis films, Courage of the West seems to have no politics and no social commentary. It pits the good guy Free Rangers, who are essentially cowboy policemen, against bad guy train robbers. This is not a very original or substantive plot. While the film shows us both the founding of the Free Rangers, and a later threat to disband it, it never explains what is special about the Free Rangers, or why we should care about them.

And Little Detection

Similarly, Courage of the West lacks any mystery or much real detection. The youthful hero deduces that he is talking to law officers, when he spies a badge one is carrying. This anticipates more momentous discoveries made by young Mark McCain in such Rifleman episodes as The Journey Back and Suspicion, where he also discovers objects revealing hidden truths about people.

And later, the grown up Bob Baker follows the tracks of a bad guy's horse. This anticipates the tracking done by later Lewis heroes, as in Pompey.

An Influence from 3 Bad Men

Courage of the West has elements in common with the classic silent Western 3 Bad Men (John Ford, 1926). In 3 Bad Men, a trio of three tough guys adopt and raise a young baby as their son. Similarly, in Courage of the West two men bring up the hero, as his adoptive parents. Also, the men in 3 Bad Men include actor J. Farrell McDonald, who returns as the main adoptive parent (and founder of the Free Rangers) in Courage of the West.

3 Bad Men has its hero and heroine looking at each other through a wagon wheel they are repairing.

Abraham Lincoln shows up briefly in Courage of the West, just as he did in The Iron Horse (John Ford, 1924).

A Musical Ancestor?

One of many films Lewis worked on as a "supervising film editor" was The Singing Vagabond (1935), a singing cowboy movie with Gene Autry. This is one of a handful of films directed by Carl Pierson, who spent most of his career as an editor. The overall conception of what a musical Western might be like in The Singing Vagabond returns in Lewis' own Bob Baker films. Like the Lewis-Baker films, The Singing Vagabond is full of choruses, scenes where groups of Western figures sing together. The hero is a plain-clothes Army officer scout who leads a group of riding men known as "The Plainsmen", like Bob Baker and the Free Rangers in Courage of the West. We first see Autry riding along with his men, singing with them: like the entrance of Bob Baker in Courage of the West. They are eventually framed by tree branches - although the shape of the tree is different from the typical "overhanging branch" of a Lewis film.

The Singing Vagabond also anticipates the early Lewis films, in that the night scenes are really dark.

Autry's shirt has a lace-up collar opening, like Baker in the Lewis films.

I don't want to start any rumors. It seems most unlikely, for example, that Lewis had anything to do with the direction of The Singing Vagabond. It lacks his trademark visual style. There are a few plot points that anticipate Lewis to come: the heroine runs away from home and takes on a new identity; the hero winds up in jail and is seen behind bars; the film ends with an attempted wagon train massacre.

Also it is possible that rather than The Singing Vagabond being a direct influence on Courage of the West, that both are simply examples of a bigger group of musical Westerns that share common traditions and approaches.

Singing Outlaw

Singing Outlaw (1937) is the second of the four Westerns Lewis made with singing cowboy Bob Baker. This inoffensive film is neither very entertaining, nor does it show many Lewis personal characteristics. It is an apprentice work, that occasionally contains ideas and techniques that will appear in later Lewis films, where they are better developed.

One bizarre aspect of the plot: people keep speculating that the hero, who sings well, is actually the mysterious Singing Bandit who is running around committing robberies. I kept expecting we would meet the real Singing Bandit - who after all, is the title character of the film. But he never shows up, and this aspect of the plot seems dropped completely, in the film's second half. Unless the Bandit is one of the villains arrested at the end - none of whom sing.

Lewis plot subjects

Changing Identity. One of the villains impersonates a good guy he kills. And three different times in the film, the hero is more or less forced into a new identity by someone: a gambit that will return in Border Wolves, My Name Is Julia Ross and The Stand-In. None of these identity changes are very sustained in Singing Outlaw.

Cooking. Fuzzy Knight plays a cook, who cooks for other men at a round-up. Later, the bride also has prepared a lavish wedding feast.

Contests. The hero takes part in rodeo-like contests, and wins in both singing cowboy songs, and shooting. The shooting competition resembles in a small way the far more elaborate displays of trick shooting in Gun Crazy, Duel of Honor, Sidewinder, and other Lewis works. The contests, with their relentless dialogue about how the hero is The Best Singer and The Best Shot, make an odd contrast to much later Lewis films that warn about the dangers of trying to be recognized publicly as The Best at something.

There are also warnings from an older man authority figure, that the hero's shooting skills might lead him to a bad end - which is exactly what happens to the hero of Gun Crazy. However, here the possibility that being good with guns can lead to trouble is vehemently denied by sidekick Fuzzy Knight.

Water. The same lake will reappear in Border Wolves - and be photographed better there. Its fence will also reappear in that film.

Knocked out. The hero is knocked out, and is unconscious for a while. Later Lewis heroes will be attacked, in more sinister such scenes.

A man who reads. The jailer is reading a Western magazine.

Searches through papers. Both bad guys and lawmen search through people's papers, making discoveries.

Real detective work? At the end, Fuzzy and one of the lawmen announce that they have reconstructed the film's opening murder, using evidence found at the crime scene (presumably footprints, shells, etc.). This reconstruction exonerates the hero. This is a nice try - and it certainly anticipates all the detection to come in Lewis. However, Fuzzy provides no details of his detective work - and it is hard to see how anyone could have reconstructed the history of the opening shoot-out in such detail, anyway. This scene is more a nod at detection, rather than the real substantive sleuthing that appears in so many later Lewis films.


Off-screen voices. The villain hears the hero riding in the distance, singing a song, long before he sees him. Like many Lewis off-screen voices, this has an eerie effect - even though the hero is a pure good guy.

Camera movement through walls. At the jail, there is a camera movement from the office to the cells. It goes through a dark area, which might well be a wall or a post. In later films, Lewis will move through walls much less ambiguously.

Staging through windows. We see the wedding feast through a window. And near the end, a very fast track shows people entering a house through several windows. This is the camera movement in Singing Outlaw that shows Lewis the enthusiast of exotic tracking. This movement is so fast, that it is hard to see and follow - a fault Lewis will correct in later films.

An arching tree branch. The sheriff's posse moves under a branch.


There are a couple of good panning shots, outdoors:

The hero rides up a diagonal hill.

Lewis pans across a huge landscape, in which the human figures are small. A posse is on the far right, then the camera crosses a river, and we see the hero in the far left of the pan.

The Spy Ring

The Spy Ring (1938) is an espionage thriller, with a US Army hero and background. The tale is set in peacetime. There are no war or combat scenes, and very little violence of any kind.

Horses, Polo and Sport

Instead, there is much footage of the hero playing polo - which ties in with Lewis' love of horses. Lewis made several films about horse racing, but this seems to be his only movie about polo. As in Lewis horse race films, there are many shots of the horses, both off and on the field. Gambling plays a role here, just as it does in most of the racing films.

The film builds up to The Big Game, which everyone hopes The Hero Will Win. But as in such Lewis horse racing films as That Gang of Mine and The Fourflusher, unusual plot twists prevent either a simple victory or defeat. Even at this early stage, Lewis is violating standard Hollywood approaches to sports movies. (One has to note, that neither Lewis nor anyone else involved in making The Spy Ring invented this plot twist. It is present in Francis Van Wyck Mason's original short story.)

The only other polo film I've ever seen is the silent comedy-drama The Smart Set (Jack Conway, 1928). (Capsule review: The main asset of The Smart Set is the energetic mugging of its brash and likable comedy star, William Haines, who stars as a millionaire polo player. Jack Conway's direction is routine and lacks visual style. Much of The Smart Set would make passable light entertainment, but its racist comedy relief scenes make it impossible to recommend.) The elegant heroes of both The Spy Ring and The Smart Set oscillate between the polo grounds, and fancy clubs where dances are held. Both horses and upper crust Male Authority Figures also abound in both movies. (One hastens to add that there is no racism in Lewis' The Spy Ring whatsoever!) While the connections between The Spy Ring and The Smart Set are not close, they do have some broad similarities in their treament of polo. It seems likely that The Spy Ring reflects Hollywood traditions of depicting polo players in the movies.

However, a rich man's game like polo seems like a natural fit for the escapist fantasies of the 1920's. But polo seems out of sync with the poverty of the Depression and its common man heroes, by 1938 and The Spy Ring.

The outcome of the polo game, has the hero falsely viewed as a coward by his teammates. Nothing much comes of this - the hero clearly doesn't care - but it does anticipate in a mild way Lewis' later Cavalry Westerns, with their heroes falsely branded as cowards. (The accusations of cowardice derive directly from Francis Van Wyck Mason's story, where they are viewed far more seriously by the hero than in the film.)


The gun the Army hero is developing is intended as an "anti-aircraft" weapon. If I understand this correctly, this means it is designed to shoot down bombing planes: planes that might bomb the USA or its Allies. Lewis would soon go on to a devastating indictment of the Axis bombing of China, in Bombs Over Burma. Many American and British in this era regarded bombing civilian targets as a horrendous war crime. The popularity of bombing among contemporary Americans would shock and appall them.

Comic books, in particular, in the 1930's and early 1940's, were full of speculations about new weapons, and what effect these might have on the USA. With World War II just one year away in 1938, this was a highly relevant subject.

Lewis' Developing Skills as a Filmmaker

Lewis' first film, Courage of the West, was outstandingly visually inventive, but weak in storytelling. The Spy Ring continues Lewis' visual creativity. And his storytelling skills are getting better here - the film succeeds as story entertainment in a pleasant way.

However, Lewis is still not very good at characterization in The Spy Ring. The hero is never really developed as a person. He has few specific personality traits or ideas. (He is upbeat, and smiles a lot, however, in the Lewis manner.) And Lewis does little with a supporting cast full of gifted actors: Jane Wyman, Robert Warwick and Leon Ames. Their characters are barely there. This is all so different from most of Lewis' films, which are notable for their well-developed characterizations. Still, The Spy Ring as a whole is a pleasing entertainment.

William Hall

The Spy Ring seems to be the career highlight of its little known leading man, William Hall. Hall made over sixty movies, but mainly in supporting roles or bit parts. He frequently played cops, or working man characters: moving men, lumberjacks, blast furnace operators, cab drivers, bartenders. Even in The Spy Ring, he plays a career Army officer: a man who has worked his whole life. It is never made clear whether his character comes from a wealthy or poor background, even though he spends his time at Officers' Clubs and polo fields.

Hall was gigantic: 6'4" (1.93 meters) according to the IMDB. This is tall today, but it was huge back in the 1930's, when people were much shorter (probably due to poor nutrition). The Spy Ring emphasizes Hall's height, by casting him opposite every short actor in Hollywood. I'm not sure if this is really a good idea. Audiences might resent a man a bit who is always shown as bigger than everybody. Lewis used the opposite strategy years later for Chuck Connors on The Rifleman, who was 6'5" (1.96 meters). Connors was regularly cast against equally big actors such as Chris Alcaide and Cesare Danova.

Detection and Technology

There is not much mystery and only a little detection in The Spy Ring. But there is some technology used to gather evidence, a Lewis tradition: Technology, not used for detection, includes the very long straw used to sip the wine. Nutty gizmos appear in several Lewis films; the straw anticipates a bit the long bamboo pipe in And the Devil Makes Five. This whole scene is a delicious take-off on spy movie cliches, of the femme fatale trying to get the hero drunk.

We see an office at Army Intelligence headquarters, anticipating the offices at French police headquarters in So Dark the Night.

The hero goes undercover in his duties as an Army Intelligence officer. Unlike later Lewis heroes with undercover roles, he does not actually assume a new identity. He keeps his name and officer's rank, but conceals his Intelligence role.

Eventually, we also learn that villain Denton has changed his identity as part of his criminal schemes. Denton is one of a series of men in early Lewis who at first seem to be upper class males - but who eventually are revealed to be crooks who have changed their identity: see The Silver Bullet, Boss of Hangtown Mesa, Bombs Over Burma, The Falcon in San Francisco. As far as I can tell, this sort of character disappears in Lewis films made after The Falcon in San Francisco in 1945. There are still crooks in later Lewis who assume new identities as part of their schemes: see the phony buffalo hunter in Sheer Terror. But these men are not posing as members of the upper classes. Lewis still has big rich crooks, such as the monstrous mob lawyer in The Undercover Man (1949), and the elegant mobster in The Fat Man (1958?). These men are full of upper class mannerisms - but everyone knows they are mobsters. They do not have secret identities, hidden in the past.

Self-Reflective Discussion of the Spy Plot

The dialogue explicitly mentions the at-one-time hugely popular spy novelist, E. Phillips Oppenheim. This is part of a discussion, in which Esther Ralston compares herself to a heroine in a spy novel. Lewis films sometimes include metaphors, in which characters discuss the plot they are in, in self-reflective ways. Here is an early example of self-reflection in Lewis, although it is not quite a metaphor.

Actually, the film's subject matter, elegant spies living the high life while they try to steal valuable government secrets, reminds one more of spy writer William Le Queux than of Oppenheim.

Camera Movement

There is much camera movement in The Spy Ring.

The most important shot is the one introducing the dinner dance. While there is an ambiguous shot in Singing Outlaw that may or may not show the camera moving through a wall, there is no ambiguity about this shot in The Spy Ring. It is definitely a through-the-wall camera movement: the first such shot in Lewis. And there's more! The shot continues as a lateral track through the dining room. Many house-plants form "foreground objects", masking the front of the shot in the Lewis manner. This also seems to be the first "lateral track with foreground objects" in Lewis. It is a bit different from later lateral tracks, in that it is not following someone walking. Also, the track in The Spy Ring is a bit unusual, in that the camera pans a bit while tracking as well, in order to keep the shot centered on a standing man.

Josef von Sternberg also liked plants in front of his lateral tracks, as did Murnau in his track-to-the-swamp at the start of Sunrise. Perhaps there is an influence here on young Lewis. The choice of plants is also consistent with all the shots in which trees and shrubs are used as foreground frames in Lewis. The shot also resembles the opening camera movement of Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932). Both start by going through walls. Both then show a man walking behind house-plants.

Lewis has a second through-the-wall camera movement, later in The Spy Ring. This one takes place in the Captain's bungalow.

The beautiful overhead shot, in which the hero's taxi arrives at the Officers' Club, is through palm fronds. This shot seems to be a pan. There are curvilinear forms on the ground, making this shot visually complex.

Another moving camera shot through foliage: the first balcony scene at the Officers' Club dance. The hero and heroine have moved outside to the balcony. We see them through hanging plant vegetation. The camera moves forward to them. The hanging leaves seem to move out of the way through their own accord - like the leaves at the end of the track-through-the-swamp at the start of Sunrise. This shot definitely seems like a Murnau moment.

Also notable: a shot parallel to a moving motorcycle, at the beach.

The hero drives his friend and fellow officer, to his friend's apartment building, near the start of the film. There are some simple camera moves in this scene, up and down the street. What is most notable here, are the two curving outdoor staircases, in front of the apartment. They make some striking compositions.

A pan during the nocturnal car chase follows a car along the road. Not long after, a second panning shot follows the car back down along the same road, in the opposite direction. This is an example of paired camera movements along a path / reverse path. Both camera movements are behind rows of tree trunks, making beautiful effects.

Mrs. Brown is first heard as an off-screen voice, a common Lewis strategy, before she becomes visible.

Connecting Staging

Lewis likes to stage shots that join multiple rooms. Such an approach is already visible in The Spy Ring:

Foreground Objects

There are many shots through foreground objects: Several shots have hanging foliage in front of them.


Some key shots are creatively staged in mirrors. The female spy first notices her victim has discovered her in the mirror. This is an example of a suspense scene, in which truth comes out in a mirror. Lewis will make even more such elaborate mirror-truth shots in The Silver Bullet and Surveyors.

Early in the film, the hero checks out his appearance in the mirror. Lewis heroes like to groom in front of mirrors, and they usually like what they see! The Rifleman will comb his hair in front of a mirror in The Visitor.

There is also a nicely staged shot of the hero making a phone call in a mirror, while another officer is seen in the background.

1938 is before the official rise of film noir, whose start is often dated to 1940. Film noir Hollywood crime movies of the 1940's and 50's are full of mirror-shots: they are one of the characteristics of the genre. But here is Lewis in The Spy Ring (1938), making elaborate use of mirrors for both staging and suspense. Fritz Lang was using mirrors in his German films long before 1938. But still, in Hollywood a mirror-filled thriller like The Spy Ring seems a bit pioneering.

Men in Unison

When the hero and Denton (Leon Ames) are walking, the film suddenly cuts to a close-up of their feet, marching in unison. Such marching-in-unison-close-ups will recur in Lewis. Next, we see medium shots of the two men, still walking in sync. Lewis will eventually develop even more elaborate shots of men leaping and moving in unison, in Baranca and One Killer on Ice.

Throughout this scene, civilian Denton is telling the officer hero how fascinated he, Denton, is by militaristic life-styles. The hero responds that military life is great, and suggests half-humorously that Denton join the service. The dialogue is a form of male bonding, over an enthusiastic discussion of militaristic life-styles. Just as The Spy Ring contains a scene in which the villainess tells the hero she is sexually attracted to him because of his uniform, so does this scene employ militarism as a way of bonding between two men.

When the hero and his friend are chasing the bad guys in the car, there are frequent shots showing the men's identical profiles, in identical uniforms.

The Hoax: Funny but Morally Dubious

The firing squad hoax was probably intended as rowdy comedy in 1938: one set of tough guys razzing another tough guy. It's funny and it made me laugh. But its morality seems poor. These are clearly not interrogation techniques that can be endorsed for any but the most tongue-in-cheek comic scenes.

The scene anticipates hero Glenn Ford's interrogation of the mob bookkeeper in The Undercover Man. In both films a government agent is holding prisoner a lower-down from a crooked organization - and wants him to speak up and reveal what he knows. In both films, the agent pretends that the prisoner is going to get killed. This scares the prisoner into speaking up. In both films, the prisoner is not really a bad guy of a crook, just a low level employee. In both films, the prisoner is in clothes that proclaim he is a tough guy: a sharp chauffeur's uniform in The Spy Ring, a black leather jacket in The Undercover Man. And in both films the interrogation is treated as a bit of a comic escapade, although the comic aspect is more pronounced in The Spy Ring than in The Undercover Man. The prisoner in unharmed in both films, and even released and protected by the Feds in The Undercover Man.

There are signs that Lewis himself might have had second thoughts about this. Much later, in his major classic The Deserter (1960), thirst and a firing squad will be threats used by the villain, rather than the heroes, as they are in The Spy Ring. (He uses these threats not for interrogation, however, but to intimidate people.)

Also, unless I am forgetting something, Lewis only once returned to this sort of interrogation technique in another film: a brief episode in The Big Combo. Quite a few Lewis films have a subject of a person refusing to speak up, and reveal secret knowledge they have. But Lewis never again endorsed these sorts of dubious interrogation methods. For example, most of the plot of The Hiding Place (1959) has the police trying to get witnesses to speak up about the location of a bomb about to go off. The cops in The Hiding Place never resort to the sort of methods we see in The Spy Ring.

The discussion of letting a prisoner escape, then shooting him, returns in Border Wolves, but only as a nonsensical possibility raised by the sidekick as comedy relief.


The Spy Ring gets its hero into that Lewis favorite, white clothes: here a polo outfit. It also does not fail to give a close-up of the hero's boots, part of his Army uniform.

Army dress uniforms are everywhere in The Spy Ring. They are part of the fascination Lewis characters have with uniforms and militarism. The Mata Hari female spy even tells the hero that she likes him because she has "a uniform complex".

At one point the hero slaps his gloves against his palm. This sort of officer's gesture with gloves will return much later in The Deserter. The sinister Army officer of that film will also use his gloves, albeit in a somewhat different gesture.

When he first enters the Officers' Club, a fellow officer pressures the hero to change out of his uniform, and into his polo outfit. This is another example in Lewis of men making other men change clothes.

There is also a uniformed chauffeur, a costume that will return in So Dark the Night and The Fat Man. The scene where the chauffeur orders a fancy meal anticipates the ordering sequence that ends Sidewinder. The meal includes pie and coffee, two Lewis favorites.

A Comparison with the Source

Francis M. Nevins has pointed out how few Lewis films are based on outside source materials: almost all Lewis' films are screen originals. This is in contrast to Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock or Otto Preminger, who regularly adapted books and stories. Nevins observes that The Spy Ring is one of the few Lewis films with a source story. And in some good detective work, Nevins tracked down the actual original, which just gets a vague credit on screen (Mason is credited in the film with just an unnamed "story idea" - not so, he wrote an actual short story!).

Francis Van Wyck Mason's novella "The Enemy's Goal", appeared in the pulp magazine Argosy, for the week of May 18, 1935 (Vol. 255, Number 5). Argosy was at one time a hugely popular pulp magazine, one of the best known of all the pulps. As its subtitle read, it published "Action Stories of Every Variety".

The Hero: A Spy or not

In Mason's story, the hero is an ordinary Army officer, devoted to polo, who accidentally stumbles on spies halfway through the tale. He then tries to track the spies down, as an amateur sleuth. In the film, the hero is assigned to Army Intelligence, and tracks down spies as part of his job, right from the start of the picture. Polo is just a sidelight for him, something he does in addition to his main spy duties.

This change has a number of effects. The inclusion of polo makes more sense in the story than in the film. In the story, polo-playing is the hero's chief life-goal. One can see why the hero is playing the game. But in the film, it is sometimes hard to figure out why the hero is taking time off from his professional spy duties to play polo. It seems like a senseless distraction - basically, something we just have to accept for the sake of an entertaining movie. Mason's story also has much more informative detail on how the game of polo is played, than does the film.

Perhaps more significantly, the changes to the film mean that the film has roughly twice the plot of the original story. Most of the story's events have been preserved in the film: the polo, the adventuress' offer of Argentine ponies, what happens at the Big Game and after. But the film also has a whole new set of plot events: the gun, the killing of Lt. Scott, the hero's undercover assignment, the use of technology, the firing squad hoax and all the rest. This makes the film far more elaborate in plot than the story. Not all of this plot hangs together seamlessly - as we said, the polo scenes are not as logically connected to the new spy material as they should be - but it does make for a plot-rich film. The plot additions to the film tend to be personal story elements for Lewis too: guns, undercover work, technology used for detection, characters who refuse to speak up, all return in later Lewis films.

Military Life and Militarism

In the story, both hero and villain are Army officers. In the film, the villain is now a civilian. In the story, the hero meets condemnation from his superior officer near the start of the tale. In the film, various authority figures in the Army keep telling the hero what a great job he is doing, and how proud they are of him. These changes perhaps have a couple of motivations. Mason in 1935 did not hesitate to suggest that a bad guy Army officer might sell his country out for money. By contrast, Lewis in 1938 shows all the Army characters as loyal US patriots. Perhaps with war just a year away, Lewis wanted to depict the US Army in an entirely positive fashion.

Also, the film offers an idealized version of (peacetime) military life, with brotherhood, uniforms, Officers' Clubs, heroism and congratulating commanders. Lewis and his characters were always fascinated by militarism. Here at the start of his career, Lewis presents a militaristic fantasy without irony. Later Lewis films will still have characters fascinated by militaristic life styles, but they will either associate such lifestyles with non-military organizations (Pride of the Bowery, A Lady Without Passport), or present a pacifist critique of how the military uses militarism to lure people into huge disasters (The Deserter). Even his Korean War film, Retreat, Hell!, which offers a sincere tribute to the Marine Corps, depicts the huge price the Marines have to pay in battle.

One can take too stern a tone with an escapist fantasy like The Spy Ring. Its vision of Army life is a fantasy that has little to do with reality - but it's a pleasant and largely peaceful one. After all, if all the world's armed forces did was play polo and wear spiffy uniforms to the Officers' Club, we would all be a lot better off!

The Cover Painting vs the Film

Mason's novella got the cover of Argosy, a lively painting of a polo match. One can see some differences right away, between this cover and Lewis' film. The cover emphasizes a rider's boots and spurs. Boots are everywhere in Lewis' films - but spurs are not. Despite making dozens of films with horses, the only spurs I can recall anywhere in Lewis that play a role in the plot are in the Rifleman episode Suspicion, where teenage Mark is given some fancy spurs by the show's guest star (Kevin McCarthy). Mark's dad Lucas suggests Mark can wear them to the next Barn Dance in town. We never see the dance, or Mark actually wearing spurs. Suspicion treats spurs as a cowboy ornament, but downplays them otherwise. Lewis sometimes also emphasizes spurs in comedy characters: sidekick Pat Brady wears spurs while climbing all over the stagecoach at the start of Texas Stagecoach, and the overdone desperado's outfit worn by the comic star of Sidewinder features huge spurs.

The riders in the cover painting are wearing visored helmets, that cover their eyes. You also see these polo helmets in the film. Lewis occasionally shoots so that these helmets shade his heroes' eyes. But more often, he either finds a low camera angle that reveals his characters' eyes, or has the helmets worn fairly high, so that the visors no longer cover the eyes. The same is true of the big-visored officer's caps the soldiers wear with their Army dress uniforms. Eye-covering headgear is often considered a cool part of uniforms, outside of Hollywood. But it violates the first principle of film shooting: actors' eyes must ALWAYS be visible. This principle was established in the earliest silent days of movie making, and it continues to the present. The eyes convey to the audience what characters are feeling and thinking. Exceptions, such as the brief shot of the intimidating sunglass-wearing state trooper who corners the heroine in Psycho, are rare, and only serve to confirm the rule. Lewis tends to confine eye-shading through visors in The Spy Ring, to a few shots that indicate how cool his characters look in their snazzy uniforms. The bulk of the shots keep the heroes' eyes visible.

Third, the cover shows a conflict between two polo riders, who have converged on the same ball. The conflict is dramatic, and in accord with lowest common denominator cliches of drama, that "conflict is what interests an audience". But this is not how Lewis structures his film. Lewis instead emphasizes shots of men riding horses. The excitement of horseback riding, in a public event, is what fascinates Lewis. Similar excitement pervades his later horse race pictures, and his B-movie Westerns, which are full of spectacular sequences showing men riding at top speed through the countryside. In fact, for reasons I am unable to explain, the riding sequences in Lewis Westerns often look faster, more dynamic, and just plain more exciting than those of other directors.


We don't see the players' shirt-backs on the cover. Lewis regularly shows the numbers on his players' shirt backs. Both long before and long after The Spy Ring, films and comics showed heroes wearing phallic symbol numbers: 1, 4, 7 and 9. (See a detailed documentation of this, in my article Sports Numbers and Their Symbolism.) The Spy Ring is nearly unique in film history, in that its hero is wearing the non-phallic number 3. At one point, he is flanked by two teammates on the left and right, who are #1 and #4. Why these supporting players get this phallic imagery, and not the hero, is a mystery. It is just another of the many ways, both obvious and subtle, in which Lewis films resemble those of no other director.

In the story, the hero is #1, as captain of his polo team. In the film, he is no longer the captain of the team, being instead a more casual player. Still, he could easily have been made #4, instead of #3, as he is in the film. One might also note, that he is never seen carrying a phallic looking swagger stick, unlike the officer shown on the target range at the start of the film.

Border Wolves

Border Wolves (1938) is the third of the four Westerns Lewis made with singing cowboy Bob Baker. Within the limitations of low budget, this film is a good deal of fun. It has vivid outdoor photography, nice musical numbers, and some interesting plot. Much of the film has a dream-like or fairy tale atmosphere, although nothing supernatural happens.

My Name Is Rusty Reynolds

Border Wolves is an early example of a Lewis hero forced into a new identity, one that brings him danger and trouble, as in the later My Name Is Julia Ross. Here the hero is captured at gunpoint, by people who insist he is a monstrous outlaw. The people who capture him are not crooks, but they do have a personal agenda, one that victimizes the hero. The hero battles against this forced new identity less than will Julia Ross, or the heroes of The Stand-In or Pompey.

The hero has to do some detective work, to track down the real outlaw. This detective work is rudimentary compared to later Lewis heroes, but it still places the lead in the line of Lewis heroes who are admired for their skill and commitment as detective reasoners and sleuths.

The meeting with the judge uncovers personal secrets, also a Lewis tradition. Here these secrets are just in one scene, not throughout the film. Once again, this is simpler than later Lewis, but a nice start all the same. This scene anticipates the plot of The Spoiler.

Progress of the hero's trial is shown through newspaper accounts, like that of the hero to come of Invisible Ghost. There is also a funny Wanted poster of the two innocent men, something that also will recur in Lewis films like The Wyoming Story.

Wagon Wheels

When the hero is first thrust into his new identity, at gunpoint, we suddenly see him through a wagon wheel. It is as if he has moved to some heightened state of reality. It gives the transition a dream-like effect. In general, much of the movie has a strange feel of a dream or maybe a nightmare. The night scene with the judge also seems dream-like.

Soon, we see the Sheriff advancing on the heroes, also shot through the wagon wheel. The Sheriff moves from background to foreground, in the Lewis manner.

Later, there is another wagon-wheel set-up, showing the stage coach driver fixing a wheel. Here the camera moves around from behind the wheel to the front, in a way that anticipates Lewis moving camera shots from one side to another of rows of pillars.

There is a third set of wagon wheel shots, at the Hoot Owl camp.


The opening massacre is vividly staged, with the wagon train in a long single file, and the outlaw gang in a horizontal, side-by-side row. Lewis war films will typically center on massacres of US troops, such as Retreat, Hell! and 7th Cavalry. The Marine convoy in Retreat, Hell! is also in single file, and it too gets picked off one by one, through gun fire. The wagon train here is all civilians, however. It is also unusual in that a middle-aged woman is among the victims.

The geometric treatment of the wagon train and the attackers also anticipates the more complex geometric figures in the finale of 7th Cavalry.

Costumes - and an Ancestor to the Bob Baker series

The hero wears a fancy black gunslinger's outfit, with white accents. Except for the white accents, this is similar to the black clothes that will later be worn by Lewis villains. It is unusual to see a hero in such clothes. His horse is also black-and-white, like the one ridden much later by Chuck Connors in The Vindicators (1965). The hero also has huge black boots with giant spurs, although Lewis does not make any special point of displaying them. This costume is much sharper and more elaborate than the one worn by Baker in his previous outing, Singing Outlaw. It is also darker in color.

The hero's costume recalls that of pioneer singing cowboy Ken Maynard, in such films as Heroes of the Range (1936), directed by the Serial King, Spencer Gordon Bennet. Maynard also wore a black shirt with arrow pockets, white trim, fancy black boots and gun belt, and a large white ten gallon hat.

One difference: Maynard's costume does not have the fancy lace-up ties on Baker's shirt. Lace-up cowboy shirts recur in Lewis' Johnny Mack Brown Westerns, and in Gun Crazy. They also anticipate the leather vest ties that will later be worn by many Lewis gunslingers. See my discussion of lace-up clothes in film, music and comic books.

Maynard had a different style of singing than Bob Baker, as well. Maynard's voice is like that of traditional mountain singing, like the North Carolina mountain folk musicians featured in Songcatcher (Maggie Greenwald, 2000). He plays the fiddle, unlike Baker's guitar.

B-Movies like Heroes of the Range could well have served as the model for Lewis' Westerns with Bob Baker, being hour-long Westerns set in the Old West, with a singing cowboy in black-and-white clothes who gets involved fighting crooks undercover in new identities, and lots of exciting riding scenes.


The title Border Wolves is misleading, in that the film has nothing to do with the Mexican-USA border. The film's one Hispanic character, seen briefly, is a likable sort, but the film has little to do with any Mexican characters or border issues. The "wolves" of the title are a sinister criminal gang, but they are all non-Hispanic, white Americans of the most generic sort. In short, the film is full of Wolves, but has no Border.

By contrast, the Chinese cook is an important character. His depiction has strengths and weaknesses. On the negative side, he talks in the sing-song pidgin English that afflicts many Chinese characters in early Hollywood film, and his enthusiastic delivery is meant as humor. On the positive side, his character is good as gold, and he is an unusually sympathetic and active good guy, for a non-white character in this era. On the whole, this seems like a more positive than negative portrait. Lewis would soon make a film glorifying the Chinese people, Bombs Over Burma (1943), one almost entirely free of any stereotypes. Despite its problems with stereotyped dialogue, Border Wolves should be seen overall as a positive stage in Lewis' depiction of the Chinese.

The cook is one of many Lewis men who cook food, and serve it to other men. Most of these "men who cook" are white - for example, heroes Lucas and Mark in The Rifleman - and there is no association in Lewis between Chinese characters and cooking. Hero Bob Baker will cook for his sidekick in the next Lewis picture, The Last Stand.

Camera Movement

The hero is introduced singing. This is a beautiful Lewis pan through tree branches. It also includes a fence in the foreground, and a hill in the background. The fence is sloping downward, and the hill upward, at the start of the shot. They form a giant V, turned on its side. The gap between the hill and the fence keeps getting bigger, during the first half of the shot. At the shot's midpoint, the heroes pass behind the trunk of the tree. Now the fence starts sloping upward, and the hill downward: a reversal of the opening. The two get ever closer together, like a V tilted on its side in the other direction. The tree branches get thinner and thinner here too. The second half of the shot is a mirror image of the first half of the shot.

Later Lewis films will regularly feature mirror-reverse camera movements, in which a hero first goes forward along a path, then returns in the path in the opposite direction. This shot in Border Wolves is different: the hero just keeps moving forward, in one direction - while everything else in the shot goes into a mirror image. Still, the shot is a creative example of Lewis' interest in mirror-symmetric camera movements.

There are several scenes of the heroes riding through forests at night. These often follow the heroes through pans. The forest scenes include regions of bright light, and darker areas in the forest. The scenes have a fairy tale quality, like the forest scenes at the end of Vampyr (Carl-Theodor Dreyer, 1932).

The hero and outlaws will imitate owls at night, making noises off-screen. This anticipates off-screen animal noise imitations in Day of the Hunter.

Blaze Away, Cowboy!

The hero sings a song in the stage coach, "Blaze Away, Cowboy" that celebrates a cowboy practicing with his gun. Is this an early example of the gun cult in Lewis? The rollicking song is accompanied by the rhythmic motions of the stagecoach, the stagecoach reins, and the other riders. The song unites most of the film's good guys into one happy expression of joy. At the end, the singing hero laughs and grins delightedly.

The sequence starts and ends with two beautiful camera movements, that show the stage coach driving on roads by a lake. The opening shot shows the stage coach turning the corner of a road - one of many corners in Lewis. The concluding shot has the coach passing behind some beautiful tall trees.

During the middle of the song, we see a fence in the distance, through the back door of the stagecoach. The fence has the low posts with wires running between, that will become a Lewis staple.

The musical numbers in Border Wolves also have the heightened, dream-like feel, that runs through this film.

Average Shot Length

I counted 413 separate shots in Border Wolves. (I'm new at this, and suspect this count is probably off a bit - but the real number is probably within the 400-425 range.) Border Wolves runs 53:55 (3215 seconds), not counting titles or end credits. This gives an Average Shot Length (ASL) of 7.8 seconds per shot. This is close to what David Bordwell says are the norms of Hollywood A-movie feature films for 1930-1960: they tend to have ASL's in the range 8-11.

With Border Wolves, the most extreme contrasts of shot length occur in the first two scenes. The opening massacre is nearly a montage sequence, made up of many short shots. There are 44 shots in the massacre sequence, which runs 1:57 (117 seconds). This gives the massacre an ASL of 2.5. I can't document it, but suspect that such fast cut scenes are unusual in Lewis' career as a whole.

Immediately following this, come the entrance of the hero, singing a song. This lyrical song number is in total contrast to the preceding massacre. The upbeat song consists of two long takes, which total around 80 seconds. It's as if Sergei Eisenstein had suddenly transformed into Vincente Minnelli. Lewis had worked as a film editor before becoming a director in 1937, and one suspects he was fully conscious of his switch in editing approaches. They seem to be a deliberate figure of style. They successfully convey a change of atmosphere and mood, and do a great deal to characterize the hero.

There is no evidence to suggest it, but it is possible that the opening massacre is a sequence taken from an earlier, bigger budget Western movie, directed by someone other than Lewis. Lewis could have shot and inserted a few views of his own characters into this sequence, such as the bad guy commanding the attack. This would explain why the massacre is so untypical of Lewis' cinema as a whole.

After these two scenes, Lewis avoids such extremes of editing speeds, in the rest of Border Wolves. Some scenes are cut at a more leisurely pace: the bathing scene has an ASL of 12.7 (14 shots in 178 seconds). Lewis heroes like to get cleaned up, and Baker's bath in the river is an early example. It also gives Baker a chance to appear with his shirt off, anticipating many Lewis heroes to come. This is one of several lyrical water scenes in Border Wolves: a Lewis favorite. We see an arching tree branch here, an image that also occurs elsewhere in Border Wolves.

By contrast, the exciting finale has an ASL of 5.2 (57 shots in 296 seconds). Lewis is speeding up his cutting, for a scene full of pep.

The Last Stand

The Last Stand (1938) is the last of the four Westerns Lewis made with singing cowboy Bob Baker. It is a richly enjoyable work, with a good story and beautiful landscape photography.

I cannot figure out any relationship between the title The Last Stand, and the plot of the picture.

A Detective Story

The Last Stand has one of the best constructed scripts of any early Lewis B-movie. It tells a logical, detailed, easy to follow and enjoyable story.

The Bob Baker Westerns had the same two leads, singing cowboy Baker and comic sidekick Fuzzy Knight. But Baker did not play the same character or same sort of character in each film.

Here Baker is playing a man trying to discover his father's killer. He joins forces with a local Cattlemen's Association, who are trying to discover some cattle rustlers. Baker suggests the killer and the rustlers are linked, and he goes after both groups.

Baker goes undercover as an outlaw, a fairly common gambit in 1930's and 1940's B-movie Westerns, to judge by the sample shown on the Western Channel. This was long before undercover assignments became common in film noir, with such modern day detective stories as T-Men (Anthony Mann, 1947). The Western film genre was here first. Lewis will regularly feature law officers in undercover roles, both in Westerns and film noir.

Baker shows initiative in going undercover as an outlaw. After that, however, he just keeps learning things almost by accident. He finds the right gang of rustlers right away, and they just keep showing and telling our hero things about their rustling activities. So the hero is partly like later Lewis detectives, and partly unlike them. Like other Lewis detectives, he learns a steady stream of new information about the bad guys, throughout most of the picture. Unlike later Lewis sleuths, he does not have to do any real detective work, using his brain laboriously to uncover facts. The facts just keep falling into his lap.

Still, the steady flow of revelation about the bad guys' rustling throughout most of the film is most pleasing. Other Lewis films will have a similar steady uncovering of information.

Criminal Schemes

The rustling is an elaborate criminal scheme, that takes much of the film to show in detail. Such elaborate criminal schemes are less frequent in Lewis' TV Westerns. In The Wyoming Story, the villain outlines to the hero his elaborate cycles of theft and killing. This is just a brief scene, and all dialogue, unlike The Last Stand. Still, the schemes in both films are elaborate, and wind up "full circle" back where they started, with people paying twice for the same product. Both schemes are repeated over and over by the bad guys, too, serving as a steady money maker for them.


When the hero and heroine are sitting romantically on the couch, the hero has a giant ten gallon hat sitting in his lap. It makes a striking and funny visual pun. It certainly suggests that the hero is sexually entranced.

At the start of the shot, we had a look at the hero's shiny black cowboy boots. Often, boots in Lewis signify meaningless bravado. But here they give the hero some romantic glamour.

At the film's end, there are jokes that suggest that the sidekick is jealous of the heroine and her romance with the hero. Further jokes suggest the three will now be a threesome. In some ways, these are just little satires on relationships in B-movie cowboy pics. But they also suggest, behind the veneer of joking humor, the interest in non-standard sexuality that will run through Lewis.


The strongest feature of The Last Stand is landscape. There are numerous shots through tree branches, sometimes arching over the image, sometimes making a tangle in front of everything. These branches are often combined with another great Lewis subject, lyrical shots of water. The Last Stand has a lake, a waterfall and a river. Both the lake and river are often combined with branches.

Adios, O Kid from Laredo

The brief, joyous song "Adios, O Kid from Laredo" is staged in one take, that also incorporates camera movement. The shot begins with a close-up of a Wanted poster showing the hero - a common Lewis image. We see a gun used as a hammer, tacking up the poster. Then the hero's voice is heard off screen, singing: a common entrance for menaces, less common for a hero in Lewis. The hammer tapping by Fuzzy persists through the song. The staging recalls in general terms the delightful "Blaze Away, Cowboy" song from Border Wolves, which also had rhythmic accompaniment from supporting characters while the hero sang, both aural and visual. Both songs end with delighted laughter from Bob Baker. The camera movement now moves more dramatically to the left, ending when the hero gets on his horse.

"Adios, O Kid from Laredo" is reprised briefly, in the final shot of the film. This too is a moving camera shot.

Stage Coach Robbery

The stage coach robbery starts out with bad guys chasing the stage. This is shown in numerous camera movements, that sweep from right to left. These show Lewis' skill with dynamic riding sequences. Many include complex trees or tree branches, as foreground objects. These then climax in less mobile panning shots, that show the coach under arching tree branches. Most of these shots also show water in the background.

We also see the hero enter the chase, riding from the back of the frame to the foreground. He celebrates his arrival at the front by rearing his horse: typical Lewis high spirits.

No sooner have the bad guys robbed the stage, than the hero robs them. This is shown in a delightful shot, one of Lewis' 90 degree stagings: the robbers have their backs to the camera, while the hero swoops in on horseback 90 degrees to them, riding across the frame.

The Picket Fence

The house has a white picket fence around its yard. Such a fence will return in Arizona Cyclone.

The hero walks from the gate of the fence in the background, clear up to the camera in the foreground: one of Lewis' most extremes foreground-moving stagings. Later, the villain will make a parallel walk. Lewis likes such parallel motions.

After the hero leaves, he and the villain Evans walk along the fence, and the camera tracks with them. This is another of Lewis' start and stop camera movements, echoing the interior track at the Cattleman's association. The picket fence track stops twice, then starts again, climaxing with the hero mounting his horse and riding off.

Soon we see the villain moving back along the picket fence: one of Lewis reverse tracks along a path previously taken by a character.


The ranch house has a doorway curtain. This curtain is made up of individual hanging cords: a kind of doorway curtain that will recur in Lewis. Here, the cords are hanging to one side, making pleasing curving patterns. We first see the heroine through these lines. Both the heroine and the cords also cast shadows on the wall.

Our first glimpse of these curtains are through a second doorway, one leading into the house. Lewis likes such two-level deep, door through door stagings.

The hero sings a song about the prairie. It is a good ballad. But actually, the Baker Westerns all seem to be shot in forested regions in California. The true prairie is a long way off!

Two-Fisted Rangers

Two-Fisted Rangers (1939) is a B-movie Western, the first of three Lewis did with star Charles Starrett. All three also co-star leading lady Iris Meredith and musical group the Sons of the Pioneers.

I have never seen Two-Fisted Rangers. And apparently, few others have seen it in decades. There are two reviews about it on the Internet, both of which praise its camera movements. If anyone knows where to get a legal copy of Two-Fisted Rangers, please e-mail me at Two-Fisted Rangers is the only film Lewis made for theaters, that I have not seen.

Two-Fisted Rangers reportedly has an election in a Western town. If so, that would anticipate the election in The Silver Bullet.

The title Two-Fisted Rangers was likely inspired by a film Charles Starrett made two years before, Two-Fisted Sheriff (Leon Barsha, 1937). Aside from titles and the star, the two films seem to have nothing in common, as best as one can tell.

Blazing Six Shooters

Blazing Six Shooters (1940) is a B-movie Western, the second of three Lewis did with star Charles Starrett. It is a remarkably lyrical film, with beautiful images.


Starrett's costume is similar to Bob Baker's. Both men wear black outfits, with white hat, neck scarves and trim. Starrett's clothes are a little less fancy and ornate than Baker's, however. And Starrett's character seems a bit more for real than Baker's Singing Cowboy.

Unlike Baker, Starrett rides a white horse. It is magnificent as the one later ridden by Baranca, in the Rifleman episode of the same name.

Starrett's costume and horse were already present in a non-Lewis Western he made, The Cowboy Star (David Selman, 1936). This movie was in fact shot before Lewis started directing in 1937. (The Cowboy Star also co-stars Iris Meredith, who will continue as leading lady in Lewis' Starrett movies. And it is shot against the same Western town set that will appear in Lewis' Texas Stagecoach.)

Starrett holds his cowboy hat in front of him, while standing. It forms a phallic symbol, and recalls a similar gesture by Bob Baker during The Last Stand.


The good guys will hide under a bridge, to escape from pursuers. This visually striking scene anticipates a similar landscape in Boss of Hangtown Mesa.

Blazing Six Shooters is rich in shots under arching tree branches. The film opens with such a view. And complex photography of trees recurs throughout the film.

Trapezoidal Architecture

The office of the villain Bart Karsin has a trapezoidal chimney. Karsin is sometimes photographed standing against this chimney. Framing characters against a vertical background zone, like a chimney, window or door, is standard Hollywood staging. However, the sloping lines of this chimney add an unusual twist to the shots. Right above Karsin's head, is a trapezoidal lampshade, one whose sides are at a different angle than the chimney. This echoes the chimney, to make a complex and beautiful composition.

In front, there is a lamp with two curving lampshades. It too is highly complex, adding to the geometric composition of the shot.

In different scenes in Karsin's office, Lewis stages the characters so that they form different compositions using these trapezoids.

Lateral Tracks through Foreground Objects

The back room at Karsin's is filled with foreground objects: they look like saws or agricultural implements. Lewis stages lateral tracks behind these, in his patented manner.

The tracks are frequently combined with another Lewis trademark: camera movement that goes through walls. Unlike an earlier, somewhat ambiguous "through the wall" tracking shot in the jail in Singing Outlaw, this is an unequivocal track that passes from room to room through a wall.

Lewis stages several lateral tracks at Karsin's. These shots also form some of Lewis' tracks that echo or reverse. The first track starts out at the right of the office, and tracks all the way to the left. It then reverses itself, and moves along the same path back to the far right of the office again. Then it moves through the wall to the next room. This is a classic example of a "paired tracking shot" in Lewis, that moves first along a path, then retraces itself along the reverse of the path.

Later shots in the film will also move along the same path in Karsin's office. These form examples of another Lewis strategy: to have tracking shots that echo each other.

Wagon Wheel

Blazing Six Shooters has one of the most complex wagon-wheel shots in Lewis. It begins with a look through the white wheel of a wagon. Then the camera pans to the right, and we see through the repeating arching hoops of a farm machine. In the background, are the long horizontal boards of a corral fence. The fence and the hoops make a counterpoint.

The farm machine also contains a strange curved object, perhaps a seat. It later appears as a foreground framing object, as the hero and heroine ride out of the scene. The whole thing looks like a piece of avant-garde abstract sculpture.

Later in Blazing Six Shooters, there are several more wagon wheel shots. One is of an exterior; it is immediately followed by an interior shot, through the bars of a chair. The camera then moves up, over the top of the chair, to give us an unobstructed view of the room.

The Rock

A beautiful shot shows a bad guy, looking out from behind a curved rock. Then the camera moves down, along the curved left hand side of the rock.


Blazing Six Shooters is what is known in prose mystery fiction as an "inverted detective story". In such tales, the reader or audience first see the bad guy commit a murder (or other crime). Then we see the detective-hero slowly reason his way to the truth, and gather evidence against the villain. The format was used successfully for years on the TV series Columbo. The invention of the inverted detective story is often credited to British mystery writer R. Austin Freeman, and his collection The Singing Bone (1912).

Blazing Six Shooters is a model example of the inverted detective story, one that perfectly exemplifies the form. Starrett solves the mystery through a relentless process of logic and investigation. He always reasons from evidence, never guessing or stumbling on anything through luck. In other words, like other Lewis heroes, he uses genuine detection to solve the mystery.

Lewis' films are unusual, for their adherence to sophisticated models of detection found in prestigious writers of prose mystery fiction. There is an inverted detective story here, and there will be a "dying message" mystery in Lewis' next film Texas Stagecoach.

The Title - and the Will

The title Blazing Six Shooters has nothing to do with the film. Blazing Six Shooters has few gun battles, emphasizing fist fights, instead. It seems to be just a generic Western movie title, perhaps slapped onto the film for marketing purposes. None of the characters has much interest in guns, and there is not the slightest sign of the "gun cult" in Gun Crazy to come. The heroine does show skill with a rifle, however.

Also, the uncle loses his temper at the start, and shoots off his gun with disasterous effect, causing his horses to stampede. This can be seen as a cautionary look at the whole "quarrels with guns" ethos.

A possible plot hole: it does not seem as if the uncle knew the hero well enough to remember him in his will. This seems excessive, although it hardly hurts the film.

The Crooks and their scheme

Blazing Six Shooters has two criminals: a working class foreman, who is betraying the sympathetic heroine, and a sourball middle-aged businessman in a suit. A similar pair of villains will show up in Boss of Hangtown Mesa. Dave Kehr has suggested (in his blog) that such crooked businessmen in B-Westerns represented every rural viewer's fear of banks in the Depression era.

The crooks are trying to pressure the good guys into selling their ranches. The crooks know what the ranch owners do not: there is valuable property hidden on the ranches. This is a small-scale version, of a plot that will be expanded in later Lewis films, to a full scale attempt by bad guys to take over a town. In Blazing Six Shooters, only two ranchers are targeted, while in later Lewis films crooks will target an entire town. In Blazing Six Shooters, a simple hidden asset is on the ranch (silver ore), while in later Lewis films the whole town is about to experience an economic transformation, such as the arrival of the telegraph or the railway. In Blazing Six Shooters, the crooks use theft and murder, while in later Lewis, the crooks use a reign of terror. Despite this smaller scale, Blazing Six Shooters is a highly satisfying viewing experience.

A Cowboy's Life for Me

Blazing Six Shooters opens with a musical number, starring the great singing group, The Sons of the Pioneers. A Cowboy's Life for Me has many kinds of traditional Lewis imagery: After the musical number ends, we see the hero and Bob Nolan, in two more shots under tree branches. The second shot has another standard piece of Lewis imagery, a fence with short posts joined by wires. The whole scene immediately plunges us into an archetypal Lewis world. Soon, another shot shows the two against a background of two trees. This is one of Lewis' most beautiful shots. The trees seem like bursts in an abstract composition.

Don Juan

Don Juan is a cheerful song, celebrating a Mexican's romantic gift with the ladies. Lewis has staged it with the Sons of the Pioneers doing that favorite Lewis task, the laundry. There are numerous buckets, making geometric patterns. In the background is another Lewis compositional favorite, a peaked roof.

Don Juan opens with a complex long take. The camera moves up and down the neck of a guitar. It later whips over to the singers.

At the end, we see through another Lewis object: marimbas. These are being vigorously shaken. It is somewhat unusual to see a Lewis shot through a foreground object, in which the object is in rapid motion.

After the end, we see complex shots through another Lewis favorite: wash hanging on lines. This is one of the first - and most complex - such views through hanging laundry in Lewis.

A Comparison of the Songs to Texas Stagecoach

The musical numbers in Blazing Six Shooters have parallels with those in Lewis' next film, Texas Stagecoach, also with The Sons of the Pioneers: In both cases, the numbers in Texas Stagecoach are more elaborate, and involve more ambitious visual style.

Texas Stagecoach

Texas Stagecoach (1940) is a B-movie Western, the third and last of three Lewis did with star Charles Starrett. It is notable for its superb musical numbers with The Sons of the Pioneers. Hill Country is the best musical number in all of Lewis's films.

Aside from its two good musical numbers and a few other interesting scenes, it is one of Lewis' lesser films. Visual style is weak, outside of the splendid songs. The characters are angry, abrasive, violent and generally unlikable. A rare for Lewis - and highly regrettable - racial slur, is also a strong minus here. However, the film also has some interesting social commentary. It also has an unusual detective sub-plot.

Business - and Social Commentary

The plot anticipates two of Lewis' Johnny Mack Brown Westerns, soon to come. Like Arizona Cyclone (1941) and its wagon freight firm, Texas Stagecoach deals with the business life of stagecoach companies. This focus on a small business just does not seem especially interesting to me, in either film. And like Boss of Hangtown Mesa (1942), Texas Stagecoach shows companies trying to build infrastructure, here a road, but being sabotaged in their construction by crooked foremen and dirty tricks. Such infrastructure creation is a more interesting subject, but it is less well developed here, than in later Lewis films like Boss of Hangtown Mesa. It does become the center of the great musical number "Hill Country", though.

Texas Stagecoach has good guy small businessman, victimized by an evil banker. Both the sympathy for small business owners, and opposition to crooked financiers, run through Lewis' work as a whole.

The smooth talking banker gives a speech, to a cheering crowd of townspeople. In Lewis' Rifleman episode The Safe Guard, a good guy banker gives a similarly staged talk, to a group of cheering townspeople. Yet the one banker is as evil and crooked as the second banker is good and honest. The two scenes make an odd pair. There also had been an honest, sympathetic banker in Lewis' previous film, The Man from Tumbleweeds.

Anti-Violence and Anti-Gun

The plot is also notable for denouncing violence, as a solution to problems. The hero explicitly opposes gun violence, both in word and deed. He is an early example of a Lewis hero who refuses to shoot an opponent. Here, the hero is especially concerned about rushing into gun battles, with people who might actually be guiltless. In later Lewis, heroes repeatedly refuse to shoot characters even after they know for sure they are bad guy villains. The point of view in Texas Stagecoach is thus a bit different from later Lewis, but related.


The plot involves a small bit of that admirable Lewis staple, genuine detection. The hero has to figure out a dying message, left as a clue by a murdered man. This plot is fair, but very simple, and not especially creative. It is startling, however, to see a kind of formal detective plot usually only associated with prose mystery fiction, on the screen.

Texas Stagecoach is also an early example in Lewis, of denouncing jumping to conclusions. The film is full of warnings, about not believing ideas that are not yet proven. This anticipates Bombs over Burma, which preaches looking at both sides of an argument. It also anticipates many later Lewis films, in which detection and uncovering of truth is a slow and difficult process.

Texas Express

The Texas Express musical number opens the film. It begins with a beautiful Lewis tree shot. It travels through the countryside, following the stage coach. It anticipates another shot that combines trees and a moving camera, in Bombs over Burma. The shot in Texas Express is unusual, in that it shoots through trees that are in two rows, one nearer the path of the stagecoach, the other trees closer to the camera.

Soon, there will be another memorable traveling shot of the coach, this one through a rail fence.

It is followed by a shot of the other Sons of the Pioneers riding behind. In the left lower corner, we get a small arc of a rotating wagon wheel. The rotation seems to synchronize with the poetic movement of the song. It is one of Lewis' most striking images. This is the end of the number.

The song Texas Express alternates a lyrical opening and finale, with lively interludes. Lewis matches this, with beautiful shots of trees or fences in the lyrical sections, and comedy in the more rhythmic ones. Lewis tends to use long-held moving camera shots in the lyrical sections - while the comedy sections have faster cutting, almost montage. The cutting is on the rhythms of the song.

In the comedy sections, we once again see a Lewis stagecoach driver framed through his reins. This is lead singer Bob Nolan. His sidekick Pat Brady gets a rear view, and also displays his boots, as he clambers over the coach. The song also refers to the heroes' boots - Lewis films are filled with boots.

Lewis liked to stage views through windows. There is a striking comedy shot, of Pat Brady looking through the stagecoach window, at a horizontal angle from above. Brady's head and shoulders are stretched out parallel to the top and bottom of the frame.

After the song, there is a stagecoach race, once again showing Lewis' fondness for all kinds of horse races. This too involves lyrical photography of trees. We also see another Lewis favorite image, a small bridge.

Hill Country

The Hill Country musical number would be famous, if it were not in a B-Western.

The song centers on one of Lewis' favorite and most idealized subjects: men working to build infrastructure. Here they are building a road. Road building will return in Pride of the Bowery and Bombs Over Burma, as well as the road repair crew in the finale of Gun Crazy.

The song also conveys a powerful sense of male bonding.

Who staged this sequence, and the other songs in Lewis' B-Westerns? None of the credits for these films list any choreographer. Did Lewis stage these sequences entirely by himself? Are the movements the work of a professional dance director? I frankly don't know. There is plenty of credited musical talent on these films - so the musical "score" for the symphony of noises is likely done by these musical professionals. But the visuals and staging might or might not be entirely by Lewis himself.

Most of the shots are on tilted camera angles, something that is unusual in Lewis. The only other titled angles I can recall are in My Name Is Julia Ross, and in a street scene in So Dark the Night. Tilted camera angles are in other Hollywood films: they run through The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939) in the historical montage sections.

Other features of the song are much more Lewis-like:

The horse-drawn sledge that draws lead singer Bob Nolan through the scene is a magical effect. It gets Nolan moving kinetically through the shots.

Immediately after the song, Lewis shows us Starrett riding from one end of the town, to the other. The shot opens with a view through a wagon wheel sign, at the Wagon Wheel restaurant, no less! And ends with a shot through another wagon wheel. This same camera movement path is repeated both forward, and in reverse, elsewhere in the film, in the Lewis manner.

The Barn Scene

The barn scene is full of the hay, that Lewis often used to structure settings. The barn also has a sliding door, another feature that runs through Lewis.

The barn scene contains one of the few viewer shocks or surprises in Lewis. Lewis tends to avoid this sort of thing. There are shock cuts to explosions (Arizona Cyclone) or firing weapons (The Vindicators) in a few Lewis films, but both of those are more style flourishes, rather than an actual plot development, as in Texas Express.

The sequence ends with an impersonation, also something of a rarity for Lewis. It anticipates a bit Boss of Hangtown Mesa, in which the bad guy forces the hero to swap clothes with him, and later takes over the good guy's identity.

The Man from Tumbleweeds

The Man from Tumbleweeds (1940) is a B-movie Western, the first of two Lewis did with star Bill Elliott. It is an unpretentious and straightforward film, but an enjoyable and well-made one. Its big assets are good storytelling, liberal social commentary, and a steady stream of nicely composed outdoor shots. It also has some good, if subtle, characterization, especially of the film's good guys.

The Man from Tumbleweeds is about an hour long (59 minutes), and according to the AFI database, it was shot from March 13 to March 22, 1940. This hour-long duration and ten day shooting schedule seem typical of Lewis' B movies.

Pure Storytelling

The Man from Tumbleweeds is the eighth B-movie Western directed by Lewis, but the first one that is not a singing cowboy picture. There are no musical numbers in it whatsoever. Furthermore, while sidekick Dub Taylor does a good job, and occasionally gets off a funny comment, the film does not stop for any comedy-relief set pieces by him. There is no mystery plot, either.

What all this means is that The Man from Tumbleweeds is much more of a pure piece of movie storytelling than are many other early Lewis films. Aside from a lengthy (and dull) fist-fight scene that temporarily stops the plot early on, the flow of storytelling throughout the film is continuous and logically unified. Screenwriter Charles Francis Royal keeps the story going, and Lewis keeps embedding it in beautiful pictures that delight the eye.

An odd note: The Man from Tumbleweeds is another Lewis B-movie with a title that is mismatched with the film. The town in the picture is called Tumbleweed, with no "s" on the end.

Male Bonding with Social Outsiders

The hero is quite different from the earlier Western heroes in Lewis films, played by Bob Baker and Charles Starrett. Instead, he resembles Lucas McCain of The Rifleman to come, in a number of ways: In The Man from Tumbleweeds, the hero and heroine are friends, but do not actually have any romance.

The Man from Tumbleweeds is the Birth of the Queer Hero in Lewis. He we have a hero who advocates social change, and who is quietly marked as gay.

Gay people are not viewed as a minority in The Man from Tumbleweeds, and discrimination against them is not depicted. That will have to wait for Lewis' first Rifleman episode, Duel of Honor (1958).

Community Values and Government Institutions

The hero is also deeply committed to community values. We first meet him in a bank, where he is donating his "estate" to the town. This has him taking practical action to build up civic institutions and property.

Soon, he is advocating for building a new public institution, State Rangers. Such personal, public advocacy also shows his commitment to community institutions, which he and the film believe benefit everybody. Lewis would soon make Pride of the Bowery, which glorifies the New Deal and the government Civilian Conservation Corps, another government institution.

We see the hero developing the State Rangers from scratch. They are an example of the social infrastructure that fascinates Lewis. He we have a hero who is building infrastructure.

Lying right wing Libertarian propaganda always depicts government action as the refuge of people who are lazy, and want the government to do things. But The Man from Tumbleweeds has a hero who combines personal initiative and hard work, with his building up of a government institution.

The Man from Tumbleweeds is unusual, in that it shows a hero who repeatedly takes practical action to build up civic life and institutions. Unlike many people today, who agree with Libertarians that the only good in life is amassing personal money, The Man from Tumbleweeds sees good as coming from developing the community and democratic government.

The Bank and Business

The banker is presented as a friendly guy, helping the hero achieve his goals of land donation. This anticipates the sympathetic treatment of the town banker in The Rifleman. Both men's banks look small, but vigorous and business-like.

The freight company run by the heroine is another of the sympathetic small businesses in Lewis.

The Butler

The butler maintains his dignity, even though he much put-upon by an irrational employer. This anticipates the sympathetic and unflappable butler in Invisible Ghost.

Freedom of Speech

The hero establishes a principle of Freedom of Speech within the State Rangers - although the words "Freedom of Speech" are not actually used. This is related to the "open mindedness" and respect for different viewpoints found elsewhere in Lewis.

It also has strong positive effects on his organization, including the building of trust. More real life organizations of all sorts should try this.


The State Rangers are, to a degree, one of several Lewis "non-military government institutions organized along militaristic lines". They are less militaristic than some organizations in other Lewis films though: they have no uniforms, and the members don't have ranks like Lieutenant or Sergeant.

The militarism is most noticeable in their initial formation scene. The men are made to line up for inspection, volunteers are asked to step forward, and their oath of office is discussed.

At the end, a "Commander in Chief" is appointed, and he is given a phallic-symbol scroll.


Lewis films are often full of genuine detective work. In The Man from Tumbleweeds, the good guys deduce that Shifty is a traitor, when they discover the letter with the map near Shifty's things. He had told them before that he didn't know where a building was, but it is shown in the map. From this, they deduce he is lying, and therefore a member of the villain's gang. As in other Lewis films, this is genuine reasoning from evidence. The idea that Shifty is a traitor is not presented to the good guys fully developed. Instead, they have to reason it out from clues.


The heroine's freight company office has a map on its wall. Wall maps in Lewis are more typically in Government offices, and they are frequently bigger than the heroine's.

The hero also consults a map in a letter. This sketch map is full of detail the viewer can see.

Off-Screen Voices

When the heroine is threatened by the bad guy in her office, the hero makes his entrance as an off-screen voice. He is coming to her assistance. Lewis will use a similar staging in The Deadly Wait, with the Rifleman coming to the aide of the Marshal in a duel, making his entrance as an unseen voice.

Camera Movement

The camera goes straight through the wall of the bank, moving from the street outside into the bank interior. Such though-the-wall shots were already an established part of Lewis' repertoire, by this time.

When the hero is inspecting the new recruits, he walks first to the left in front of them, then to the right. The camera follows him in both directions. It is a simple shot, but it is perhaps an early example of more elaborate sequences in later Lewis films, in which a camera oscillates between moving to the left and moving to the right.

Foreground Objects

The Man from Tumbleweeds shows Lewis' fondness for shooting through foreground objects. These include wagon wheels, a barred chair back, and a triangle hanging from a porch. The wagon wheel appears right away in the film's second shot, as if Wagon Wheel Joe were signing his trademark symbol to the picture.

There are several beautiful examples of landscapes framed by arching tree branches, a Lewis favorite. Some of these have an extra feature not always found in such shots in other Lewis films: a curving line of hills in the background. The tree branch and the hills make interesting counterpoint, in the composition.

The governor's house has spectacular chandeliers, as well as candelabra. The candelabra are in the foreground, although Lewis does not stress shooting through them.


What is less common in The Man from Tumbleweeds are the many frames through which the camera shoots. There are shots through wagons and porches. Shots are bounded by giant rocks. We frequently see the town through boards at the top of the screen. These boards are not "explained" - they might be porches, but this is not sure. Lewis shows strong compositional skills with all these frames. They create "apertures" through which we see the characters. Such apertures were common in silent cinema: directors like Maurice Tourneur loved them.

The blacksmith shot that opens Duel of Honor has a board that blocks off the top of the image. Lewis explained to Francis M. Nevins in his book the interesting technical reasons for this board. However, the frames in The Man from Tumbleweeds seem just created to make lively compositions, not for any technical reasons.


The arched doorways in the town bring semi-circles into the compositions. So does the dome of a building. Lewis often shoots a "doorway through a doorway", a common trope in his films. Unlike some other Lewis films, no one of significance is seen through these nested doorways.

The opening street also has a wheel sign, forming a prominent circle. The heroine's head is framed against this wheel-circle. It is also part of cityscapes.

In the heroine's office with the fight, the hero is sometimes framed against a curved sign seen through a window. A swinging ceiling lamp is conical, also a curving form.


The Man from Tumbleweeds seems to be one of the first Lewis films to use hay as a structural device, creating settings out of it, which are used for compositions. The finale of The Man from Tumbleweeds is full of hay, perhaps more than in any other Lewis picture. Numerous shots are set against stacked-up bales. The barn also has hay. Later Lewis films tend to have a single setting or image, instead, constructed out of hay bales.


The success and official recognition of the State Rangers at the end, is signaled by a large, conspicuous sign. Signs are everywhere in Lewis. A later Lewis film that culminates in a sign proclaiming a successful new relationship is Long Gun from Tuscon. Both signs are displayed high on a building, in a manner that is very public.

Many buildings in the town of Gunsight have signs. The Town Hall is prominent - something appropriate in a film that celebrates the possibilities of government.

Boots and Spurs

Boots are often a sign of false bravado or militarism in Lewis, and are especially worn by villains. In The Man from Tumbleweeds, villain Lightning Barloe is conspicuously booted and spurred as he enters the heroine's office to threaten her. He's a bad guy, but not as full of empty bravado as some later booted characters in Lewis.

Spurs are frequently worn by overdressed comic characters in Lewis, often good guys. But Barlow is neither comic nor good.

Lewis Architecture

The hideout is first seen in the background of a landscape. This is a pan, which starts with a sign, and ends with the landscape-with-hideout.

A picket fence at the hideout has a swinging gate. The same hideout has a peaked roof.

The town of Gunsight has many peaked roofs on buildings. These are sometimes in the same shots as the arched doorways.

The multi-paned window at the bank gets smashed, as in the memorable finale of So Dark the Night to come.

The Return of Wild Bill

The Return of Wild Bill (1940) is a B-movie Western, the second and last of two Lewis did with star Bill Elliott.


The Return of Wild Bill is unusual among Lewis' B-Westerns, and perhaps among B-Western movies as a whole, to have such prominent roles for women. It also has a role reversal finale, with the passive hero in jeopardy, rescued by a horse riding posse led by the film's two women. This gender reversal is not commented on, but it seems fairly startling anyway.

The outlaw's tough-but-decent sister is a striking and unusual character. She anticipates the similarly hard-boiled but idealistic burlesque dancer in The Undercover Man. Unlike the several dance hall women who bond with the hero in later Lewis pictures, however, the tough gal in The Return of Wild Bill is utterly "respectable". She is a sister of the monstrous, and white trash, outlaw, and very low class looking herself. But she is not herself involved with dance halls, or anything that could categorize her as a "loose woman".

When the tough gal is tied up, she rescues herself, by finding a way to cut through her ropes. This scene will be repeated in The Rifleman episode Sheer Terror. The heroine of Sheer Terror goes on to rescue the hero, who is about to be ambushed, just as in The Return of Wild Bill.


Many Lewis films look at communities undergoing a reign of terror. The bad guys tend to be powerful businessmen, or sophisticated mobsters. The ranching community in The Return of Wild Bill is also under siege - but the perpetrators are a gang of sleazy outlaws, not slick bankers or financiers. They are white trash, rather than white collar, unlike typical Lewis bad guys.

The bad guys use deceit, telling lies to set one honest rancher against another. This recalls Lewis' previous film, Texas Stagecoach.

The hero repeatedly talks about the need of the ranchers to stick together, and to learn the real truth behind the bad guys' lies. This is an early example of the Lewis theme of mutual aid. We see him talking to some ranchers one-on-one. But The Return of Wild Bill lacks any group scenes of the ranchers banding together, unlike Lewis films to come. Mutual aid is a good concept here, but still a bit under-developed, compared to later Lewis.

The Telegraph

The father talks about using a brand new device in town for the first time: the telegraph. This anticipates later Lewis films such as Boss of Hangtown Mesa, who deals with the laying of telegraph wires. The telegraph is always portrayed positively in Lewis. Later in The Return of Wild Bill, we see a telegraph pole and wires. It's my impression that this is a fairly rare sight in Westerns, even though characters often send telegrams.

Camera Movement

The horseshoe game takes place under an overhanging portico of a building. As the hero moves from one end of the alley-like portico to the other, the camera pans with him. We see a pan that goes from left to right, and a second pan following the hero as he moves from right to left. This is an example of the paired moving camera shots in Lewis, that move along a path, then along the reverse path.

An interior camera movement combines two Lewis standards. There is a track through walls, going from room to room. And this is connected to a lateral track behind a lot of household objects in the foreground, such as chairs. It's a neat shot.

There is an earlier tracking shot, going behind one of the same chairs. These chairs have horizontal bars on their backs, unlike the vertically barred chairs through which Lewis typically shoots in other films.


The Return of Wild Bill does not otherwise use foreground objects extensively. But one of the final shoot-outs is stage through a wagon wheel: the only such shootout I can recall in Lewis.

A bad guy is introduced towards the end of the horseshoe game. He is first seen through one end of the portico. This is a variant on Lewis' strategy of viewing characters through doors or windows.


The hero tracks down his father's murderer, in a scene set among some spectacular rock formations. These beautifully composed shots are more intimate in scale than the rock scenes in many Westerns. Lewis is not a director associated with rocky landscapes, unlike Budd Boetticher's. But he handles this scene with excellent visual style.

Boys of the City

Boys of the City (1940) is the first of three East Side Kids movies credited to Joseph H. Lewis. Boys of the City is a terrible movie, far and away the worst picture I have ever seen by this director.

I am going to go out on a limb, and speculate about whether Boys of the City was actually really and fully directed by Lewis. Lewis did not deny to Nevins that he directed Boys of the City, and actually mentions directing the fire hydrant opening of the picture. One might speculate that Lewis did indeed direct the film, in the sense that he was the official contracted director, but that for some now obscure reason he had little actual creative input into the film.

I have no historical evidence at all to make such a claim. Yet, there are hardly any "Lewis shots" in this film. While there are both an indoor and an outdoor staircase at the creepy mansion, there is little creativity in filming such staircases. There is little staging through doors or windows, few creative camera movements, aside from some routine tracks down a dinner table, and little shooting through foreground objects. The subject matter of the film has little in common with other Lewis pictures, although the crooked judge perhaps anticipates the crooked judge in Boss of Hangtown Mesa.

Perhaps I am just rationalizing, because I don't want to see Boys of the City ascribed to Lewis. It has the only racism seen in any Lewis picture. The treatment of the black member of the East Side Kids is one racist stereotype after another. The Sinister Lesbian housekeeper (someone has been watching Rebecca, perhaps) is also a blot on film history, especially in the scene where she sexually harasses the heroine. None of this has any parallel in the rest of Lewis, as far as I can tell.

Some of the settings and props recall Lewis:

All of this makes a few shots in the picture more Lewis-like.

That Gang of Mine

That Gang of Mine (1940) gets the East Side Kids involved with raising race horses, a favorite subject of Lewis. That Gang of Mine is a good movie, and one that shows unexpected emotional depth. Here we have a personal Lewis film, that manages to make something good out of a low budget.

There is a humorous conversation that includes a spoof challenge-to-a-duel. This anticipates Duel of Honor, and all the strange contests and gunfights in Lewis.


The treatment of the black characters is a huge step up, for Lewis, the East Side Kids movies, and for American films of that era as a whole. The black member of the East Side Kids is treated largely the same as the other Kids. They all make the same corny jokes, and participate in all the events shared by the team equally. The horse trainer is a person of skill, moral insight and respect.

The black characters here are folksy and Southern. They have plenty of what the film regards as "typical black" characterization, with a dialect line of patter, and a fondness for spirituals and dancing. It is unclear whether modern audiences will be comfortable with this, or not. There are also rare cases in the film where stereotypes persist: when the black Kid says he is afraid of the dark, for example. Still, it is clear that most of the negative elements that were used to demean black people in many pre-1940 Hollywood films have been stripped away. These characters are intelligent, articulate, skillful and morally decent.

The East Side Kids and Leo Gorcey

The East Side Kids eventually developed into the Bowery Boys, starring in a long series of low brow comedies - none of which were directed by Lewis. Some people love the Bowery Boys, and some hate them. But these comedies have convinced many people that any film starring the Kids must be an incompetent disaster. Boys of the City is just as bad as anyone can imagine - maybe worse. But Lewis' next two films with the Kids, That Gang of Mine and Pride of the Bowery, are pleasant, well made light dramas that defy expectations.

Similarly, star Leo Gorcey gives competent performances in That Gang of Mine and Pride of the Bowery. Given a decent script, a gifted director, and a role close to his persona of naive slum kid, Gorcey could perform. Gorcey plainly had the skills necessary for a Hollywood film of the studio era: he could stay in character, deliver snappy lines of dialogue, and emote believably. He will never be mistaken for Olivier. But he had the professional acting skills to function competently, in typical Hollywood films of the classical era, that stress story, characters and relationships.

That Gang of Mine and Pride of the Bowery are not comedies. Nor are they the heavy-breathing crime melodramas of the Kids' earliest films, which got them involved with gangsters, reform schools, prisons and debates about why young people turn to crime. There is no crime in That Gang of Mine and Pride of the Bowery, and only modest amounts of comedy relief. Instead, they are light, low key dramas on pleasant subjects: horses in That Gang of Mine, the government-run Civilian Conservation Corps in Pride of the Bowery.

Camera Movement - and Foreground Objects

A camera movement goes past the Kids high up on a paint scaffold, moving around them in an arc.

The Kids' small stable near the start is filmed with a lateral camera movement through foreground objects.

The big stables are frequently filmed with camera movements that go up and down the row of stables. These shoot through the pillars in front of the stable.

A conversation at the early stable is filmed through a wagon wheel. It is like the wagon wheel shot in Boss of Hangtown Mesa, in that it separates the characters into groups, each seen through a different gap in the wheel. These wagon wheel shots use a fixed camera.

At the Turf Club restaurant, there is a moving camera shot through a ceiling fan.

At the stable, Knuckles and a crook walk, at the camera moves with them. The crook asks Knuckles to go in to the stable, where they can talk in private. We know that the bad guy has a crooked scheme to propose, which will anger good guy Knuckles. The two men disappear into the stable. The screen becomes utterly still and empty: just a shot of the stable door. No people, no motion, no background music. Then the two men explode in a fight out the stable door. The shot ends. The sheer stillness of the shot anticipates an equally still moment in the final shoot-out in A Lawless Street.

There is a nice shot, in which a view of one of the Kids is followed by a whiplash 90 degree pan, showing a deep perspective down another building.

There is a camera movement, which slowly moves past all the Kids' faces, while they stand still and peer intently. A similar camera movement showing the characters will appear in Bombs Over Burma.


There is a deep perspective shot down the covered porticos at the stables. It anticipates some perspective shots down porticos in Shotgun Man.

The peaked roofs of the stables are often in the background of the shots. The roof compositions seem a bit simpler than some of the elaborate peaked roof compositions in Lewis to come. As compensation, there are lots of different views of the roofs, adding creativity to the film.


The rival jockey wears black, like Lewis villains and gunslingers. He also has patches on his back pants pockets, like the rival in A Young Man's Fancy. The hero locks him in a room, and attacks him to whip him into good behavior, like the finale of Sidewinder. All three of these films deal with young people.

Pride of the Bowery

Pride of the Bowery (1940) is the third and last of Lewis' East Side Kids movies. In this one, the Kids join the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and Mugs tries to become a boxer.

Genre and Lewis traditions

The Kids had previously appeared in They Made Me a Criminal (Busby Berkeley, 1939). This film was about a boxer (John Garfield) on the lam, who hides out at a ranch where juvenile delinquents (the Kids) work. Pride of the Bowery is clearly an attempt to make a film in a somewhat similar genre, with boxing again as its subject, and the Conservation Corps replacing the ranch for delinquents in They Made Me a Criminal.

However, Pride of the Bowery moves in directions that reflect Lewis personal traditions. The ranch in They Made Me a Criminal is a fictional place. But the Civilian Conservation Corps in Pride of the Bowery is a real government program of the New Deal era. It shows Lewis' interest in government institutions: the IRS will appear in The Undercover Man, and the INS in A Lady Without Passport. All of these can be categorized as "non-military government institutions that support the nation's infrastructure, and which are run on militaristic lines". As far as I can tell, Lewis' interest in such institutions is unique in film history. I don't know of any other Hollywood fiction films that show New Deal programs the way that Pride of the Bowery does.

The Corps members are shown building roads. This is also a major Lewis interest, appearing in Texas Stagecoach (made a year before Pride of the Bowery), Bombs Over Burma and Gun Crazy.

One might note that while the ranch in They Made Me a Criminal is designed to reform juvenile delinquents, that the Civilian Conservation Corps in Pride of the Bowery is designed to give jobs to the unemployed. The Kids in Pride of the Bowery are not playing criminals. They are just slum kids in need of employment.

The first half of Pride of the Bowery gives a gung ho look at the CCC's militaristic life style. The Kids are shown in their first lineup. They are still in civilian clothes, and highly undisciplined. This recalls the first lineup of the new recruits to the State Rangers in The Man from Tumbleweeds.


Mugs both bonds and spars with the young camp member who is a leader (Kenneth Howell). The bonding between a social outsider (Mugs) and a handsome hero type (not unlike Lucas in The Rifleman) is a Lewis tradition. However, in The Rifleman, we usually see things from Lucas' point of view. Here, the social outsider is the viewpoint character. The boxing between the two men is typical of the duels and contests that cement friendships in other Lewis tales.

One of the Kids becomes a student cook at the camp. This recalls the men in Lewis who cook and serve food to other men. There is an unusual time-lapse, showing the camp members arriving at the dining hall.

The Captain in charge of the camp has a younger deputy who supervises road crews; both are uniformed. They resemble a bit the older man-younger deputy in the INS in A Lady Without Passport, and the Marshal and deputy in The Bullet.

The proprietor of the boxing arena anticipates the owner of the carnival in Gun Crazy. Both are the presenters of cheap looking, rowdy entertainment to the public, in which contests of skill on stage are a central attraction. Both men are dressed in flashy, low-bow loudly striped suits that nevertheless have a certain pizzazz. However, the boxing manager here is a much nicer person than his counterpart in Gun Crazy.

People have to sign up at the Camp for a six month stay, and later, a desperate Mugs sells his long-term boxing services to the boxing manager for money. This is a bit like the indentured servant in Pompey, and the sharecropper in The Fourflusher.


The East Side Kids make their entrance on a stairway, here outdoor steps.

The camp buildings have peaked roofs, and often feature in the background of shots, a Lewis tradition. The buildings are long and narrow, recalling the stables in That Gang of Mine.

The barracks have peaked rafters inside. Lewis employs these complex, repeated structures for compositions.

The boxing rings have ropes stretched between short posts. In this they resemble the wire fences that are a staple of Lewis films. Lewis frequently employs the boxing rings for compositions.

The shot down the town sidewalk on the street with the Chinese laundry, is one of Lewis' perspective shots down sidewalks. These will be especially common in Lewis television Westerns. One of the buildings has a covered portico over the sidewalk, a common feature in such Lewis shots.

The first scene with the heroine and Muggs takes place outside, in front of a building. We see one of the building's windows, and through it, a second window in the background. Nested windows or doors are a Lewis staple.

Camera Movement

Lewis twice has his characters and camera move forward through the barracks. Repeated camera movements down the same path sometimes occur in Lewis.

A vertical camera movement travels up the tall tree that is being chopped down. This forest scene has the "magical", lyrical quality of other forest episodes in Lewis.

A long take camera movement shows the boxing promoter arriving at the camp. In the first half, the camera moves along with his car. In the second half, he leaves the car, and the camera moves even further to the left, while he talks to the Major.

The Town

The small town is unusual looking. It is very different from the wholesome, charming small towns often shown in the movies. The businesses and stores are full of lettering and elaborate signs, in a way that recalls tough urban areas, such as Los Angeles' skid row area, Main Street. The presence of a large boxing arena also recalls Los Angeles' skid row district. The whole downtown area looks old and decrepit. Lewis makes these shots almost a documentary about the town, preserving its unique appearance on film.

When the bad guy is running away from Mugs, he turns a 90 degree corner, and runs down a side street. Such 90 degree angled streets are common in Lewis films.

One of the businesses we see on the street is a Chinese laundry. This anticipates Night of the Wolf. Both films' laundries have the name of their Chinese proprietor on their signs.

The Lake

The first date is a lyrical scene, set near the edge of the lake. It recalls the lake where the hero first meets the heroine in Border Wolves, and anticipates lyrical river scenes in Shattered Idol and Old Tony. All of these films have very young men enjoying the lyrical, rapturous quality of the water areas.

Later we see a car driving along the edge of the lake, where the characters previously were on foot. It gives an odd effect. Lewis also finds slightly different perspectives from which to shoot the lake in these scenes, from the earlier walk.

At the finale, Danny and the bad kid have a big fight in the water, anticipating the finale of My Name Is Julia Ross, and its villain collapsing in the ocean.

Lloyd Ingraham

Lloyd Ingraham plays the Camp doctor. He is one of the men in white clothes linked to their professions that run through Lewis.

Lloyd Ingraham was a prolific director in the silent era. I didn't like his grim, downbeat Hoodoo Ann (1916), with Mae Marsh. Ingraham had a long running acting career, with over 300 films, often playing doctors, judges and other authority figures. He has character roles in Lewis' Pride of the Bowery, Invisible Ghost and The Silver Bullet.

Invisible Ghost

Invisible Ghost (1941) is an early Lewis B-movie. It does not succeed as a unified whole, but is recommended viewing, for its interesting visuals and story elements.

The trailer (included on the DVD) has shots not included in the actual film, such as one showing the wife leaving the basement, and another showing the corpse come back to life. This makes an interesting addendum to the film.

Genre and Plot Structure

The title is misleading: there are no ghosts, invisible characters, or anything supernatural in the film. Instead, it tells a story full of creepy events, set in a mansion where a series of murders is taking place. Lewis seems to share the rationalist attitude of most US popular culture of 1900-1965, with the supernatural being despised, and rarely making any sort of appearance other than in not-to-be-taken-seriously light comedies such as Topper or Casper the Friendly Ghost. I personally loathe the supernatural, and fully share this rationalist world view.

Invisible Ghost does not correspond to any Hollywood genre known to me. One supposes it was thought of as a "horror movie", but the film is longer on eerie atmosphere and odd turns of plot, than thriller or action sequences. It is not an "old dark house thriller", with people being chased around a mansion at night. The way the plot is kept boiling constantly, with a series of eerie but disparate and often disconnected events, anticipates William Castle thrillers to come, such as Homicidal (1961).

The first half of Invisible Ghost is full of strange plot revelations, about the past life events of characters in the mansion. In this it resembles A Lawless Street, another film in which the hidden past lives and personal secrets of characters are steadily exposed to the viewer. Both films also resemble each other in that there is no detective character uncovering these truths: they are just steadily revealed to the audience through the storytelling. After the first half of Invisible Ghost, the plot runs out of steam, and the film has nowhere to go.

Links to The Rifleman

In Eddie's Daughter, Eddie's wife has deserted him years ago for another man, just as in Invisible Ghost. (Trouble between husband and wives leading to separation years ago is a plot element that also returns in The Big Combo and A Lawless Street.)

Lewis would return to the subject of serial killers in Flowers by the Door, the Rifleman episode of his I like the least.

Another somewhat horror-oriented Rifleman episode, The Guest, shows a portrait of series hero Chuck Connors hanging on the wall in a creepy mansion, recalling the painting that plays such a prominent role in Invisible Ghost. Paintings will play a huge role in the film noir genre to come. 1941 was only the second year of film noir's existence as a genre, and Invisible Ghost can hardly be thought of as a film noir.

A subplot in The Visitor has a pair of killers smothering victims in bed. This is like the strangling of characters in bed in Invisible Ghost. The layout of the hotel in The Visitor has similarities to the house in Invisible Ghost, with an upstairs corridor with many bedrooms leading off it.

Detection and Psychiatry

There is little actual detection in Invisible Ghost. The truth finally comes out at the end, when Lugosi goes into a trance state. This is an example in Lewis of truth about a mystery emerging from an altered state of consciousness.

Immediately before, there is a scene where a psychiatrist working for the police, tries to get the truth out of a suspect, testing him to see if he is mentally ill. This goes nowhere, because the suspect (the butler) is not guilty, is perfectly sane, and knows nothing about the murders. Lewis neither endorses nor attacks psychiatry in this film. Invisible Ghost was made the year before Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942), an early example of Hollywood's relentless glorification of Freudian psychiatry in the 1940's.

What causes Lugosi's trances?

I found the plot of Invisible Ghost easy to follow, but was confused by the causes of Lugosi's trances. When first watching the film, I thought Lugosi's attacks were simply triggered by seeing his wife wandering in the grounds. Fiction about mad killers often shows them triggered by something: see the parallel lines in Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945) or the night and rain in Follow Me Quietly (Richard Fleischer, 1949).

However, the DVD sleeve suggests his wife is hypnotizing Lugosi into having the attacks. This is a possible alternative reading.

Neither interpretation really makes too much sense:

Even odder, when the wife dies at the end, Lugosi's trance stops, as if they were linked by psychical powers.


Invisible Ghost has odd class elements. Although the serial killer is mad and has no conscious control over his actions, his victims seem to be all working class characters, while he is rich and powerful. He perhaps relates to the wealthy crooks in other Lewis films who attack ordinary people, although those villains always work for gain. The villain of The Guest is also a rich man who attacks the working class hero of The Rifleman.

Paul's profession of civil engineer recalls other men who build things in Lewis: the telegraph line builders in Boss of Hangtown Mesa, the men surveying for the railway in Surveyors, the road builders in Pride of the Bowery and Bombs Over Burma.


Clarence Muse's performance as the butler is a model of dignity and sophistication. It is unusual to see a black character treated in non-stereotyped fashion in 1941. We see Muse giving orders to white servants in the kitchen, logical for his position as butler, but also atypical of Hollywood. He gets 4th billing in the cast, above many white actors - also unusual in 1941.

Links to An American Tragedy

The whole subplot about Ralph seems to derive from Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy (1925). It is unusually explicit about Ralph having a sexual liaison with the lower class woman, something done to fulfill his "need for companionship", as he puts it. This is an example of a Lewis character with a strong need for some sort of forbidden sexuality, a theme that will run through his pictures.

Desires for forbidden sexuality link seemingly respectable upper crust characters with lower class people who can satisfy them:

This perhaps relates to hero Lucas McCain in The Rifleman, and his constant male bonding with social outsiders. The Rifleman is different, however, in several ways. The outsider characters in The Rifleman are usually members of minority groups who are discriminated against. Lucas is not slumming with these people: he is standing up with and supporting people who are social pariahs and victims of discrimination. There is also never an explicit sexual relationship between Lucas and these characters. Finally, Lucas' friends are usually men, while the forbidden sexual relationships listed above are all heterosexual.

John McGuire's performance is excellent. He manages to seem like two completely different people as the two brothers. His first brother seems like a sleazy womanizer, often smirking or viewing with alarm. The other brother seems far more polite, gracious, upbeat and intelligent. The designers also give him two completely different looks, having him in sportswear for the womanizer, and suits for the classy brother.

Camera Movement

Lewis gets right down to business in the opening shot, with a camera movement that includes the mansion's huge staircase. Lewis loves staircases, and this one will be filmed with many variations in camera movement throughout the film. The staircase has an upper landing at the top, like Lewis staircases to come in A Lady Without Passport and The Trade.

Lewis employs different rhythms in staircase scenes. Lugosi, and the camera, descend slowly and menacingly. While the hero steps down at an accelerated pace, the camera dashing along. Rhythm will also appear in when the butler discovers the body, which is accompanied by a radio exercise program that uses rhythmic music.

The shed basement scene is shot in one long take. This is one of the virtuoso camera movements in Lewis. When the gardener descends to the basement room in the shed, light moves with him, making moving shadows on the wall - an unusual effect. The camera then moves over to the bed, to introduce a new character. Soon, the staircase will be seen in the mirror. This mirror shot is unusual staging. In addition to the staircase, the mirror also reflects two images of the gardener: the main reflection, and a narrow second reflection in the edge of the glass. Eventually, we see the gardener ascend the staircase - in the mirror. The whole shot is enormously complex.

The next shot shows the gardener at home with his wife at dinner. This scene too is one long take camera movement, although it is more conventional. It eventually ends with a moving-in to the husband, to emphasize his final words. A coffee pot is prominent on the sideboard, anticipating the coffee pot on James Craig's desk in A Lady Without Passport and the Marshal's coffee pot on The Rifleman. Later, there will be a funny joke about coffee, the butler and a cop.

There is a notable camera movement, that moves around the back of Lugosi while he is seated at his desk. This movement was cited with admiration by Robert Keser in his Lewis article. The movement is almost-but-not-quite a pure circular arc around Lugosi. Camera movements that circle around characters appear in other Lewis films. This movement then continues as a long take, with pans to the door and back.

When Clarence Muse is about to put the car away, Lewis moves in on him in a dramatic camera movement, which gains emphasis by moving into the giant car, as well. This moving-in tells us that Muse is learning about the strange goings-on in the woods: another Lewis moving-in that reveals a character's thoughts.

The death row scenes, which involve moving camera shots through bars, are outstanding. They combine two Lewis trademarks: shooting through bars, and camera movement. The prisoners are treated as "foreground objects in front of a lateral straight line track" in the second shot, also a Lewis trademark. The march to the death house is one of the funeral rituals that appear in Lewis.

Lewis will cut to a camera movement, showing the men's feet marching in unison. Such marches will often be associated with Western bad guys marching towards shoot outs in Lewis.

Camera movements pass through walls. The camera movement at the coroner's office has a stately quality that recalls Dreyer.

Windows and Doors

Lewis shoots as much as possible through doors, linking one room to another. This is a common strategy in his films.

The window shots, when Lugosi sees the woman on the ground below, emphasize the three vertical bars of the window. These anticipate shots in The Trade and The Deadly Wait, which also look down through windows and bars, to the outside ground below.

The curtains that pull open at the window to reveal the body, anticipate the door curtains in Night of the Wolf. Only one side of the curtains are opened in Invisible Ghost, while both sides are pulled open in Night of the Wolf.

Criminals Within

Criminals Within (1941) is one of the worst films credited to Lewis' as a director. In Francis M. Nevins' book, Lewis said he was sure he had not directed Criminals Within. Nevins dug up a videotape copy of the film, and showed it to Lewis: the film lists its director as "Joseph Lewis" (the currently available DVD copy says the same thing). Lewis still denied he had anything to do with the film, and knew nothing about the film or why it was seemingly credited to him. No one has any historical information as to why this film is credited to Lewis on-screen.

I think this bad film show little sign of Lewis' direction, either in plot or visual style. And suspect the film was never directed by Lewis at all.

The chronology of Lewis' films does not provide an answer to whether Lewis is or is not the director of Criminals Within. According the the TCM database, Invisible Ghost was shot in late March 1941, Criminals Within in early May 1941, and Arizona Cyclone in late June 1941. So Lewis had time in his schedule between Invisible Ghost and Arizona Cyclone, when he theoretically could have filmed Criminals Within. He has no alibi!

A combination spy and mystery film with a military background, Criminals Within has many concrete problems that mark it as a failure:

There are a few features of Criminals Within that might show affinities with Lewis' work:

None of this adds up to a convincing "smoking gun" showing that Lewis actually directed Criminals Within.

In general, being a Lewis completist, and trying to see all his films pays dividends. Most little-known Lewis works are full of inventive plotting, staging and visual style. But the maybe-by-Lewis-but-probably-it's-not Criminals Within is an exception. Despite the few interesting touches listed above, it's a dismal viewing experience. Beware!

The Army - and its Research

Criminals Within was released in the summer of 1941, roughly six months before Pearl Harbor. The United States was still at peace. There are foreign spies at work in Criminals Within but no war or battle scenes.

Movies as diverse as Dirigible (Frank Capra, 1931), Murder in the Fleet (Edward Sedgwick, 1935), Flight Command (Frank Borzage, 1940) and Lewis' own The Spy Ring (1938) showed the peace time Armed Forces as engaged in technological or research work, often top secret and high tech. Criminals Within follows in this tradition.

Arizona Cyclone

Arizona Cyclone (1941) is a B-movie Western, the first of three Lewis did with star Johnny Mack Brown.

Politics and economics

Arizona Cyclone has plot elements that recur in many Lewis films. Similar plots, more elaborately developed, will recur in Boss of Hangtown Mesa, A Lawless Street, Terror in a Texas Town, Squeeze Play.

Arizona Cyclone has little more story than the above big rich crooks versus honest businessmen plot. Unlike the more richly structured Boss of Hangtown Mesa, there are no mystery elements, no changes of identity or undercover work. The freight transport business the hero runs in Arizona Cyclone is less visually and technologically interesting than the telegraph business the hero works for in Boss of Hangtown Mesa (the telegraph coming to town in Arizona Cyclone is completely off-screen, and is only mentioned in the dialogue). We also see fewer townspeople and businesses in Arizona Cyclone than is typical for Lewis: only the hero's freight business and the banker and the woman bank teller are well characterized.

The hero is pure and simple the manager of a freight company, as the dialogue repeatedly states. He spends most of his screen time supervising the loading and unloading of freight, driving freight wagons, negotiating business deals about freight, etc. It is very much a portrait of a small business manager.


Arizona Cyclone shows Lewis shooting through his repertoire of foreground objects: a wagon wheel, arching tree branches, grill work on a bank teller's cage, a blacksmith's, a fireplace, a cooking pot tripod, a triangle, reins of a horse.

At the final night time shoot-out in the street, a composition includes a glowing lantern.

The buildings tend to have peaked roofs. The bank lobby also has a peaked wall section behind the teller's cage - one of the few indoor peaked areas in Lewis.

The saloon has a staircase and swinging doors, but neither is used elaborately.

In keeping with the anti-gambling theme running through Lewis, the crooks here like to gamble in the saloon. One meeting of the crooks shows only their poker game, with the dialogue being voice-over only.

The shock cut to the explosion, after the sidekick takes his medicine, perhaps anticipates the shock cut in The Vindicators to the flaming arrow attack.

Camera Movement

A camera movement follows down a bar as a man enters the saloon, then over beyond the bar to a table. When the crooked banker enters with such a movement, bad guys are soon shown following the reverse path to leave the bar: an example of Lewis' paired entrance and reverse exit camera moves.

At the end, the villain moves out to the left behind the bar, then moves back along the right in front of the bar. This is another example of paired camera movements: albeit short ones.

A camera movement goes through a wall at the bank, moving from the lobby to the banker's office.

A focus on a holster

When the bad guy advances on the hero in the bank for a possible shoot-out, the camera focuses on his holster as he moves forward. This is a static shot; later films will combine such holster close-ups with camera movement.

The Mad Doctor of Market Street

Horror and Tropical Adventure

The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942) is a strange mix of the horror film and the tale of topical island adventure.

H.G. Wells' prose novella The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) had a sinister doctor performing horrifying experiments on an isolated tropical island. In very broad terms, it might have influenced The Mad Doctor of Market Street. However, the nature of the experiments is completely different in the two works. Also, The Island of Doctor Moreau deals with real science, however grisly, and a real doctor, while The Mad Doctor of Market Street features a crackpot pseudoscientist.

The villains in both works are absolute rulers of their islands: a further parallel.

The story construction of The Mad Doctor of Market Street definitely seems odd, with its opening in a film noir San Francisco, and its second part on a tropical island. Lewis' later Cry of the Hunted would have a similar construction, beginning in Los Angeles filmed in noir style, and moving on to a swamp in Louisiana.


The villain is explicitly labeled a "pseudoscientist" by the authorities. Dialogue also implies that he is not a real doctor, just a man posing as one.

Pseudoscience got a definitive expose and attack in Martin Gardner's book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952). Admittedly The Mad Doctor of Market Street lacks the breadth and depth of Gardner's analytical insight. But I think The Mad Doctor of Market Street has the same core view of Pseudoscience as Gardner: That there are fakes and cranks who are offering fake science, which has absolutely no scientific validity, and which often has harmful consequences.

Lewis was an artist who valued thinking highly. It is thus not surprising that he was also condemning of Pseudoscience: fake ideas masquerading as science, but not grounded in reason and evidence.

Dialogue mentions that the medical profession has opposed the villain, and tried to shut his work down. We thus see organized opposition between real scientists and the villain's Pseudoscience.

Pseudoscience and Dictatorship

The villain uses his Pseudoscience efforts to become absolute dictator of the island, impressing the gullible natives.

In 1942 the world was cursed with totalitarian dictators Hitler and Stalin, who were fighting World War II. Both dictators used Pseudoscience to empower and justify their polices. Hitler had Pseudoscience views about racial supremacy that gave a veneer of fake science to his attacks on Jews. Stalin presented Marxism as a "scientific" view of history. So did later Communist dictators.

It is possible that The Mad Doctor of Market Street has allegorical aspects, attacking the use of Pseudoscience by evil dictators.

Pseudoscience and Film History

My impression is that films exposing or attacking Pseudoscience are rarer than films exposing phony psychics or mediums.

Quite a few films expose phony mediums, notably Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires (1915) episode 10, and Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (1944). Such fake mediums present themselves as either people with supernatural powers or as "psychics", rather than as scientists. There are also films exposing fake psychics in general, such as the TV comedy-mystery series Psych (2006-2014).

Don't get me wrong: I'm glad that films attacking psychics and mediums exist, and I fully support and agree with their point of view. Psychic "powers" and mediums are complete hooey, having no basis in reality or scientific validity whatsoever. So exposes like Ministry of Fear and Psych do a lot of good.

But I also wish there were more films like The Mad Doctor of Market Street that attacked Pseudoscience. One thinks of:

The Dangers of Wanting to be The Best

The villain hopes that his research will make him world famous, and idolized by everyone on the planet. People who want public recognition as The Best often find their efforts leading to disaster, in Lewis films.


The deck steward is chewed out by the ship's officer, for mingling with the passengers of the cruise ship. One suspects this is a commentary about social class barriers being enforced by the upper classes and social authority. The officer represents a sinister upper class ideology, waging class warfare against a working man. This is an attack on democratic values, and the belief that everyone in society is equal.

SPOILER. Later, on the island, an officer betrays the others, including both passengers and this deck steward again, to save himself. He abandons these people to their fate. Many books and films are full of depictions of noble officers who sacrifice themselves to save their passengers and crew, going down with their ships, etc. Lewis will have none of this. Instead, we have a selfish officer who protects himself at others' expense. Once again, we seem to be getting an allegory about how the upper class cares only about its own welfare, and is willing to sacrifice the working and middle classes to that goal.

The Opening

The opening has features that anticipate the later (and much better) film My Name Is Julia Ross:

Bringing Back the Dead

An image that runs throughout Lewis films is a seemingly dead person who comes back to life. In The Mad Doctor of Market Street this concept is made explicit: it is the central goal of the mad "doctor" villain's research.

The Mad Doctor of Market Street has unexpectedly little to "say" about this subject. Neither The Mad Doctor of Market Street nor other Lewis films seem to have any didactic point about "bringing back the dead", or sociological, political or moral lessons to impart. It is a highly dramatic subject in Lewis films. But it is not a topic on which Lewis has a "message". One might say it is a "subject" which interests Lewis dramatically, but not a "theme" on which Lewis has a didactic point.

Forced Marriage

The villain tries to force the heroine into marrying him. This anticipates the villain of the Rifleman episode I Take This Woman (1962). I Take This Woman has more of a feminist subtext. It is also set in more of a concrete historical context.

Flowers and Horror

SPOILER. The most chilling scene has the doctor loading a flower with poison, in an attempt to get a victim to smell it, and thus put the victim in the villain's power.

This anticipates Lewis' Rifleman episode Flowers by the Door (1961), where the serial killer villain poses as a door-to-door salesman of flower seeds, to get close to his victims. In both, the attractiveness of flowers is used by a killer to lure victims.

Searching by Air

The finale, with pilots in a small plane searching for missing people on the ground in a remote area, anticipates the main plot subject of Desperate Search.

The pilots wear snazzy leather jackets.


After the villain speaks up on the island, the other passengers deduce that he is the wanted killer "Dr. Benson". This scene is brief and simple. But it is an example of how Lewis characters deduce the truth from evidence. They don't guess or learn things by accident. They use their minds to reason from evidence. In other words, they do "real detective work", when confronted with mysteries such as the identity of the killer in The Mad Doctor of Market Street.

Camera Movement: Circular

A bar on the ship is in the form of a circular arc. Lewis has beautiful camera movements, that passes along people seated at this circular bar. The camera pans along, sweeping out circular arcs. From a formal viewpoint, this scene is the high point of the movie.

The main camera movement follows the aunt as she moves from left to right, pauses at the far right as she talks to a man, than reverses path and sweeps back left to where the heroine started out. It thus combines its circular movement with the path / reverse path" construction that often appears in Lewis films.

a second, briefer circular camera movement down the bar soon follows.

Camera Movement: Lateral Tracks with Foreground Objects

The Mad Doctor of Market Street has several examples of that Lewis favorite, tracking shots with foreground objects. These tend to move from left-to-right in The Mad Doctor of Market Street. They include:

Camera Movement: Stairs

Lewis likes camera movement depicting staircases. We get two shots in The Mad Doctor of Market Street, which show people climbing the steps of a tribal building, then moving to the left a little along the porch at the top of the steps.


The balustrade in San Francisco is full of simple spirals in its metal work. These spirals do not have as many turns, as some of the more elaborate spirals in other Lewis films.


Uniformed men appear throughout The Mad Doctor of Market Street. These include police, and the staff of the cruise ship. Some of these men appear only briefly. One suspects that some of these shots of uniformed men might be stock footage, taken from other movies.

Lewis likes showing militaristic lifestyles. We do not get many glimpses of lifestyles, strictly speaking, in The Mad Doctor of Market Street. But there are certainly a lot of dressy, militaristic-looking uniforms.

Bombs Over Burma

Politics: An Anti-violence war film

Bombs Over Burma (1942) is a spy drama, set in China during the Axis bombing. It shows the horror of bombing civilian populations.

The bombing is the only combat shown. The Chinese are shown fighting back by building roads, and running truck convoys over them. This includes the famous Burma Road, a vital supply line built by the Chinese to link China and Burma. This is an unusually constructive attitude: to oppose war and violence with building. It recalls the emphasis on building roads in Pride of the Bowery, and laying telegraph wires in Boss of Hangtown Mesa. It makes Bombs Over Burma one of the few war movies that suggests alternatives to fighting.

Tom gives an impressive speech on the bus about how the Americans and Chinese are helping each other. This is an example of the mutual aid among ordinary people, that is important to Lewis.

At the end, the people stand up against their oppressors, here a Nazi spy. This anticipates the finale of The Deserter.

The Bus Depot

The buildings serving as the bus depot have unusual architecture. One is an eight-sided tower, which seems vaguely Chinese - in real life, it is probably a Spanish-style building somewhere near Los Angeles. These buildings are not the peaked-roof complexes often found in Lewis. However, they seem somewhat related, in that they are interesting architecture in the background of a shot.

Lewis shoots the bus depot through the wire spokes of a wheel. This spoked wheel strongly resembles in form the wagon wheels Lewis often shoots through in his Westerns.

The characters make their entrance on the staircase at the depot.

Characters and Costumes

The villain is suave and seemingly British upper class, like the bad guys in My Name Is Julia Ross and Eddie's Daughter. He only has one henchman, however, unlike the usual two in Lucas. The villain has a small back dispatch case, like the villain in The Guest, and the wire cutters used to cut its chain anticipate the wire cutters which sever the fence in Old Tony. His servant wields a knife, like many Lewis villains.

Tom Whitley (played by Dennis Moore), who seems to be an "American traffic expert", perhaps in China to assist with road construction, wears boots. He is one of the few sympathetic booted characters in Lewis.

Hero Slim is in a leather jacket, reflecting his job as bus driver. Leather jackets were just becoming popular as a fashion item for men in 1943, and this film is an early example.

The sleazy mechanic, who learns who is commiting the crime and uses this information to extract money from the villain, anticipates the drunk in The Wyoming Story.


In the classroom, we see Lewis' staging on right angles. The teacher is at her desk, the students are at their desks, 180 degrees to the teacher, and the toy vendor is facing 90 degrees to both the teacher and the students.

Such settings as the bus, and the monastery dining table, also keep the characters at regular angles to each other.

When Slim gives his big speech at the monastery to the heroine, first he is facing 180 degrees away from her, then he turns around, so both are looking in the same direction. Slim wears a gun, like gunslingers in Lewis Westerns, and the back view we get of him is similar to the rear views of many such gunslingers.

Camera movement

When the heroine enters the basket shop, there is a complex camera movement embodying several Lewis traditions. First, there are foreground objects (tea kettles), hanging in front of the heroine's path. Then we see the heroine go from outside to inside. Finally, the camera follows her around, till we see her through the double loop of a hanging basket. We often see Lewis characters through geometric objects such as wagon wheels, bars or metal work; this basket is one of the most complex such framing objects, with its double loops.

The heroine enters, then later leaves, the basement with the basket maker. These are an example of Lewis' paired camera movements, showing a character leave along the same path they entered. The camera movements include both a staircase, and foreground objects of hanging baskets.

There is a beautiful camera movement, showing the bus making its way down the road. Trees with arching branches appear in the foreground of the shot, in the Lewis manner. This is one of the most complex of Lewis tree shots, involving numerous different trees, and counterpoint between the road the bus takes and the path the camera takes. There will later be simple shots of the convoy, framed in arched branches.

Later, the hero, heroine and villain will be shown in a moving camera shot, walking behind a tangle of wiry bushes.

The Chinese road builders are shown in moving camera shots.

The staircase down the lower room of the monastery is simple in architecture, but spectacularly lit. It is virtually a light show, or work of light-art. There is a honeycomb grid of shadows on the wall, moving shadows from the slats of the door at the top, and other lighting effects. It has a candelabra standing in front, that serves as a foreground object in front of camera movement when people walk downstairs. The candelabra also has spirals in its metal work, another Lewis tradition.

Late in the film, Lewis has some fixed camera shots, showing the room below from the top of the stairs. These recall the shots from the staircase top in Invisible Ghost, which showed the hall below from a high angle.


Towards the end, the hero has to decide who is telling the truth: the heroine or the villain. The film veers off into detective work at this point, where he and the heroine struggle to establish the truth of what is going on. As always in Lewis, it is not easy to find truth, and it takes a huge effort and many steps, stops and starts to get at a real answer.

The hero is helped however, by a principle he enunciates: "Americans ... listen to both sides of an argument". This is a profound statement of the open-minded, democratic tradition.

The Silver Bullet

A Mix of Genres

The Silver Bullet (1942) is a B-movie Western, the second of three Lewis did with star Johnny Mack Brown. The Silver Bullet is a well-made film that combines the Western genre with two other of Lewis personal interests. It is a detective story, with the sleuth-hero trying to track down a professional killer. And it is a political film, with the hero's search taking him to a town in the midst of an election. The mix of Western, mystery and liberal political drama works wonderfully well, and The Silver Bullet is a Lewis gem that, while little-known today, has the potential to become a crowd pleaser. (Among other things, The Silver Bullet would make a good choice for college film courses, trying to show a B-movie Western in classes.)

Other genres play a role in The Silver Bullet as well. The film is a musical, with numbers performed by Nora Lou Martin and the Pals of the Golden West. This same singing group shows up in the companion film to The Silver Bullet, Lewis' next Western Boss of Hangtown Mesa. The two films have utterly different plots and characters, but they have much the same cast, and they are shot in the same Western town set.

And Fuzzy Knight gets his best comedy relief material of any of the Lewis pictures I've seen. While Knight in other pictures is often forced to make bricks without straw, trying to generate comedy out of whatever pratfalls and shtick he can muster, here he has some substantial subject matter to sink his teeth into. Knight's scenes take him into transgressive sexuality, comically but firmly: a Lewis tradition.

William Farnum - and the Saloon Brawl

The Silver Bullet has veteran cowboy star William Farnum. Farnum starred in a pioneering silent Western, The Spoilers (1913), a film proverbial for its knock down, drag out fight scene between hero and villain. It is perhaps appropriate that The Silver Bullet contains a delightful "brawl that wrecks the saloon", an archetypal ingredient of cowboy movies. Blake Edwards will stage a comic one in The Great Race (1965). Lewis' version already seems a bit tongue in cheek, designed to entertain and amuse.

A giant, no holds barred fight between good guy and bad guy will appear much later, in Lewis' I Take This Woman (1962). Watching it, one immediately thinks, "It's like The Spoilers!"

Water Rights

The political conflict is about a favorite Lewis subject: a sinister monopoly. Here it deals with water rights, and whether water should restricted to the big rich, or be extended to a large group of small ranchers. Lewis and the hero are firmly on the side of the small ranchers. The good guys also support the building of a dam: such public infrastructure runs throughout early Lewis films.

This water subject will return in Lewis' last TV series episode, The Man from Nowhere (1966). There it will get an oddly revisionist treatment. In The Man from Nowhere, the water monopolist is not a big-money rancher, but a poor, vengeful woman farmer. And the small ranchers who oppose her resort to attacks of violence, in the manner of sinister Lewis villains and their reigns of terror. Meanwhile, the hero opposes both the monopoly and the terror, and advocates a legal settlement that will share the water with the small ranchers, instead. The Man from Nowhere is odd, in that it scrambles the characteristics of heroes and villains that runs through the rest of Lewis. It suggests that reality can be unconventional and complex, and that non-violence and negotiation are better than violent battles. Both sides in The Man from Nowhere regard themselves as good-versus-evil, which Lewis suggests is not so. And use this self-righteousness to support their intransigence and, in the ranchers' case, their use of violence.

Camera movement

The first shot in the bank is a right-to-left camera movement, that traverses the entire set. It looks through the grill of the teller's cage. And eventually passes through the wall into the banker's office.

Later, we see a different camera movement in the bank. While the first shot was a track, the second shot is a pan. It rotates from behind the teller's cage, and includes views through both teller windows. It looks a lot like the opening track, in that it occurs at a similar viewpoint from behind the cage, and also moves from right-to-left. But it is subtly different, being a pan instead of a track. The second shot ends with a two-level deep look through both a teller window and a door.

The first shot in the saloon is a left-to-right track through the entire saloon set. This shot subtly echoes the recently seen track through the entire bank set. The saloon track is a "lateral straight line track seen through foreground objects", one of the atomic ingredients of Lewis' cinematic universe. The foreground objects include ordinary foreground constructions such as a gambling table and card table. They also include some Lewis favorites from other kinds of Lewis shots, as:

The shot gains added complexity in that its first half follows the heroes as they move into the saloon - but they seat themselves at a table half way through the shot, which continues along without them. There is also a perceptible change of the speed of the track in the two halves of the shot, with a sort of pause or slowing down when the heroes sit down at the table.

Later shots also track down the saloon.

Overhead views

Much of the saloon fight is shown in a series of overhead camera views. These views are excellent for showing the progress of the fight. So they seem "logical" to viewers. However, these shots are not rationalized as Point of View shots. Lewis has just decided to elevate his camera. By contrast, the steep overhead views of the hallway in Invisible Ghost are shots taken from the top of the hallway staircase. Those shots sometimes include a person on the stairs, and sometimes not.

Mirror camera movement shots - and the detective story

The doctor's office contains two spectacular mirror shots. In one the truth about the mystery comes out. In the second shot, we see the murder. Both are key plot developments of the detective story part of the film. Both shots involve complex camera movement.

After the inquest, the hero and sidekick walk down the street, and a camera movement accompanies them. During this shot, the hero explains his genuine detective reasoning, reaching new insight about the mystery. Halfway down the shot, the pair pause in front of bales of hay. At the shot's end, they are in front of a restaurant window that also serves as a mirror, reflecting people riding in the street.

The hay shows up again, when the hero walks down the street for the final shoot out.

Lewis subjects

The noble doctor twice tries to drug the villain, so the doctor can turn him over to the law. The villain successfully both attempts. By contrast, heroes of later Lewis films will be attacked by similar drugs, used by the bad guys.

The hero keeps forcing men to roll up their sleeves, so he can check for a scar. This is similar to the way the bad guy of Boss of Hangtown Mesa orders the hero at gunpoint to take off his shirt.

The villain declares his intention of marrying the heroine, purely to achieve power. He explicitly denies that her prettiness matters to him.

Election posters with the villain's picture are everywhere. They resemble the Wanted posters, usually of sympathetic characters, that run through other Lewis films.

Boss of Hangtown Mesa

Boss of Hangtown Mesa (1942) is a little B-movie Western, the last of three Lewis did with star Johnny Mack Brown, and the last Western from the early days of Lewis' career. It is a minor movie, but inoffensive, and oddly cheerful, with some nice storytelling and visual style.

Is This a Good Movie?

For a long time, Boss of Hangtown Mesa seems to have been the early Lewis B-movie most easily available. Every Lewis critic saw it. And many hated it. In his 1971 article in Cinema, Paul Schrader holds up Boss of Hangtown Mesa as an example of everything awful about Lewis' filmmaking, away from a few classics like Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. More gently, in his outstanding article on Lewis, one that is sympathetic and admiring of most of Lewis' 1945-1958 films, Jean-Pierre Coursodon suggests that Boss of Hangtown Mesa is an example of the lower quality of Lewis' early B-movie work.

When I first saw Boss of Hangtown Mesa, I thought it was an inoffensive but poor film, one of little interest. In fact I fell asleep briefly in the middle of it.

But every time I saw it again, it seemed more and more interesting. Even though I've watched it several times, I'm looking forward to seeing it again. What changed my mind?

Mainly, Boss of Hangtown Mesa is unexpectedly complex in its treatment of several Lewis subjects.

A City. The Western town in Boss of Hangtown Mesa is elaborate. Trying to trace out its geography, the location of its various buildings, and where Lewis is staging scenes in the city, becomes an absorbing experience. Watching a film actively, asking questions like "where is this encounter shot?", adds a dimension to the viewing experience. This is not a gimmick - the use of a city as protagonist is a Lewis subject that runs throughout his films. It is thus a "legitimate" question to be asking here.

Changes of Identity. People changing identities, both crooks and good guys, is a common Lewis theme. Boss of Hangtown Mesa has one of the most complex such plots in Lewis - courtesy screenwriter Oliver Drake. Both the hero and villain change identities, and do so in complex, interlocking ways. Repeated viewings help highlight these plot developments, allowing one to savor their complexity and detail.

Undercover work. Plots in which characters go undercover, working their way into an organization under false pretenses, were apparently fairly common in B-movie Westerns. And also in detective comic books of the 1930's. In the later 1940's, undercover plots became a staple of film noir as well, in films like T-Men (Anthony Mann, 1947). Once again, Oliver Drake has come up with an unusually complex plot. The hero here winds up undercover two levels deep. He is a good guy, pretending to be a bad guy, in turn sent in by the bad guys to pretend to be a good guy and infiltrate the telegraph company. Just as The Locket (John Brahm, 1946) is a film containing flashbacks within flashbacks, so does Boss of Hangtown Mesa contain undercover roles within undercover roles. This is unusual and striking. Repeated viewings of Boss of Hangtown Mesa help bring this into focus.

Building telegraphs. Boss of Hangtown Mesa contains documentary features, showing the construction of telegraph wires and poles. These scenes too benefit from repeated viewings.

Other features of Boss of Hangtown Mesa, from its detective work to its visual style, also come into focus more with multiple viewings.

Business - Honest and Crooked

Boss of Hangtown Mesa (1942) was made one year after Fritz Lang's big-budget Western Union (1941), and like that film, deals with telegraphers who are putting up wires out West. The telegraph companies in both films are good guy businessmen. This anticipates the sympathetic small business owners that run through The Rifleman. For example, in The Safe Guard, the bank arrives in North Fork and opens for business, just as the telegraph arrives in Hangtown here.

The hero's comic sidekick is a traveling show medicine man, whose fancy wagon anticipates those of the itinerant pitchmen in The Hangman and Suspicion.

Despite the title, a crooked town boss is not the central character. In fact, the crooks here are a group of well-to-do businessmen in town, running a syndicate. They attack the telegraph company, for gain - but they are not really town bosses. They are similar to the later rich businessmen in Lewis who are completely corrupt, and who invent schemes to exploit others. But they have not yet instituted a reign of terror that attacks ordinary people, the way such Lewis villains in Arizona Cyclone, A Lawless Street, Terror in a Texas Town, The Wyoming Story, Squeeze Play, The Bullet do.

The crooks in Boss of Hangtown Mesa (and Arizona Cyclone) are hoping to exploit the telegraph when it comes through; the villain in Terror in a Texas Town wants to gain control of oil-rich land that has not been pumped; the crooked businessman in Squeeze Play wants to get even richer when the railroad comes through, and two of the town's richest men want to exploit the opening of a smelter which will soon bring back mining in A Lawless Street.

A Change of Identity

Lewis likes heroes in white clothes. In Boss of Hangtown Mesa, the villain needs to disguise himself, and he holds up the hero at gunpoint, forcing him to switch clothes. This means that the hero is soon in dark clothes, which he will wear throughout much of the film, and the villain now looks like a most convincing Western good guy, in light colored clothes. One suspects that this reversal of Western convention was a big hit with viewers in 1942. It also leads the film's funniest line of dialogue. Ordered by the bad guy at gunpoint to take off his clothes, the perplexed hero says "Say, what kind of stickup is this anyway?"

The bad guy soon also takes over the hero's identity, as well as his clothes, as part of a con scheme. This forces the hero into a new identity, too, so he will not be blamed for the villain's crimes. The change of identity is a common theme in Lewis.

The telegraph manager deduces that the bad guy is an impostor, by reasoning about the bad guy's knowledge. This is an example of the genuine detective work favored in Lewis films.

Later on, the villain buys a third set of fancy Western clothes. He has almost as many costume changes as the outlaw protagonist of Gun Crazy. Perhaps there is something about Lewis villains which encourages them to dress up in fancy clothes. His white Good Guy shirt has a lace-up front, also like the cowboy clothes worn by the hero of Gun Crazy.

The Town, the Camp - and Camera Movements in and out

Hangtown Mesa is another of Lewis' towns. Its name anticipates the town of La Mesa, in The Wyoming Story (1961). It also has a main street with the key buildings, and a perpendicular side street in front, like La Mesa. The hero rides in to town from the side street from the right, winding up in the main street. And later rides out again in the reverse: an itinerary similar to that in The Wyoming Story. In both films, the camera pans along with him. In both films, this is an example of the "paired entrance and exit in reverse" camera movements that are a Lewis trademark.

The opening view of the town is from inside a blacksmith's. Lewis will use a similar inside-a-blacksmith view in Duel of Honor and Eddie's Daughter. In Duel of Honor and Eddie's Daughter, we see sparks from the forge; but in Boss of Hangtown Mesa, the blacksmith is working on wagon wheels (what else from a filmmaker nicknamed Wagon Wheel Joe?)

The crooks are all prominent business or professional men in the town. Once again in Lewis, the town itself and its businessmen are "characters" in the film.

In addition to the town, there is also a work camp, run by the telegraph company. The whole set-up is similar to The Pride of the Bowery, with a work camp, and a small town nearby. The workers in The Pride of the Bowery cut down trees, having them fall over; the workers in Boss of Hangtown Mesa do the exact opposite, erecting telegraph poles.

The villain enters the camp in a long take. First, he rides down a hill, with the camera fixed. Then he and the camera pan to the right, pausing when he talks to a man. Then the rightward pan continues, as he moves over to the building. End of long take.

When the villain leaves the camp a little later, the whole sequence is now shot in reverse: a pan from right to left, as the villain rides from the building to the camp edge, then a fixed camera while the villain rides back up the hill. This is an example of the "mirror image" takes of Lewis, which show someone entering and leaving, "in reverse".

The way the villain rides down the hill exemplifies another Lewis trademark: a character moving from the back of the screen to the front, or vice versa. When the villain starts out, he is way in back of the screen. Then he rides down the hill into the foreground. The reverse happens when he exits, in the second shot.

A Circular Camera Movement

When the telegraph superintendent is talking with the disguised villain in his office, Lewis executes a camera movement that rotates around the men. It only goes though a small arc. But it distinctly circles around behind the villain. The villain's back is now to the camera, and the superintendent is seen face on. What follows is a typical Lewis conversation, in which we can see one speaker, but not the other. More camera movement ensues, following the superintendent around the room.

This anticipates the more sweeping circular camera movement around Mark in A Young Man's Fancy. The camera movement in A Young Man's Fancy goes through 180 degrees, unlike the short arc in Boss of Hangtown Mesa.

Wheel Spokes and Bars

Wagon Wheel Joe shoots a musical interlude through the spokes of a wheel. This is the most beautiful shot in the movie. The spokes spread out in a fan, from a hub at the base of the screen, and the entire movie frame is seen through these tilted lines. Each of the singers is arranged so that they are visible through these spokes. It reminds one a little, of the way the guests in the musician's apartment in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), are seen through the tilted lines of the window. The tableau looks like an old, 19th Century photograph, perhaps - a staged memento of the singing group. It is a non-naturalistic effect, one that interrupts the illusion that we are in reality, and reminds us that we are in the middle of a story and a movie.

When the hero and his sidekick are in jail, Lewis shoots them through their huge cell doors - an example of Lewis fondness for shooting through bars and grill work. There are some interesting shots where the camera tracks in closer to the characters.


There are some other nice shots in the film. A row of horsemen are arranged on a steeply sloping hill, so that the horsemen form a diagonal across the screen. I don't recall seeing anything like this in other movies. The shot has a harmonious, pleasing quality.

Much of the film is in fact staged on hills, allowing action to be spread out in various levels throughout the screen frame.

Also interesting: the way the bad guy hides out under a bridge, while horsemen surge across the bridge over him.

The final chase on horseback, while the hero tries to ride after and overtake the bad guys, is genuinely dynamic. The horses seem to be running much faster than those in other movies.

Secrets of a Co-Ed

Character types in common with The Big Combo

Secrets of a Co-Ed (1942) is a B-movie from early in Lewis' career. It is not very good - but it does anticipate themes and characters that will later be developed in The Big Combo. Its center is the allegedly scandalous romantic career of a spoiled, rich young college woman and her insistence on carrying on an affair with a young mobster. This anticipates the refined heroine of The Big Combo, and her willingness to degrade herself with an affair with Richard Conte's mobster. In The Big Combo, this is explained by the notorious scene in which we learn exactly why the heroine finds fulfillment with this man. Secrets of a Co-Ed is never this explicit - but it does insist that its heroine "feels things" she was never able to feel with her proper upper crust boyfriend. This boyfriend is a refined type, like Cornel Wilde in The Big Combo, and very handsome by conventional standards. Furthermore, he is much richer than Wilde's policeman, and not obsessed with his job, so he is an even better catch. The romantic triangle of The Big Combo is thus present in the earlier film.

Secrets of a Co-Ed keeps suggesting that it is as lurid as an exploitation movie as one could get past the strict censors of 1942. Actually, it is a film about a woman who kisses a man who is not a rich WASP. This is not very shocking or morally objectionable, by any conceivable standards. Despite all this, the whole courtroom at the end is shocked when the heroine's diary is read aloud, during the big trial scene.

Like Richard Conte, the young mobster in Secrets of a Co-Ed is very well dressed. Unlike Conte, this guy looks young and innocent, as if he were, say, a soda-jerk at a lunch counter. Actually, he is a killer for hire, but the heroine does not know this, and there sure is nothing in this genial lad's demeanor to suggest it. Alan Ladd had just zoomed to stardom in This Gun for Hire (1941), so paid assassins were very much on movie-goers' minds.

The biggest weakness of Secrets of a Co-Ed is that it is embedded in a mobster drama that is never very good. The heroine's father, a wealthy, seemingly respectable lawyer, is actually a secret mob boss himself, like Lewis Stone in The Secret Six (George W. Hill, 1931). He gets involved in a power struggle with the young killer who is the heroine's boyfriend. The father anticipates Brian Donlevy's older mobster in The Big Combo. Both are middle-aged men who are always dressed to the nines in the sort of formal clothes that were considered de rigueur for big city aldermen and crooked politicians in 1935. The conflict between the older and younger man in Secrets of a Co-Ed never develops the emotional charge or story-telling drama of the conflict between Richard Conte and Brian Donlevy in The Big Combo.

The father also has a pair of thugs on his payroll who do his bidding; these men are never characterized with any of the fascination that Lewis builds up with Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef in The Big Combo. Still, like The Falcon in San Francisco and The Big Combo, this is an example of the "sophisticated man with a pair of thugs to do his killing" pattern that runs through Lewis' films.

Long Takes

The finale of Secrets of a Co-Ed has a six minute long take that is unjustly famous. It shows the lawyer making a long speech. The camera follows him from the center of the courtroom, to the jury box, and back again a couple of times. There is nothing especially creative about the lateral camera movement. And except for the sheer length of the speech, it is not notable as long-take cinema. The content of the lawyer's speech, about being judged in "a higher court" for the misuse of his talents, is compelling. The lawyer looks up, both to the camera above him, and to Heaven. Jean-Pierre Coursodon's point, that such a very long take was unusual for its era, is well taken.

Earlier, in the first courtroom scene, there was a shorter shot from above.

There are quite a few episodes in Secrets of a Co-Ed that are staged as moderately long takes. The best perhaps is when the nice boy and the heroine leave the party, looking for a place to talk, but keep discovering necking couples. This shot is full of a perverse erotic charge. It is a largely lateral camera movement, through a packed, intricate set. Foliage serves as foreground objects, in the Lewis manner. The movement is somewhat on the diagonal, compared to other later camera moves in Lewis. The movement stops and starts.

Just before, we saw a lot of college students jitterbugging at a party. These scenes are composed of many brief shots - but they too have something of this same erotic oomph. There is definitely something overripe about these allegedly wholesome young college students.

I also liked the shot in which the same pair discuss things on the morning after the party. They walk forward between two trees, with the camera accompanying them; then retreat again. The whole scene is a single shot.

So is the last shot in the picture, which also involves the same couple. This shot also has its characters walking forward to the camera and back. But the camera does not move forward or back. It does move up and down slightly, to reframe the action.


The hitman and the heroine meet on a corner. We see movement down both streets, and around the corner itself: all Lewis traditions. Immediately before this, the hit man's car moved around two other corners. The hit man is unable to resist the heroine: this is perhaps a mild anticipation of the fervent car reunion in Gun Crazy.

We see shots through the bars of a jail.

There is a striking shot of a car through a Venetian blind. Through-the-window shots are common in Lewis, and they often uses the panes of the window as lines or a grid superimposed on the image. This Venetian blind is unusual in Lewis. Such blinds are ubiquitous in the film noir era, however, in other directors.

The candles in the heroine's room have cut glass prisms surrounding them.

Right after the shot with the necking couples, the heroine and her boyfriend move behind a metalwork fixture, that is full of spirals. This looks like the top of a well, although maybe this is just a garden ornament.


The father makes a big deal of trying to get the hit man to operate without his guns, while he is intimidating victims. But the hit man insists on carrying his gun anyway: with fatal results. This is perhaps an instance of the gun cult in Lewis.

The hit man eventually proposes to the heroine, and they talk about lovers who "smash everything" to be together. This anticipates the couple in Gun Crazy. However, the hitman is murdered soon after, and we never see this plot develop.

Underneath one of the many newspaper headlines in the film, there is a story that has nothing to do with the plot. Its header is "Gun Wielder in Love".

Minstrel Man

Minstrel Shows

Minstrel Man (1944) is a musical, telling the life story of a blackface-wearing white singer in minstrel shows and vaudeville.

Minstrel shows have a horrendous real-life history of promoting racial stereotypes and race hatred. Both minstrel shows, and the blackface entertainment they spun-off into vaudeville, are now viewed with loathing as symbols of anti-black hatred.

Minstrel Man intersects with this history in a bizarre way. The idea behind Minstrel Man seems to be that “a minstrel show, stripped of anything racist or offensive to black people, could be a fun-filled, harmless musical entertainment”. This idea was at best misguided from the start. There is too much ugly history for the minstrel show to be regarded as anything but racist.

Most of Minstrel Man consists of music numbers, that would be inoffensive, if their singers were not wearing blackface. The movie shows a highly expurgated and cleaned up version of a minstrel show, one in which most racially offensive elements have been purged - other than blackface. However, the film does venture into offensive stereotypes twice: once in a musical number showing giant watermelons, and worse, a song set against a giant caricatured painting of a black man.

Still, with all this said, I think it would be unfair to charge the makers of Minstrel Man with trying to promote hatred of black people. There are no black characters in the film, and the caricature painting aside, there are no attempts to stereotype black people in hateful ways. Compared with the numerous pre-1940 Hollywood films with horrendous stereotypes of blacks, Minstrel Man is relatively sanitized. It belongs more to the history of bad judgment, in its dubious idea that minstrel shows can be "cleaned up" to serve as normal entertainment, than to the history of bigotry.

Lewis Subjects

The hero of Minstrel Man runs away from home. He later changes his identity. He is also another Lewis character who apparently dies, but who later comes back to life.


The best musical number does not involve lead singer Benny Fields, but rather a singer who is probably John Raitt (best known for The Pajama Game). This takes place on a stage set that is essentially a giant staircase – a setting Lewis loves. The singers enter – and form a giant rectilinear grid on the staircase: another example of grid imagery in Lewis. This upbeat, dynamic number is musically outstanding. This song is the next-to-last in the film, and contains the refrain "A Great Day's Coming". It might, or might not be the song listed in the opening credits as "Shaking Hands with the Sun".

Lewis also gets some mileage out of the stairway in the living room. A nice shot follows the daughter downstairs, then as she moves through the room.

Shots through objects

At the beginning, there are nicely composed overhead views of the stage, first through hanging weights, then through a metal framework.

Later, there are also overhead shots through a ceiling fan.

The second shot in the Cuban nightclub is perhaps the most elaborate in the movie. It begins with a lateral track left, with lanterns in the foreground hanging from a row of palm trees. Then the shot pans to the right, passing by most of the lanterns again. This shot is constructed somewhat like those Lewis shots, in which the second half is a reverse of the first. But here the second half operates on different principles from the first half, being a pan rather than a track, and moving along a slightly different path.

Soon, the Cuban dancing couple is shot through an overhanging tree branch - a favorite Lewis shot, but this differs from being a fake branch, inside! We also do not actually see the right-hand upper part of the branch, just palm leaflets hanging down. Then the camera moves straight down, past the hanging lanterns.

Walking around a piano

Near the start, the hero moves twice around a piano, singing, while the camera tracks him. There are so many splices in the available videotape print of the film, that it is hard to tell how many shots make up this movement.

A Confrontation

When the couple confronts the hero, urging him to give up his child, Lewis stages a complex shot. First, the wife moves from background to foreground. Then the three move into a U-shaped formation, one of many Lewis shots in which the characters are at 90 degree angles to each other. Then a camera movement glides behind the hero. This camera movement brings the characters' faces into view. The movement is almost a shot that circles around the hero - but it actually seems not quite circular.

The Falcon in San Francisco

The Falcon in San Francisco (1945) is an entry in the detective series, with Tom Conway as the gentlemanly detective hero, the Falcon. It is from the early stages of Lewis' career, when he was directing a large number of little B-movies.


The film is an absorbing detective story, with good storytelling. It shows the Falcon gradually penetrating a complex maze of mystery. Like the later The Big Combo, it is a genuine detective story, in which the hero's detective work uncovers more and more of the truth. Also like The Big Combo, the mood is somber and serious. It has less pure comedy than many other entries in the Falcon series.

As in The Big Combo and A Lawless Street, the detective plot here uncovers more and more of the personal lives of the characters. Hidden relationships between the characters are gradually revealed. So are hidden personal identities of some of the characters. The mystery plot of all these films is complex, with layer after layer of mystery being revealed.

In both The Falcon in San Francisco and The Big Combo, the hero has to struggle to get various innocent, sympathetic female characters to speak up, and tell the truth. This is a major challenge.

The mystery plot in both The Falcon in San Francisco and The Big Combo involves shipboard mysteries. Both films contain ship officers as characters, and in both are sinister and eerie. Unlike the later The Big Combo, here we actually get on board ship, for the finale of the film. Shipboard travel is seen as dangerous and full of perils, just like the final airplane flight in A Lady Without Passport.

Characters Held Hostage in their Home

Some of the characters in The Falcon in San Francisco are virtually held hostage in their own home, controlled by sinister members of their own household. This is a theme to which Lewis will return in My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) and in The Big Combo. All of these hostage characters are female. There will later be men home-hostages in The Rifleman episodes The Patsy and The Spoiler.

Both The Falcon in San Francisco and The Big Combo begin with their hostage female trying to escape from their captors. This leads in both cases to the detective receiving the first clue to the mystery from that female, thus starting the detective-mystery plot. The mystery in The Falcon in San Francisco begins when the little girl who is the hostage speaks up, talking to the detective hero. This is similar to the beginning of the mystery in The Big Combo, where the similarly hostage heroine Susan Lowell talks to the detective. In both films, there is something of an effect of the hostage character's unconscious speaking up: in The Big Combo, the heroine is delirious in the hospital; in The Falcon in San Francisco, the ramblings of a child also have the effect of hidden truth emerging from an unlikely, almost subconscious source.

Lewis Character Types: A Caring Hero, Suave Villain and Two Thug-Henchmen

The detective in both The Falcon in San Francisco and The Big Combo is a handsome leading man type. This seems to go beyond Hollywood convention. Both detectives are presented as genuinely idealistic heroes, noble and caring about others.

The Falcon in San Francisco contains a polite, sophisticated villain, whose violent crimes are carried out by two murderous henchmen. This pattern will return in Lewis' A Lady Without Passport and The Big Combo, as well as some episodes of The Rifleman. Here, however, the villain is a woman. The two henchmen here seem like dry runs for the pair in The Big Combo.

The Falcon in San Francisco has two groups of crooks, who are competing with each other in working towards a goal. In structure, this reminds one of Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon (1929), and all the different groups of criminals in that tale looking for the valuable falcon statue of the title. Both works also have a sophisticated woman who tells lies as one of the crooks; and both works are set in San Francisco. However, The Falcon in San Francisco has no equivalent of the falcon statuette itself, and the actual murder mystery plots in both works are quite different.

Non-Rational States

Later, the hero is both drugged and beaten, like the policeman hero of The Big Combo. Both films show the hero's struggle to get help and stand on his feet again in the outside world, after he is abandoned by the thugs. Seeing the hero forcibly put into a non-rational state of consciousness is a disturbing experience in both films. It does link the hero to similar non-rational states experienced by the heroines.

Long Takes

The Falcon in San Francisco has some striking shots, that either involve fairly long take staging, or camera movement, or both. These tend to be simpler than some in Lewis' later work, but they are still pleasant.

A long take shot in the nightclub near the start has the two henchmen standing on the left of the screen, and Conway seated on the right. Conway is sitting below a large circular region on the ceiling of the nightclub. This region is quite conspicuous, and throughout this long take shot, Conway is associated with the ceiling circle. The henchmen order Conway to leave, and he moves towards the rear of the image to confer with a waiter about his bill. This stations him and the waiter directly under the circle in the background, while the two henchmen are in the foreground, outside of the circular region. The whole effect is visually graceful, and notable for its association of a character with a geometric pattern. The complexity of Conway's thought patterns - he is the detective hero of the film, and the film's representative of reason and thinking - are suggested by his links to geometry.

Camera Movement

At the night club, Lewis pans following the hero, while a couple at a table serve as "foreground objects". In other Lewis films, Lewis is more likely to use a lateral track in such a "camera movement with foreground objects" shot.

The shot is soon repeated, to watch the two men as they enter the restaurant. Such repeated camera movements echoing two characters' motions, are a Lewis trademark.

When Conway arrives at the door of the mansion by night, the camera is high up on a crane, viewing the event from above. Gradually, the camera lowers itself to street level. When the door opens, we see a deep focus shot of the mansion's interior. The camera now moves forward, giving us a slightly closer view of the interior behind the hero and the butler who answered the door. This is a nice camera movement. The shot looks through several doorways, deep into a living room. Such stagings through windows or doors more than one level deep are a Lewis tradition.

Later, in the mansion's interior, Lewis stages some pleasant camera movements, that track people as they ascend or descend the staircase. Lewis will have other stairway camera movements in A Lady Without Passport and A Lawless Street. One suspects that his moving camera is attracted to staircases the way a bee is attracted to flowers. It is inevitable that he will have some camera movements on staircases. Two of the shots involve the complex architecture of the upper landing, anticipating The Trade.

Another shot has the heroine descending the staircase while the camera descends with her, moving left slightly in a direction perpendicular to the staircase. This recalls a shot which moves perpendicularly to a person's movement on the staircase in My Name Is Julia Ross. It then focuses on a close up of her while she is interrupted by the sinister butler. The shot turns around on the ground, then moves with the heroine back up the staircase.

A Joined Set: Exterior and Interior

A scene at an apartment building has unusual staging. A taxicab drops the hero and heroine off outside the building. Lewis tracks into the door of the apartment building, getting closer and closer to the apartment facade. Gradually, we see through the transparent doorway, into the interior of the building. The shot shows, in deep focus, the entire lobby of the apartment interior, including an elaborate staircase. It is quite atypical for Hollywood for a single set to include both an exterior street scene and building facade, and complete interior as well. The two are linked by a single moving camera, long take, deep focus shot. Such "joined interior-exterior sets" are common in Lewis, reaching a climax on The Rifleman, where Lewis also employs them for camera movements linking outdoors and indoors.


During the opening conversation, the Falcon and his assistant are 180 degrees opposite each other, in chairs, while the little girl is 90 degrees to them both.

The sinister nurse is introduced as an off-screen voice. Like many off-screen voices in Lewis, she seems eerie and menacing. Later, the equally sinister butler will enter a shot as an off-screen voice, during a camera movement focusing on the heroine.

The shot inside the murder victim's train sleeping berth, recalls the shot from inside the closet in The Journey Back. Later, Lewis will shoot through shelves, in a bedroom in the mansion.

The conductor will shine a light on the victim, anticipating other light-shining sequences in Lewis.

The Falcon gives the little girl a piggyback ride, the way hero Lucas will with his son Mark in The Fourflusher.

The butler is seen reading a book at night, the way Lucas often does on The Rifleman.

The Falcon and the heroine sneak out in the background of a shot, while the bad guys are distracted by a fight in the foreground. This is a bit like the villain sneaking in the background of a shot in The Trade.

The Falcon pushes along a bale of hemp, in a lateral camera movement framed by foreground objects. The big bales of hemp perhaps recall the bales of hay in Lewis Westerns.

The two cops at the desk who sigh in envy when the beautiful woman kisses the Falcon, anticipate the two hotel desk clerks who are lost in admiration of Hedy Lamarr in A Lady Without Passport.

Bars and Spirals

Lewis shoots a scene in the apartment through the bars of a chair. The chair bars, fanning out through the screen, recall the fanned-out wagon wheel spokes in Boss of Hangtown Mesa.

A camera movement at the shipping company starts out with a striking elevated view of an office, showing its floor plan. Then it moves to the right, so that the shot is framed through the vertical masts of a model ship. The three masts also resemble bars.

The door at the apartment house is full of intricate spirals in the metal work. Lewis shoots through them, to make elaborate compositions. Soon, the woman villain will sit in a chair with small spiral decorations in the woodwork.

Robert E. Kent

Robert E. Kent, who contributed the story and to the screenplay of The Falcon in San Francisco, is a hard script writer to place. Most of his 90 films as a screenwriter are in the commercial depths of B-pictures, and are hard to see today. Many of his 1930's and 1940's pictures were done in collaboration with numerous other writers, making his personal style further difficult to recover. He worked on the screen plays of such creditable B's as Gambling on the High Seas (1940), directed by George Amy, and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946), directed by Gordon Douglas. His only contacts with auteur directors are Two O'Clock Courage (1945), directed by Anthony Mann, and "adaptation" credits on The Reckless Moment (1949), directed by Max Ophuls, and on Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), directed by Otto Preminger. In the 1950's and 1960's he scripted numerous teen rock and roll musicals, sometimes under the pseudonym James B. Gordon. He also became a producer in his later years, also of mainly B movies, including Edward L. Cahn's nicely done You Have to Run Fast (1961).

The Rifleman and TV Westerns: An Introduction

Lewis' work did not end with his last feature film. He had a lengthy career in television. He directed nearly a third of Chuck Connors' Western series The Rifleman, and he also worked on one episode of Connors' later Western series, Branded. Lewis' 51 episodes of The Rifleman total around 20 hours of screen time. This makes them longer than Out 1, Berlin Alexanderplatz, or Sátántangó - but much less discussed by film critics!

Two of Lewis' Rifleman shows are two-parters (The Wyoming Story and Waste). This makes 49 separate films, out of the 51 episodes he directed.

The Rifleman has a strange history of audience reception. It debuted in 1958, at a time when Westerns were the American public's favorite kind of TV program, and was a huge hit in its first two seasons on TV. It was the 4th most popular show on US television during its first year. But it became less popular in the rest of its run. For all of its obscurity among film historians, The Rifleman has always been the Joseph H. Lewis work that is best known among the general public. A mega-hit in its day, The Rifleman has been rerun ever since, and is still being shown on US cable television and is easily available on DVD. "Everyone" I know is familiar with The Rifleman, whereas most non-cinephiles have never heard of Gun Crazy or The Big Combo. However, I don't believe that popularity has any connection or correlation with artistic merit, either positive or negative.

The series' politics are also paradoxical. It celebrates a Western frontier town, and a macho Western hero. Its star was Chuck Connors, a former professional baseball player and giant hunk who looks as if he were carved out of granite. Connors, who is a remarkably expressive and natural-seeming actor, spends a fair amount of his screen time staunchly defending various liberal causes. Connors' series character, Lucas McCain, is one of the most macho liberals in screen history. The public apparently loved this, and everything else about this show. Political and social commentary is strongest on the first three seasons of The Rifleman. During the last two seasons, the show pulled in its horns, and retreated to less controversial, apolitical material. This change affected Lewis' work: his shows in the first three seasons tend to have more substance.

Lewis had made an openly political film, Bombs Over Burma (1942), which celebrates non-violent resistance to the Axis invasion of China. An election and its liberal politics are the center of The Silver Bullet (1942). There are political themes in some of his subsequent features, such as the call for mutual aid to resist powerful economic oppressors in A Lawless Street and Terror in a Texas Town. But television allowed Lewis to return to openly political filmmaking. His Rifleman episodes are full of liberal political and social commentary, notably Duel of Honor, Panic, Day of the Hunter, Heller, The Deserter, Baranca, The Martinet, Face of Yesterday, The Prisoner, Honest Abe. And Lewis continued political television after the demise of The Rifleman, with Pompey and The Vindicators. Of course, there are many things going on in Lewis' TV films other than politics.

A note: while Lewis directed many of the best episodes of The Rifleman, there are good ones not by Lewis:

There are also Lewis-directed episodes of The Rifleman I just don't like: The Spoiler, Miss Milly, Flowers by the Door, The Actress, The Vaqueros, Waste, I Take This Woman, And the Devil Makes Five, The Guest. There are others I have serious reservations about, notably the politics of The Journey Back, and the unsavory events of The Stand-In.

North Fork is a small, new town. It has no local government, other than a Marshal, a Judge who disappears after the early episodes, a rarely seen Town Council, and a public school. There are brief references in non-Lewis episodes to a newspaper, and the villains read a paper in Lewis' The Patsy and Squeeze Play, but the paper is rarely shown. It has no live entertainment, not even dance hall girls or a man to play the piano at the saloon. There is no gold, and no miners. The one time the US Cavalry does show up, in The Deserter, it is an alien, unwelcome presence in a non-militarized town. All of these things make The Rifleman different from many other Westerns.

A Personal note. I did not like watching Westerns on TV as a child, preferring comedies and science fiction. I do not recall seeing any Lewis TV Western episodes as a kid. I saw a few episodes each of The Rifleman and Branded, which I liked better than most other TV Westerns, but do not recall which ones, and do not think anything I saw was made by Joseph H. Lewis (unless Lewis directed the credit sequence for Branded, which was shown on every episode). Much writing (by other people) about The Rifleman today is of the form "The Rifleman was my favorite TV show as a kid; I hope a new generation can discover it." By contrast, for better or for worse, my enthusiasm for Lewis is based entirely on viewing his films as an adult.

The Rifleman: Duel of Honor

The Rifleman: Duel of Honor (1958) is a delightful episode of the TV show: Lewis' first. It was first shown November 11, 1958, and written by Ken Kolb.

Male Bonding

This is one of several Lewis-directed Rifleman episodes in which hero Lucas McCain male-bonds with a social outsider. It is a central part of his personality. It also offers powerful social commentary, as Lucas embraces people who are different. The bonding in Duel of Honor is intimate, with the men sharing living quarters and life-and-death situations.

Danova is another of Lewis' smiling, enthusiastic heroes, like Bob Baker laughing after his song in Border Wolves, and John Dall's grinning in Gun Crazy. Danova's enthusiasm has a mysterious quality: neither Lucas nor the audience really know what Danova is up to.

Camera Movement

The first third of the show is full of complex camera movements. These are in Lewis' patented style, and very enjoyable to watch. This opening reminds one of the finale of A Lawless Street: it is another of Lewis' wind-up toy like affairs, in which camera movement follows camera movement like a delightful music box mechanism or little duck toy that walks around.

Lewis often shoots through doorways, showing both an interior set, and the streets of North Fork through the door. One of the most complex shots has the stage-coach passengers entering the hotel. First we see them in the street, then the camera pulls towards the viewer inside the hotel, and follows the passengers in. Without a break, it then moves forward to the street again, and then pulls back a second time into the hotel, in a parallel maneuver. This time it includes Lucas and Mark, and then pans farther to the right than it did before, revealing the hotel dining room for the first time, which Lucas and Mark enter. This shot unites three different worlds: the street, the hotel lobby, and the dining room. It gives the sense of the camera exploring a whole world, moving where it pleases. It is a very Bazin-like camera movement, suggesting there is a whole world waiting for a moving camera to explore it.

The camera movement is also one of the Lewis shots that moves back and forth between left and right. Such shots often involve lateral moves. The shot in Duel of Honor differs in often using pans that turn on angles.

Echoes of A Lawless Street

This episode also includes imagery that recalls A Lawless Street. When Danova enters the saloon, the piano suddenly stops playing, and there is dead silence, just like the silent duel in A Lawless Street. In both films, this is a menacing moment, and a figure of style that conveys an ominous mood.

Just like the landlady and the sheriff in A Lawless Street talk in the sheriff's room, so do Lucas and Danova talk in Danova's hotel room. One camera movement pans around to reveal Danova stretched full length on the bed, in his striking white trousers. This echoes the bed shots in A Lawless Street.

Both films proceed to a climactic, ritualized gun fight.

Both films show a lawless town under the control of bad guys.

A City as protagonist

As in A Lawless Street, a whole town and its trades people are the protagonists in a Lewis film, with the blacksmith, the stage coach driver, the hotel manager and the barkeeper all with prominent roles. This is the debut of all of these continuing characters in The Rifleman.


The blacksmith's has a back room, which furnishes an alcove of sorts. Alcoves are common Lewis features, but they are more typically in indoor rooms, and more fully linked to their front rooms.

We see an exterior of the hotel and town at night, with one of Lewis' beloved street lights forming part of the composition. This shot will be reused in many subsequent Rifleman shows.


When first seen, Danova holds his top hat in front of him, forming a phallic symbol. This recalls Bob Baker similarly holding his ten gallon hat in The Last Stand, although Baker was seated and Danova is standing.

The way the gang objects to Danova's fancy clothes, recalls a bit the way the Marine Colonel in Retreat, Hell! objects to the hero's spectacular dress uniform. Both heroes enter new, alien cities near the beginning of the film, dressed in their finery: the hero of Retreat, Hell! goes into Camp Pendelton, Danova in Duel of Honor enters North Fork.

Danova changes out of his coat in the hotel room, right on camera. This recalls the chauffeur's on-screen costume change in The Fat Man.

The Duel

The strange weapons used in the duel recall a bit the even odder weapon in the finale of Terror in a Texas Town.

The dueling pistols resemble those collected by the hero of Gun Crazy, while the duel itself echoes the gun contest that is the first meeting of the hero and heroine in that film.

A wagon is prominent in the staging of the duel. The wagon has huge wheels, recalling that Lewis was nicknamed Wagon Wheel Joe. Occasionally we see a bit of the image through the wagon wheels, but there is no true "through a wheel" shot like those of Lewis' early Westerns. We see Lucas standing near the wheel early on in the duel. And the bad guy backs up against the wheel when he is trying to get out of the duel at the end. Earlier, there are many shots of wagon wheels at the blacksmith's, including a fascinating pan that goes behind a thick post.


Each episode of The Rifleman that includes spirals shoots them in a different way. Here, the spirals are at the top of the bedposts. The high posts with the spiral tops seem like phallic symbols, appropriate for a film about male bonding. They also seem like beautiful geometric-symbolic-spiritual banners, under which the action takes place and is sanctioned. When Lewis' camera moves back to take in more of the bedroom, the spirals are revealed at the top of the bed, moving into the frame.


Duel of Honor embodies two different, but related, 1950's traditions of storytelling. One is the film preaching acceptance of people who are different. The 1950's had quite a few books and movies with an anti-conformist message. Duel of Honor makes this explicit in its dialogue, with Lucas and Mark having a father-son chat about the subject. Very close to the surface here is the suggestion that the townspeople see Danova's character as gay. His spectacular clothes suggest such a thing, to just about anyone who watches the show. This is soon negated by the dialogue - we learn that Danova has fathered a son, which more or less places him outside of 1958 stereotyped gayness - but not quite! Still, this show is very much in the tradition of Tea and Sympathy (Vincente Minnelli, 1956), and its portrait of gay men who are different being persecuted by society.

The other story telling tradition here appears in works like Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950) and Ellery Queen's novel The Glass Village (1954). In this, a fast talking, shrewd intellectual defends a persecuted outsider. He uses complex arguments and the rule of law to slow down and ultimately defeat a mob from taking action against a social outsider. Such films usually have a political charge: the Tourneur film opposes a lynching, the Queen novel is an allegory against McCarthyism. The fancy legal footwork of the intellectual is eventually seen as a triumph of the mind over brute force. It pits intellect over oppressive social forces. Duel of Honor is very much in this tradition, with Lucas collaborating with Danova to come up with ways of tying the gang of bullies into knots, using the code of dueling. Lucas eventually makes them look like fools. These scenes are both comic, and bearers of a message, that intellect can win out over force. Since intellectuals were often subject to bullying in those days (and now too), the story is meant to give courage to intellectuals, and support them in their struggles.

Links to The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw

The plot of Duel of Honor shows links to that of The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), a feature film directed by Raoul Walsh. There are too many similarities to be a coincidence. But there is also no clear evidence of which movie was filmed first. The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw began filming on April 26, 1958, and had its premiere in London on October 28, 1958 (according to the AFI database). Duel of Honor was broadcast November 11, 1958; I don't know when it was shot. This means that any relationship between the two works came from scripts or inside verbal accounts - not from watching finished, released films.

The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw is a comedy about a sophisticated English dude who comes out West, and has comic encounters with the locals in a small town. In this he resembles the Count in Duel of Honor. Both men are in fancy European clothes. Both men are put through a forced drinking contest in a saloon bar, by a local nasty tough.

When the dude arrives in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, the local heroine tells him that he might be subject to ridicule and suspicion by the locals, due to his fancy, frilly looking clothes. This is exactly what happens in Duel of Honor, forming the main plot of the show. However, this is NOT what happens in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw. Instead, the dude gets an undeserved reputation as a great gunfighter, and all the locals mistake him for a tough gunslinger who has come to town. In other words, what is raised as a brief possibility in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, becomes the main plot in Duel of Honor.

Both visitors develop strong bonding with a local, who knows the ways of the small town, and who helps them cope. In The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, this is saloon owner Jayne Mansfield, and a heterosexual romance blooms. In Duel of Honor, this local is Lucas McCain, and male bonding between the two ensues.

Links to The Big Country

The plot of Duel of Honor also shows links to that of The Big Country (1958), a Western feature film directed by William Wyler, one of Lewis' favorite directors. The Big Country contains an old-fashioned duel, complete with dueling pistols, like the one in Duel of Honor. The progress and outcome of the duel is also similar in both films. The Big Country was filmed in the second half of 1957, but not released till August 1958. It is almost certainly earlier than Duel of Honor. The low-brow cowboy character Buck in The Big Country also bears some resemblance to the roughneck duelist in Duel of Honor. A further link: Buck in The Big Country was played by no less than Chuck Connors!

Links to Vice Squad

Vice Squad (Arnold Laven, 1953) is a nicely done film about a group of policemen, shot in Los Angeles. It is produced by the same team that did The Rifleman. One character is a con man posing as a fake Italian Count. The Count has the same name as the genuine and sympathetic Count in Duel of Honor!

I don't know if this is some sort of in-joke or homage: the actual plots of the two films are very different. It might also possibly reflect, that if a legal team had cleared the name as being entirely fictitious in Vice Squad, that the producers thought it was safe to use again in Duel of Honor.

The Rifleman: The Safe Guard

A new business - and links to Boss of Hangtown Mesa

The Safe Guard (1958) tells the story of the bank's arrival in North Fork. In this, it is similar to Boss of Hangtown Mesa, where the telegraph arrives for the first time in a similar, remote, small-but-growing Western frontier town. In both films, greedy crooks try to sabotage this arrival of this new business. Both the telegraph and the bank are seen as honest businesses, and admirable symbols of progress. In both films, there is a big public celebration on the town's main street, showing the opening of both institutions for business.

In both films, we see equipment arriving for the establishment of the business: here a giant safe for the bank. In both films, the equipment is shown in landscapes outside of town, carried by wagons.

Both films also feature hilly landscapes. The title character of The Safe Guard rides down a hill to get to Lucas' ranch, just as the villain rode down a hill to get to the telegraph company camp in Boss of Hangtown Mesa.

A City as protagonist

Once again in Lewis, a town and its business people are a "protagonist" of a film. The banker is introduced here, and goes on to be a continuing character on The Rifleman.

The Gun Cult

The Safe Guard is also a film in the tradition of Gun Crazy. It shows a man who is deep into the cult of guns. He is older than the hero of Gun Crazy, and more hardened into the role. This man is deeply socially alienated, unable to have a normal conversation with people without moving into gun battle mode. It is a frightening and pathetic portrait. Later, there will be a positive portrait in Old Tony, of an alienated man who rejoins the human race. This will involve him giving up guns.

The hero gives a public display of fancy shooting, like the carnival opening of Gun Crazy. This is the high point of both characters' social acceptance in both films. Despite this success, both slip down a slope into crime.

Both good guys Lucas and Mark, and the robber bad guys, try to reach out socially to the gunslinger, and connect to this alienated man. Both also try to "recruit" him: Lucas wants the gunslinger to settle down in the town of North Fork; the robbers want him to join them in a hold-up. Lucas uses food: one of Lewis' scenes of men cooking food, and serving it to other men. The robbers use booze: one of the on-going warnings in Lewis about the dangers of alcohol.

After the robbers' successful recruiting effort, we see the gunslinger laughing delightedly. He is one of several Lewis heroes who laugh in pleasure about their lives - and the Lewis hero with the least real reason to laugh, after his wrong-headed choice.

Low Pay, Capitalism, and Gun Crazy

Just as Terror in a Texas Town is Lewis' film most skeptical about capitalism, so are The Safe Guard and Boomerang Lewis' most pro-capitalist works. Both The Safe Guard and Boomerang depict the town bank and banker in a largely sympathetic light. Both films show the bank having potentially a strong positive impact on the economic lives of people in North Fork.

The Safe Guard relates to Gun Crazy in its treatment of economic issues. The bad guy robbers' most telling argument in The Safe Guard, while trying to persuade the gunslinger to join them, concerns the low pay he is getting at the bank. The heroine also talks the hero of Gun Crazy into a life of crime, by expressing her unwillingness to live on the low salary he could get from honest work ($40 a week). While these are greedy crooks talking, and hence not reliable, Gun Crazy also has the honest workers at the meat plant complain about their low wages. This gives a force to the argument about low wages: they are real, and a serious problem for working people.

By contrast, The Safe Guard softens this argument, by showing how the banker is willing to pay the gunslinger a bonus: something never discussed at the meat plant in Gun Crazy.


The shooting display is framed against a peaked roof, in the background. Lewis films are full of complex shots, typically showing multi-peaked roof complexes. This image is different, in involving just a single peak.

The grated teller windows inside the bank, the bank walls itself, and the bank exterior all form complex polygonal arcs. Lewis gets many elaborate compositions out of these angled panels and lines.


There are metal spirals on the bed frame again, an image that runs through The Rifleman. Here, however, the spirals are hard to see directly, being shot edge on. But they cast a spiral shadow on the wall. This recalls a bit the spiral shadows on the staircase in Side Street (Anthony Mann, 1950).

Camera Movement

Lewis likes to show camera movement moving between indoors and outdoors. There is a memorable one near the start. It shows Mark outside, entering a barn. Once inside the barn, the camera rapidly pans, and shows Mark leaving the barn by another door - then moving around outside again.

There is a moving camera close-up of the robbers' feet, as they perform a synchronized march into the bank before the robbery. Lewis will have a similar shot at the gunfight finale of Long Gun from Tucson. The robbers here form that constant Lewis trio, a suave, glib talking crook, and two tough henchmen.

Early in the film, there is a camera movement that shows the robbers from their backs, while on horseback. Such back views of desperadoes are a Lewis standard. This particular camera movement is a "push-in", a shot in which the camera steadily moves forward, closer and closer to a character. Push-ins are frequent throughout The Safe Guard, but rarer in the rest of Lewis' work.

All-Black Clothes

The gunfighter is in an all-black desperado's outfit. Such clothes are a Western tradition. They will be reserved on The Rifleman exclusively for dangerous gunslingers. This is true of both Lewis-directed and non-Lewis episodes - although The Safe Guard seems to be the first episode that introduced such clothes to The Rifleman. Costume designer Robert B. Harris will show great ingenuity in varying these costumes: no two are the same. As is typical of these outfits, the gunslinger has on a black leather vest, and other black leather gear, such as gloves. His vest is typical in that it has elaborate fastenings - although what kind of fastening varies from outfit to outfit.

There are occasionally men in modern-day Lewis films who are all in black, such as the obnoxious carnival head in Gun Crazy. Lewis rarely puts a hero in such clothes, aside from men in black police uniforms - although in Boss of Hangtown Mesa the hero is forced to wear dark colored clothes.

The Epilogue

The last scene shows Lucas offering his support for the bank, helping to restore public confidence in it during a time of crisis. This scene directly echoes an episode in the movie Good Morning, Miss Dove (Henry Koster, 1955). Chuck Connors had a supporting role in that non-Lewis film. In The Safe Guard finale, he performs actions similar to those carried out by star Jennifer Jones in Good Morning, Miss Dove.

Links to Vice Squad

Vice Squad (Arnold Laven, 1953) is a modern-day film about a group of policemen, produced by the same team that did The Rifleman. Its big action scene is a bank robbery. Like the bank in The Safe Guard, the bank in Vice Squad has a guard sitting up high, armed with a rifle to shoot robbers.

The Rifleman: The Pet

The Pet (1958) is a somewhat frustrating episode. It has two flaws:

Not exactly a flaw, but also frustrating, is the way that Lewis subjects get oblique treatments different from the rest of his work:

The Pet contains a denunciation of child abuse, a subject which will be explored in detail in Heller.

The Mystery Plot

The mystery plot contains features associated with the mystery writer Ellery Queen: a dying message, and an intensive search for a hidden object.

The way the villain searches through Lucas' papers anticipates the drunk's search through the sheriff's desk and papers in The Wyoming Story.

Camera Movement

The Pet is a well-crafted episode. It has some good camera movements.

At the ranch, Lewis follows Lucas and Mark while they work, in long takes that combines short pans from left to right, with re-framings. All of the shots are deep focus, showing a corral or the barn in the rear. None of the panning movements or re-framings are radical in themselves, but when combined all together, the movement becomes complex.

Lucas rides into town in one pan, then walks to the Marshal's office in a second camera movement. When he later leaves town, a camera movement follows him, as he leaves by the same route he entered. This is a simple example of "paired" moving camera sequences in Lewis, where a man enters a scene, then later leaves it in a "reverse" of the entrance shots.

Props and Foreground Objects

The Pet contains some props that run through Lewis:

And shooting through foreground objects:

The Reflection

The Pet opens with action in the street reflected in the saloon window, as in a mirror. This stylistic device is rare in Lewis, to the best of my recollection. It is strongly associated with M (Fritz Lang, 1931), and such films directed by Anthony Mann as T-Men (1947) and Side Street (1950).

The Rifleman: Shivaree

Shivaree (1959) is an unusually powerful film, whose meanings are hard to interpret. There is much that is suggestive, and little that corresponds exactly with any common real life situations.

The way the film shows innocent people attacked by sinister mobs evokes news films of Civil Rights protesters being attacked. The hero is linked to the philosophy of non-violence, being raised that way at home, in a family whose father is a minister. Non-violence was at the center of Martin Luther King's Civil Rights movement. Much of the finale can be read as a confrontation between ideas of violence and non-violence, being played out in the mind and actions of the hero. However, this Civil Rights theme is a suggested thread or allegory, not a literal reading of the film, which is not on the surface about any political issues. Notably, Lucas chooses to lay down his rifle at the end, and uses a non-violent approach to solving the problem.

The film also relates to Lewis' subject of male bonding - but in ways different from other Rifleman episodes. Through most of the film, Lucas relates to the couple, not specifically to the man in the couple. He is drawn to them both. They are social outsiders, the sort of people Lucas stands up for, and develops relationships with. In the final scene, however, Lucas is called on to help the man. Or rather, Lucas chooses to intervene and help the man. The man is in unique personal trouble at this point, in the saloon. Lucas moves in, and reaches out to the man as a person. This can be considered as male bonding - it is a personal outreach to another man. But it is motivated apparently by the man's trouble. In other Rifleman episodes, Lucas' bonding with other men is often a more personal relationship that springs from Lucas' feelings. Here, it is motivated by an attempt to help. Despite these differences, it is a powerful scene.

Shivaree shares with A Lawless Street, scenes in which sinister social leaders take over a town, and encourage the inhabitants to riot in the street. There are torches and night time lawlessness in both films. Shivaree uses bells to urge the crowd along, while A Lawless Street uses drums: both percussion instruments. Both films are powerful in their depictions. But it is hard to link such activities with anything in the real world. If these scenes are a political commentary, I do not know about what real-life situations they are commenting.

Shivaree paints a nightmarish depiction of transition to adulthood and adult sexuality, with the wagon train members imposing one horrific situation after another on the couple, first a forced wedding, then a shivaree. Once again, few people in real life go through either event. But as a parable about horrors the adult world inflicts on young people, the film is powerful and frightening.


The opening shot shows a wagon train, framed in the sort of arching tree branches that Lewis likes. It is not clear, however, whether Lewis shot this scene, or whether he or someone else choose it out of a library of stock footage.

The riders at the start are in geometric formation, all facing in the same direction. Lucas is exactly 180 degrees in the opposite Such geometric stagings at 180 and 90 degree angles run throughout Lewis. However, no one is at 90 degrees in this shot.

While Lucas is talking to the crowd at the door of his ranch, a second small group is sneaking around in the background of the frame, finding other entrances to his ranch. Such sneaking in the background occurs in other Lewis films, such as The Falcon in San Francisco and The Trade.

The confrontation at the saloon shows the saloon's swinging doors in the interior scenes - a Lewis favorite.

Outside, the confrontation is staged in a perspective view down the saloon's porch. Such perspective shots show up frequently in Lewis. This one is unusual, in that all the action is in the foreground. Also unusual, is the way the now subdued rioters are stretched out in a line, perpendicular to the porch. Lewis develops a vortex of events surrounding the doors and the porch, which generates suspense.

The Rifleman: The Trade

The Trade (1959) is a Western re-working of the old romantic tearjerker, One Way Passage (Tay Garnett, 1931). The Trade is a pretty grim story, and I don't like the plot much. It does have some good visual style.

The scene where Mark gets ready for school and Lucas shaves, is staged nicely as a long-take camera movement. Immediately after, Mark is hopping outside, in some strange childhood game that anticipates Kevin McCarthy's hopping around in Suspicion.

A new city

The Trade opens in a new Western town. This is an example of Lewis' love of cities. Here, Lewis just gets a chance to explore the town's main street, in some brief shots. He gets some good camera movements, showing the camera move behind some posts in front of a building.

The city is extremely rectilinear. Its straight street lacks the angles of North Fork, or the bend in the road of the main street in Terror in a Texas Town.

The church in the background of the opening shot has several peaked roofs: a Lewis tradition. There are a few more building peaks in the pan that reveals the rest of the town.

Back in North Fork, Lewis brings several townspeople into the story: the doctor, the telegraph operator, the hotel keeper.

Shooting through posts

The first shot shows the new town through two posts. Later, there will be shots from the other side of the street, through a structure in front of the Sheriff's office with four posts and a horizontal bar. The camera will move around this structure, moving in both directions.

Lewis also includes a frontal shot of the Sheriff's office: the stagecoach drives away, and we see the office, with the Sheriff leaning against one of the posts. The frontal shot, with its rectilinear doors, windows and posts, is a striking composition. Its many rectangles and straight lines recall Mondrian.

In North Fork, a shot of the street through a hotel window is framed by posts radiating out from a point below. These radiating posts are like the radiating spokes of the wagon wheel in Boss of Hangtown Mesa.

These post shots are also a bit like Lewis' fondness for shooting through grillwork. However, the posts are far more widely spaced than any grill.

Staging in the hotel room - right angles

In the scenes in the heroine's hotel room, Lewis often stages characters so that they are in the same direction, or at angles of 90 or 180 degrees from each other - a Lewis tradition.

First the heroine is in bed, and the doctor is in a chair, facing 180 degrees from her. Then the doctor (and the camera) moves over to the bureau. He is now standing at a 90 degree angle from her. He is facing away from her, too - a common situation in Lewis dialogues. The bureaus and the jewelry on it make the foreground objects that sometimes show up in Lewis camera movements.

A second shot has the heroine joining the doctor at the bureau. The heroine and the doctor are now facing exactly in the same direction. They do not look at each other while talking - a Lewis staging tradition.

When young Mark enters the room, the hero and the heroine are soon facing in the same direction - that is, the heroine is looking exactly away from Mark. This too is a common Lewis staging. Later in this scene, the doctor's voice comes from off screen, allowing Lewis to main the stability of his staging, and not cut away to the doctor. This too is a common Lewis strategy.

Later, the heroine is in bed, and the hero is twisting in the chair, 90 degrees from her. Lucas is standing behind them, 90 degrees to the heroine and 180 degrees to the hero. The doctor is standing further back, 90 degrees opposite to Lucas and the hero, or 180 degrees to the heroine. It is a full geometric staging, with everyone at angles of 180 or 90 degrees.

Spirals - and a mirror

The bed in the heroine's hotel room is full of spirals. They are in the metal work both at the foot of the bed, where we first see them, and then even more elaborately in the head of the bed. The spirals are bilaterally symmetric: the spirals on the left side of the bed are repeated in reverse on the right.

Soon, we see the bed-frame spirals reflected in the room's mirror, a spectacular shot.

Later, we will see the room's door reflected in the same mirror, also an example of complex staging. All of this mirror shooting recalls film noir.

The Villain

The Trade marks the entrance into The Rifleman of Chris Alcaide, a giant actor who will usually play menacing thugs. He is one of the few actors on the show who is as big as Chuck Connors, and the two men make a good match in size when they appear together.

Here he is all done up in gunslinger garb, for his role as a sinister bounty hunter. We don't see his giant boots much in the story, but when he is shot, he rolls over and brings his legs up, displaying his boots as a final symbol of his swaggering, no-good career.

The villain's dark leather clothes are echoed by the black leather furniture in the hotel lobby, where the shoot-out occurs. This is similar to the way the teen would-be gunslinger sits in Lucas' black leather chair, in Sidewinder.

Alcaide's bad guy is obsessed with knives, in a scene that recalls George Macready's character in My Name Is Julia Ross. Here he sticks a knife up through a wanted poster, the way Macready did through clothes.

Alcaide enters this scene through the swinging doors of the saloon. Lewis likes swinging doors. The hand gesture opening the doors will also reappear in other Lewis works, such as Nick pulling back the door curtains in Night of the Wolf.

The bounty hunter lies to young Mark, in order to pump information out of him. This is a plot gambit that shows up a number of times in The Rifleman, always used to show how despicable a villain is (see Day of the Hunter, The Martinet). Lewis underscores this scene visually. Mark is moving down the street in North Fork, and the camera is moving with him. He is suddenly stopped by the bad guy - and the camera movement stops too, not to resume. A character like Alcaide who will interrupt a Lewis camera movement is a really bad guy!

The Shoot-out: staircases and camera movement

Soon, we see hero Lucas standing guard on the streets of North Fork - and Alcaide sneaking along in the background, moving into the hotel. The depth staging often liked by Lewis is used to underscore this character's sneakiness. He really seems like a lurker in the background, with Lewis' strong staging. The shot combines a number of Lewis traditions:

Inside the hotel, the bad guy eventually climbs the hotel staircase. Lewis gets both camera movement and composition out of the staircase - a kind of architecture Lewis loves. The villain goes up the staircase while Lewis shoots it from an angle, and down while Lewis shoots frontally - enabling two kinds of camera movement.

At the top, Lewis gets to exploit the wooden architecture that surrounds the staircase, as he did in A Lady Without Passport. An upper wooden grill is perpendicular to the banister, allowing for a fascinating three-dimensional architecture. Shadow effects also add to the visual patterns.

Several shots show Alcaide looking down from the top of the staircase, to the hotel floor below. These recall Claude Akins sitting on top of the bank staircase, looking down, in The Safe Guard.

The Rifleman: The Deadly Wait

The Deadly Wait (1959) is another dramatically-minor-but-visually-inventive episode. Big problem: it is slow moving and dull. Gifted character actor Lee Van Cleef is wasted, in a part that is written without any personality traits or interesting actions. He will get a better role in Death Never Rides Alone. He hangs out in the same corner of the saloon in both The Deadly Wait and Death Never Rides Alone: a sign of the continuity of style in The Rifleman.

The barkeeper is held hostage in his saloon. The "hostage held at home" is a perennial Lewis theme.

Lucas engages in some fancy shooting with his rifle in the saloon, like the hero of Gun Crazy. This sort of bravado is actually fairly rare for him. Lucas will do more trick shooting in a saloon in The Wyoming Story, when he is undercover as an apparent crook trying to infiltrate a gang.

The final shoot-out does have an unusual plot twist. However, it is not one of Lewis' "duels with unusual weapons".

Lucas' white bandages might be an example of the white clothes Lewis heroes wear. However, Lucas wears them with black trousers.


Lewis has a consistent interest in illness. Along with The Vaqueros, this is the only one of his Rifleman shows in which hero Lucas himself gets sick or seriously injured - although Lucas is threatened with a deadly snake bite for most of the running time of And the Devil Makes Five. It will not be until the Big Valley episode Night of the Wolf (1965) that Lewis again shows a hero battling illness. The Deadly Wait, The Vaqueros and Night of the Wolf show the hero collapsing in public.

Much of the illness in The Deadly Wait echoes the previous Lewis episode, The Trade. The Doc treats the sick people in upstairs hotel rooms in both shows, while they lie on the bed. The swinging doors of the saloon show up in both episodes; so does the hotel staircase.

The hotel bed seems to have a wooden frame, different from the metal frames with spirals that so often show up in Lewis films.

The Paired Overhead views of North Fork

The most interesting shots are a pair. One shows Lucas riding into an eerily deserted North Fork, from a high angle. A later shot from a not-quite-identical high angle shows Lucas riding out of North Fork. Lewis loves such paired entrance and exit shots. The entrance shot is a camera movement: the shot pans vertically as Lucas rides. The exit is a fixed take, from around the same point as the conclusion of the entrance pan.

These shots give the best view of the geometric layout of North Fork, of any shots in the series. They have a strong rectilinear coordinate system, with some sidewalks running straight back from the frame, and other sidewalks and buildings jutting out at angles.

The Paired Wagon trips

A shot shows Mark driving the wagon through the street, from one end (the feed and grain store, the blacksmith's) to the other (the hotel). The very last shot shows Mark driving the wagon out of North Fork, along the reverse of the path by which he entered. Both shots follow Mark with a moving camera (probably a pan).

In addition to the above pairs, The Deadly Wait is full of other detailed looks at the street of North Fork. There are shots that give a very clear view of the feed and grain part of town, just as the overhead pair does of the hotel end.

The deserted streets of North Fork are a visual motif through the entire show. They are empty because everyone is afraid of Lee Van Cleef's gunslinger. The streets have the dream-like appearance of the empty streets in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. They recall the deserted fort at the start of 7th Cavalry.

The deserted streets sometimes show people lost in big spaces, also a Lewis tradition.


The first view of the bad guy is in a complex moving camera long take, inside the saloon. The shot is staged so that the bad guy has his back to the camera throughout the whole take - we never see his face. Shots in which a character has their back to the camera are a Lewis tradition. However, few of them are as complex in camera movement as this. The first half of the shot follows the bartender, who is trying to sneak out of the saloon. The shot concludes with the bartender sliding objects along the bar, a bottle and glass, although the camera movement does not follow these the way it does in some Lewis films, such as the sliding gun in the street at the start of Gun Crazy.

Quite a few shots in The Deadly Wait are staged through windows.

When Mark gets the rifle out of the buckboard wagon, it is seen through the wagon's huge wheels. This reminds us that Lewis was known as Wagon Wheel Joe, for liking to shoot through wagon wheels.

When the bad guy enters the Marshal's office just before the final duel, a camera movement starts to circle around the bad guy, just before the shot ends. It is a very brief arc - but still distinctly there. Lewis will have bigger circular camera movements around a person in other films.

In the final duel, we see the Marshal. Then unexpectedly to him, Lucas' voice is heard off-screen. The camera suddenly pans to right, to bring Lucas into the image - and to the rescue. Lucas appears almost as if by magic: Lewis will have a similar shot showing the entrance of the kid in Sidewinder.

The Rifleman: Boomerang

Boomerang (1959) is about a young man who decides to learn to use guns, in order to commit a foolish act of revenge. He tricks Lucas into teaching him to shoot. This is the opposite of several Rifleman episodes, in which older people try to lure young men into the gun cult. The scenes also recall the training of the young recruit by the older Sergeant in Retreat, Hell!.

When the hero leaves the gun cult in the last shot, he joins a slowly moving wagon already full of people. This is a nice visual metaphor, for rejoining the human race. Some other Lewis characters also manage to rejoin humanity after giving up the gun cult: see A Lawless Street, Old Tony.

The young hero has to make many different plans, on the road to growing up: a familiar Lewis subject.

The way the banker refuses to duel with the young hero, is consistent with the admiration Lewis shows for other characters who refuse to fight or kill.


There is a swinging gate inside the bank. It resembles the office gate in The Last Stand. In both films, Lewis punctuates scenes by having people go in or out the gate, which swings dramatically. This adds rhythm and motion to the scenes.

During the gun training scenes, we see the peaked roofs of the McCain barn and home in the background. Even more elaborate peaked roof complexes show up in other Lewis films.

The bank is full of odd shapes, including a door on a 45 degree angle to the rest of the bank, and a polygonal grate. This adds geometrical complexity to compositions. Similarly, the final duel outside the bank benefits from the odd angle of the bank's door. The outside compositions also take advantage of such irregular shaped spaces.


Lewis uses a very low angle in the gun training scenes, something which is uncommon in his work - another appears in And the Devil Makes Five. In both films, the low angle shows a group of people outdoors.

Lewis shows his fondness for staging that combines indoors and outdoors. Both the scenes at the bank, and the McCain barn where the hero sleeps, are shot through the doorways of their buildings.

There are some paired shots. Lucas and the hero ride up to the general store; later we see them riding away from the store. These shots, atypically for Lewis paired shots, do not involve camera movement. Later, Lucas rides over a small bridge to get to his ranch; soon, we see him riding back across the same bridge, leaving.

When Lucas talks to the hero in the barn, the hero is facing away from Lucas, so that both men are looking in the same direction. This is a common staging in Lewis. What happens next is more unusual. Lucas grabs the hero and turns him around, saying "look at me while I'm talking to you!" This is another scene where two men talk while sitting on the same bed.

Hattie's arrival is seen through the fence of the ranch corral.

The three tines of the pitchfork recall the bars, candles, and other similarly shaped objects through which Lewis shoots.

The camera moves back, towards the viewer, during the final confrontation at the bank. Suddenly, Lucas rides perpendicularly across the shot. This recalls a shot in which Bob Baker moves across the shot in The Last Stand.

The grave side is shown through over-hanging tree branches. The final shot of And the Devil Makes Five will also show a gravestone with branches arching over it. The hero of Boomerang walks from back to front of the screen, in a graveyard shot.

Lee Kinsolving

Lee Kinsolving plays the young protagonist. Lee Kinsolving was twenty in real life. He plays an 18 year old in Boomerang.

Also at age twenty, Kinsolving played the lead in the TV adaptation of the play by Eugene O'Neill, Ah, Wilderness! (Robert Mulligan, 1959). His bravura performance was better than those of such legendary thespians as Helen Hayes and Burgess Meredith, who played supporting roles. Kinsolving would go on to appear in such neglected-but-interesting works as The Explosive Generation (Buzz Kulik, 1961) and The Twilight Zone: Black Leather Jackets (Joseph M. Newman, 1964).

Lee Kinsolving gives a good performance in Boomerang. He is required to express a wide variety of emotions. But this is less a bravura piece of stagecraft, and more a performance that is in service of the story and the character.

In Ah, Wilderness! and The Explosive Generation Lee Kinsolving plays teenagers who have deeper insights and ideas than the adults around him. His characters have something to contribute to the world around them. He can be quite electrifying. By contrast in Boomerang he knows nothing of value, and needs to learn better ideas. His character has one virtue, a capacity for cheerful hard work, but little else.

Date and Location

The date on the new grave is 1871. The address on the boxes includes "New Mexico Territory". A concise way to summarize: "The Rifleman takes place in post-Civil War New Mexico".

The Rifleman: The Patsy

A character held hostage at home - and a villain like that of The Big Combo

The Patsy (1959) shares some thematic material with The Big Combo. Once again, we have a character who is held hostage within their own home, and bullied and controlled. But here it is a man character, the town barber, rather than the females in previous Lewis works. The hostage character has a boy, rather like the little girl associated with the female hostage in The Falcon in San Francisco. The hostage suffers from alcoholism, which is a little bit similar to the way detective figures in earlier Lewis are drugged by villains. Getting the hostage to speak up is the central suspense element of the story, as before.

The bully is a suave, well-dressed, good looking and exceedingly confident man, just like Richard Conte in The Big Combo. He is insinuating, personal and insolent, like Conte. The way he goes after the barber, recalls Conte's taunts of the boxer. And the bully has a pair of henchmen who are thug-like, to carry out his bidding, also like Conte. Also like Conte, he is essentially the Western equivalent of a mobster type, aiming to take over the town.

Out front of the barber shop, one thug whittles with a knife, the other stretches out and displays his shiny boots: both marks of Lewis villains. The villain also displays his boots, while sitting in the barber chair.

The Patsy is short and simple, compared to The Big Combo. There is no mystery plot, and hero Lucas is so slow on the uptake he can hardly be described as a detective figure.

Small Business Owners and Family Men versus Reigns of Terror

The barber runs his own small business. And he has a son to whom he is devoted. This is exactly the kind of person who is targeted by Lewis villains, when they try to take over towns. The targets of these "reigns of terror" tend to be small businessmen or farmers, people who are running their own enterprises. And they tend to be responsible for families and children. The Mexican-American farmers who are the targets of criminal czars in Terror in a Texas Town and Baranca are examples.

Troubled Youth

The barber's son is disturbed by his father's alcoholism, and keeps getting into trouble. This recalls a bit the opening of Gun Crazy, which also focuses on a young hero who gets into difficulties. Both have problems at home, both get in disputes outside it.

Reading a Newspaper

The villain reads a newspaper in the barbershop. The villain in Squeeze Play reads a paper, too, as does the anti-hero of Gun Crazy. By contrast, genuine Lewis heroes tend to read books.

Deep Focus

There is one of Lewis' excellent nocturnal cityscapes, in the scene where the barber tries to escape from his home at night. Down a long alley, we see the town, with both a street light and a lighted window. Such an alley-like view is unusual staging for Lewis.

Throughout The Patsy, Lewis shoots through windows and doors, showing us the inside of the barbershop linked to the street outside. Lewis also links up the various rooms in the barbershop, shooting through doors.

The final showdown is staged in deep focus, to emphasize how much ground the hostage has to cover during the suspense passages. There is a little camera movement, mainly to underscore the hostage's movements. He is filmed from the rear showing his gunbelt, briefly, like several Lewis gunslingers.

The frontal compositions of the barbershop are excellent. They emphasize the unusual construction of the shop, set back next to another building.

The Rifleman: Eddie's Daughter

Outsiders - and links to Duel of Honor

Eddie's Daughter (1959) seems constructed to make a pair with Duel of Honor. There are many echoes of plot and character between the two films. Both deal with gender outlaws who visit North Fork, and who face both social opposition from the townsfolk, and actual danger. The heroine of Eddie's Daughter is a dance hall girl, who symbolizes a "fallen woman" to the townsfolk. This parallels the man in Duel of Honor, who represents gayness to the townspeople. Both characters are dressed in outrageous, over the top costumes, which flagrantly violate the dress code of North Fork, and which instantly shock the townspeople. These clothes insistently characterize both gender outlaws, throughout the episodes. All of these costumes are the work of Robert B. Harris, who also designed the Western clothes for The Big Valley.

Both characters enter the town on the stage coach at the episode's start; both leave on the stage at the end. Both bond principally with Lucas, who is the main towns-person who understands them. Both meet with Lucas in their hotel room. Lucas has a mild romance of sorts with the heroine of Eddie's Daughter; he has a male bonding with the man in Duel of Honor. In both, this involves a meeting of the minds, as well as a physical attraction of sorts. Both characters demonstrate their sympathy with young Mark, and a symbolic commitment to the raising of children, which is seen as one of their most positive traits.

One difference between the two shows is that the heroine of Eddie's Daughter is asked to change, while the hero of Duel of Honor is encouraged to remain triumphantly himself. Eddie's Daughter does not see value in fallen women persisting in a career of quasi-prostitution; rather, they are urged to reform. However, the discussion in Eddie's Daughter does not center around sexual virtue. Instead, it attacks and criticizes materialism. The heroine is doing what she does for the sake of money. She thinks only money will give her value, and win her social respect. Lucas explicitly challenges this idea. The show is unusual for its frontal attack on materialism.

The heroine is one of Lewis' tough women, like the heroine of Gun Crazy. The screenplay keeps talking about how a good woman is "soft" and kind. Gender theorists may not entirely agree. Still, the film's sympathy with a woman who defies gender norms is pretty thorough.

Tolerance and Thinking

In both shows, there is a key scene in which Lucas discusses both bigotry and the need for tolerance with Mark. These scenes are simple, but pointed and extremely well written. These lessons in tolerance could still benefit everyone. I felt I learned something from both. Both stress that it is hard to understand something or someone, with whom we are not familiar. They explicitly appeal to people to have open minds, and stress the value of thinking, and learning something new. Both link tolerance to learning and exploring new ideas. This seems profound.

Lucas is shown as a character who learns in both episodes: in Duel of Honor, he learns about the code of dueling from his visitor. In Eddie's Daughter, he is shown reading a book at home. This key scene establishes Lucas as an intellectual, something highly valued in the rationalist, education-oriented culture of the America of its time. It parallels the many scenes in comic books in which the hero is shown reading. In Hero, Lucas and the Marshal are shown playing chess: another attempt to give Lucas intelligent credentials.

The Villain: Suave - and Alcoholic

The villain who stalks the heroine is dressed like a clone of Sebastian Cabot in Terror in a Texas Town. Both are bearded, at a time when beards were extremely rare in America, and confined to Burl Ives and Mitch Miller. Both men are portly, fancily dressed, and with a British accent. Both are courtly, articulate, addicted to the pleasures of the flesh, and menacing. A somewhat similar English-accented suave villain will return in Sheer Terror.

The villain has one alive and one-dead-before-the-show-starts henchmen, keeping up with Lewis' pattern of suave bad guy with two thugs working for him. The living henchman uses a knife, and rips up a sofa as part of a search: characteristics that recall Macready's villain in My Name Is Julia Ross. We see Macready tear up the sofa on screen, while we only see the after effects of the ripped sofa in Eddie's Daughter.

The villain's addiction to alcohol extends the warnings about alcoholism present in many Lewis works.

Foreground Objects

Lewis creates two shots with a controlled fire in the foreground. 1) Near the start, we see the stage arriving through the fire at (what we guess is) the blacksmith's forge. This is a startling composition. 2) Later, Lewis will stage an entire scene at Lucas' through the fire in the fireplace. This last is a long-take sequence that goes through quite a lot of dialogue and events. The two shots echo each other. Lewis used to be known as Wagon-Wheel Joe, for his fondness of shooting Western scenes through wagon wheels. Here he is doing the same with fire. The scene in the barn will open and close with Lucas lighting and extinguishing a lamp, which continues the fire imagery. The barn scene also involves hay, a Lewis favorite.

The opening of the film is shot through piled up chairs in the saloon. They make interesting geometric patterns, a bit like some of the fences and corrals through which Lewis sometimes shoots outdoors. The shot then pans, to an intense close-up of Lucas and Eddie. This leads to a long take, in which the two have a serious discussion. This shot is a bit like some of the Lewis close-ups of men in crisis talking - although Eddie is not quite in total crisis.

Joined Interior-Exteriors

As in Duel of Honor, there is a scene in the hotel lobby. In both episodes, this shows both the lobby interior itself, and the street through the wide door of the lobby. Lewis' penchant for scenes that move between interiors and exteriors is greatly enabled by the sets in The Rifleman, which typically include both. This scene has a little camera movement, but nowhere as much as Duel of Honor.

Our first view of the heroine is through the stage coach window. This too echoes the "through the door" shots in Eddie's Daughter. We first see the heroine's face through this frame, then she moves so that her entire body is revealed. Both views emphasize her dance hall girl make-up and attire.

Camera Movement

The camera movements are simple throughout Eddie's Daughter, but they always seem interesting to watch, too. Some of the camera movements track a character's move across a set. Others reframe an interior composition.

At the very end, we watch as a moving camera follows the heroine along down a street and past the horses of the stage coach, then as she and her father enter the coach. We cut to the second shot of the finale, which shows Lucas, Mark and the Marshal talking. This shot moves in to a two-shot of Lucas and Mark halfway through, in a manner that recalls Hitchcock's dollying-in to a character.

Composition: Spirals and Clutter

The hotel room scenes emphasize composition. They open with a shot that shows the spiral metal work on the room's bed. A small spiral is at the left of the shot, a larger matching spiral is at the right. Such a two-spiral composition seems unique in film history. It is striking, and one of the most complex curvilinear compositions in Lewis. (There is a discussion of spirals in film history, in the article on Fritz Lang's M (1931): please go to the Fritz Lang article for details.).

Lewis next starts moving his camera, changing the composition, and revealing more of the hotel room. Throughout the hotel room scene, Lewis draws on the room's decor to make elaborate compositions. These often feature the curving bed frame. Compositional style throughout Eddie's Daughter is baroque and complex. It often features objects scattered throughout the set, in a style known to interior decorators as "Victorian clutter". The visual style of Eddie's Daughter is rich and delightful, one of Lewis' successful experiments.

One shot shows the heroine, against a background of curtains. The curtains have small hanging globes of fabric. They are smaller than the hanging bobbles and curtain lines seen in long shots in other Lewis films - but make similar designs in these close-up shots.

At the final scenes at the McCain ranch, Lewis shoots so that many circular objects are visible: a complex lamp, the circular table, a bowl on the table. He also includes a crystal ink set. This continues the baroque visual style, filled with circular forms, found in the hotel sequences.

Later the doors of the hotel lobby will have simple spiral designs painted on their glass panels.

There will be more compositions with bed frame spirals in Baranca. And there had been small spirals on the gates of the estate in My Name Is Julia Ross. Lewis had not emphasized them - but they are visible in the track which follows the gatekeeper to the telephone box.

Geometry and Light

Much of the film takes place at night. We see lamps everywhere, which are often either spherical or cylindrical. Some outdoor shots include the street lamps Lewis loves, although they are shot from a greater distance and less distinctly than in some Lewis works.

The Rifleman: Panic

Social Commentary

Panic (1959) is another episode about social outsiders, and their rejection by "regular" people. Here Lucas himself becomes the outsider, after the townspeople view him as infected with yellow fever. Panic follows Duel of Honor and Eddie's Daughter in being an allegory about the United States of the era. These films deal allegorically both about the Civil Rights movement, and the struggle of black people for equality, and the "war on gays" being waged. They also deal with the need to accept anyone who is different.

The finale of Panic stresses mutual aid. This is a communal principle. It stands in contrast with the capitalist emphasis of some other Rifleman episodes.

The couple with yellow fever are delirious, and talk much. This reminds one of the altered state of consciousness scenes in The Big Combo. The pair forms one of the decent couples in trouble in Lewis' work. The man is seen with his shirt partly open, like other Lewis heroes.

The mob leader is obsessed with his military past. This is severely criticized, by the heroes. It is seen as a source of violence and destruction. This is one of many critiques of militarism in Lewis.

The television show Have Gun - Will Travel had a fine episode No Visitors (1957), which also dealt with panicky townspeople who wrongly reject the sick. It might have influenced Panic. No Visitors was written by Don Brinkley, and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen.

Camera Movement

Panic opens with a shot following Lucas and Mark, as they are seen riding past arching tree branches. There are several beautiful tree branch shots near the start of the film.

Lewis shoots from within the covered wagon, looking out towards the road. This camera movement from within a moving vehicle, is related to shots from within moving trains and cars in other Lewis films.

Lewis includes two very small, but forceful, camera movements, in the confrontation between Lucas and the mob leader at his ranch. Most of the scene involves cross cutting between Lucas and the man. This is a standard approach used in Hollywood for intense confrontation scenes. But - when Lucas makes a moral stand and denounces the other man, in an impressive short speech, Lewis has Lucas take an angry step forward. And the camera then reframes with him, right after. Both the small step of Lucas and the small camera move have a big effect.

And after the scene is over, we see Lucas on his ranch porch, and the man getting in his wagon in the background. Lucas moves up on his porch, and the camera reframes again. Once again, this adds drama.

The mid-section of Panic in town is full of camera movement. The conversation in Hattie's store is mainly staged as two long take shots, in which the camera moves into several different positions. These show Lewis skill with complex camera movement. Parts of these shots are briefly viewed through the wheels of some machinery in the store.

Later at Lucas' house, Lewis has a lateral camera movement from the outside side porch of the house, over to the window, where we see Lucas inside on his chair. This adds drama and mood to the scene. It also unites the outdoors with the view of the interior through the window.

One shot follows bowls of soup Lucas has cooked for the sick couple. Several Lewis films have camera movements that follow boots or weapons; these shots are unusual in following food.

The shot with the delirious man in bed is full of many re-framings, following Lucas' and the man's motion. This unstable camera underscores the man's fever-induced agitation and tossing and turning.

180 Degree Rule

Outside Hattie's store, Lewis also follows the progress of the buggy, and later of Lucas on his horse, with a moving camera, mixing these in with other, static shots. These street scenes are seen from both sides of the street, and it is not clear to me if they preserve the 180 degree rule. Lewis will film straight toward the front of Hattie's general store, and also include other shots straight towards the saloon across the street, and the ugly mob gathered there. Throughout The Rifleman, Lewis is quite free about shooting throughout North Fork. He does not worry too much if the viewer always knows exactly where a shot is. This is perhaps because he assumes that regular viewers of the series will come to know all the locations in the town - or perhaps not!

The initial confrontation between Lucas and the young man in Face of Yesterday (1961) has a similar staging. Here too, we see shots both from the saloon, and from the front of the general store.

Depth Filming

Another dramatic strategy in Panic is shots staged in depth. When the Marshal walks around the city and night, we see him in long shot across the street. Lewis keeps his camera fixed, while the Marshal crosses the street towards the viewer, winding up in a close-up. Later, Lewis will reverse this pattern, and have the Marshal move from the close-up back across the street again to the saloon. Like a number of foreground-to-background shots in Lewis, these two shots come in pairs, that echo each other.

These shots include the street lights Lewis liked to employ, in creating compositions of nocturnal cityscapes. The scene also has the Marshal hearing an unseen voice: that of the mob leader.

The final confrontation at Lucas' ranch is also staged in depth.

The final shots of the film are taken from the couple's covered wagon. In the background, we can see through the door of Lucas' ranch house, and the table inside. This is typical of Lewis' desire to unite indoors and out.


Lucas pulls his own wagon around, to join up with the couple's covered wagon. This recalls scenes of rendezvousing cars, in other Lewis films such as Gun Crazy.

Mark briefly plays a game of kick-the-can, on the sidewalks of North Fork. Comic figures and kids in Lewis will occasionally indulge in such physical activities.

The Rifleman: The Letter of the Law

Gun Crazy

The Letter of the Law is one of a series of Rifleman episodes that star a man who is caught up in the cult of guns. These include The Safe Guard (1958), about a career gunman who is both socially alienated and then drawn into a life of crime by his skill with guns, and Boomerang (1959), about a teenager who thinks guns can help him avenge his father's death. All of these films are in the direct tradition of Gun Crazy, and none more so than The Letter of the Law, which concentrates on guns' insidious appeal to men. Here the outlaw played by Vic Morrow is just as obsessed with guns as the hero of Gun Crazy, and dialogue compares guns to beautiful women. Like the hero of Gun Crazy, the villain is lead into a life of crime by his seduction by guns. Vic Morrow plays a man of insidious charm, like a long series of Western villains, and the film's most sinister sequence shows him trying to lure young Mark into the gun cult. Mark is eager to follow - he's a good kid, but no plaster saint. Mark also shows an interest in guns in Boomerang.

The discussion of the gun cult in The Letter of the Law briefly mentions the villain's wish not to be Second Best at shooting. This ties in with the regular Lewis criticisms of the desire to be The Best, and the disasters to which this can lead people.


All three of the episodes The Safe Guard, Boomerang and The Letter of the Law, have the continuing character of the town banker. The banker is a sympathetic character, and his bank is seen as a socially productive institution. This is different from a long line of American books and films, which tend to depict bankers as cold-hearted and evil. These episodes are distinctly pro-capitalism, at least in its small business forms. Hero Lucas' farm is always treated as a business, and son Mark has his own small enterprises that are training him for his future role as a profit-oriented farmer. Many of the continuing characters in the town of North Fork are small business people, such as Hattie who runs a general store. Much of The Safe Guard centers on the bank's arrival in North Fork. This pro-capitalism, or at least pro-small business, point of view, is somewhat unusual in film history.

This makes an odd contrast to Gun Crazy, in which the gun cult leads the hero into a career of bank robbery - and one of Lewis' most famous long take camera movements. The people in the Gun Crazy factory payroll office are very unpleasant, as well, and dialogue suggests that the factory is exploiting its workers financially.

North Fork is a town undergrowing tremendous growth. And The Rifleman was shot during decades in which the United States was undergrowing economic growth, much of which was shared with ordinary workers, who had strong unions. The experience in North Fork mirrors the real lives of many contemporary viewers of the show.

A Reunion

The Letter of the Law brings back many of the continuing characters in the series. In addition to a plum role for the town Marshal Micah, we have the banker and the doctor. Hotel clerk Eddie is mentioned, but not seen on camera. Paul Carr, who played the young bridegroom in Shivaree, returns in a new role, his third performance on The Rifleman. Here he plays a decent, very young man who has gone wrong and joined up with the outlaws. He does not have much screen time, but he is featured in a powerful mini-drama that occurs right in the middle of the show. This echoes scenes in Buchanan Rides Alone (Budd Boetticher, 1958), in which a young outlaw supports a captive good guy hostage. Lewis' treatment is vastly less cynical than Boetticher's.

The scene with the outlaws shows them making coffee; the end of the show has the characters off to eat pie. Both are Lewis favorites.

Depth Staging and Joined Interior-Exteriors

Several scenes take place at the Marshal's office. We see this office both from the street outside, looking in, and from inside, looking out of the street. Once again, Lewis stages scenes to mix both interiors and exteriors, bound together in reasonably deep focus. Lewis varies these shots to include both night and day, and scenes with a lot of people, to shots of deserted streets. He also mixes fixed shots with some well done, if simple, camera movements.

Lewis also uses deep focus within the Marshal's office, to show the jail cell in another room. Lewis shoots through the door, showing the office room leading into the jail room.

Camera Movement

There are also camera movements, one leading right towards the jail cell from the rest of the Marshal's office, and a reverse one soon after that leads from the cell back left to the main office.

The Letter of the Law has a fine panning sequence outdoors. We see the deserted buildings of North Fork at night. Lewis pans from the left side of the street to the right. This just takes up a small arc. Then the two outlaws ride into the shot from the right. Lewis then follows them by panning back to the left side of the street again.

After they dismount, Lewis follows them on a right-to-left camera movement down the street, to the Marshal's office. Right-to-left movements are often characterized in film theory as expressing "difficult motion" in film. This shot is in accord with that idea: the outlaws' trip to the Marshal's office is supposed to be suspenseful, and the work of bad guys up to no good.

Nighttime shots, here and elsewhere in The Letter of the Law, contain Lewis' beloved street lights. The lights tend to be simpler, more solitary, and less prominent in Lewis' compositions here, than in some other Lewis films.

The Panorama

The hillside scene where the outlaws hold Micah captive, is set against a beautiful landscape. There are several fine shots under arching tree branches. Micah sits with his back to the tree, a common staging in Lewis.

The outlaws frequently scan the landscape, looking for the arrival of Vic Morrow. Lewis shows a large scale panorama, including hills and roads. In some ways this is similar to shots showing vast background panoramas in The Undercover Man and Gun Crazy. However, in those films the panorama landscapes focused on farm buildings and a city, respectively. Here we have a purely rural landscape of hills and roads.

The Rifleman: Surveyors

The focus in Surveyors (1959), as in Shivaree, is growing up: never an easy thing to do in Lewis. The film ultimately becomes comic, however, with a happy ending, although this is not reached without serious struggles. Here, young Mark is not believed by his father, causing complications. There are other Rifleman episodes in which Mark behaves more admirably than grown-ups. By contrast, in Hero Mark sides with the townspeople in criticizing an outsider, something his father finds appalling.

Detective Work

Mark falls asleep, here, in the surveyors' tent. When he wakes up, he overhears them plotting. This is perhaps related to theatrical Lewis films like The Big Combo, in which altered states of consciousness reveal truth.

First Mark, then his father Lucas have to take on the role of detectives. As in other Lewis films, getting at the truth is not easy. It takes many turns and dead ends, before they finally learn what is going on.

Mark's analysis of the dialogue he has overheard, is perhaps similar to the detective's analysis of photographs in The Big Combo. Truth does not come to Mark automatically: he has to reason it out from evidence.

Mark also has to defy other people, in his search for the truth.

Surveyors is different from Lewis' theatrical detective films, in that the audience knows everything about the crimes right from the start. Only the characters in the story are in the dark.


The washing scene is staged against a background of the barn roof. The roof forms a peaked triangle behind the characters. This anticipates the peaked roof triangles in The Journey Back, also behind characters.

The bad guys encounter a wire fence with regular thin posts. A similar fence is prominent in Squeeze Play. In both films, it is used to make compositions.

When Lucas is riding, he encounters a wooden fence. It looks like the one the couple encounter when fleeing after the robbery in Gun Crazy.

Surveyors is rich in compositions formed by overarching tree branches.

Camera Movement

The second shot starts out outdoors. It then pulls back, to a view from within the covered wagon (this pull-back might be a zoom-out). This is similar to the opening of Gun Crazy, which pulls back from an exterior, to a point inside a store window. This is typical of Lewis combining "indoor" and "outdoor" views in one shot. From this point forward, the shot becomes a fixed, long take sequence. It tells a complex story from this fixed point of view. During the entire shot, Charlie has been moving from the background of the shot, where he is a tiny figure, steadily into the foreground. The shot ends when he reaches the front. It is a beautiful figure of style. During most of the shot, all three men are facing in the same direction - also a Lewis tradition. This shot lasts around 43 seconds.

A shot on the street shows a perspective look down a pillared portico, then moves left, to the other side of the pillars. This recalls a shot moving around pillars in the opening of The Trade. The shot then continues to the left, across the street, and looks in both through the door and window of the bank.

Surveyors has a finale full of camera movement. There are two left-to-right pans inside the bank. These recall the "entering the hotel" shot in Duel of Honor, in that they unexpectedly reveal more than the viewer expects, at the climax of the shots. The first shot moves half way across the bank to the safe, then unexpectedly moves outside the grillwork cage, to reveal the rest of the bank and its window on the street. The second shot, a POV of Lucas peering into the bank, shows an apparently deserted bank, with one of the robbers betrayed by showing up in a mirror. Both shots are rich in composition, and fascinating to watch.

There are also a number of excellent traveling shots on the street. One has the Marshal and Lucas talking, as they walk down sidewalks, under porticos, and along buildings.

A later shot follows Lucas from behind, and then suddenly moves closer to him from the back, when he makes a big discovery. The Hitchcock-type shot of moving in to a character's face for intense thought or emotion is not uncommon in cinema; shots which suddenly move into a character from the back are much rarer. We are following Lucas' thoughts through voice over, so Lewis can do this without showing Lucas' face.

Lewis also has shots which move in close to a person's face. The final discussion with Mark repeatedly closes in to Mark's face.


Mark is shown reading a book.

Mark and Lucas do the laundry, and hang it on the fence: also common Lewis images.

Mark sneaks out of the bedroom at night. He does this in the background of the image, while Lucas is in the foreground: a common Lewis staging for characters making a sneaking exit.

Average Shot Length

Surveyors runs 24:25 (1465 seconds), ignoring title sequence and end credits. I counted 171 separate shots (this is the first time I've done this for a movie, so I might be off by one or two shots). This gives an Average Shot Length (ASL) of 8.5 seconds per shot. Average Shot Length is a technique pioneered by film analyst Barry Salt.

These shots are not evenly distributed across the film. A whopping 94 of them are concentrated in just five scenes; these five scenes run a total of 8:28 (508 seconds), around one third of the film, and have an ASL of 5.3 seconds per shot. The rest of the film, nearly two-thirds of the movie, contains 77 shots in 15:53 (953 seconds), with an ASL of 12.9 seconds per shot.

David Bordwell states that norms for Hollywood A-movie feature films of 1930-1960 range from an ASL of 8 to 11. While Surveyors is a TV show, not a feature, its ASL of 8.5 fits comfortably in this range.

Bordwell gives an ASL of 14.6 for The Big Combo. The two-thirds of Surveyors with an ASL of 12.9, seems close in editing rhythm to The Big Combo, with its ASL of 14.6

The first four of the five scenes with the 94 shots have much in common. These are the scenes in which the bad guys (the two surveyors) encounter good guys (the banker, Mark or Lucas). The first three are dialogue scenes: the surveyors at the bank talking with the banker; Mark talking with the surveyors at their camp; Lucas talking with the surveyors at their camp. Lewis keeps cutting back and forth between the surveyors (always seen as a pair), and the good guy in the scene. Such back and forth cutting during dialogue is a standard Hollywood way to emphasize conflict. While there is no open confrontation in these scenes, the editing suggests that the two surveyors are on one side of the film's conflict, and the good guys are on the other.

The fourth scene with lots of cutting is the finale at the bank. This scene cross cuts between the surveyors robbing the safe inside the bank, and a suspicious Lucas investigating outside the bank. This cross cutting also establishes opposition.

The fifth scene with much cutting is the last scene of the film, when Mark and Lucas are reconciling. They are seated across the room from each other. Lewis cuts back and forth between them, emphasizing the barriers which are separating them emotionally.

Outside of these five scenes, Lewis uses far less cutting, preferring to work within longer takes.

The Last Scene

During the epilogue, Lucas apologizes to Mark, sort of. He tells Mark that Mark was right: but never quite phrases that he, Lucas, was wrong! Still, this is enough, and makes Mark happy.

During the scene, Lucas surrounds himself with imagery associated elsewhere in Lewis with the empty bravado of phony characters. Here, this imagery is intended by Lucas to bolster his patriarchal image. There is comedy here, with Lucas trying to keep his patriarchal authority and masculine image - even while admitting he is wrong! Lucas displays his boots - and they are echoed by his black leather chair. Lucas also lights up a cigar.

The Rifleman: Day of the Hunter


Day of the Hunter (1960) is most interesting for Lucas' big speech, which sets forth political ideas that are pro-ecology and anti-violence.

The show has a famous mountain man constantly trying to goad Lucas into various forms of gun competition, which Lucas refuses. The mountaineer is one of several Lewis characters, who try to lure other people into the gun cult. Often times, it is very young people who are the victim of such lures - but here it is grown man Lucas himself.

Just as the hero of Gun Crazy refuses to kill an animal during hunting, so does Lucas here refuse to take part in a hunt.

Eventually, nature itself - and the animal kingdom - seems to rebel against the mountain man. This links the perennial Lewis subject of "danger from animals", with ecological concerns. It is not clear whether the subject of "danger from animals" is always linked to ecology in Lewis: this is the Lewis film in which such a link is far and away the most explicit.


Lucas steps up over the back and onto the seat of a wagon, in an unusual, assertive movement. He displays his boots, when he steps on top of the seat. This is one of the few boot displays from a sympathetic character in Lewis. Once again, it is a form of macho bravado. Since Lucas is turning down gun violence and hunting as a form of machismo he rejects, Lewis is probably trying to let Lucas keep his male dignity, and get a chance to do a bit of harmless, non-violent display.

The other wagon is full of bags of apples. They make a geometric pattern, a bit like the wagon full of bales of hay to come in The Fourflusher.

The mountain man makes his appearance at the ranch, using an off-screen noisemaker. Like many off-screen voices and sounds in Lewis, this is eerie and frightening.

The dinner here is the least appetizing home cooked meal in Lewis. Usually, such meals are very appealing. But this one looks revolting.

The Rifleman: The Visitor

The Visitor (1960) seems like one of the least interesting Rifleman episodes. Mainly, it is an account of a date between Lucas and an old friend, pretty widow Mrs. Dodd. The date is gentle, leading to an even gentler kiss. I enjoyed young Mark's gentle dates in later Rifleman episodes like A Young Man's Fancy and Old Tony. But somehow, The Visitor does not seem to gel. Lewis crooks like the couple in Gun Crazy enjoy delirious amour fou; Lewis bad guys like Mr. Brown are ferocious in their love making. But Lewis heroes on The Rifleman seem totally gentle. The whole effect is odd. For better or worse, it also seems atypical of Hollywood romance.

Mixed up with the date are detailed discussions of woman's work and women's point of view, which mainly seem to involve keeping clothes drawers neater than a mere bachelor like Lucas could achieve. This does not compute at all. In Gun Crazy, Lewis gave a more realistic picture of a hard-working housewife, trying to raise a brood of small children while cooking a meal. Depicting woman's work in The Visitor as a mere fetish for neatness in housekeeping is out of touch with reality.

Much is made about the heroine's skill at creating fishing lures. Her ability to share the hero's love of outdoor activities recalls The Undercover Man, and the hero's wife who likes to fish with her husband. The heroine and hero of The Return of October also like to swim together.

The Killers - and a Condemnation of Euthanasia

Mixed in with the love story is a drastic-change-of-pace subplot, about a pair of murderers who are stalking innocent Mrs. Dodd. They kill people in bed, like the strangler in Invisible Ghost. In this killer couple, "the female of the species is deadlier than the male" (Kipling), as in Gun Crazy and Boots With My Father's Name. In all these films, it is the woman who leads the couple into murder.

The monster killers in The Visitor, justify their first murder to themselves, by pointing out that their victim was old and sick. In a small way, this anticipates Lewis' anti-euthanasia story, the Bonanza episode The Quality of Mercy. In both films, Lewis depicts such views as ugly, immoral, and self-serving rationalizations.

The discussion of Lewis and William Wyler, near the start of this book, points out some similarities of the killing in The Visitor, to the murder in one of Lewis' favorite films, Wyler's The Little Foxes (1941).

Visual Style

The Visitor opens with a close-up of the peaked roofs of a house, a favorite Lewis image. However, the view of the roof is much closer in The Visitor than in most Lewis films, where the roof peaks appear in the background.

The shot at the hotel, with a lamp perfectly framed inside the wheel of a wagon, is a splendid image. It has a pure geometric quality. Lewis often shot through wagon wheels; this shot instead uses a wheel as background. The shot recalls an image in A Lawless Street, where a lamp is framed against Angela Lansbury's back.

Earlier, there was a sort of visual pun, in which a wheel of a small machine in the general store is balanced against wagon wheels seen through the door.

At the hotel, clerk Eddie makes his entrance going down the stairs. Later, first the heroine, and later Lucas, will go up the stairs. These staircase shots are simple. Their use as a running refrain throughout the show is a unifying stylistic feature, however.

There is a long take in which Lucas combs his hair in the mirror, and talks to Mark. But mainly, The Visitor does not have a lot of creative camera work or staging.

The Rifleman: Hero

Hero (1960) is another in a continuing set of Rifleman stories, in which a lone person is treated hatefully by the community for violating its (incorrect) norms. Hero is a bit different from the others, in that it deals with The Code of the West. Here people hate Colly, because he shot an outlaw in the back. He had no choice - but he is condemned anyway. This is different from the gender issues of Duel of Honor and Eddie's Daughter, and the fear-based illness tale of Panic. Like Panic, this episode was written by Albert Aley.

Hero differs from previous Rifleman episodes, in that the town of North Fork is seen as socially stratified by class and gender, for the first time. Previously, everyone in North Fork seemed to be on equal terms with everyone else, even the town banker. And Hattie was a woman who ran the general store, without anyone thinking her different from the male shop keepers in town. In Hero, by contrast, the man who runs the stage coach depot has a female receptionist. And this man regards Colly as unworthy to marry his daughter, because he is a stable hand at the depot.

Lewis Themes

Hero is one of many Lewis works that deal with mourning rituals. This appeared in Lewis' theatrical work with 7th Cavalry (1956). It shows up in his TV films like Boomerang and Big Valley: Night of the Wolf (1965). In Hero, virtually the whole town turns out for what the Marshal sarcastically calls a "state funeral" for the slain outlaw - who is a real rotter, and hardly deserving of this hero worship.

The Lewis theme about growing up gets a strong statement here in the film's close, which draws an unusual moral. In the film, young Mark shocks both Lucas and the audience by joining the townspeople who taunt the hero. Mark is also shown whittling; using a knife is usually restricted to Lewis villains: an indication that Mark has moved to the wrong side of things.

The Domino Kid's fancy guns, with dominoes on the handle, perhaps link him to the sinister gun cult that runs through Lewis.

The trio of desperadoes reverses Lewis' traditional pattern. Their leader and spokesman is a menacing thug. He is confident and well-spoken, like Mr. Brown, but he is not especially gentlemanly. And he wears the black vest of a Western desperado, rather than gentlemanly clothes. By contrast, his two henchmen seem much more refined. Especially a handsome man, well-dressed, who later silently watches the town from in front of the saloon. He seems like an ominous presence.

White Costumes and Boots

Colly eventually stands jacketless, in all-white clothes, like the outsider in Duel of Honor. Such a white costume sets him off from other people. These costumes recall the hero's white tropical suit in A Lady Without Passport. Lucas does some male bonding with Colly, just as he did with the hero of Duel of Honor.

Colly displays his boots on the wagon, at a moment when he is showing determination to stand up against the townspeople. As usual in Lewis, boots are linked to dubious bravado. However, for once this is a sympathetic character showing the bravado, however misguided.


Lewis gets in some good exteriors, showing trees. These tree-composition exterior shots run through many Lewis-directed episodes of The Rifleman.

Camera Movement

Hero has some well staged long take sequences. When Colly first brings in the body, there is a complex camera movement. This starts out with a close up of a chess board, then pulls back to Lucas and the Marshal, then takes a deep focus look at Colly outside - then moves outdoors. The conversation continues outside, then finally moves back in to the office again. This long take is quite dream like, moving through symbolic rituals of chess to the surreal announcement by Colly that he is bringing in a body. Like many shots on The Rifleman, it takes advantage of the huge North Fork sets, that show both the insides of buildings, and the town street outside.

Some of the camera movements have the camera moving in, while people move towards the camera in the exact opposite direction. Lewis does this at the ranch, with the camera moving forward, while Lucas walks towards the camera, Colly and Alice. Later, a different shot at the stage depot interior will also have Lucas walking in to the moving camera.

The "state funeral" camera movement is wonderfully complex, and incorporates the camera/people movement opposition above - plus other effects. It starts out showing the sign on the undertaker's. Then it moves down, showing people leaving the parlor. The camera moves backwards with the people. Meanwhile, a line moves into the undertaking parlor, moving against the direction of the camera movement. Then Lucas rides in at the shot's rear, moving parallel to the camera. This sets up three different streams of people moving. Soon the moving camera focuses only on Lucas, and pans around the street while he rides over to the Marshal's. Then the camera moves in for Lucas and the Marshal talking.

There is also a moving camera POV shot, showing Lucas warily watching the three gunmen as he passes by. Lewis gets much mileage out of the genuinely ominous trio.

The Rifleman: The Spoiler

Another hostage, and other Lewis subjects

Harry Kronman, author of The Patsy, also wrote The Spoiler (1960). The Spoiler is one of my least favorite Lewis-directed episodes of The Rifleman. Unfortunately, the story is just plain mean. The villain is slightly slick and glib, but mainly just seems like a monster.

The story has several plot elements that make it personal for Lewis:

None of these personal-for-Lewis elements make this anything other than an unpleasantly brutal story. The Patsy itself, while mildly interesting, is hardly one of Lewis' better works.

The Spoiler has some themes in common with Thursday's Child, discussed in the article on the latter film.

Skip Homeier (the actor who plays the villain) has an excellent voice. He comes from an era when many actors had superb commands of their vocal instruments. His oddest scene: he plays the organ (!) while chewing out his honest father for not Thinking Big. This scene, which has little relationship with anything else in the film, is intriguing. Usually it is good guys in Lewis who play instruments. And since it is the bad guy who is espousing Thinking Big here, presumably the film is criticizing this notion. This perhaps relates to all the warnings in Lewis about the danger of trying to be recognized as The Best.


Lewis films always stress detective work: reasoning from evidence. There is no one central detective figure in The Spoiler. Instead, there are a whole series of separate episodes, in which different people reason from evidence to draw conclusions:

Open Mindedness

Lewis films often preach the virtues of open-mindedness. Often times, this relates to a plot issue in the story. But in The Spoiler, we instead have Mark and Lucas having a father-son talk about why there is evil in the world. Mark doesn't understand this, and finds it troubling. Lucas doesn't have the answer. But he does tell Mark, "Don't ever be scared to ask questions".

Camera Movement

The Spoiler has a typical Lewis set of "paired camera movements, that show people arriving and leaving". The first pan shows people arriving at the house; the second pan reverses it, showing people leave at the end of the film. The camera movement involves shooting through a large tree. It also shows the peaked roofs and gables of the house. Both the tree and the peaked roofs are Lewis trademarks.

The house exterior is constructed on a familiar Lewis plan: there is a front door, and around the far left hand side of the house is a second door. The camera follows Mark as he moves along the side. However, the side door plays no role in the plot.

When the villain calls out from the door that Lucas is arriving, his parents move to the door. The camera moves with them, eventually bringing in a back view of the villain. This is typical of "camera movements in Lewis that show a gunslinger from the back". It is a bit unusual in that it is a lateral, side-to-side camera movement, not a more usual "forward movement following the villain from the back". It recalls a bit the lateral camera movement that eventually includes a rear view of Lucas, at the blacksmith's in Duel of Honor.

The villain walks completely around a table in the living room, while interrogating Lucas. The camera mainly moves with the villain. It recalls a moving camera shot in A Lady Without Passport, where James Craig walks completely around a desk while talking with his deputy Steven Hill. Both of these camera movements are impressively inventive. In each case, the camera faces the static performer (Lucas or the deputy), while the position of the moving man (the villain or Craig) revolves from front to back to front as he walks.


The horse in the barn is that favorite Lewis combination, black-and-white.

The Rifleman: Heller


Heller (1960) is a pioneering drama about child abuse. It also includes spousal abuse, as a related topic. It was made over a decade before feminists made spousal abuse a political issue in the 1970's. Heller thoroughly condemns both kinds of beatings. It suggests that they are serious problems, and not uncommon in society.

I am not an expert on the politics of spousal or child abuse. My impression is that individual artists, such as the creators of Heller, were often ahead of politicians in this era. There are quite a few pre-1970 prose mystery stories which condemn husbands who were "brutes" (the term back then for wife-beaters). But that there was no successful, organized political movement pre-1970 that offered systematic opposition to spousal or child abuse. I might be wrong, and readers should not take my impressions as any sort of serious historical truth or analysis.

Heller links child and spousal abuse to alcoholism. This is consistent with Lewis' bitter opposition to alcoholism throughout his films. Once again, I am in no position to assess whether alcoholism plays a significant real-life role in child abuse, or not.

The Finale - and The Big Combo

The finale of Heller shares links with that of The Big Combo. In both, the heroine stands up to a dictatorial bad guy who has ruled her private life. In The Big Combo, the heroine aims a light at the bad guy, so he can be shot at by the hero; in Heller, the heroine aims her gun and does her own shooting. In both, the villain tries unsuccessfully to evade the attack by moving around a room. In both, the villain cringes and reveals his cowardice. In both, sparing his life and sending him to prison is seen as a punishment worse than death.

These attacks on a personal tyrant are perhaps linked to the climactic attacks on political tyrants, in films like Bombs Over Burma and The Deserter. The farm implements carried by the son, and by Mark earlier, perhaps recall the farm implements used by the peasants at the end of Bombs Over Burma.

Changing plans while growing up

The heroine changes her plans for dealing with her step-father's child abuse several times during the film. She changes due to her own second thoughts, unknowing interference by grown-ups, and finally through listening to Lucas' ideas. Young people who repeatedly change their plans while growing up run throughout Lewis. For example, in That Gang of Mine (1940), the young hero who wants to be a jockey re-evaluates and changes all of his career ideas, near the film's end.

Looking at "changing plans" seems to be part of the meaning of Lewis' films about young people. It is certainly not the whole meaning: Heller has much to say about the tragedy of child abuse, that has nothing to do with the heroine's plans. "Changing plans" is one thread that runs through the tapestry of such films, one component of a big picture.

Long-Take Close-Up of Two People

A long-take, intense close-up of Heller also includes her friendly brother, slightly more in the background. A similar staging is seen in the opening shot of Eddie's Daughter, with Eddie in foreground close-up, and his friend Lucas slightly in the rear. In Face of Yesterday, Lewis will repeat this staging, but even more intensely by having the hero on his knees.

Depth staging

Heller has several shots involving depth staging. The step-father slowly crosses the street of North Fork, moving from the front to the back of the image. In the next shot, the kids run into the barn, from the back to the foreground of the image.

The garden shots include both the heroine in the back, and her brother in the close foreground.

Detection and Mystery

Heller involves secrets, which are only gradually revealed to the audience. However, there is no real detective figure to unravel all this. Mark comes closest: he sees things which reveal the truth of the mystery - but he only sees these things by accident. Mark does not use true detection (investigation, reasoning about evidence).

Still, the scene where Mark and Lucas compare notes, and Mark reveals that Lucas has a completely mistaken idea about what Lucas thinks he has seen, is certainly interesting. It suggests the important Lewis theme that truth is not obvious, and difficult to get at. Hero Lucas learns his ideas were wrong. Lewis heroes often have to work hard to get at truth. This is a key theme of Lewis' detective stories.

Lucas is a hero because he works hard to get at truth. He does not have a magical pipeline which tells him all the answers right away.

The Rifleman: The Deserter

The Deserter (1960) is another one of scriptwriter Albert Aley's liberal message shows. Its plot is similar to The Caine Mutiny, with people trying to stand up to a psychotically discipline-obsessed Colonel of a Cavalry unit. Unlike The Caine Mutiny, this show does not wimp out at the end, and suggest said Colonel has hidden virtues. He is viewed as rotten to the core.

Another film about an unstable Colonel who tries to lead his men to disaster: The Colonel Harris Story episode of the TV series Wagon Train. The finale of The Colonel Harris Story has some similarities to that of The Deserter, and quite a few differences as well. The Colonel Harris Story was broadcast January 31, 1960. It is unclear if this could have influenced The Deserter, broadcast March 15, 1960.

The Beginning

The plot starts when a sick, thirsty man deserts his Cavalry unit, and finds his way to Lucas' ranch. This man's speaking up is what causes the whole sinister set-up in the cavalry unit to unravel. This is similar to The Big Combo, where words mumbled by a sick person in their delirium cause the truth to come out about mobster Mr. Brown. Truth escaping through illness, sleep or delirium is a Lewis trademark.

Thirst is an on-going Lewis theme. The story takes place during summer heat. We see or hear about many liquids to drink; milk, lemonade, beer, whisky and water.

Open Mindedness - and Speaking Out

A key Lewis value is open mindedness. This is the willingness to look at both sides of an issue, and explore ideas. In many Lewis films, open-mindedness is a virtue of the heroes The Deserter uses a different strategy to explore the same value. The Deserter is a horror story, about an evil leader who tries to suppress open-mindedness. The Colonel wants his men to "obey him without thinking". He is an authoritarian figure who is trying to suppress thinking and different points of view. He is the exact opposite of the portrait of a Good Leader in The Man from Tumbleweeds, who strives to encourage freedom of thinking and speech among his men.

The hero of The Man from Tumbleweeds encourages his men to "speak out", and say what they think. The Bad Leader in The Deserter tries to control and suppress communication. Hero Lucas gets in especial trouble when he uses the telegraph to communicate.

The Deserter is concretely a portrait of the dangers of militarism. But such scenes of a Evil Leader trying to control thought and communication also invoke the evils of totalitarian societies. They also critique anyone in democratic societies who tries to limit thought and speech.

Metaphors: People as Machines

Some Lewis crime films compare their detective heroes to machines: So Dark the Night, The Undercover Man, The Big Combo. It is a somewhat ambiguous metaphor in such movies, with perhaps good and bad aspects.

But in The Deserter, the man-as-machine metaphor takes on a new, sinister aspect. The bad Colonel wants his troops to be unthinking machines, who simply follow his orders.


Both the deserter, and the Colonel, are heard as off-screen voices, before they are seen. Like many off-screen voices in Lewis, they are menacing figures.

Several early shots at the McCain ranch, are shot down the covered porch. The porch is not as long as the covered sidewalks in other Lewis films, but it gives a similar compositional effect.

There is less camera movement in The Deserter than in many other Lewis works. Lewis often cuts back and forth between characters, to underscore conflict. This Hollywood editing tradition works against sustained takes or long camera movements.

The humorous, low key breakfast scene is shot in one long take.

There is a long take in the street, when Lucas first goes into town, and walks with Micah over to the Marshal's office. It is interrupted by a sudden riding soldier.

A shot from within the cell room looks through the room's door, and from there through the door of the Marshal's office, outside. This is a two-level staging through doors. It recalls the two-level deep shot through a door and window in The Deadly Wait.

The soldier forced to march in the street, moves from the back of the image to a close-up: a Lewis tradition. He then reverses course.

Finale: Geometry

The finale of The Deserter is notable for the elaborate geometry of its staging. The principals, the Cavalrymen, and the townspeople are all on screen, in elaborate formal groupings. They stand stock still, as tension mounts. These scenes recall the Civil Rights protests of their era, and other kinds of mass demonstration, in which ordinary people met physical displays of government force.

Large subgroups of people are staring in the same direction. The subgroups in turn are at angles of 90 or 180 degrees to each other. Such stagings at right angles are a Lewis tradition. But they rarely employ such large crowds of people as in the finale to The Deserter.

After the main climax of the show, there is a time lapse, and an epilogue. This involves almost the same crowds of people (the townspeople are now mainly absent). But they are all in new groupings. This second staging also employs subgroups of people staring in the same direction, with the subgroups at 90 or 180 degrees to each other.

Comparison with Pride of the Bowery: Militarism

The groupings recall a bit Lewis' "East Side Kids" movie Pride of the Bowery (1941), in which the Kids join the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC was a real-life New Deal government public works project run on quasi-military lines, and infinitely more benevolent than this cavalry unit. Lewis makes full compositional use of the formations made by the CCC.

Lewis rarely made any war or military films, somewhat unusually for an action director. Since Pride of the Bowery is about a unit that builds roads, rather than a true military unit, it gives Lewis a guilt-free pacifist's chance to indulge in pleasant wish-fulfillment entertainment about being a rookie being inducted into the Corps. Pride of the Bowery expresses limitless optimism about the discipline of militaristic life, celebrating uniforms, saluting the flag, eating in mess halls, barracks, giving of orders by team leaders and humorous resisting of same. It's an appealing fantasy of the lighter side of barracks life. The Deserter, by contrast, is a horror story about how easily all this can go wrong. "Give some men a uniform..." as the bartender says about the monstrous Colonel here.

In Pride of the Bowery, lead Mugs is paired with a handsome young team leader (Kenneth Howell) in the camp. The constant fighting and sparring between the two men clearly has an undercurrent of attraction. This is presented as a wholly appealing feature of camp life in Pride of the Bowery. In The Deserter, we get a new slant on all this. Young Mark has a similar fascination with a young Lieutenant in the Cavalry unit. Mark cannot see any of the horror right before his eyes in the unit - all he can notice is how great this Lieutenant is, how sharp the uniforms are, etc. This appalls his father, and shocks the viewer some too. The viewer gets a lesson about what a powerful appeal the whole uniforms-and-officers mystique is, and how it can blind people to sinister realities.

However, Lucas himself male bonds with this young Lieutenant, too. So he feels the force as well. However, Lucas challenges this man to a new standard of behavior, and revolt against the Colonel, rather than accepting the Colonel's activities.

The Rifleman: Shotgun Man

Shotgun Man (1960) is a seemingly minor episode. It tells a simple story - ex-con released from prison, tries to get vengeance on Lucas.


The opening takes place in a ruined building, which seems to have holes in the roof. This recalls the building with a damaged roof in Waste. Ruined buildings as a whole anticipate the finale of The Hiding Place.

The villain wears thick glasses, like the bad guy in Closer Than a Brother. And he likes to whittle with a knife, perhaps recalling knife-obsessed heroes in other Lewis films. He and Lucas have a brief marksmanship duel, a small and less unusual version of the marksmanship contests in films like Gun Crazy and Sidewinder. While this bad guy is good with his shotgun, he hardly seems like a member of the Gun Cult that runs through so much Lewis. He is obsessed with revenge, not guns.

Young Mark feels sympathy with the villain, and forms a bond with him, while Lucas is unable to relate to the villain. This makes for an interesting human story in Shotgun Man. Later episodes (And the Devil Makes Five, The Guest) will try for somewhat similar relationships between Mark and bad guys, with less success.


Many Lewis films praise open-mindedness. The villain here says the opposite: he tells Mark near the end, that he is opposed on principle to changing his mind. This leads to disaster. Mark's pleading with him to "forgive and forget" would have worked great.

The villain justifies his opposition to mind-changing, by linking it to his concept of masculinity. This is an example of what is now called "toxic masculinity"; a false idea of masculinity linked to damaging behaviors.


In the middle of the film, Lucas does detective work, to solve the mystery of who has been sending the letters. Lucas's detection is sound, and enables him to identify a couple of suspects. But as he admits to Mark at dinner, he is unable to solve the mystery completely, and identify the guilty party. Lucas doesn't know if the villain is guilty or not.

Instead, it is Mark who finds the answer. And Mark does this, not through detective work, but inadvertently by Mark raising personal issues with the villain.

A Complex Shot

A nice panning shot starts out with Lucas riding into town, seen between two pillars. A rightward pan shows Lucas getting off his horse; then a leftward pan shows his entering the saloon. The shot ends with that Lewis favorite, swinging doors.

Paired Camera Movements

At the hotel dining room, Lewis stages camera movements in parallel. First we see Mark go out of the dining room and hotel door, following a twisting path to the door. After his scene outside with the villain, Mark comes back in, returning to his table by a second camera movement, which is the reverse of his earlier path.

Such Lewis paired movements are a standard. However, Lewis now does something unusual. The second camera movement continues without a break, now showing Lucas leave the hotel, by a path and movement similar to the first shot of Mark. This echoes the first pair more deeply.

Outside the hotel, Lewis also has echoing shots. These only have a little camera movement though. First we see Mark leave through the hotel doors, and walk from back to front of the screen in approved Lewis fashion. Then soon, Lucas does a similar back-to-front walk out the hotel doors and into the street. The Lucas shot seems especially symmetric, in its background of the hotel double doors.

All of this echoing between Mark and Lucas, underscores the dramatic similarities and parallelisms in the two scenes. It is a visual equivalent of the dramatic structure of the writing.

Earlier the gambler enters the saloon. The camera follows him, mainly through a pan. He passes behind a set of stacked chairs, serving as foreground objects. Soon, the villain enters the saloon, following a similar path.

The Rifleman: The Fourflusher

Sports Movies, Horse Racing - and links to That Gang of Mine

The Fourflusher (1960) is a story about amateur horse racing. It has story links to Lewis' "East Side Kids" movie, That Gang of Mine (1940). Both feature boys who want to take beloved horses and win the Big Race - but in both, there are reasons why they should not be doing this. And the film's plot causes them not to do this. These two Lewis works are virtually unique in Hollywood history, in that their sports-crazy underdogs do NOT go on to win the big game, or fight, or race - at least in the way they intended. And they are movies in which it turns out to be NOT the right thing To Follow Your Dream. These are definitely not Hollywood Norms. The Fourflusher reaches a more cheerful, and nearly traditional, plot resolution than That Gang of Mine, by coming up with a rousing compromise for a finale.

The way the young heroes of both That Gang of Mine and The Fourflusher have to reason slowly and grope their way towards a good course of action, different from their original plan, is typical of Lewis. It echoes the slow, complex searches for truth in his detective films.

The horse in That Gang of Mine is Blue Knight; Mark's horse in The Fourflusher is Blue Boy.

The Opening

The opening shows two compositional subjects of Lewis:

These Lewis motifs are combined together, in the opening images. There is also a shot of a covered well, a Lewis favorite.

Native Americans

Native Americans are shown as part of the communal town celebration. Lucas tells Mark about an Apache who is going to exhibit a trained bear. And one of the riders in the race wears a feathered Native American headdress.

Camera Movement

The Fourflusher is full of camera movement. Some of the more spectacular ones:

In addition, there is a pleasant use of zooms throughout the show, often done very quickly to adjust what is framed by the image.

The Race

Someone (Lewis?) stages the big race by some of the first overhead camera shots used on The Rifleman. These shots seem unusual and unconventional: horse racing is not often presented in this overhead fashion. However, it is possible that most of the horse racing sequence is stock footage, taken from another movie, not by Lewis. You usually cannot make out the specific riders, and the sets are not part of the regular sets for the show.

The start and finale of the race are unequivocally new footage however, showing the race start by the North Fork church and bank.

There is also an interesting shot of Mark riding, which looks as if it might be in slow motion. This is blended in with the racing footage. The shot of Mark suggests that racing and speed are a special form of mental experience. They are perhaps linked to the "altered states of consciousness" found throughout Lewis.

Cowboys sit on the wagon full of hay blocks, swinging their boots in excitement during the big race. This is one of the few positive images of boots and good guys in Lewis. The hay blocks add a geometrical design to their shots.

The Rifleman: Hangman

Hangman (1960) is not one of my favorite Lewis Rifleman episodes. The story is full of defeatist characters, and the plot has a morbid quality. While it is a whodunit, no one does any actual detection till Lucas finally suspects someone near the end of the episode. So it is not playing towards Lewis' skill with mystery stories. On the other hand, the tale is interesting and shot with atmospheric visual style.

The Gossip and the Hater

Hangman shares character types with Panic. Both works show the spread of bad ideas among the populace in North Fork: a near lynch mob attitude towards and accused killer in Hangman, an actual lynch mob fever against the sick in Panic. In both shows, this attitude is spread by two different character types. Each show has a gossip figure, who spreads sinister information through the public. Then this information is played upon by a hater, someone who whips the public up into a frenzy with their emotional rhetoric and public speeches. The gossip and the hater form an engine that makes the town more and more dysfunctional.

Lewis clearly regards the hater as a much worse figure than the gossip. The hater is a person of active malice. The haters are dynamically promoting trouble, and trying to make things worse. Yet it is also clear that the hater would have no information to work with, without the gossip's efforts.

The gossip's information is actually true in both shows. So these are not programs about lies or lying. Still, as Lucas says many times, it is important to "mind your own business".

Somewhat similar types show up in Shivaree. First there are people, like the woman in the wagon train, who gossip and spread information about the young couple. Then the sinister backers of the shivaree take over, stirring up the crowd, like the haters. Although in this case, the woman helps them out too - so the distinction between the gossip and the hater who whips up the crowd to a frenzy of activity is not so clear cut.


The opening is notable for combining camera movement, with some rare uses of the zoom lens in Lewis. The opening shot zooms out from a close-up of the windows. Then it pans to the left, and then zooms in on the hiding place of the money. The combination of zooms and pans gives an eerie feel. The zooming and true camera movement are separate, but combined in sequence in a single shot.

Next, we track from the bedroom, back into the living room, through a wall. And then the zooms start up again. The near continuous zooming in and out is strange. It produces a shot with almost continuous reframing. It is like the unstable shot in which Lucas holds the delirious man in Panic. That shot employed camera movement, not zooming. But in both cases, there is a depiction of an unstable world, in continuous agitation. Rehearsing this complex shot must have been tricky.


When the heroine shows up outside the Marshal's office, the camera moves over for a talk between her, the suspect and Lucas. Then the camera zooms out, and quickly pans over to a view down the sidewalk, showing gossip Joe Hannah. The shot now becomes rich in geometrical forms: signs, angular sidewalk and buildings, windows, angled posts supporting roofs, and eventually a lantern. The geometrical richness of this moving camera finale is delightful.

Inside the Marshal's office, the camera moves straight up, behind the suspect's chair. Now Lewis has a series of shots, that all are elaborately composed, full of angled regions. There are two shots in the Marshal's office, and one looking out his door. They are compositionally rich.

The Rifleman: Strange Town

In Strange Town (1960), Lucas tracks a killer back to his home town, where he is protected by the town boss, his brother.

An Unusual Town, Full of People who are Different

Lewis often shows whole towns or cities, almost making them the protagonists of his story. In Strange Town, he has a whole community that is, in fact, strange. The town is heavily ethnic, being a bit of the Old Country transported to the United States. It is unclear which ethnic group these people are precisely, but they seem strongly East European. This recalls the Hungarians of A Lady Without Passport. In both cases, Lewis' depiction of ethnicity is elaborate, flamboyant, and distinctly over the top. It is probably not realistic, and seems like one of the less accomplished sides of Lewis' work.

Also strange: despite the presence of a token female in the bar, the town seems almost entirely composed of men. Tough, strong macho men, too. Men who seem almost archetypal strong working class types, steeped in immigrant ethnicity. At times, one gets the feeling that one has wandered into a gay bar. Or perhaps a whole town full of gay men. The casting of William Schallert, a comic actor best known as Patty Duke's father on The Patty Duke Show, as the least macho Marshal in Western film history, also contributes to this effect. So does the intense relationship between the town boss and his no-good killer brother, which is between two men. It recalls the relationship between crime boss Raymond Burr and his no-good killer brother in Desperate (Anthony Mann, 1947), which also had thinly disguised gay subtexts.

Links to The Wyoming Story

Strange Town anticipates The Wyoming Story, in that both films have Lucas deputized as a lawman, leaving North Fork and going into a new town to attack the well-entrenched crooks there. Both films shows Lucas' journey through the countryside to reach the town. In both cities, the saloon and the Marshal's office are key settings.

However, Strange Town differs from The Wyoming Story in that

Combat through Strange Means - and Male Bonding

The arm wrestling contest is another one of Lewis' contests through odd weapons or approaches. Once again, such contests lead to male bonding, between the hero and a social outsider, here the town boss.

The Marshal

The Marshal is a polished henchman for a cruder crook. In this, he resembles the gangster's lawyer in The Undercover Man. Just as the lawyer is seen at a fancy table at his home, covered with fancy breakfast dishes, so does the Marshal have a desk covered with wine decanters and glasses. The lawyer's table had spiral metal work just under its surface; the Marshal's desk has fancy scroll work along its edge.

The Marshal is also a gunman, and has imagery associated with such characters in Lewis. His phony bravado is typified by his display of boots up on his desk. When he stands up, we see the rear view typical of Lewis gunslingers. At the end, he tries to cut down a man unfairly at orders from a bad guy superior, recalling a similar gambit at the end of Duel of Honor.

Peaked Roofs

The whole town is full of the peaked roofs that sometimes show up in Lewis. These are used here, as elsewhere, to include triangles in the backgrounds of the compositions.

The trip to the mountains includes a nice pan, showing Lucas moving behind tangled tree branches. The sequence also shows Lucas in a conifer forest, often a site of danger for Lewis heroes.

The mountain man Lucas encounters is seen through his well. Wells run through Lewis.

Paired Camera Movements

The camera follows Lucas outside, as he enters the saloon, passing through the covered porch. Soon, we see Lucas leaving the saloon, with a camera movement that is the reverse of the one showing the entrance. Such paired camera movements are common in Lewis. Another pair: Lucas moving around the corner, and into the Marshal's office; Lucas leaving the office.

The Rifleman: Baranca

Baranca (1960) is full of ideas, a personal and strange work of Lewis'. Not all of it is good: the subplot about the dentist is mainly annoying. But most of it is much better.

The idea of a Mexican-American avenger of crimes against poor Mexican-American farmers is an original one. It relates to the oppression of Hispanics shown in Terror in a Texas Town (1958), and Lewis' general concern for minorities and Civil Rights.

The dignified widow is one of many Lewis characters who refuse to speak up, and tell what they know. She is a bit like the Italian witnesses in The Undercover Man and The Fat Man, who intially keep silent about mob activities they have seen.

Transition to Manhood

The dentist sequence does portray a transition to manhood, with Mark losing the last of his baby teeth. In this it resembles the scene in The Jolson Story in which the hero gets his adult singing voice. It also recalls the doctor's office sequence in The Silver Bullet.

The Missing Motive

Why exactly does the opening murder take place? I don't think the film ever clearly explains this. The murder, with the victim's house also being burned, looks a lot like the "reigns of terror" by bad guys that run through Lewis. In Terror in a Texas Town, for example, the wealthy villain wants to burn honest ranchers out of town, so he can seize their land. It is possible that the murder/ranch burning in Baranca has a similar motive - but if it does, the film never quite shows it.

What is made clear, is that the killers in Baranca have a vicious race hatred against Mexicans - something the film condemns. But it is unclear whether this hatred is the sole cause of the murder, or one of a series of contributing factors, that might also include financial gain.

Composition: Spirals

The shots through the bed frame after the fire, show spirals in the metal work, like shots in Eddie's Daughter. Here Lewis actually shoots through the spirals, superimposing them on the view behind them. This is similar to Robert Aldrich's approach in World for Ransom (1954).


The heroine kneels down by her husband's body: one of many kneeling figures in Lewis at a time of crisis. Fire is seen behind her.

The killers are first seen from the rear: a favorite Lewis angle for gunslingers. Later, Baranca will also be seen from the back.

The first shot of Baranca riding in to town is a moving camera view, seen through a window: a favorite Lewis staging.


Robert B. Harris does a spectacular job with Baranca's all-black costume - he really looks imposing. He easily outclasses the racist crooks who think they're hot stuff in town. Baranca looks like a figure out of one of Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns - which will not be made for another four years! Baranca looks unique in films leading up to 1960, as far as I can tell. His macho stubble of black beard seems utterly atypical of the clean-shaven Eisenhower era, and years ahead of its time. All-black clothes had previously been worn by Claude Akins in The Safe Guard. Here they are worn by a man who male bonds with Lucas: a change of pace with the all-white clothes Lewis more typically favors.

A Good Camera Movement and Botched Zoom

When Lucas and Mark leave the dentist's, there is an interesting long take shot. After a conversation in front of the dentist's, the camera circles around gracefully to follow Lucas over to the Marshal's. Such a tight curve is unusual in camera turns. Then the camera zooms in to close-ups of Lucas and the Marshal's heads. There are a number of zooms here, and one is not quite right, and doesn't frame the Marshal quite properly, who is slightly out of frame. This is eventually corrected. It is odd to see something like this in a skillful Hollywood production. Especially after a good camera movement in the same shot.

The Duel

The fist fight "duel" that Baranca and Lucas fight echoes the earlier Duel of Honor. Both star the same actor, Cesare Danova, and both involve men taking turns in attacking their opponent, in a highly ritualized and rule-based encounter. However, this duel is not as entertaining. In Duel of Honor, Lucas and Danova's Count had been friends and allies; here they are fighting each other. Both of the duels in Duel of Honor and Baranca echo the one in Terror in a Texas Town, in that they are fought with unusual, off-trail weapons and approaches. But both are more comic than that film's grim finale.

Lewis unleashes camera movement in key shots. The duel sequence starts out with fixed tableaux, whose stillness is filled with tension. Then when Lucas enters the circle of Baranca's armed men, the camera tracks along with Lucas. It shows him entering into a charmed circle. We get more fixed shots. Then when the widow enters dramatically to give her testimony against her husband's killers, her entrance path into the circle is tracked by a nearly identical camera movement, echoing the first.

Her testimony is followed by a brief discussion in which more of the truth comes out, detective story fashion. Lewis loves such detection.

The fight itself is staged so that the various blows are followed by different moving camera shots. This gives them extra punch.

The duel exemplifies one of Roger Ebert's list of "overworked clichés and laws of Hollywood screenwriting": the one about two enemies who have a knock-down, drag-out fist fight, that ends in a draw, with the two macho men now discovering that they are friends for life. Lewis himself used this situation before, in Pride of the Bowery, although not so directly as in Baranca. In both Lewis films, the fighting is actually a form of boxing, which raises the stakes a little. This whole situation is one of the few ways that homoerotic feelings could be brought into American films of the era. And it has a certain psychological truth, in that a bit of sparring can indeed unleash feelings of friendship and attraction. The acting by both Danova and Connors is quite good, with both men smiling a lot and showing they are clearly enjoying their battle.

And the after-battle shots are staged so that both men's body movements are in sync. They walk down the street together, underscored by a moving camera, that recedes before them. Then they jump aside in unison after the shooting starts, in one of the more inspired action shots in TV history. The new rapport between the two men is signaled visually by their common body movements. It suggests how much the two men are enjoying their new relationship. It's bonding at the level of the body. (Earlier, when the two killers walk into the saloon, their movements also seem sychronized.)

This leads to the final shoot-out. This is staged in a series of shots, most of which have some sort of camera movement. It is like a small scale version of the finale of A Lawless Street, one of those Lewis sequences that work together like a delightful kinetic machine.

During the finale, the killer is heard as an off-screen voice. And the stable at the end is full of hay.

The Rifleman: The Martinet

The Martinet (1960) combines the Lewis theme of insidious military discipline, with the Lewis subject of child abuse.

Long Takes

The opening, in a room in St. Louis, is shot all in one take. The room includes one of the black leather chairs associated with good guys on The Rifleman: later, we see both Lucas and the Marshal in their own familiar chairs. The room has cut glass prisms, hanging from a lamp on the wall. This room is one of the few non-Western sequences, anywhere in The Rifleman.

When son Ben Perry shows up at the ranch, he is introduced in a long take sequence. First Lucas hears horse sounds outside - a typical Lewis introduction of a character through sinister off-screen sounds. Lucas opens the door, and there by magic Ben Perry materializes. Ben is seen both through the door, and pillars on the porch: an example of the two-level deep staging through doors sometimes seen in Lewis. Ben enters, and the long take continues with Lucas and Ben moving around the living room, and arriving at the fireplace.

Ben is seated in a chair, whose fabric forms a rectilinear grid behind him. Such grids recur in Lewis.

Staging through a Window

When Ben arrives in North Fork, he is shown looking into a window near the hotel, at night. We see out through the window, which divides the North Fork cityscape into an upper and lower region, by the horizontal bar in the midst of the window. Lewis had used diagonally fanning bars in The Trade and The Deadly Wait. This horizontal bar view is new and unusual. It gives Lewis a unique view and composition containing the otherwise familiar North Fork hotel.

Ben seems to be staring into the window, as in a mirror (it is night), arranging his clothes and grooming. Lewis good guys like mirrors, and frequently groom themselves in them, including Lucas at his ranch. This is a contrast to the way mirrors seem to be sinister in Fritz Lang, and much of film noir.

The Rifleman: Miss Milly


Miss Milly (1960) introduces the storekeeper who will be Lucas' girlfriend throughout seasons 3 and 4 of The Rifleman. However, she is presented in an unsympathetic light in her debut, which mainly focuses on her allegedly rotten decision to try to collect on debts her customers owe her. There is little romance here: the story is all about economics. And dubious economics at that. Why is it immoral for a business person to try to collect a debt from a middle class customer who can afford to pay it? And why should Lucas be teaching his son that it is simply good business practice for a customer not to pay his debts until forced to? At the end, Milly bitterly regrets her decision to collect debt, in scenes that recall the moll of mobster Mr. Brown in The Big Combo regretting her evil association with this monster. It is all way overboard.

There are some personal economic ideas that traditionally interest Lewis in all this. The store has a monopoly on the supply business in the region, and the crooked collection agents try to exploit that monopoly. Lewis has made several films about big rich crooks who try to create monopolies. Here, some smaller scale crooks try to exploit a similar choke point on a town.

And Lucas explains his belief that the store and Miss Milly should carry everyone's debt in town, by calling this arrangement "mutual trust". Mutual aid is a major theme of several Lewis works, such as Terror in a Texas Town. It is doubtful, however, whether the debt arrangement with the store advocated by Lucas is a genuine example of mutual aid, despite the dialogue here.

Camera movement

The scene where the crook sells his services as a collection agent to Miss Milly is staged as one long take. Lewis is constantly making small moves and re-framings with the camera, in an intricate dance that includes both characters moving around the store. In the background, is the street of North Fork, seen through the door. At the end of the shot, the crook walks deep into the background, across the street: another depth staging move from foreground to background in Lewis.

The Rifleman: Flowers by the Door

Flowers by the Door (1961) is a serial killer story. It is pretty dismal. A few typical Lewis touches are scattered throughout.


Everyone keeps discovering things, through clues of the seed packets: first Lucas, then the heroine, and finally the killer himself. This is a rudimentary form of the detection that runs through much of Lewis.

There is some discussion of tracking, also a kind of detective work. Mark says proudly of his father's skills, "Pa can track an ant through a cornfield." This is a terrific line of dialogue.

Lewis subjects

The heroine is held captive in her home. And nearly murdered at night - both Lewis subjects.

Mark makes butter, and serves it to another man. The heroine cooks at a stove. She and Lucas have coffee.

Lots of people take an interest in reading. There is talk of building a library in North Fork: an example of Lewis' interest in building public infrastructure.

Mark expresses alert interest in hearing about the Trojan War. This is a simple instance of the Lewis theme of the appeal of militarism.

Camera Movement

There is a small but distinct vertical camera movement, up Mark and the butter churn.

The killer and a woman he is stalking make a complex path through her living room, and the camera moves along with them. It somewhat resembles a bit one of Lewis' tracks of characters walking around a table - although we cannot see whether any table is at the center of their path.

When Lucas rides up to the house, we see him through the window. There is a small camera movement, not very creative, combined with this.


The killer is introduced as an off-screen voice, like many Lewis menaces. Later, a suspense sequence has the heroine hearing faint sounds of the killer off screen.

We see the house and barn, through a tree - but not the standard overhanging tree branch of Lewis. And the house and barn have their peaked roofs mainly concealed - also atypical.

The blowing curtain at the open window when the killer breaks in, recalls the blowing curtains in the opening murder sequence of The Hangman.

There are spiral ornaments on the stove - an unusual place for spiral metalwork in Lewis. We don't see this till nearly the end.

The Rifleman: The Actress

Men and Women

The Actress (1961) is a frustrating look at male-female relationships. If those in The Visitor had been over-sweet, here we have swung to the other extreme, with a cynical look at a "bad girl" who exploits men for sex and money. In fact, she is such a Delilah that it is hard to like the story. It is also hard to see her character has any psychological consistency. Still, the heroine's cravings can be seen as making her another one of Lewis' characters consumed with desires for non-standard sexuality.

The heroine's desertion of her husband in the hotel, links her to many Lewis characters who run away from home.

The hero is one of many Lewis characters who suffer from injury from animals, here horses.

The City - and the paired camera movements

The town of Willow Springs is the most beautiful part of the film. It has two cross streets meeting at a corner, in a pattern familiar in Lewis: one street recedes into the distance, straight back from the viewer and camera; a perpendicular side street branches off to the right. The hero rides in on the side street, then turns the corner. When he leaves, he follows the reverse path, the camera moving with him. This is the same pattern of streets and character movements as Boss of Hangtown Mesa and The Wyoming Story.

The first shot also contains a moving truck loaded with hay, recalling a similar truck in The Fourflusher. Lucas makes an almost magical appearance, when the hay truck passes on, revealing him behind it.

The reverse shot is a pan. After the camera stops moving, we see Lucas and the heroine ride to the extreme background of the shot, in the Lewis manner.

Both shots show the complex geometrical patterns, made by the overhanging porches, porticoes, and second story facades of Willow Springs.

More paired camera movements

The journey to Willow Springs is shown is a series of shots, mainly pans, that proceed through several locales. Most include overarching tree branches. Two of these locales are shown in reverse order on the journey back to North Fork. And the first locale is shot with a pan that reverses direction from the pan on the earlier journey.

The epilogue in North Fork also has a pair of camera movements. The first moves down the street, then shows Lucas and Mark entering at the end of street from the hotel. Later, a reverse movement shows them leaving. The two camera movements follow the same path, in reverse. Both Lucas and Mark only ride along this path in the second shot. Both shots involve a glowing lantern in the foreground of the movement, in the Lewis manner.

The Hotel

The entrance to the bar at the hotel has a wooden valence, with vertical bands filled with spheres. This resembles a bit the hanging, beaded curtains that run through Lewis.

The heroine stands near a candelabra. Also, the hotel lobby is full of lamps with hanging cut glass prisms. Many of the hotel shots include circular and curvilinear forms.

Camera Movement Through Walls

The first shot inside the hotel moves through walls, from the lobby to the bar.

Off Screen Voices

After Lucas leaves the death room, he is accosted twice by off-screen voices: first by the nurse, then the laughter of the heroine. Such voices are often menacing in Lewis. Here they arrest the hero, and bring him strange news, then derisive commentary.

The Rifleman: Face of Yesterday

Face of Yesterday (1961) is a genuinely anti-war film. It looks at the high human cost of war. It differs from other episodes of The Rifleman in that it is not about the insidious appeal of militaristic lifestyles. Rather, it is about war itself.

If Face of Yesterday does not delve into the appeal of militarism, it does look at militarism's twin in Lewis, the gun cult. Here a stepfather constantly goads his stepson into gun fights. It is a sinister new twist on the gun cult that runs throughout Lewis' films.

Face of Yesterday is one of Lewis' most powerful and surprising works. The reader is strongly urged to see it, before reading the following discussion. There might be spoilers ahead.


The young man is played by Ben Cooper, known to auteurists for his role as Turkey in Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954).

His stepfather is John Anderson, wearing the old-age makeup he often sported on The Rifleman. One can see the "young" John Anderson, playing his own age, as the suave, handsome villain of The Patsy. At any age, Anderson's characters on The Rifleman tend to be insidious villains, who specialize in men who try to talk other characters into activities that will be bad for them. Often times, this is the gun cult, like here and in Day of the Hunter (1960).

Long Takes

The initial confrontation between Lucas and the stepfather is staged as a long take, near the doorway of the general store. It is frequently broken up with inserts, showing the reaction of Milly. This establishes Lucas' character as macho tough guy. It seems a bit exaggerated, but it is needed for later contrast.

A pure, unbroken long take involves stepfather and stepson coming out of the saloon, right after Lucas goes to Mrs. Lee's. The saloon scene is full of small camera movements, that follow the characters' progress. It is also full of static passages, as the characters talk to each other. It is a neat example of Lewis' complex camera movement and long take staging, eventually involving each man in turn getting on his horse and riding off.

Hidden Truth comes out

Truth first emerges when Lucas sees the young man's face. Up to this point, both Lucas and the man have been facing the same direction, and Lucas has been talking without looking at the man. This is a Lewis tradition. But here, such conversations in which both are facing the same way are worked right into the plot, setting up Lucas' change when he first turns to look at the character. (This scene also includes shots from both sides of North Fork's street, as in Panic, in apparent violation of the 180 degree rule.)

When Lucas goes back to his ranch, there is an elaborate shot of his face through the lace curtain on the door. This recalls the grillwork through which Lewis shoots in some shots in The Big Combo. The lace itself has a rectilinear grillwork pattern, in addition to many more complicated figures worked into it. The shot seems to suggest that Lucas is experiencing some unusual mental state.

It is inside the ranch that the most important revelations occur, immediately next.

Truth often emerges in Lewis under altered states of consciousness, especially delirium or sleep. Here, truth emerges under extreme emotion, leading to an almost trance-like state. And the person under the emotional storm here is Lucas, perhaps the last person one would expect. As in the later The Big Valley: Night of the Wolf (1965), it is the apparently macho man protagonist that undergoes the emotional breakdown that leads to hidden truth. Neither show is easy to watch.

Here, Lewis locks his hero and Micah (and the viewer) into a tight close-up, that goes on in a series of prolonged takes. Lucas and Micah do not look at each other while talking, also a feature found in some Lewis conversations. However, both are facing the camera while speaking. The beginning shot shows Lucas moving from the door, dropping down, and positioning himself in front of the chest, one of Lewis' foreground objects. Then the camera moves in even closer. There are a number of cuts, but most of the takes are still quite long and intense, still forming the very tight close-ups of Lucas and or Micah. The final shot slowly reverses the opening shot, with Lucas getting up from the chest, and moving back to the door. The two shots thus cover the same ground, although they are not exact mirror images of each other.

A photograph also plays a role in revealing truth, as in The Big Combo.

Back from the dead

When Lucas first sees the young man, Lucas thinks it is the young man's dead father come back to life. This recalls Invisible Ghost, in which the dead man's brother is mistaken for him, and everyone thinks the dead man has come to life. In both films, the other characters stop and give prolonged amazed looks at what they think they are seeing.


Inside the farm house, Lewis includes a panorama, showing the room as a whole. This creates an elaborate composition, out of the room's furnishings. A similar room-composition occurs in the farm house in Old Tony.

In later shots, the foyer of the house forms an alcove behind the woman's head.

And we see the hanging curtains made up of multiple straight lines that are a Lewis staple. Maybe I have just failed to notice them in other films, but these seem to be the first such curtains in Lewis since The Last Stand (1938). From this point on, such curtains will recur in both Rifleman and non-Rifleman Lewis TV episodes.

Outside, leading up to the climactic shoot-out, there is hay by the barn. The barn has a peaked roof - although its solitary peak is simpler that the multi-peaked roofs common in Lewis.

The Rifleman: The Wyoming Story

The Wyoming Story (1961) is a two-part episode, around 47 minutes in total. It combines and cross-cuts between two different stories. One shows Lucas leaving Mark alone in North Fork; the other has Lucas going undercover as a law officer in a Wyoming town.

A New Town

The small city of La Mesa, Wyoming is another of Lewis' towns. We see an elaborate set, and a number of the denizens, although it never quite builds up into a full scale town portrait in the Lewis tradition. Camera movements explore the town, as Lucas rides into it - and in a matching shot at the end, where Lucas rides out. Both the path taken by Lucas at the end, and the camera movement, are direct reverses of the shot showing his entrance into the town. Such paired sequences, working in reverse, are a Lewis tradition.

La Mesa has a street plan that runs through Lewis' work: one receding street running into the background, one street perpendicular to the right. Similar street arrangements appear in the Western towns in Boss of Hangtown Mesa, The Actress, The Vindicators, Night of the Wolf. They are also seen in the English village in My Name Is Julia Ross, the US Marine Camp Pendleton in Retreat, Hell!, and the entrance to Santa Monica Pier in The Fat Man.

The town has a precise geography: on one side of the receding street, the Marshal's office; on the other, 1) the saloon, 2) the Hotel La Mesa where Lucas stays, 3) then finally the La Mesa Trading Post run by the bad guy. The La Mesa Marshal's office has a side door, far back on its left hand side, like the bank in North Fork in Surveyors, and the North Fork General Store in Heller and Sheer Terror. All of these recall the sister's house in Gun Crazy, which similarly has both a main front door, and a side door on the far left side.

At one point, we see the other side of the street reflected in the Trading Post window: a true noir visual, reminiscent of Fritz Lang. Most of the buildings have gigantic two-story facades, which are often seen in deep-focus shots, which also show close-ups of the characters on the other side of the street. Such deep focus is also a noir tradition, as well as being frequent in Lewis' work.

The portico in front of the Trading Post has slat-like holes in its roof: roof holes pop up elsewhere in Lewis.

The episode Lewis directed before The Wyoming Story, Face of Yesterday, opens with an overhead shot of a town. It is supposed to be North Fork - but it is not. Instead, it looks like La Mesa. It gives a different view of the town than any we see in The Wyoming Story, with the saloon, hotel and trading post being on the left hand side of the street.

And an old town

Similarly, the progress of the epidemic through North Fork is shown affecting the entire town. The eerie sight of boarded-up businesses tells a collective story of economic disaster for all. The town veterinarian's office is right next door to the Marshal's: so it furnishes a reminder of the epidemic events during the street scenes. Lewis stages as much of the action on the North Fork sidewalks as possible. And there are some cuts that go from the sidewalks in North Fork to those in La Mesa.

A Film noir

The Wyoming part of the film seems like a homage to film noir. It incorporates many ideas from famous noir films, including works directed by people other than Lewis. It is distinctly urban in feel, like most noir. Lucas is pretending to be a bad guy, so he can infiltrate the crooks: like T-Men (Anthony Mann, 1947), The Street With No Name (William Keighley, 1948).

Lucas cannot tell his loved ones about his assignment, as in T-Men and I Was a Communist for the FBI (Gordon Douglas, 1951), which causes considerable pain for them. There is an eerie, night-time shot, in front of the McCain ranch, in which Lucas and Mark have a fight over Lucas' refusal to explain what is going on. This shot combines both exteriors, and interiors of the McCain home. It is strikingly composed. It emphasizes a mixture of darkness, and sources of light - a bit like the high contrast photography of noir films. There are also some striking noir visuals of the streets of La Mesa at night, lit up by a few bright patches of light. Beautifully composed nocturnal cityscapes showing geometric street lamps run through both Lewis' Westerns and his noir thrillers.

The action takes place in a corrupt town run by a crooked boss: like The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953). The mobster's henchman here is played by Chris Alcaide, who was the mob boss' bodyguard George in The Big Heat. Alcaide is made up with a huge scar on one side of his face, recalling imagery from The Big Heat. Alcaide was a regular on The Rifleman, usually playing villains, and typically with a mustache in his non-Lewis episodes, and mustache-less in his Lewis ones. Here in The Wyoming Story he is clean shaven, making him both more handsome, and much more similar looking to his character in The Big Heat. The Wyoming Story also has a moll who works for the bad guys, but who eventually tries to help the hero, just like Gloria Grahame's character in The Big Heat. As in The Big Heat, the moll appreciates being treated like a "lady" by the hero.

Truth emerging

The Wyoming Story has truth slowly coming out, in a way that at first recalls many other Lewis films. But there is a disturbing difference here. In The Wyoming Story, it is the bad guys who slowly learn the truth about Lucas and his undercover work. In most Lewis films, it is a good guy detective hero whose reasoning uncovers truth, which is depicted as a Good Thing. Here, every new person who learns more about Lucas' true identity is a menace to the hero. The truth partly comes out from the babblings of the town drunk, and partly from overheard scraps of information: both typical of Lewis and how truth emerges in his films.

An Undercover Role: Pretending to be a Bad Guy

Hero Lucas gets to do things in his undercover role that are typically only associated with bad guys in Lewis. Lucas is confident and boastful, like the confident, suave Mr. Brown in The Big Combo. Lucas gets to flirt confidently with the heroine, too, also like Mr. Brown. He also winds up tying up the heroine, taking her as a prisoner at home, like numerous Lewis villains. Lewis is careful not to overplay any of this.

It is unclear if any of this is gratifying to Lucas. Or whether he is only doing it as a part of his undercover role. In The Big Combo, Mr. Brown tells the hero "You really want to be me". Here, a Lewis hero takes on the attitudes and swagger of a Lewis villain.

Here in The Wyoming Story, the villain tells undercover Lucas that his henchman Chris Alcaide is "a man a lot like you". Once again, this suggests that villains are a spiritual double for the hero.

Lucas constructs an artificial image for himself, like the heroes of A Lady Without Passport and A Lawless Street. It is a contrast with his usual "be yourself" personality.

An early shot perhaps prefigures Lucas' role as a bad guy. When Lucas talks with the Marshal near the start, he swings his boots. This is a gesture usually associated with Lewis bad guys, displaying phony bravado.


Head villain McKee is suave like many Lewis villains. But he only has one henchman (Chris Alcaide), rather than the usual two in Lewis.

Both the moll and the town drunk talk to each other throughout the show. In some ways, this pair of sympathetic, two-bit low lifes on the fringe of the action resemble Fante and Mingo in The Big Combo, although neither is a crook or a henchman. They are always discussing things together, like a Greek chorus.

The drunk is played by Dabs Greer, who will play even less functioning alcoholics in Boomerang and The Stand-In. These characters embody Lewis' on-going warnings about the dangers of alcoholism.


Costume designer Robert B. Harris has a new outfit for Lucas, as befitting his new role. It is tougher looking, like something that might plausibly be worn by a bad guy. It is still light in color, like a Western hero, however, although it is far from white.

The dark-colored bad guy look is reserved for Chris Alcaide, one of several black vest outfits worn by gunslingers throughout The Rifleman. (A comically exaggerated one is found in the non-Lewis episode The Clarence Bibs Story (1961), where the fancy black leather clothes are worn by a menacing gunslinger known as Pretty Man Longden. This tongue-in-cheek story is a lot of fun.) It will not be till The Big Valley that Harris puts good guy Nick Barkley (Peter Breck) in this sort of leather vest look.


The bad guys' saloon has a wheel-of-fortune, like The Silver Bullet. This associates them with gambling, something always seen by Lewis as evil.

The bad guys' trading post does a brisk business in buying animal skins. This is perhaps an example of the anti-hunting theme that runs through Lewis.

The saloon also has that Lewis favorite, a chandelier with cut glass prisms. Lewis frequently frames his characters so that either the chandelier or the wheel-of-fortune is behind them. This fills the saloon sequences with circular imagery. By contrast, the Marshal's office seems largely rectilinear.

The heroine wears shiny earrings, that echo the prisms hanging from the chandelier.

The villain's office has an alcove in its back: one of many such architectural constructions in Lewis. Camera movements go right through walls in this office: a Lewis tradition.


There are spirals at the top of the bed head in Lucas' hotel room. They are seen at the end of Part I, when Lucas is there, thinking about Mark.


The opening of The Wyoming Story has hoof-and-mouth disease wiping out the cattle in North Fork, bankrupting Lucas and everyone else in town. This is Lucas' motivation for accepting the undercover law officer job. Disease from animals is common in Lewis' films, including The Pet episode of The Rifleman, and The Big Valley: Night of the Wolf (1965). Humans do not catch the illness here, however, which is atypical for Lewis.

The Rifleman: Closer Than a Brother

Closer Than a Brother (1961) is an odd mix of subplots. The plots do not all connect up, and they have a jarring mix of tones and attitudes. Still, the show is enjoyable as a whole. The plots include:

  1. Marshal Micah getting angry at the way Lucas always bails him out of trouble, and chewing Lucas out
  2. Lucas' feelings of friendship towards Micah
  3. Facing up to a fearsome bad guy
  4. Lucas hiring a combination butler and ranch foreman to run his ranch.

Plot 1 (Micah finally resenting Lucas' assistance) is comic Camp. Lucas being needed to help out an unintimidating Marshal is a premise of the whole Rifleman series. It's an absurd situation in the first place: why would a town hire a Marshal who always needs help from a civilian volunteer? It's something the viewer just has to accept to enjoy The Rifleman. Micah gets to ham it up to the hilt in expostulating over the situation, which adds to what seems to be a deliberately campy tone. It's as if the series were parodying itself.

Plot 2 (Lucas' male bonding with Micah) is some of the most explicit male bonding anywhere in Lewis. Lucas says a lot of emotional things, about his feelings for Micah. Unfortunately, he never gets to say them to Micah, and the bonding here is all one sided. Still, this is an interesting piece of personal expression for Lewis, and it is played with emotional sincerity, unlike the campy goings on in Plot 1.

Plot 3 (facing up to fear) is an endlessly repeated theme in American entertainment of the day. It also shows up in That Gang of Mine and Long Gun from Tucson.

Plot 4 (hiring a black man to run Lucas' house and ranch) is also a strange mix of attitudes. Having a black man be full of ranching skills is a progressive, even radical, idea in Westerns of the period. But the man also is a traditional house servant, who talks less like the many white ranch foremen in Westerns of the era, and more like a respectful servant. It's a strange mix of Civil Rights progressivism, and traditional screen roles for blacks. Still, the character is dignified throughout, depicted as intelligent and insightful, and viewed as a source of moral wisdom.

Architecture: A New Town

Lucas journeys to a neighboring town of Dillsville. We see the town's main street, which is full of peaked roofs, in the Lewis tradition. We also go inside its saloon, and see another peaked roof building through one of the saloon's windows.

The Rifleman: The Prisoner

The Prisoner (1961) is another anti-war episode of The Rifleman. It starts out with some comments on the sinister appeal of militarism, with the two visitors to North Fork still stuck in militaristic roles fifteen years after the end of the Civil War. In this it recalls Panic, which also has a villain who cannot give up militarism long after the war. And it recalls Lewis' deep dive into the down side of military discipline in The Deserter and The Martinet. Lewis opens The Prisoner with a close-up of one of the visitor's military boots, recalling a similar close-up in The Martinet.

However, the look at militarism is just an opening gambit here. The Prisoner soon looks at the ugly side of war itself.

Many characters in Lewis areheld prisoner, in a domestic context. Here it is Lucas' turn.

The talk about looking up and seeing the stars anticipates Waste, where the wounded Micah sees the stars through holes in the roof of the ruined building.

The Obsessed

The two visitors are obsessed with their horrible experiences fifteen years before in a Civil War prison. Lewis characters are often obsessed - about guns, sex, alcohol or some other addiction. Quite a few Lewis characters are also devastated by the loss of a loved one, either through desertion or death. These can be seen as obsessed with the past, but also as characters who simply miss their wives or parents.

The two pursue their demented goals, with the same gung ho enthusiasm the couple in Gun Crazy followed their gun obsession.

Joined Exteriors and Interiors

In the opening North Fork scenes, we see all the way from the street into the back of the saloon. The interior is more dimly lit than the street, which is realistic, but also a bit atypical of deep focus scenes in movies.

Sometimes we see the characters move from the back towards the front of the screen - for example, when leaving the saloon and crossing the street. However, these are not the extreme movements one often finds in Lewis. Lewis tends to cut away here before the characters have walked to the foreground of the image.

The climactic image of the film, shows the interior of the cage, looking out through the door to the scene outside. This combined interior-exterior recalls the opening shot through the store window in Gun Crazy, which also shows the street outside the window.

Camera Movement

Mark's search of the looted ranch is staged as one long take. It is entirely in the dark. The darkness and the mess of strewn about objects transform a familiar locale, showing it in a new way. Lewis was always on the lookout for such new perspectives in his scenes.

Mark's ride into North Fork is a well-composed pan, showing regions of light and darkness in the street of North Fork. The pan moves from one light, to another. It recalls nocturnal cityscapes in The Deadly Wait and The Wyoming Story. The way the shot ends in a light, recalls the daytime pan in Hangman which ends on a highly geometric lantern.

The Rifleman: The Vaqueros

The Vaqueros (1961) is another "Lucas in trouble, over-powered by crooks" episode, like its contemporaries The Prisoner and The Stand-In. Here, Lucas is captured by a gang of sadistic Mexican bandits. I'm not comfortable with these cliché bandit characters, who verge on stereotypes. Lucas eventually escapes, and meets some Good Mexicans. This seems to be designed to balance out the bandits, and avoid stereotyping any nationality. All the same, one could have done without these bandits entirely, and The Vaqueros is hardly one of the better Rifleman shows. Lewis had been so good at creating non-stereotyped Mexican characters in Terror in a Texas Town and Baranca. The Vaqueros is way below those films in quality and thoughtfulness of its depictions. Also unfortunate: a similar gang of Mexican bandits shows up in Waste, where their nastiness is pushed to even further extremes.

The Vaqueros is the start of the 4th season of The Rifleman. The 4th and 5th seasons have Lewis episodes with generally less substance than his first three season shows.

Lucas is injured, and collapses in the street. This is a recurring theme in Lewis.

Visual Style

The opening moving camera shot of marching feet echoes Lewis traditions.

Lewis pans from the town, right to an arch. Through the arch, and through a porch beyond, we see the entrance to the cantina in the deep background. This is an example of three-level deep staging through doors.

Lewis gets some decent effects, from shooting through a bead-curtained doorway. The hanging strings of beads function much like the bars and grillwork through which Lewis shoots elsewhere. With the difference, that the strings of beads can move, too. The first shot through the curtains show the strings close together, creating a striking moiré like effect.

When Mark and Lucas are reunited, Mark runs from the background of the image, to the front.


In the town, the men wear white clothes, and the women wear black. These colors have nothing to do with the good guy / bad guy-gunslinger color symbolism that runs through the rest of Lewis. These group colors emphasize the group thinking of these people, something once again criticized by Lewis. They are as resistant to helping the injured hero, as were the townspeople in North Fork in Panic. The heroine has to defy them, just as previous good guys defied mass opinion in North Fork.

Between her veil and her ritualistic style of speaking, the elderly woman here bears an eerie resemblance to the one in Gabbeh (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996).

Lucas' ordeal is shown in part, by having his normally well-kempt hair messed up. A similar strategy will soon recur in The Stand-In. During the shot in which Lucas finally gets his rifle back, his new hair style makes him look like the later TV star Bruce Boxleitner.

The Rifleman: Sheer Terror

Sheer Terror (1961) is a minor but enjoyable episode. It reworks Lewis subjects so faithfully that it looks as if it were made up by an auteurist computer program. Milly the storekeeper is held hostage in her home - now there's a new plot for Lewis! The villain is a suave, sophisticated man, whose orders are obeyed by a thug-like henchman (no!). At least, I was thinking, there is only one henchman here - usually Lewis has two. Maybe the series has budget problems, and they're economizing on cast. Half-way through the show, a second henchman shows up! "He made it, right on time," the suave villain says. Next, I began wondering, if Lucas will figure out something is wrong through detective work - and he promptly does!

Despite its title, Sheer Terror is mercifully free of brutality or nastiness. Instead the focus is on some mild suspense. It makes for a surprisingly entertaining show. The suave villain is genuinely more interested in pulling off a big-bucks stage coach robbery than in harming anyone, and it's hard not to get caught up in this old-fashioned crime thriller. His performance seems modeled on George Macready's in Lewis features. His young henchman looks as if he were more interested in guest starring on national TV than in harming anyone either. Especially since he gets to wear what looks like a recycled version of Adam West's glamorous all-black desperado's outfit from the recent Stopover (1961), the only Rifleman episode directed by Budd Boetticher. The other henchman gets to disguise himself as a buffalo hunter, a pleasant bit of intrigue.

Camera Movement

Lewis has some good shots, in the scenes in which Lucas and the Marshal patrol the streets of North Fork. (OK - So North Fork only has one street!) Some of these are slightly elevated, overhead views, that turn the cityscape into a geometric design.

The best camera movement shows Lucas passing through the posts in front of the saloon. The camera then stops, and shows a well-composed perspective shot down the saloon portico. In the background of the shot, the buffalo hunter makes his entrance on horseback. Then the camera reverses itself, and moves back out through the posts again. Dramatic entrances of characters through in-depth staging through doors and porches is a Lewis trademark. So is moving through posts.

The shot that introduces the villain shows Milly's face passing behind a glass lamp. Soon, there is a static shot featuring the lamp, too.

Inside the store, there is an early camera movement, shooting through foreground objects, while Milly talks to the woman customer.

The re-union at the end has Mark and Milly in the foreground, moving all the way towards the back of the image to Lucas.

Continuity with previous episodes

This is banker Mr. Hamilton's last appearance in a Lewis-directed episode, and maybe in The Rifleman as a whole. He is a good character, who was introduced in a Lewis show, and his presence is missed later.

The episode remembers that there is an alley next to the store, with a side entrance to the store near the back of the alley. This alley was last seen near the start of Heller, where it was also used as part of a crime-suspense sequence. Some nice shots move around the corner of the store building.

A shot shows medicine-man Colonel Sims' wagon in the street, a character shown only in Hangman. One wonders if this is stock footage, left over from that previous show, re-used here.

This episode has some of the most convincing romance between Lucas and Milly, served up low key and in small doses.

The non-Lewis Western The Fastest Gun Alive (Russell Rouse, 1956) has its shop keeper hero in a store that looks rather like Milly's here. What's more, we see shop's store-room, and it also looks like Milly's store-room. Milly's store-room appears only in this episode Sheer Terror, of all the Rifleman shows I've seen, and was presumably created as a set for Sheer Terror.

The Rifleman: The Stand-In

The Stand-In (1961) is not a good film. It is discussed here briefly because it has thematic links with Lewis' work.

Hostages: Links to The Prisoner and My Name Is Julia Ross

This story seems like a reworking of The Prisoner. Once again, we have two men who hold Lucas captive, and once again, Lucas is put into a cage. Here, we have an added twist, in that the two men try to force Lucas into a new identity. This makes the situation identical to that of My Name Is Julia Ross: a hostage being forced to take on a new identity, as part of a nefarious scheme.

It is startling to see a male hero in the same sort of jeopardy endured by the heroine of My Name Is Julia Ross. One wishes they had called this episode My Name Is Lucas McCain. Julia Ross had been no stereotyped shrinking violet or screaming, fainting woman, however. She showed admirable courage, intelligence and initiative, doing detective work to learn what was going on, and plotting her own escape. Still, it is rare to see a tough macho man like Chuck Connors, in a role that Hollywood often ascribes to women. There are so many "women in jeopardy" TV movies that Hollywood has a slang term for them, "jeps".

Despite the fact that this story reflects Lewis personal traditions, it just does not seem very good. It lacks the commentary on militarism and war found in The Prisoner. In fact, the story seems meaningless. And the film seems simply unpleasantly brutal.


The male villain of My Name Is Julia Ross had been rendered dysfunctional by his disturbed obsession with knives. Here, the villains' problems are caused by their acute alcoholism. This is perhaps the most extreme portrait of and warning about the negative effects of alcoholism in Lewis' work.

The Military

The villains are in uniform, and they are employed by the US Army. This is another suggestion in Lewis that the military can be deeply dysfunctional, and lead to disaster.

Detective Work

Mark and the Marshal do a bit of detective work, tracking down what has happened to Lucas. Mark had previously taken on the role of detective in Surveyors, and in some non-Lewis episodes of The Rifleman. Once again, Lewis detectives have to piece together hard-to-find clues: detection is always a struggle in Lewis. In My Name Is Julia Ross, the heroine's friends on the outside also do detective work, trying to track her down.

This story is also like Surveyors, in that the audience already knows the truth, and watches Mark reason it out.

Camera Movement

When Mark rides up to the ranch, first we see him through one door of the barn, then the camera pans inside the barn, till we see Mark riding outside through a second door. It is an example of Lewis staging through doors, and linking interiors and exteriors.

Wagon Wheel

Lewis shoots hero Lucas through a spinning wagon wheel, on which Lucas is working. It is striking and beautiful. We also see Lucas through the stopped wheel.

The Rifleman: The Journey Back

Politics of the Military

The Journey Back (1961) makes a pair with The Deserter. Both deal with a Cavalry deserter that comes to North Fork; both have a sympathetic supporting character Cavalry Lieutenant played by Harry Carey, Jr. (who played a similar sympathetic cavalryman in 7th Cavalry). However, while The Deserter is a highly original work of liberal social criticism, the conventional politics-of-the-military of The Journey Back merely celebrate bravery and attack cowardice.

The episode does show young Mark's gung-ho fascination with military life again, like The Deserter, and also suggests that the reality is far more painful. This is another Lewis look at the insidious appeal of militarism.

The treatment of bravery and cowardice also resembles that in Face of Yesterday. Both shows open with the protagonist being fearless in standing up to a local bully in North Fork. This establishes that they are brave in most conventional senses. Then the same protagonist reveals that in the past, they came a cropper with a courage challenge relating to war. The implication is that war is far more formidable than regular life, and can defeat the bravest people in any attempt to act decently. This anti-war point is well-taken.


The Journey Back deals in its first half with that perennial Lewis and Rifleman theme: social outsiders. Here we have a man who is sometimes shunned due to a facial disfigurement. Lucas stands up for him, and male bonds with him, as he does with other outsider characters. There is also a father-son talk about the importance of tolerance.

A Meal

We see the aftermath of the wonderful meal the hero cooks for Lucas and Mark. This anticipates the meal that Tony cooks for the kids in Old Tony. Both films have a "still life", showing the appetizing food in plates on the table. Men who cook and serve food to others run through Lewis' work.


Many of the exteriors at the hero's farm feature the roof of the house and barn in the background. The roofs are complex, and elaborately peaked. Their distinctive architecture helps make complex compositions. Sometimes Lewis shows the whole complex. Other times, he simply has a triangular roof peak popping up between characters.

One suspects these buildings were chosen, simply for their elaborate roofs. The barn complex, in particular, looks little like most barns I have seen. The same complex showed up briefly at the start of Hangman, as the murdered man's house, but was not much used for composition.


The Journey Back is notable for the many scenes shot through arching tree branches.

A camera movement looking through the posts of a corral is striking. We see Mark arriving on his horse. Somewhat similar shots in Boomerang showed Hattie arriving in her buggy, through the fence at the McCain ranch.

Lewis shoots through the clothes in the closet, when Mark searches it. This is an example of foreground objects in Lewis, although it is not linked to camera movement here.

During the checkers scene, Mark and the hero are at 90 degrees to each other, while Lucas in the background in the kitchen is parallel to the hero.

Both the hero, and Chris Alcaide's bad guy, are introduced as off-screen voices. These are eerie voices, like those heard by the couple at the end of Gun Crazy.

During the final gunfight, the hero, Lucas and Mark all move separately from the back of the screen to the foreground.

The Rifleman: Honest Abe

Honest Abe (1961) shows so many of Lewis' themes, that it is virtually an illustrated catalogue of Lewisiana. But it combines them all in new and original ways. This story deals with a man who suffers from harmless delusions that he is Abraham Lincoln. Lewis subjects include:

People who are different. Here we see one of the largest category of social outsiders, the mentally ill. The story includes strong preachment about accepting the mentally ill - something which is still not common in our society. Once again, Lucas deeply bonds with the outsider.

Altered States of consciousness. The hero of the show has an entirely different way of thinking from the average person. This world view gets explored in surprising depth. The hero also goes briefly into a trance during rain on the window, like Lugosi in Invisible Ghost. He is mourning his lost love, the way Lugosi was obsessed with his runaway wife. Soon, the dialogue talks about how little Mark had an "imaginary friend" at age 3, and how he insisted his parents set a place at the table for him. This too recalls Invisible Ghost, and the dinner with an imaginary person at the start of that film.

Illness. The hero and his sister have to cope with his life-changing illness.

A Care-taking sister. The sister takes care of the mentally ill hero, like the hero's sister who is in charge of him at the beginning of Gun Crazy.

The Gun Cult. Abe gives young Mark a gun, despite Lucas' misgivings. And Mark almost gets involved in a gun disaster. Lewis shows how insidious guns are, and how they can lure people into life-changing disasters.

Anti-War. The film shows how young boys get pulled into war. This is part of the same subplot as the gun: militarism and the gun cult are linked again here in Lewis.

Odd means of combat. Here wrestling plays a role. The participants get involved at a gung ho level. It is a startling image both of male bonding, and unusual combat. Lewis had shown arm-wrestling in Strange Town. But here it is full body wrestling, and quite a sight to see.

A Change of Identity. Lewis characters tend to change their identity, sometimes voluntarily as part of heroes' undercover police roles (The Undercover Man, A Lady Without Passport, The Wyoming Story), or crooks with schemes (Boss of Hangtown Mesa, Gun Crazy, Sheer Terror), other times through coercion (My Name Is Julia Ross, The Stand-In). Here the hero has taken on a new identity as Abraham Lincoln. This change has happened through mental illness. All of the townspeople support this change, and kid the hero along, kindly supporting his new identity. These scenes are elaborate, and eerie to watch.

A Town as Protagonist. Here, we see nearly the entire town take part in supporting the hero's new identity as Abraham Lincoln.

Visual Style

Foreground objects. Lewis stages the opening struggle through wagon wheels of a cart. This is the largest scene that Lewis, known as Wagon Wheel Joe in his youth for shooting through these on his early Westerns, shot through a wheel on The Rifleman. I was laughing at an "inside" joke here, but audiences in 1961 did not know this about Lewis, and presumably one has to take this as a serious piece of composition. Good complications:

Peaked roofs. Abe's house seems familiar - it might be the same house as in The Journey Back.

Door with hanging lines. The door curtain to the kitchen has hanging lines with plush ends, like the hotel dining room doorway to come in The Shattered Idol.

Paired movements. Lucas leaves the house in the buggy, then later returns to it, along the same path. And finally leaves again. These shots are fixed, and involve little camera movement. They show the buggy moving from the back of the screen to the front - and then to the back again.

Skipping rope. The little girl skips rope. Lewis likes people performing simple motion games. They add a comic, cheerful touch. The little girl soon talks about how good she is doing with her school work, recalling the little girl in The Undercover Man. Both are admirable little girls, giving a good report on their school work, to a male authority figure in the street.

Circular camera movements. At the start of the wrestling match in the saloon, there are two camera movements, one after the other, that each circle a small arc around the combatants. Why are these movements here? The first circling, especially, brings more of the spectators into view. It incorporates them into the story. The movements also add a sense that a process is developing: something is unfolding (the wrestling match). They are a bit like a flower opening up. One feels that a complex system is set in motion, and increasing in complexity.

The first circling goes through nearly 90 degrees. It recalls the opening, 90 degree camera movement in the train station in The Undercover Man. Both movements circle around one (The Undercover Man) or two (Honest Abe) people, and reveal a large public room in the background, filled with people.

Camera movement down a bar. Immediately after the circular movements, Lewis moves his camera along with the wrestlers down the bar. This too is a dynamic image.

The wrestling match is made up of numerous separate shots. Lewis might be trying to add some excitement through cutting and montage. He might also be dealing with practical problems, staging a scene with many intense physical confrontations, without tiring the actors. It would take real wrestlers to have the stamina to stage this all in one long take.

Perspective shot down sidewalk. Just before Abe enters the saloon, there is a shot through the saloon porch, down which we see Doc Burrage's bay window in the distance. We will get a better look at this structure in Long Gun from Tucson and A Young Man's Fancy.

The well. Late in the episode, the camera moves rapidly past one of Lewis' architectural signatures, the well.

The Sing-Along

A man in the saloon sings "Jimmy Crack Corn" in honor of Abe. He is one of the gentle men with a musical instrument, here a guitar, that sometimes sing in Lewis. He soon encourages the audience to sing along, and everyone in the bar does, in a sequence shot in one graceful camera movement. Later, a sing-along of this tune is reprised on the wagon, with Lucas, Mark and Abe joining in - Lucas' only singing on The Rifleman, apparently.

A year earlier, in January 1961, Mitch Miller's TV series Sing Along With Mitch debuted, and was a huge hit. This program encouraged the audience at home to sing along with old tunes. The sing-alongs in Honest Abe are very much in this mode. Mitch Miller frequently included folk songs and very old songs, a kind of music that was gaining in popularity in this era. "Jimmy Crack Corn" was a real-life favorite of Lincoln, and it is the sort of tune that flourished in the early 1960's Folk Song era.

The Rifleman: The Shattered Idol

The Shattered Idol (1961) guest stars Kevin McCarthy, playing real life author Mark Twain, on a visit to North Fork. Twain is dressed in a white suit: both his well-known real life costume, and another Lewis hero in white clothes. This is the only real-life character to show up in a Lewis Rifleman episode.

The first half of the film is better than its second. The first half is lyrical and upbeat. The second goes into the characters' personal problems. It looses plausibility when Lucas comes up with a quick fix for Twain's emotional difficulties. What Lucas says makes little sense - I've watched the show twice, and it still seems like meaningless gobbledygook. And Lucas has never been shown elsewhere as a Mary Worth type character, with an instant solution to folks' psychological difficulties. He is a strong spokesman for moral and liberal political values, such as supporting characters who are outsiders - but that is a different thing.

Billiards: Another strange weapon

The billiard games are an example of the "duels fought with strange weapons" in Lewis. The motion of the balls is pleasantly kinetic, and Lewis follows them with some nice moving camera work.


The Shattered Idol is notable for some of the most lyrical nature and landscape imagery in The Rifleman. The fishing sequence has been shot on location, at a real river. The first shot of Lucas and Mark, making their way in long shot, behind the trunk of a huge tree, is one of the best "tree shots" in Lewis. Often times such tree shots emphasize a few arching branches; here we get more of a whole tree. And the shot involves skillfully staged panning. The tree shots here are all of conifers; what looks like the same conifer forest and river will return in Old Tony.

The water imagery recalls the finales of Gun Crazy and A Lady Without Passport. As in Gun Crazy, the visit to a wet area is a childhood experience for Mark, a key moment in boyhood. The walk along the edge of the river also recalls the walk along the lake shore in Pride of the Bowery.

Truth emerges: relation to Face of Yesterday

Mark Twain is behaving in a strange, angry fashion: a mystery to the townspeople - and the viewer. The truth eventually comes out. It does so in a scene staged similarly to one in Face of Yesterday. In Face of Yesterday, we were locked in an intense close-up of Lucas, who suffers emotional breakdown, while the Marshal tries to comfort him in the background. In The Shattered Idol, it is young Mark who is crying in close-up, while Lucas tries to help him. There is a key difference, however. In Face of Yesterday, it is the emotionally distressed Lucas who reveals the truth: it emerges from his extreme emotion. In The Shattered Idol, Mark's emotional state reveals nothing. The truth comes out in this scene, but only from a letter of Mark Twain's that Lucas reads. This approach is less personal for Lewis, who typically sees truth as coming from unusual states of consciousness, such as sleep, delirium or extreme emotion.

Twain has been on the run, and on the road, ever since his problems started. This makes him one of many Lewis characters who have run away from home.


The scene with young Mark crying is staged over bales of hay, a Lewis favorite for constructing backgrounds.

The doorway to the billiard room has a curtain made out of hanging ropes. Lucas is often photographed against these ropes, to make interesting geometric designs. Later, in his Branded pilot The Vindicators, the hero (Chuck Connors again) will also be photographed against a doorway filled with knotted hanging ropes. The designs of the ropes are different in the two films.

Lucas will fix a wagon wheel here, as in Suspicion. He is shot through the wagon wheel as he works.

The Rifleman: Long Gun from Tucson

Another High Noon variation

Long Gun from Tucson (1961) is a variation on the film High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). When High Noon came out, it was acclaimed as a masterpiece. It seems to have ruffled the feathers of auteur directors, however, three of whom made films that were responses to High Noon. Silver Lode (Allan Dwan, 1954) and Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959) are well known theatrical feature films. There is also the little known Joseph H. Lewis episode of The Rifleman, Long Gun from Tucson. Lewis' version sticks most closely of the three to the original plot of High Noon. But it twists the plot, to present a distinctly different point of view, one that also differs from Dwan's and Hawks'.

How good are these films? In my critical judgment, High Noon is a decent movie, better than its dismissal by many auteurist critics, but nowhere as good as the original critical acclaim it received. Silver Lode is a good movie, better than High Noon, and Rio Bravo is a great film. By contrast, Long Gun from Tucson seems to be a minor work dramatically - but a strong one visually. Its chief virtues are well staged compositions, and good acting by the show's many guest stars. Long Gun from Tucson also stimulates thought, in that it does offer a fresh take on the ideas and situations of High Noon. We will not spoil its plot, by discussing these variations here. (By the way, I think the Jackie Chan Western comedies Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights are lots of fun, but they have little to do with the plot of the original High Noon.)


Long Gun from Tucson is beautifully composed. Many shots have strong repeating verticals. These can come from:

Many of the shots also have strong horizontals mixed in with the verticals. These can come from window edges, or horizontal bars on the bed frame, or shelves.

Quite a few of the shots mix such composition with camera movement.

The nocturnal cityscape with the waiting gunslingers includes a curved balcony rail from the hotel, in its upper right corner. This circular arc adds to the composition. The composition also shows Lewis' dramatic use of huge empty spaces.

The episode is a high point of Lewis' composition.

The Town

One of the most beautiful shots is the opening look down the sidewalk, past the saloon. This shows this corner of North Fork, spread out into a striking geometric pattern. The sidewalk both has straight vertical lines, and sloping diagonal lines. Small barrels punctuate the composition.

The sidewalk flows past a bow window. This window belongs to a new building in North Fork, a new office for Doc Burrage (previously seen a bit more obliquely in Honest Abe). Later, we will see this office head-on. This whole corner of North Fork has been re-done, apparently for this season.

The sidewalk shot climaxes into a view of distant greenery down the road. Such perspectives into a natural scene have a fairy tale quality. One always wonders what is down such views, and what it would be like to go there.


When Mark enters the Marshal's office at night to help his father, he has to move past the waiting villains (in the foreground), then cross the street to the office (way in the background). This is another Lewis character who moves from the foreground to the background of the screen.

A vertical camera movement moves down the bunk beds, showing Mark and his friend.


Lewis shoots the hero through a broken wagon wheel in the alley.

And there is a spiral in the metal work holding up a wall lamp in the marshal's office, seen in the background of close-ups.

Guest Stars

The Rifleman had a whole stock company of guest stars, who appeared in episode after episode, always in different roles. These roles tend to be linked: an actor will play somewhat similar characters again and again, related to their appearance, personality, and acting specialties. These actors show up in both Lewis and non-Lewis episodes: the casting system on The Rifleman seems to function independently of the directors.

Whit Bissell's four appearances on The Rifleman are unusual in that all four were on Lewis-directed episodes. He always played good guys, non-heroic and much abused by the shows' villains. His performance in Long Gun from Tucson as the fear-haunted gunsmith with a young son in is directly linked to his role as a fear-haunted barber with a young son in The Patsy. He could really seem gut-wrenchingly afraid, and frankly I find it hard to watch him - he makes me nervous. He is bullied by obnoxious villains from out of town in both episodes. He also seems like the quintessential small businessman, petit bourgeois in both shows. In The Hangman, he plays an equally terrified man, but here a handyman, unlike his small businessmen with family responsibilities in Long Gun from Tucson and The Patsy. Finally, as the sharecropping farmer in The Fourflusher, he is also a hard working man with family responsibilities tormented by a more powerful villain. But here he no longer seems afraid, and has quite a backbone. Bissell had a long career as a Hollywood character actor, and had played equally petrified characters in early Anthony Mann film noir: he was the terrified murderer being hunted down by the police in Raw Deal (1948), and the scared bank teller who is stalked in Side Street (1950).

The gunsmith's constant (and lying) statements that he is sick, and so cannot get involved, echo Alicia's similar statements in The Big Combo.

The Rifleman: A Young Man's Fancy

A Young Man's Fancy (1962) is a bittersweet romantic film, concentrating on young Mark's crush on a beautiful teenage visitor to North Fork.

Growing Up - and the East Side Kids movies

The portrait of growing up shares elements with such East Side Kids movies as That Gang of Mine and Pride of the Bowery, which also dealt with teenagers and their growing pains. Mark develops grandiose, impractical ideas, like Mugs in That Gang of Mine. Growing up is never easy in Lewis, and young people get all sorts of impractical ideas that they have to change and abandon under the pressure of reality. Neither Mugs nor Mark is at all mean in their ideas: just naive.

That Gang of Mine centered on young people raising horses, as did The Fourflusher episode of The Rifleman. This returns in A Young Man's Fancy, with the rival breaking a magnificent black horse, and Mark shown riding around. The corral with the horse has some peaked roofs in the background, which are viewed from a nearer distance than usual in Lewis.

Fist fighting and boxing between rivals is prevalent in Pride of the Bowery: it returns in A Young Man's Fancy. In both films, such fighting serves as one of Lewis' "odd means of combat".

The Villain: a junior version of Mr. Brown from The Big Combo

The young man who is the romantic rival has some characteristics in common with Mr. Brown, the arch-villain of The Big Combo. He is a swaggeringly arrogant, ultra-confident man. He is good-looking, and like Mr. Brown always perfectly dressed, with a wide variety of sophisticated dress up clothes, including a suit.

He is also irresistible to the heroine, like Mr. Brown. This is treated as puppy love, but it actually seems just as much an in-depth obsession here as in The Big Combo. There are also hints that the villain is involved in alternative forms of sexuality, like Mr. Brown. He carries a big whip, which he uses on the horse - a bit like villainous George Macready's switch in My Name Is Julia Ross. And his pants are decorated with huge pockets on the rear, like a military uniform. This family show never makes this anywhere as explicit as The Big Combo, however. And the heroine's love for him is treated simply as a girl's crush on a handsome young man - she is revolted at the end when he is revealed as a bully, unlike the heroine of The Big Combo, who knows this about Mr. Brown already.

Mark eventually goes on a campaign to bring the villain down, just like the hero's crusade in The Big Combo.

The Song

A Young Man's Fancy has a rare musical number in The Rifleman, with Mark singing a tender romantic ballad to the heroine. The song is gentle, but powerfully direct in its courtship. Lewis emphasizes Mark's guitar playing. The guitar suggests that Mark's sexuality is phallic, as opposed to the villain's interest in sadism and anality. The guitar is the gentlest and most non-violent phallic symbol in Lewis, after all the men who are obsessed with guns, and the knife-crazed villain of My Name Is Julia Ross.

Camera Movement

A Young Man's Fancy gets started with a bang, with a semi-circular camera movement around a love struck Mark in the street. Circular camera movements are now something of a cliché, but in 1962 they were much less common. They had been seen in Lola Montes (Max Ophuls, 1955) and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). Lewis' goes a complete 180 degrees, one half of a circle around Mark. It conveys Mark's emotional dizziness.

When the villain rides into town, he is first seen near the back of Doc Burrage's building. One of Lewis' lamp posts is in the side of the image. The camera pans over with the villain on his horse, he dismounts, and moves around Sally. Then the shot ends.

The epilogue is shot in one long take. It starts looking out from the hotel door, to the outside. It then moves forward. The main action happens, of Sally leaving on the stage coach. Eventually the camera pulls back, on the same axis it originally moved forward. It is a simple but nicely staged shot. Towards the end, we see bales of hay in front of the store, in the far rear of the shot.

90 degree staging

After Sally leaves the ranch, Mark keeps staring obsessively to the left, where she has gone. Lucas mainly stands 90 degrees to Mark, facing the camera - although he turns and twists his body a number of times. Even when the characters move closer to the door, they maintain their 90 angle to each other. This entire scene is in one long take.

Mark and Lucas' second talk outside the ranch mainly has them sitting side by side, looking in the same direction. Only towards the end, when Lucas tells Mark that Sally asked about him, does Mark turn 90 degrees towards Lucas. This scene is another long take.

The big fight scene is staged outside the hotel. We see Doc Burrage's new office in the background, first shown in the previous Lewis episodes, Honest Abe and Long Gun from Tucson. There are not always a lot of new parts of the North Fork set, and Lewis is clearly trying to exploit this one to the fullest, for the sake of visual novelty. His camera mainly points down the hotel porch, looking straight towards Burrage's bay window. Both the peaked rook of the building, and the peak of the bay window below it, show Lewis' use of peaked roofs to create compositions. During the song, Sally and Mark are side by side, looking in the same direction, facing away from the hotel. When the villain enters, he is 90 degrees to both, looking down the hotel porch. After the fight starts, Mark and the villain are 180 degrees to each other, while Sally has moved 90 degrees to both, facing towards the hotel. This brings in all four main perpendicular directions into the staging of this scene.

The Rifleman: Waste

Waste (1962) is a two part episode. It is one of the least worthwhile episodes of The Rifleman, being dominated by more of those stereotyped scum-of-the-earth Mexican bandits that first appeared in The Vaqueros.

Waste shows hero Lucas as being fluent in Spanish. This was also a part of John Wayne's screen persona, in his Westerns of the era. Western heroes were often shown as polylingual, speaking Spanish as well as Native American languages. The multi-lingual hero seems to have disappeared from contemporary American films, however, with an isolationist, anti-foreigner attitude taking its place, it often seems.

The Hill

Waste has a decent opening. We see Lucas, Mark and Micah riding in front of a long hill, that rises up behind them. It is a different looking image than most of the exteriors on The Rifleman. And the dialogue promptly has the heroes saying the territory looks unfamiliar - which it does. The hill gives the image a "trapped" looking quality. We never see over or beyond the hill.

The hill has a path or trail up to the top. In a camera movement, we see Micah ride up to the top of the hill. Later, another camera movement shows Mark riding up the trail to the top. Mark rides around some distinctive trees at the top - these look like small Joshua trees, previously seen in The Vaqueros. Then a reverse camera movement shows him riding down the trail. This is an example of Lewis' paired camera movements, in which the second shows people in reverse movement along a path seen in the first camera movement.

The Ghost Town

Most of Waste is set in a ghost town, a decayed small Western town. This is one of Lewis' towns, although there are no inhabitants or businesses in this deserted burg.

The town's architecture is mainly rectilinear. It has few of the peaked roofs that often show up in Lewis.

There are some good camera movements, that show Lucas and Mark riding in to the town. The best shows a strange, angled building, rising up to the top of the frame behind Lucas. This is like a giant piece of avant-garde sculpture. A second moving-camera shot continues this one, after some interruptions. This shows the wooden supports behind building facades: also a geometrically complex shot. This perhaps recalls a bit the shot in A Lady Without Passport, in which the hero is at the angle where many streets join.

The Saloon and the mirror

The deserted saloon has doors that swing open, and a bolt or bar that can be put across them. This is more like the barred gates of the forts in 7th Cavalry and the Branded credits, rather than the typical swinging doors of a saloon.

The wrecked ceiling is open to the stars, a striking image.

The best part of the saloon sequence is built around the mirror, recalling a previous suspense sequence using a mirror in Surveyors. When Lucas wipes the dust off the mirror, it brings to mind the Zen koan that John Cage used to quote: "The mind is like a mirror. The problem is to wipe away the dust". There is a second koan in response: "What is the mirror, and what is the dust?"

Lucas' arranging of the trap, is a bit like the villain of My Name Is Julia Ross arranging the trap on the stairs at the end of that film. In both, a character rearranges the architecture of a scene, to lay a deceptive trap.

When the mirror shatters, it shows Mark's image three times, in different pieces.

The Rifleman: Death Never Rides Alone

Death Never Rides Alone (1962) is basically a retelling of The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950): the story of the fast gun everyone is targeting. This is a none-too-original tale. But it is pleasantly executed here. The plot does echo Lewis' frequent warnings about the danger of trying to be recognized publicly as The Best at something.

The Rifleman had previously made a comic riff on this plot, in a non-Lewis episode The Clarence Bibs Story. There are character similarities between the two shows. Johnny Drako recalls the older, wanting to retire gunslinger in The Clarence Bibs Story, who was Lucas' friend. And The Clarence Bibs Story also has a young punk wanna-be like Billy Graves, who similarly wears tall black cowboy boots on the outside of his trousers - something that is rare on The Rifleman.

The bad guys take over the saloon here. The script is by David P. Harmon. Harmon would also write the above average Starsky and Hutch episode Shootout (1975), in which criminals take over a bar, and hold everyone hostage.

Lewis subjects

Death Never Rides Alone touches on Lewis' personal story telling interests along the way.

Male bonding with social outsiders. The fast gun Johnny Drako (Lee Van Cleef) is treated as an outsider, and shunned because he attracts violent challenges. Once again, hero Lucas male bonds with the outsider. This subject once again brings out the best in Lewis.

The gun cult. An encounter between Mark and Johnny Drako becomes a meditation on the gun cult. So does the final scene of the film. Both are haunting. Their dialogue links the gun cult to major events in ordinary people's lives, marriage and funerals.

The duel. The big confrontation has elements of the "duel with strange weapons" plot. The weapons are not so strange here - cutting cards - and the duel is both less comic and less exaggerated and over the top than most others in Lewis. But it has something of the same spirit, including one-by-one actions for the characters. And it leads to male bonding, like other duels on The Rifleman.

The gunfight. The final gunfight pits three men against three villains. This recalls the climactic gunfight of Long Gun from Tucson, which pitted four good guys versus four villains. In both films, the men on each team all line up in a horizontal row. They face each other along an axis that is perpendicular to the two rows: an example of Lewis' staging around 90 degree angles.

Boots. Lewis continues his boots imagery by having the obnoxious bad guy Billy Graves always challenge everyone by displaying his huge black cowboy boots:

The boots do not have the militaristic symbolism they had in The Martinet; they have simply been made the sign of a two-bit punk. There is something comic about all this. Boots are never a symbol of genuinely effective men in Lewis. They are always associated with bravado or militaristic excess.

Fast gun Johnny Drako also wears boots. The film opens with a close-up of his boots, marching through the streets.

Staging: Window Shots and Zoo Metaphor

Lewis stages as many scenes as possible through windows. And windows are employed in as many, varied means possible. There is an air of formal experimentation here. Just as Hitchcock imposed major structural constraints in films like Rear Window and Rope, so is Lewis experimenting, admittedly in a smaller way.

The script has young Mark staring at famous gunslinger Johnny Drako through a window. Soon, Drako's dialogue is comparing the way everyone in town is looking at him, to an animal in a zoo. Perhaps this inspired Lewis with his window shooting.

Lewis frequently employs camera movement, both in the window shots, and elsewhere.

Window shots are not new in Lewis' work:

Lewis looks in from the hotel window, to show people descending the hotel's staircase. Staircases were prominent in some of Lewis' theatrical films. But they are much less common on The Rifleman, for reasons that are obscure. Staircases are also prominent in My Name Is Julia Ross, so perhaps this is part of a suite of linked ideas in Lewis' imagination.

Both the fast gun, and later Lucas, are seen descending the staircase. This is an example of parallel camera movements in Lewis, where characters take turn moving along the same path.

Metaphors and the Plot

In Lewis' TV pilot The Fat Man, the detective hero makes a detailed comparison between the mystery plot, and a Bach theme and variations. Here in Death Never Rides Alone, Micah compares the plot events to moves in a game of checkers.

Later, when events go against the bad guy, he briefly compares the situation to a stacked deck of cards.

Rex Holman

Rex Holman's portrait of villain "Billy Graves" is memorable. It also reflects Lewis' skill in imparting personality to his characters. Holman had the ability to suggest decadence and a strange interior life. Rex Holman was a frequent guest star on American TV in the 1960's, especially in Westerns. His best-remembered performance, in the Star Trek episode Spectre of the Gun (1968), was also Western-linked: he is playing legendary Western lawman Morgan Earp. His troubled young man Albert in Leslie H. Martinson's Lawman episode The Ring (1959) is interesting. Holman's music album Here in the Land of Victory (1970) is now something of a cult item.

The Rifleman: I Take This Woman

Abused Women

I Take This Woman (1962) looks at the systematic abuse of women from men in marriage. It makes a pair with Heller, which deals with child abuse.

In some ways, I Take This Woman is an admirable film, giving a full depiction of how women are exploited by men. In other ways, it is painful to watch, with its relentless abuse. It will never be a film which I enjoy seeing. It is mainly a negative experience to sit through.

The heroine has been promised in marriage to the villain, to settle a family debt. This reminds one of the Lewis men who have sold themselves, such as the sharecropper in The Fourflusher and the indentured servant in Pompey. However, those men voluntarily sold themselves. The heroine here had nothing to do with selling herself - her father did it, while she was a child.

The film also shows the financial exploitation of a woman by a man: the heroine is a hard working businesswoman who has built up a hotel, and the villain is just a lazy hood who is bleeding her financially. There is also a depiction of spousal abuse. Portrayals of both of these things were apparently fairly rare in 1960's film and television - although I have no statistics, or lists of other TV shows that also depicted such subjects.

Much is made in I Take This Woman of the characters being from Ireland. The selling into marriage is treated as an Old Country custom, one that has been abolished in the United States. This is true - but it obscures the fact that the financial exploitation of women by their husbands was also a feature of 19th Century US life. And so is spousal abuse. The film never makes clear that this financial exploitation and abuse are persistent problems for women, right down into modern times. However, simply showing these things can be considered a progressive act - even if they are not fully treated as modern problems.

Camera Movement

I Take This Woman opens with Nils rolling a wagon wheel through North Fork. Lewis does not shoot through the wagon wheel - but it still wittily echoes a Lewis theme. The camera follows Nils, and soon we are in one of Lewis' lateral tracking shots, with foreground objects in front of his path.

The villain makes a similar entrance, also following a lateral track behind the same foreground objects. Soon, the villain reverses his path, making another lateral track behind the same objects - only moving back along his entrance path. This is one of Lewis' paired shots, in which a person moves along a path, then back along the same path in reverse.

When the villain enters the hotel, the camera rises up to take in a glimpse of the fancy new glass chandelier. Lewis will shoot through this chandelier in Suspicion.

In the dining room, Lewis shoots through an equally fancy glass candelabra. There is a sideways camera movement, that then shows us the room without the candelabra in front of the image.

The Rifleman: Squeeze Play

Bad Guys

In Squeeze Play (1962), a crooked (but suave) businessman tries to force Lucas and Mark off their land - like the crooks in Terror in a Texas Town.

The bad guy is so rich, he has three henchmen, unlike the two henchmen in almost all Lewis films. Head henchman is big Chris Alcaide again, like The Wyoming Story. Alcaide in turn bosses two men. Perhaps this should be seen as the suave crook having one henchman, Alcaide, who in turn has two sub-henchmen himself. In any case, it is an extension of Lewis' typical patterns.

The bad guy likes to read at night. Usually, it is Lewis good guys who like to read.


The villain's bed is full of spirals - lots and lots of them.

In addition, Lewis does something with spirals less frequent in his work. He shoots through a lace door curtain, showing the bad guys walking in the street outside. The curtain is full of small spirals, which superimpose of the action. Lewis also shot through a lace door curtain in Face of Yesterday: that curtain was more rectilinear.

Experimental Camera Movement

A camera movement focuses tightly on the gun Alcaide is wearing in his holster, as he crosses town. This shot joins two of Lewis big subjects: camera movement and gun obsession. It is almost comic, in its zany close-up look. It is a formal exploration of the possibilities of the film medium, like all the window-shooting in Death Never Rides Alone (1962). I rarely recall seeing camera movement combined with an object close-up before: it is a non-standard filming approach.

The shot concludes with a close-up of Alcaide from the rear, showing his gun belt and holster. Lewis had a similar rear close-up of Alcaide in The Trade, just before he draws and shoots. There is also the tracking shot which moves across Lucas from behind in Duel of Honor.

We first see the henchmen, marching together, with the camera in a close-up of their boots. This recalls similar close-ups in The Safe Guard and Long Gun from Tucson.

A camera movement goes around the corner of the McCain ranch, revealing Lou Mallory on the other side. This is like the movements that show characters turning corners of streets, in other Lewis.

A static shot that shows Lucas and Mark riding into North Fork at night, has a prominent street light in the composition. Soon, a moving camera shot will show the lamps outside the hotel.

Grasses and Trees

Squeeze Play is most notable for its landscape photography. There are tall grasses everywhere. a first for the North Fork countryside. Lewis keeps finding varied shots with them, often combined with trees:

There is also a striking pair of pans, showing Lucas and Mark riding through a maze-like tangle of branches - very complex pattern of tree branches.

Buggies - and Pillars

There are three different buggies in Squeeze Play, and the characters ride around in them. This is a bit like the cars that meet on the road, in My Name Is Julia Ross and Gun Crazy - although there is no rendezvous, unlike those two films.

When we first see the villain, he keeps moving his buggy forward, till Lucas is suddenly seen framed behind the pillars of the buggy. These narrow black posts look like bars. They recall the prison-like bars that kept framing the captive heroine in My Name Is Julia Ross.

The Rifleman: Suspicion

A Mystery - links with The Hangman

Suspicion (1963) pairs with The Hangman among The Rifleman episodes, as actual murder mysteries. Both have simple plots, and neither is among the outstanding Lewis works. Suspicion has a better constructed plot than the arbitrary The Hangman, with some hard-to-explain events in Suspicion given a fairly ingenious solution at the end. The story shows Lewis' concern about the difficulty of finding truth. It takes many steps for the truth the come out in Suspicion, and the final result is not obvious or easy to obtain. This step by step unrolling of the plot, and the mild ingenuity of the finale, do make Suspicion a worthwhile detective story.

However, like The Hangman, the detective work in Suspicion is weak, and not up to the incisive standard of reasoning about clues in Lewis' best work. Mark, Lucas and the Marshal form a detective team, but their sleuthing deductions barely rise above the obvious.

Mark is asked by Kevin McCarthy to find something in his wagon, and makes discoveries while searching it; a similar gambit is in The Journey Back, whose hero asks Mark to search for something in his closet.

Suspicion shares a piece of imagery with The Hangman: both have a fancy wagon of an itinerant merchant who comes to North Fork. Both the sign-painter in Suspicion, and the medicine show man in The Hangman, are colorful, smooth talking hucksters with a line of patter. Both men become leading suspects in a mystery.

Both mysteries are about murder-robberies of "ordinary" people, killed for their possessions, another point in common. Both crimes are seen as really reprehensible. Killing people to take their property is also the theme of such films as Terror in a Texas Town and Baranca, where it is done as part of a criminal reign of terror. While institutions, not individual people, are the target of the crooks in Gun Crazy and The Wyoming Story, these too are murderous crimes to steal property. All of these involve cold-blooded killing for gain.


Lewis works are rich in comedy - often a black comic edge to a seemingly "serious" story. But the attempt to create out and out comedy in Suspicion is not really successful. Lucas, Mark and the others keep laughing at the sign-painter's antics, but most of this shtick is not funny. After all the concerns about alcoholism in Lewis, trying to milk a vaudeville show style "drunk" for laughs seems regressive.

The huge number of bottles on the bar is something to see, however. Lewis' flair for foreground objects comes to the rescue here. This gets a lateral camera movement down the bar, with the bottles as foreground objects.

A simple camera movement shows the street through the Marshal's window. Lucas then enters the Marshal's office.

Off-camera, a snake attacks a human: a regular Lewis subject.

A striking shot has the sign-painter jumping up, and looking through one of the cut glass prisms on the chandelier. Such prisms are everywhere in Lewis. But this is the only one I can recall, that gets a bit of business in the action.

Lewis films are full of signs. Suspicion has a sign-painter as a character. Lovers of Russian Formalism can have a field day with this: a key part of Lewis' story tellling technique, is now embodied as a character in the film!

The wagon's broken wheel in Suspicion seems like an inside joke about Wagon-Wheel Joe, as Lewis was nicknamed. Lewis does not shoot through the wheel. Lewis' camera looks at the broken wheel, as if he cannot get over seeing the collapse of a beloved object. There is definitely something comic about all this.

The spiral lamp wall-bracket in the Marshal's office, is seen through the bars of the cell, during the late conversation with the painter. These shots combine two key Lewis motifs: spirals, and shooting through bars.

The depth staging at the end shows a ladder outside, through the door of the Marshal's office. The ladder is filmed parallel to the screen, like the ladder-like stair in The Man From Nowhere.

A Town

Suspicion shows a large number of people in North Fork going about their work, doing business with the sign-painter. Suspicion can be seen as another example of a portrait of a town and its businesses in Lewis.

Suspicion includes a new street in North Fork, with a church on one end, and a livery stable at the other. A nice composition involving peaked roofs is our first view of this street. The roofs include the church steeple. (This street appeared earlier, in the Gene Nelson-directed episode First Wages. Non-Lewis episodes in this fifth season of The Rifleman also showed new North Fork streets.)

The fifth-season Rifleman shows, both Lewis-directed and non-Lewis, are full of references to a new railroad line being built to North Fork. This is mentioned in the dialogue of Suspicion. This perhaps ties in with all the other public works projects that run through Lewis.

There is also an unusual shot, showing first Mark, then Lucas, sitting at the edge of a drinking trough.

The Rifleman: Sidewinder

Sidewinder (1963) is a demented black comedy version of the early sections of Gun Crazy. It focuses on a teenager who fancies himself as a gunslinger. This kid has a psychology much like the man in Gun Crazy, a full deep dive into a fascination with all things outlawish, especially guns. Both men look naive, innocent and small town, both seem really satisfied with their wild obsession. The kid is duded up in an elaborate Western outfit: also like the hero of Gun Crazy, a symbol of both characters acting out their over the top fantasies in real life. He and Lucas also have one of Lewis' duels with strange weapons - a direct variation on the one in Gun Crazy.

Baby-faced young men who fancy themselves as gangsters or outlaws are a comic tradition. I don't know why people find them both funny and fascinating, but they do. Most viewers, myself included, feel a sneaking sympathy for this kid. He is at least in there trying, and showing some spirit. He is facing the dilemma all men face: what is the male role, and how do I do it? It's a tough slough for us all, and we get to laugh and feel some hidden admiration for a kid who has found an extreme answer. See the Calling 2-R comic book tale "The Reformation of Pretty Boy" (Target Comics #2 (Vol. 1 No. 2), March 1940) for a young New York City tough all dressed up like an Edgar G. Robinson style gangster.

The Entrance of the Teenager

The teenager enters during one of Lewis' complex long take camera movements. This encompasses both exteriors and interiors, in the Lewis manner. We see Mark riding up to the ranch, through the open door of the ranch. He gets off his horse, comes up to the door, and goes inside. He explores the living room.

Then he hears the teenager's voice - but does not see him. The villain seems to be a disembodied menace. Finally, the camera suddenly moves to the left, at last revealing the teenager. He is a shocking - and spectacular - sight, in his formidable desperado's outfit. The long take ends.

The double entrance of the teenager, first as voice, then visually, serves to underscore his appearance as a separate topic. Normally, when a character enters a movie, we also see what the character looks like - it is all one fused experience. Here, the character is first introduced - then his appearance is a highlighted, separate subject in the film. Voices heard, of off-screen people who cannot be seen, play important roles in the finales of My Name Is Julia Ross, Gun Crazy and Old Tony. Here they are part of the start of the show.

The character's entrance can seem like the manifestation of a ghost. Or as a figure conjured out of Mark's subconscious. One could argue that the teenager is doing all the grownup things that Mark would like to do, or feels that he eventually would or should do. The character wears clothes that are forbidden to teenagers, and restricted to grown men. He carries a gun, something Mark can't do. He smokes cigars, drinks coffee, and sits in Lucas' he-man leather chair. The non-Lewis episode Mark's Rifle (1962) established that Mark has fantasies about being on his own, taking care of himself and being away from Lucas - something that is part of adolescents growing up. In Mark's Rifle, he meets a young man who is on his own, and who Mark idolizes, much to Lucas' chagrin. Perhaps something of the same effect is going on here in Sidewinder. However, one should not carry this approach too far. Nothing in the dialogue of Sidewinder suggests Mark admires the teenager, or wants to be like him. And the teenager menaces Mark, too, in scary scenes. These hardly suggest the teen is a simple expression of Mark's subconscious. The teen is a character in his own right. And his doing things restricted to adults is part of his own growing pains and adolescent development. Growing up and its difficulties is a Lewis theme.

Looking for a father's killer

The teenager is looking for his father's killer: Lucas. Lucas shot the man in self defense - he was a bank robber who tried to kill Lucas. And the teenager's revenge is seen as wrong. In Lewis' theatrical films, a search for a father's killer is seen as justified: The Last Stand, The Silver Bullet, Terror in a Texas Town. But in his later TV films, Lewis takes the opposite point of view. He seems deeply skeptical of any sort of revenge as a motive: Boomerang, Sidewinder, The Guest, The Vindicators.

Both Lucas and Mark refuse to shoot the teenager. They are examples of Lewis good guys who refuse to kill or harm bad guys - always seen as an admirable trait.

Lewis themes

Lou's nephew, who wandered away from home never to be seen again, is one of many Lewis characters who run away from home.

Lou (Patricia Blair) and the teenager bond while sitting on his cot in jail - an example of characters who have a deep discussion while one is sitting on the other's bed.

Camera movements

There are some very simple camera movements, that employ standard Lewis approaches, but more simply than in his other works:


The revelation about the killing of the father has a close-up on the teenager, with Lucas talking behind him (at the Marshal's office). Although the teenager is sitting, not kneeling, this seems like a version of a shot in which painful truth comes out while a man is in close-up on his knees below, with someone else talking behind him.

The dinner is a simple example of Lewis staging, with people sitting at 90 degree angles on three sides of the table.

The Rifleman: And the Devil Makes Five

And the Devil Makes Five (1963) is a story of almost pure suspense. It hardly has a plot. Instead, it is 25 minutes of the characters being menaced by both a psychopathic killer and a rattlesnake. Both of these villains are introduced as unseen voices or sounds, adding to their menace, in the Lewis tradition.

For whatever it's worth, I personally am unable to respond to plotless stories of pure suspense. They simply seem unpleasant. And the Devil Makes Five is no exception. It seems like one of the least interesting Rifleman episodes. On the other hand, this could simply be my lack of sympathy for this sub-genre.

Characterization is minimal in And the Devil Makes Five. The killer is menacing and mean, without being an interesting person. Lucas is simply immobilized. This seems like an interesting gimmick, at first, but ultimately it robs the show of one of its main characters.

The show's initial premise, Lucas and Mark meeting up by accident in the woods with the Marshal guarding a condemned prisoner he is transporting, was used earlier in a non-Lewis Rifleman episode, The Debt. That earlier prisoner had redeeming features, and was played by handsome Keith Andes; this prisoner is just nasty.

The "outdoors" set, showing a clearing in the woods, has no distinctive features. It is merely simple and ugly.

The bamboo pipe scene is moderately interesting. Lewis had shown an interest in rigged-up gizmos in Boss of Hangtown Mesa, where the sidekick uses a rope-device to help cook his food while he is singing.


The best shot in the film, is the look at the grave at the tale's end. This is impressively composed with overhanging tree branches. Lewis had combined trees and a grave in Boomerang.

Some shots from very low angles are also unusual for Lewis. They perhaps reflect the fact that Lucas is flat on his back. Lewis also shows marching feet, this time from the back. The camera angle mainly seems part of Lewis relentless experimentalism with film technique and approaches.

The Rifleman: The Bullet

The Bullet (1963) pits the Marshal of the town of Las Cruces against the town's crooked gambling czar. It embodies a number of Lewis subjects:

A detective hero. The Marshal works entirely through detection. He employs the new science of ballistics, to gather evidence. We see this process in detail. This is not the first Western film dealing with ballistics: Trail of Kit Carson (Lesley Selander, 1945) has an ingenious murder plot involving the science.

A man who challenges conventional ideas. The use of ballistics is utterly new to his era, and the Marshal has to convince everyone around him of its value, including skeptical good guys like his deputy and Lucas. And once again, Lucas slowly male bonds with this social outsider, the Marshal.

A bad guy who runs a sinister empire. Mr. Griff, the owner of the gambling palace, resembles Mr. Brown of The Big Combo. Both are handsome, suave, well-dressed men of personal charm. Both are murderously evil, and rule through violent intimidation. Both are ultra-confident and winners with the opposite sex: here the glamorous show-girl Miss Molly.

A bad woman who wants to be rich, and who shares her lover's crimes. Like the heroine of Gun Crazy, Miss Molly is a full partner in Mr. Griff's crimes. She is neither naive, nor a victim of sexual obsessions, like Mr. Brown's girlfriend in The Big Combo.

A slow process of reaching truth, with small steps and many rethinkings of original ideas along the way. Both the Marshal and Lucas have to regroup after their initial ideas about what is going on reach roadblocks.

A new town. We see a whole new town in Las Cruces (a real city in New Mexico, by the way, although there is no location shooting here). It seems oddly parallel to North Fork, with a Marshal's office and a hotel with lobby and rooms that are a lot like those of North Fork. However, the giant, spectacular gambling palace sets have no equivalent back in North Fork.

Minorities and Civil Rights. The evil Mr. Griff employs a black man in a subservient servant's role at his gambling palace: a sign that racial discrimination is a sinister part of the society in Las Cruces.

Boots. Mr. Griff displays his shiny black cowboy boots, putting his feet up on his huge desk.

The gun cult. The ballistics makes an odd contrast to Lewis' perennial theme, the gun cult. This show is as interested in guns as is any of Lewis characters - the episode is almost entirely about gun lore. Yet, no one here is promoting gun use as a way of life. Instead, ballistics is seen as a way of controlling gunmen, and bringing home their crimes to them.

A Pilot?

One wonders if this show were a pilot, for a series that was never sold. The new town, cast and elaborate sets all look as if they have been created as the set-up for a new TV series.


The fancy, Barbary Coast style clothes worn by the patrons at the gambling club, with huge formal top hats, are different from the plain Western gear worn by folks at North Fork. The judge at the end is in similar clothes and top hat.

However, these clothes do not look as ornate or fancy, as the spectacular 19th Century suits, worn by Cesare Danova in Duel of Honor, and hero Robert Horton in flashbacks in The Death of Matthew Eldridge. Their glamourous top hats aside, the club patrons in The Bullet are nowhere as well dressed as Danova and Horton.

Mr. Griff is elegantly dressed in a good suit. But this suit is not ornate - it is austere. It is all black, with no frills or ornate aspects. The suit has a "power look", making Griff look intimidating, rich and powerful.

The Sidekick

The Marshal's deputy Ben, is a beautiful-but-dumb young man, which seems to be a new type for Lewis. Ben establishes his good guy credentials when he upbraids the Marshal early on, urging him to take action against the villain. So Ben is also one of Lewis' characters who stands up for what is right, against social pressure. This allows us all to cut some slack for Ben later, when he is a unreceptive comic skeptic about ballistics.

Ben is in part a "comic sidekick", a character-type with a long history in Westerns. Lots of Western heroes had one - but sidekicks are conspicuously absent on The Rifleman, where Lucas is never paired with one. Lewis included a comic sidekick in his early Western, Boss of Hangtown Mesa (1942), where his tiresome clowning was that film's least successful element. Here, Ben's comedy is carefully restrained, and more successful.

When Ben emerges out of the hay where he has been looking for the bullet, it reminds one of the early scene in 7th Cavalry, where the Sergeant has been sleeping in the hay, and brushes himself off. Large bales of hay also show up on the wagon in The Fourflusher. Ben being buried in the hay also recalls a bit those horrifying Lewis films in which the characters are buried up to their necks in the ground.

Camera Movement

Lewis twice moves down the bars of the jail cells, at the Marshal's office. This reminds one of the camera movement during the early round-up of the crooks at the jail in The Big Combo.

Characters move up and down the huge staircase at the gambling palace. Lewis gets in camera movements both when they are on the staircase, and when they are moving through the gambling rooms. The staircase shots often center on a giant chandelier, which is full of the hanging glass prisms Lewis likes.


A number of shots are seen through a large circular magnifying glass, recalling a similar shot in the police lab in The Undercover Man.

At the gambling palace, we see through the office doors, down the hall, and through the doors of the wheel-of-fortune room. Similarly, we see the deputy through the bars of more than one cell at the jail: a cell seen through another cell.

The Rifleman: The Guest

The Guest (1963) is about a professional killer hired to assassinate Lucas. It is a grim, despair filled work: one I wish Lewis had not directed.

Lewis Subjects

Killers for hire had appeared in Secrets of a Co-Ed. The killer worms his way into Lucas' household, in ways that recall Lewis heroes that go undercover and work their ways into gangs of crooks, in A Lady Without Passport and The Wyoming Story.

The killer has a case full of weapons. They are an inventory of Lewis villains' obsession with different types of weapons: fancy guns, knives, and a garroting tool, which the assassin almost uses to kill Lucas in bed, like the killers in Invisible Ghost and The Visitor. This verges on self-parody for Lewis. The killer practices garroting with a pillow standing in for his victim: this recalls the killer stabbing the sofa in My Name Is Julia Ross.

The killer is played by Cesare Danova, previously the hero of two of Lewis' best Rifleman episodes. Danova's fancy suit recalls his even more spectacular clothes in Duel of Honor, while his white horse recalls the one he rode in Baranca. Danova becomes one of several Lewis heroes to sit with his back to a tree, here.


There is some merit in the killer's political speeches about oppression in Sicily. These recall the speech-making on political subjects in Bombs Over Burma and Day of the Hunter. Above all, they recall similar speeches made by Italian-American characters in The Undercover Man. These speeches in both The Undercover Man and The Guest deal with people forced off their land by murderous gangsters: a subject of many Lewis Westerns.

Mark talks with the killer during his political remarks. Their encounter is emotionally involving.

The Opening

The house shown at the start has peaked roofs, although it is less complex than most roof structures in Lewis. The study has an alcove, behind the desk.

The portrait painting of Chuck Connors at the start is oddly cheerful and show biz like, for such a grim story. The portrait is attacked by a knife, somewhat like the portrait in Invisible Ghost.

Near the portrait is a wall lamp, which has a ring of Lewis' favorite cut glass prisms. Lewis also gets compositional mileage out of two lamps on the villain's desk.

At one point, the hit man looks as if he is going to walk completely around the desk, like some Lewis characters in other films. But he stops half-way around the desk.

The Rifleman: Old Tony

Old Tony (1963) is the final episode of The Rifleman. It has no villains, and deals with the personal lives of the characters, in a gentle way. It shows young Mark experiencing romance, as in A Young Man's Fancy. Mark's romance is far more successful here, with a young lady that reciprocates his affection. In both episodes, Mark sings a romantic ballad on a guitar.

Mark and his girl-friend share a love of horse racing, shown in an early scene. This is like a more benevolent, less violent version of the shared passion for guns that led to romance in Gun Crazy.

Tony is another one of Lewis' characters from Eastern Europe, as in Strange Town and A Lady Without Passport.

Tony feeds young Mark and his girlfriend: one of many scenes in Lewis of men cooking food, and serving it to other men. At the end, Lucas talks about throwing a wedding banquet for young Mark at a not-too-distant future. This extends Lewis' image of men serving men, into a father giving his blessing and endorsement to his son's marriage.


The buildings at Old Tony's farm have peaked roofs. Lewis makes some of his most elaborate compositions from them. These include fixed-camera shots, and some beautiful moving camera passages down the side of the buildings.

There is also a wagon filled with hay at the farm, used for some shots with Lucas. Hay wagons appeared in The Fourflusher.

The yard in front of the house is surrounded by a white picket fence, as in some of Lewis' early B-movie Westerns.

The long take shot at the Marshal's office is staged from behind the stove. The stove pipe adds a thick diagonal to the composition. We see one of Lewis' beloved coffee pots on the stove, which is discussed in the dialogue. A shot from behind the stove had previously appeared in Death Never Rides Alone, where the stove pipe angled in a different direction.

The Gun Cult and alienation

Old Tony is unusual in Lewis, as an alienated character who finds hope, and who rejoins the human race. This is the opposite pattern from Gun Crazy. It involves him giving up his addiction to shooting people who come onto his property - a reversal of the gun cult. The young hero of Sidewinder also finds a way out of the gun cult, as does Randolph Scott in A Lawless Street.

The Song

The song is a beautiful scene. Mark's head is surrounded by pictures of roses on the chair - the same way the heroine of The Trade sat in a chair and had her head surrounded by flower pictures. And Tony is in a composition filled with circular forms. The lamp near him has hanging prisms, like the chandelier Kevin McCarthy plays with in Suspicion.

Folk music was at its peak of popularity in the United States at this time, and Mark's sincere rendition of "Greensleeves" on the guitar fits right in. The popular folk music TV series Hootenanny debuted in April 1963, shortly before Old Tony aired. (A collection of excerpts from Hootenanny is now available on DVD.)

Lewis displays the same reverence here for folk music, as he did for classical in The Big Combo.

The Swamp

Mark gets back to a small riverside, as he did in The Shattered Idol. In both shows, this lyrical river imagery is presented as an idealized image of growing up. It includes an over-arching tree branch, under which Mark sleeps. Surrounding is a conifer forest, like the one in Day of the Hunter.

But beyond the river lies the swamp. The swamp is a place of death, as in the finale of Gun Crazy. The hero and heroine wind up trapped here, alone and facing death, as in Gun Crazy. They both keep getting pulled deeper into quicksand, the lower part of their bodies dragging them down - perhaps a metaphor for the perils of sexuality.

Rescuers keep hearing the voices of those trapped in quicksand - but do not see the trapped themselves. This is a reversal of Gun Crazy, where the trapped heard voices of the people pursuing them.

The quicksand imagery also recalls the characters buried up to their heads in the ground (Waste, The Bullet). The quicksand is surrounded by tufts of tall grasses, as in Gun Crazy.

In Gun Crazy, the arrival of male friends from the hero's childhood triggers the hero's final descent into death. But in Old Tony, the father's arrival saves the hero and heroine. This is a reversal of Lewis' pattern. It establishes a paradigm for Mark and Lucas' future life: Mark will get married, with Lucas' blessing. But he will still need dear old Dad around, to help him and his bride out of trouble. If there had been later seasons of The Rifleman, we might have seen shows like this. But they were not to be.

The Fat Man: The Thirty-Two Friends of Gina Lardelli

The Fat Man (1958?) is the unsold, hour-long pilot for a proposed TV detective series. This was based on the radio series (1946-1951) created by Dashiell Hammett.

Had The Fat Man sold, the name of the series would have been The Fat Man, and the name of this particular episode would have been The Thirty-Two Friends of Gina Lardelli. Long, literary titles were in vogue in American drama TV series circa 1960.

When was The Fat Man made?

I have no idea when The Fat Man was made. From the clothes, one would guess 1960, give or take a few years. The little known actor Tony Travis, who plays the hero's young assistant, only worked in Hollywood during the years 1956-1961, according to the IMDB. Patrick Sexton, who played Charley the chauffeur, similarly worked from 1954-1961. And Lewis himself started directing TV only in 1958, after retiring from feature film making, by all accounts. A date of 1958-1961 is in exact accord with the clothes worn by the characters.

There is a copyright date in small print in the opening credits. As best as I can make out the lettering on the DVD print, the date is MCMLVIII, that is, 1958. However, I'm just guessing about the VIII part of the date, which is blurry. It might well say IX, making the date 1959. Or something else.

The end credits say that the film is part of Screen Gems' 10th Anniversary celebration. There were several film companies known as "Screen Gems" over the years. The Wikipedia says that the TV company known as Screen Gems started in 1948. Its tenth anniversay would also therefore be in 1958.

If Lewis made The Fat Man in 1958, it might be the first TV show he directed, before his first Rifleman episode (broadcast November 1958).


The Fat Man is in the tradition of 1940's film noir. There are script echoes of The Big Sleep, with the police fishing a body out of the ocean, while the private eye hero watches along with his policeman buddy. And The Naked City, with a murdered party girl who lived in a fancy apartment, and who is mourned by her poor family.

The Fat Man also reflects TV shows. The popular Western series Have Gun, Will Travel featured an intellectual hero who was also an expert on fine living. Echoes can be seen in the detective hero of The Fat Man.


Several characters recall Lewis traditions:

While the characters in The Fat Man have links with Lewis types, they are also new original departures. These are the first private eye characters in Lewis, if memory serves. And the private eye is also the first full-fledged intellectual hero in Lewis. He emerges in an era in American history when intellectuals were most prized. The previous most intellectual hero in Lewis, Glenn Ford's animal psychology professor in The Return of October, is a far more comic figure. The two do live in similar digs: apartments full of stylish furniture and book-lined shelves.

There are no scenes of romance for either the detective hero, or his young assistant. In fact, the film gives no clear indication whether these heroes are straight or gay. The same is true of the mobster and his chauffeur-henchman. Only the victim and her boyfriend have any romance in The Fat Man. This is different from William Castle's 1951 feature film version of The Fat Man, in which the heterosexual detective hero is shown enjoying dancing with a beautiful woman.

Castle's hero is also far earthier and lower brow than Lewis'. The comic, clownish assistant in Castle has been replaced with a serious, leading man type in Lewis, as well.

The relationship between the detective and his assistant, initially recalls that between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, in Rex Stout's mystery novels. The two bicker, and the assistant enters into complex negotiations with the detective, to get him to take the case, just like Archie and Wolfe. However, this aspect of their relationship is not emphasized in the later parts of the film. Also, unlike Archie and Wolfe, who share a brownstone home, the assistant in The Fat Man has his own apartment, and does not live with the detective hero.

Reflection and Recursion

The script of The Fat Man often has the characters talking about the events, commenting on the film - from within the film. This is quite unusual in movies. This reaches a peak in the music scene, where the hero describes the structure of the mystery plot in terms of a Bach theme and variations. It also appears in his analysis of the heroine's acting and costuming. The scenes in which the mother and sister discuss the heroine's psychology also approach this recursive quality.

Seeing the TV news program being shot, and later broadcast, also is an unusual construction: a film being made within the film.

The dialogue in which the detective tells the boyfriend that he will be judged by a Higher Power, remind one of the scene in The Deserter in which Lucas tells the "by the book Lieutenant" than the young deserter also has a Book.


Detection in The Fat Man is different from other Lewis films. Typically the Lewis hero gathers evidence, then makes skilled, specific deductions from it. In The Fat Man, however, the detective makes no such concrete deductive steps. Instead, he analyzes the situation as a whole, and makes an insight into its overall structure. He gets this insight in a single step, after playing a piece of music.

Such overall insights are most closely linked to such prose mystery writers as Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen.

Mutual Aid

The poor people who band together to help the victim and her family, show Lewis' advocacy of mutual aid. There is perhaps a reflection of left-wing, pacifist anarchism in Lewis' glorification of mutual aid as a social principle. As in Terror in a Texas Town, where the street protest is blessed by the local minister, in The Fat Man mutal aid is linked to religious conviction. The Fat Man is careful to include a character with a Jewish-sounding name ("Papa Weinstein") among the poor allies: this religious conviction is ecumenical, and embraces people of different religious faiths.

Classical Music

The music in Lewis films is diverse: cowboy songs, big band, folk music. The Fat Man recalls The Big Combo in employing classical music. Both films have modern urban settings, with educated characters - the sort of background that Lewis seems to associate with classical music. Unlike The Big Combo, in The Fat Man composers are named, and discussed in detail.

Around 1960, the Baroque Revival was a cutting edge movement in the classical music world. This is the sort of music being played in The Fat Man. The hero's harpsichord was an instrument being rediscovered and much loved, by intellectuals who liked classical music in this period.

The reference to Van Gogh also reflects the zeitgeist. Van Gogh was a culture hero to many American young people at this time, especially college students.

Camera Movement

There are some creative camera movements:


Lewis architectural features appear in The Fat Man:

The most unusual architectural feature in The Fat Man is the picture window at the hero's apartment. This enables suspense. Every time some stranger shows up, we see an ominous, blurry figure through the window, on the way to the hero's door. This approach is not something I recall seeing in any other film. Lewis also showed creativity with windows, in the remarkable finale of So Dark the Night.

The first shot after the credits, is of two apartment houses with spectacular geometric facades. A sidewalk appears below them, at an angle to the street. This is a remarkable geometric composition. The modernistic feel of the cityscape, anticipates the streets and strange building under construction in L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962). The shots of the car being fished out of the water also anticipate the Antonioni film.

Newspapers and photographs are used throughout, to tell the story of the film.


The villain's henchman wears a chauffeur's uniform, as part of his bodyguard duty. He is not really a genuine chauffeur, just as the police officer in chauffeur's uniform in So Dark the Night is also a member of the police. Both chauffeur uniforms are quite militaristic.

He soon changes into a regular suit. This recalls other Lewis villains who frequently change their clothes, typically to pull off various crimes.

When the assistant wears his TV repairman disguise, the camera moves straight down his back, and past him to the strange newspapers on the floor: a truly unusual camera movement. Rear views of gunslingers are common in Lewis, and the assistant seems to be a variation on this. Soon, there is a more conventional, full figure view of the assistant from the back, in his repairman costume.

The policeman from the pier is also seen from the rear. He is in a black uniform, making him similar to Lewis gunslingers. There are also men in all-white clothes, linked to their professions: the chef and the doctor.

The assistant helps the detective take off his apron. This perhaps links to scenes in Lewis of men forcing other men to change clothes - although this scene differs in the detective asking the assistant for help.

The boyfriend is seen in a photo in a swimsuit, one of many Lewis men filmed shirtless.

Alcoa Theatre: Corporal Hardy

Corporal Hardy (1959) is a half-hour episode of the TV anthology series Alcoa Theatre. It takes place during the US Civil War.

Corporal Hardy is based on the short story of the same title, "Corporal Hardy". Its author Richard Ely Danielson was an editor at the famed literary magazine The Atlantic Monthly. "Corporal Hardy" appeared in The Atlantic Monthly (November 1938). The phrases "obscure author" or "forgotten author" are over-used today. But they certainly apply to Richard Ely Danielson, who has sunk into obscurity.

A nine-minute excerpt from the TV episode Corporal Hardy has shown up on the Internet. I watched it. I have been unable to find the whole episode.

Lewis Subjects

The excerpt contains some Lewis subjects and themes:

Visual Style

Unfortunately the excerpt of Corporal Hardy shows only a little of Lewis' visual style. Some Lewis visual style:

The Detectives: The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place (1959) is the first of two known episodes of The Detectives TV series directed by Lewis. The show marks Lewis' first chance to do a contemporary police crime story since The Big Combo (1955). It's an absorbing story - and one that is definitely off trail within Lewis' work.

Lewis subjects

The plot has the police trying to get a shy little boy to speak up, and tell the location of a device planted by a mad bomber. This plot embodies a number of Lewis subjects:


The police get a lucky break at the start: a tip from an informer that a bomber is hatching a scheme. From that point on, all further advances in police knowledge are due to rational thinking and investigation. Step by step, throughout the film, each new discovery and investigative action, leads logically to the next. This is consistent with Lewis' emphasis throughout his filmmaking career, on investigation and step by step discovery of the truth.

However, The Hiding Place is long on standard police procedure, and short on anything that can be seen as "reasoning from the evidence". The feats of deductive logic performed by detectives in other Lewis films are largely absent from The Hiding Place.

Sketches of a suspect, and Wanted notices in the paper, are two Lewis motifs that return in The Hiding Place. While the use of sketching in So Dark the Night was a premise for detailed deductive reasoning by the detective hero, in The Hiding Place sketching has a standard police procedural use, in created Wanted portraits to help police searches and public information. It is highly effective, and plays its part in the chain of investigation that runs through The Hiding Place. But it is not used here for actual logical deduction or reasoning.

Police Technology

We see police technology in The Hiding Place, but paradoxically, it is not much used to solve the crime. Instead, it shows up as toys for the kid to play with! The lie detector machine, treated as a toy here, recalls its serious use in The Big Combo.

The police use radio phones to help with the search.

The bright light the police shine on the bomber during interrogation, recalls the light the heroine shines on the villain at the end of The Big Combo.

The police are in black uniforms. Lewis frequently has characters in all-black clothes, especially Western gunslingers. Lewis often shoots gunslingers from the rear - and we get rear views of the uniformed cops here. One motorcycle cop appears three times in the background, always seen from behind. His boots are prominent.


The Hiding Place resembles a bit the Semi-documentary films popular in the 1945-1954 era. It shares such features as: However, unlike many of the original semi-docs, the police in The Hiding Place are not an elite unit, rather being a group of "typical" cops. Nor do the police go undercover.


The Hiding Place is rich in urban landscape photography. It especially looks at waste areas, full of ruins of old buildings. These recall the ruined Korean city in Retreat, Hell!. That city was devastated by the Korean War, while here we have unexplained ruins, probably just routinely demolished. Other aspects of the film also recall Retreat, Hell!, with a hierarchical team of government men working together on a goal, and issues of war and peace taking a role in the plot.

Other Lewis architectural features play a part:

Camera movement

Camera movement follows the bomb carried by the villain, the way Lewis Westerns often follow a holster.

There are a pair of camera movements, the first of which shows the cops leaving on the elevator, and then moves over to a close look at the kid. The second camera movement, starts out on the kid, then pulls back, to show the cops returning on the elevator. Lewis camera movements frequently come in pairs. And such pairs typically follow similar paths in reverse, often showing characters coming, then going along a path. This particular pair is somewhat in this tradition. But the pair is unusual in that it does not follow one person, but rather splits its focus between two groups, the cops and the kid.

The Detectives TV series

The Detectives TV series (1959-1962) follows a team of cops around a city that looks like Los Angeles (and was probably shot there). The series seems indebted to Dragnet (1951-1959), the archetypal LA police procedural. However, it is unclear whether the city in The Detectives was ever actually identified onscreen as Los Angeles. We see palm trees, bright sunshine, and lots of cops in black LAPD style uniforms. But no one ever seems to use the words "Los Angeles".

With an ancestor in the right wing Dragnet, and star billing given to actor and anti-Communist crusader Robert Taylor, one would expect The Detectives to be a conservative show. Wrong! The Hiding Place, at least, reflects the same liberal, pacifist convictions as the rest of Lewis.

The Detectives came from the same producers who did The Rifleman, and the same Four Star production company. So, it is not too surprising that The Detectives would (at least in this episode) echo the same mix of liberal values and tough guy characters found in The Rifleman.

The Detectives also resembles a feature film Vice Squad (1953), a look at a sympathetic police team and their cases, shot on the streets of Los Angeles. Vice Squad was directed by Arnold Laven, one of the three producers of The Detectives and The Rifleman, and produced by the other two. The look of The Detectives seems very close to Vice Squad.

The Hiding Place is the third episode broadcast of The Detectives.

The Investigators: The Oracle

The Oracle (1961) is one of the few surviving episodes of the detective TV series The Investigators. It is perhaps the ONLY surviving episode. The currently surviving print of The Oracle has no writer, director or technical credits. As of this writing (2023) no one knows for certain whether Lewis directed The Oracle or not.

Thirteen episodes of The Investigators were broadcast on CBS during late 1961. For many years the IMDb has credited them ALL to Joseph H. Lewis.

The Oracle mainly consists of long dialogue scenes on studio sets. It is possible that it was filmed very quickly.

The sets of The Oracle are opulent, some of the most stylish of their era for an American crime drama.

Social Commentary

Michael Shonk's 2015 article on The Investigators and The Oracle is at Mystery*File. In it he claims that The Investigators contains the first known woman licenced private investigator on American television. This is Maggie Peters, played by actress Mary Murphy. Her character is central to The Oracle. The actress is one of the three main co-stars of The Investigators. Her character runs throughout the entire series, as best as one can tell from what facts survive about this show.

The Oracle ends with elaborate commentary on the issues it raises about the paranormal and mediums.

Social commentary of all sorts is prominent in Lewis' work.

Visual Style Recalling Lewis

What does the study of the print of The Oracle indicate? It does indeed have some standard Lewis tropes.

A corridor has a metal rail with two curling features, that are near spirals! Spirals, especially in metalwork, are virtually a Lewis signature.

Depth staging. A bar scene has mild depth staging: we see characters deep along the bar.

Circles. James Franciscus' office has a globe, and what might be a barometer (with circles) above it on the wall.

The consultation room has a small circular table. Above it is a mainly spherical light fixture, covered with a geometric design of many small circles.

Camera movement. There is a fair amount of simple camera movement, following characters as they move around a room. None of this is elaborate as Lewis at his best.

Subjects Recalling Lewis

Persistent Lewis characters include "Suave, confident villains with (usually) two thug-like henchmen to carry out their orders", as I put it in the list that opens this article. The Oracle has characters who meet this definition exactly. The diabolical villain Joseph Lombard (played by top British character actor John Williams) is suave and confident. And he has two frightening henchmen, who seem mainly killers. They are dressed in good suits in Hollywood hitman tradition, but otherwise seem like lowbrow thugs. According to dialogue, both men have criminal records.

Lewis plot: "People who change their identity". The detective heroine does this when she goes undercover. And the plot stresses that the crook started out as two-bit conman Walter Mims, then changed his name to become the big-time Oracle. Both undercover heroes and crooks with schemes, are common among Lewis characters who change their identities.

Lewis plot: "Truth emerges in mirror". In an odd way, this perhaps happens in The Oracle. But it is unlike other such Lewis films, where looking into a mirror one sees a reflection of the truth.

Lewis plot: "Genuine detection, with slow, step by step uncovering of truth". This happens when the detective hero and heroine slowly figure out how the Oracle gets his information during consultations. As usual in Lewis, this is a difficult, step by step process that requires hard thinking.

Lewis plot: "Detectives and reasoners as heroes". By definition, this is true of The Oracle, and every episode of The Investigators - it's a detective show!

Lewis plot: "People murdered at night". This happens midway in the episode.

Lewis plot: "White clothes linked to a profession". The Oracle wears a white robe.

Lewis plot: "Heroes who take their shirts off". The Oracle has his shirt off, near the end. He's not the hero, though.

Lewis plot: "Coffee". The comic epilog features a male private eye character asking everyone else if they want coffee.

Lewis plot: "Louisiana". At the end, the private eye heroine eagerly takes a case in New Orleans, because she wants to visit that city.

Lewis plot: "One character shining a light on another". The Oracle certainly gets a strong spotlight shown on him, during his rallies. But we do NOT see another character shine this spotlight on him.

Lewis storytelling features: "Signs", "photos". Both signs and photos appear throughout. The poster of the Oracle, frequently shown, combines a verbal sign with a photo. The photo of a woman also appears in a newspaper.

Lewis storytelling features: "Filmed news". The detectives study a filmed TV news record of the Oracle.

Lewis theme: "Open mindedness as a virtue". SPOILERS. The repentant Oracle at the end, chews out his followers for preferring easy lies to the truth.

Lewis theme: "Support for religion and the clergy". There are no clergy in The Oracle. But the finale of The Oracle is strongly pro-religion.

All of the above tropes could have been added by Lewis during pre-production of The Oracle. Lewis would not have to have been present on the set, physically directing the film.


The heroine's undercover role recalls the semi-documentary film tradition. But little else does. The heroes do not use technology - although the villains do.

Bonanza: The Quality of Mercy

The Quality of Mercy (1963) is a disappointment from Lewis. His only episode of the Western TV series Bonanza, the film only shows a little of Lewis' visual creativity.

The Quality of Mercy is relentlessly grim and depressing. Series hero Little Joe is made the unwelcome confidant of a friend's guilty secret at the show's start, then spends the next hour in anguish and guilt about not speaking up. Joe eventually wakes up screaming from nightmares, understandably enough in the circumstances. The show is no fun for the viewer, either. It is definitely not recommended.

The Quality of Mercy reminds one the most of The Spoiler (1960), among Lewis' other films - an equally unpleasant work. Both star a nice young guy burdened against his will with a horrible secret, and both heroes wake up screaming from nightmares. Both shows have a guest villain who is unpleasantly nasty. These villains are handsome, boy next door looking guys, who seem defective inside, missing things like decency or normal human responses. Oddly enough, the actors who play these villains, Skip Homeier and Richard Rust, are perhaps best known to Western fans for appearing together in Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher, 1960). They also played villains in that film - and once again, their characters seemed oddly lacking inside. Rust, the bad guy in The Quality of Mercy, also played a Syndicate man in Underworld U.S.A. (Samuel Fuller, 1961). His villain was handsome, personable, full of All American good looks, well-dressed - and utterly without any moral center. Rust's characters reveal the fear that the social ideal of the time might be concealing a monstrous void.

Late in the film we see Joe with a book, making him one of many Lewis heroes who like to read. And the villain likes to gamble, as do many Lewis bad guys.


The subject of The Quality of Mercy is a mercy killing: euthanasia. The film eventually takes an anti-euthanasia position. I am not qualified to discuss this ethically complicated subject. But I want to insist that my dislike for this film is not based on any attempt to censor or hide Lewis' position or political arguments. Honest! I just found this to be a grim and depressing film.

Lewis' condemnation of euthanasia here is consistent with the treatment of the ill throughout his career. Lewis films are full of sick and injured people, who other characters try to nurse back to health. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they fail and the patient dies. But they always give it their best shot.

Camera Movement

There are a few mildly interesting camera movements in The Quality of Mercy, although they are far from Lewis' best:

Lewis touches in the interlude

There are a few nice Lewis touches in three consecutive scenes in the middle of the show. These scenes form a lighter hearted, more upbeat section in an otherwise grim film.


Joe rides a black-and-white horse, like some other Lewis cowboy heroes.

Little Joe's green clothes have few precedents in Lewis. They might be related to actor Michael Landon's teen idol status. In comic books, green suits are associated with very young man, comic characters: Johnny Thunder, Jimmy Olsen.

Daniel Boone: Pompey

Pompey (1964) is Lewis' look at slavery. Pompey was made at the height of the Civil Rights era, and must have carried a political charge to viewers of its time.

Pompey does not try to show the "horrors of slavery". It does show slaves' burning desire to be free, including a powerful opening of a slave escape. Daniel Boone was a Western TV series aimed at children, in an era in which explicit material was rarely seen, and never where young people could see. Any attempt at a Roots-style expose of life under slavery would have been considered inappropriate for young viewers. Taking a firm moral stance in favor of black people was courageous in itself for its era.

Lewis themes

Pompey also breaks ground by showing a black man as a Western hero. The scene where he battles the Indian chief is one of Lewis' trademark "duels with strange weapons".

Pompey blends eerily with many of Lewis' personal story obsessions. The fact that Pompey was kidnapped from his home in Africa, and forced into a new identity and name as a slave, links his story to My Name Is Julia Ross and The Stand-In. There is more about new identities later in the story.

And Pompey's escape from slavery recalls, in a far more politically significant way, all the Lewis characters who run away from home, often to escape a nightmarish situation there.

Pompey's tale is also linked to the Lewis theme of anti-hunting. The lesson the little boy learns about how it is wrong to imprison a wild animal as a pet, is linked in a speech Daniel gives about how wrong it is to imprison humans or animals. Lewis' thoughts about nature are here linked to a human social issue, anti-slavery.

Daniel Boone does not discover Pompey by chance. Instead, like many Lewis heroes, Daniel uses real detective work to track Pompey down. Daniel even solves a mystery (who took the blacksmith tools).

Boonesborough is among the smallest of towns that Lewis explores. The finale takes place at the gates of the town wall, like the gate scenes at the fort in 7th Cavalry. The last shot shows Boone moving from the foreground at the gates, to the back of the image, in the Lewis manner.

The wages that Pompey gets for working for Daniel Boone, a rifle, knife and set of buckskins, are more often associated with Lewis villains. Bad guys in Lewis become obsessed with guns or knives. And fringed cowboy outfits are usually associated with dubious characters in Lewis, not heroes like Daniel Boone and Pompey. This makes for an odd reversal in Pompey.

The spiritual at the beginning is powerful. It is sung softly and gently, but with tremendous power, like the rendition of "Greensleeves" in Old Tony. Spirituals were often sung as part of the folk music movement that was sweeping the country at this time; both it and "Greensleeves" reflect this folk music era.

A Historical Film

Pompey takes place a long time before most Westerns. It has a completely different look. We see a street in colonial Salem, pioneer households, a primitive tavern and stockade, and Native Americans in traditional clothes and ornamentation. All of this comes from the show's art direction team, not from Lewis, of course. The script also emphasizes such historical features of the period.

Pompey re-creates a world that has never been much in cinematic fashion. Films about the US Revolutionary War, for example, are notorious for being box office flops. For every film set in this era, there must be a hundred Westerns set in the 1866-1899 time frame. Imitation Colonial furniture was big in the 1960's in the United States, though. Imitation spinning wheels and milk churns, of the kind used by Patricia Blair in this film, were for sale everywhere at cheap prices in the 1960's.

Many of the characters in most Lewis Westerns are living lives that have modern counterparts. The Rifleman is a cattle rancher, and his town has a storekeeper, banker, hotel clerk, bartender, etc. But nobody in Pompey is living a life that survives into modern times. Daniel Boone and his friends and family are pioneers, Pompey is an escaped slave, the show's villain-of-sorts is an indentured servant, and the Native Americans are living a purely traditional culture.

Those awful credits

By the way, the title credit sequence of Daniel Boone is surely something with which Lewis had nothing to do (the credits were part of the TV series long before he showed up to make Pompey). That's a good thing, because the cringe-inducing credits show Boone shooting first a bear, then an Indian, with the casualness of a man running up to a grocery store for a bottle of milk. All of this is accompanied by a song that celebrates "Daniel Boone was a man, yes a big man!" Even as a kid, I was always turned off by this celebration of height and machismo, on the few times I watched the show.

Patricia Blair

During the last season of The Rifleman (1962-1963), Patricia Blair had starred in the continuing role of the hotel owner and romantic interest for hero Lucas. She played an Irish spitfire (remember Maureen O'Hara), a woman with fierce passions and temperament, as well as being a highly skilled businesswoman. Her character had her biggest roles in Lewis-directed episodes in I Take This Woman (1962) and Sidewinder (1963).

Blair moved on to another continuing role in a TV Western, as Daniel Boone's wife in the Daniel Boone series. Here in Pompey, she is just as fiery as ever. She threatens anybody who will try to enforce slave escape laws on her husband Daniel. Her character is another one of Lewis' "decent women who stand by their man who is in trouble".

Branded: The Vindicators

The Vindicators (1965) is the only episode of Branded directed by Lewis. The hero of Branded is falsely tagged as a deserter from a battle with Native Americans, and is treated as a coward and an outcast everywhere he goes out West. This is similar to the premise of Lewis' feature, 7th Cavalry (1956), and The Journey Back.

In his book, Francis M. Nevins says that this was the pilot for Branded. This is plausible, because it contains the complete back story of the hero. It was the second episode of the series actually broadcast; but the first show shown was just another episode of the series, with nothing in the way of setting up the hero's life story.

The Plot - and The Rifleman

Startlingly, the plot of The Vindicators is a combination of that of three Lewis-directed episodes of The Rifleman: The plot links are close: Put these three plots together, and you have The Vindicators! And the basic series premise of Branded. The Indian massacre in Branded takes place at Bitter Creek, rather than Willow Creek, as in The Rifleman, and is now an encounter with the Apache. (There is also the town called Willow Springs in The Actress, and a different Willow Springs in Night of the Wolf, but they have nothing to do with war, the Cavalry or Indians. Instead, both are places of romantic disillusionment.)

While a guest star was the man accused of cowardice in The Journey Back, here in Branded it is series star Chuck Connors himself. Before that, in Lewis' feature film Western 7th Cavalry, the hero was also a Cavalryman unjustly accused of being responsible for an Indian massacre, this time, no less than Custer's Last Stand.

In 7th Cavalry, The Deserter and The Journey Back, Harry Carey, Jr. plays a likable young Cavalry officer who befriends the hero. In The Vindicators, Harry Carey, Jr. is back in essentially the same role.

As Yogi Berra once said, "it is deja vu all over again".

The concern with "men running away" is the reverse of The Undercover Man, and its praise for people who "stand by their post of duty".

A Lewis detective story

The Vindicators is a detective story, in part, with the newspaper writer trying to track down the truth, and using technology (photography) to collect evidence. It is far more ironical than any other Lewis detective tale, in its development.

The burning letters that contain the truth will recur in The Man from Nowhere.

Connors challenges the little boy, as to how he knows his ideas are true. This is a Lewis-like moment, emphasizing the difficulty of reaching truth.

The Vindicators criticizes people for accepting the conventional idea that Connors is guilty. Conventional thinking is sinister in Lewis.

Lewis subjects

The Vindicators contains a number of Lewis subjects:

Its concern with preventing Indian wars embodies both Lewis' anti-war beliefs, and his support for minority groups.

Here, for the first time in Lewis, Chuck Connors plays a social outsider, rather than his Rifleman role of a man who bonds with and supports social outsiders.

The hero was in a coma for ten days after the massacre, but regained his health.

The wife is in mourning for her husband, and laments that he has no grave site: another look at mourning and its rituals in Lewis.

Rectilinear Buildings

The opening is an overhead pan through a Western town, unusually rectilinear in architecture for Lewis, like a Mondrian painting - no peaked roofs. This shot is something new in Lewis' work.

The exteriors at Lockhart's home also emphasize rectilinear buildings. These have gently sloping roofs, and we get various regions of rectangular windows and roof sections. These farm shots, like those in the town, show Lewis experimenting with a different visual style in his exterior backgrounds.

The Flashback

The flashback to Bitter Creek is fast paced, and rapidly edited, with jumps in continuity. Much more so than a typical Hollywood film flashback, I'm guessing (I have no actual statistics on flashback construction). It almost resembles something out of Resnais, at times. This is one of the few flashbacks I can recall in Lewis.

The flashback contains shots in which Connors runs from the front of a shot to its back, and shots where soldiers move from back to front.

There is also a lateral track of Connors running, with a series of tents making foreground objects in front.

The flashback is full of fire imagery. It has a shock cut to the shot of the flying fireball, one of the more startling images in Lewis.


Despite the utterly personal nature of its plot, The Vindicators is fairly middling in execution. The long dialogue scenes inside June Lockhart's home have only a little visual interest. Connors is photographed against a hanging rope curtain of unusual geometric design.

Lewis gives it the old college try, with long take camera movements in the Western town. There is a long take up the street as the characters walk, a simple, standard, none-too-unusual kind of camera movement. There are swinging doors on the saloon, some staircases against which Connors is photographed, and shots though the windows of a barber shop and a telegraph office - all Lewis favorites.

Claude Akins' reporter is introduced as an off-screen voice. As usual in Lewis, this is a sign of a menacing character.

In The Vindicators, we see the hero's distinctive black-and-white horse not unlike the horse Bob Baker rode way back in such early Lewis Westerns as The Last Stand (1938). The hero of Branded will be that Western character, the solitary cowboy who roams the West with his horse. This is different from The Rifleman, where the lead had no distinctive horse, and often drove a wagon.

Branded: The Opening Credits

I don't know whether Lewis directed the series opening credits of Branded, showing Chuck Connors being drummed out of the Cavalry. This sequence has many Lewis techniques and subjects. It: Do all these images, common in Lewis, prove he directed the sequence? Who knows? The "background to foreground walk", with the swinging doors, is wonderfully staged.

The color version of the credits has red sand underneath the players. This recalls the colorful road in A Lawless Street, which is pink and gold.

Francis M. Nevins' book states that Lewis originally intended the flying fireball, now part of the flashback sequence in The Vindicators, to be used in the series opening credits of Branded. This perhaps makes it a bit likelier that Lewis directed the actual series opening we see today.



Both in the opening credits, and Branded show, Connors has a drastically different hair style than he wore as the Rifleman. It was reportedly created to help differentiate his new character. It does that. But it is also one of the most awful hair styles of the 1960's.

Connors' clothes are also different from those he wore on The Rifleman, with loose fitting jackets and chaps, two kinds of clothes he almost never wore before. They too look terrible. This is not ineptness on the costume designer's part: Frank Tauss created much better clothes for guest stars in early episodes of Branded, such as Alex Cord's pretty cowboy outfit in the latter part of Survival, and Jason Evers' long black leather coat in The Test. One has to conclude that Connors is deliberately trying to look terrible. His clothes convey the impression that he is a desperately poor social outcast, who is dressed one step above rags. After all, this is precisely the character that Connors is portraying. Connors was a big TV star, and he owned a piece of Branded, so he is in full control of what he is doing here. It is unusual to see a big star who deliberately tries to be the worst dressed man on his TV series.


I had not seen Branded since I was a kid. It has a catchy theme song, which I can still sing; so could all the other kids in my neighborhood.

I also remember a terrific Mad Magazine spoof, called "BrandXed" (Mad Magazine #102, April 1966).

Gunsmoke: One Killer on Ice

One Killer on Ice (1965) shows a limitless number of Lewis themes and visual stylings. Despite this, the story as a whole does not seem especially personal for Lewis: a paradox.

What seems most personal is the over all construction of the plot. This is one of those Lewis tales, in which the hidden personal lives and backgrounds of the characters are continuously revealed. Towards the end, some genuine detection by Marshal Dillon and his friends takes over. These features of Richard Carr's script certainly must have appealed to Lewis.

The Marshal and Anderson take a journey into dangerous territory, a bit like the two leads in Cry of the Hunted.

The Marshal's statement, "I never make snap judgments about strangers", is typical of the open mindedness preached by Lewis.

Lewis subjects:

Imagery: Camera movement: Depth staging:

John Drew Barrymore - and Mods

John Drew Barrymore is best known to auteurists for The Big Night (Joseph Losey, 1951) and While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956).

Barrymore played an amusing Beat-era hipster in High School Confidential (Jack Arnold, 1958). His character's appearance in One Killer on Ice is spectacularly Mod, with a fancy Swinging Sixties suit, longer hair and beard. This is the only really Mod-looking character I've seen in Lewis; his other 1960's Westerns tend to concentrate on traditional "cowboy leading man" styles. Rex Holman's villain "Billy Graves" in Death Never Rides Alone (1962) has perhaps a hint of this sort of fancy Sixties wear. Despite Barrymore's "Carnaby Street out West" look, his character does NOT seem to represent or symbolize the Counter Culture. His villainy derives instead from motives common in Lewis villains through the decades:

Gunsmoke: Thursday's Child

Troubled Families

Thursday's Child (1965) is the second of two episodes Lewis directed of Gunsmoke. It can be seen as part of a late Lewis series on family troubles: All of the above films seem like lesser Lewis works: some of the poorest films he made for television. Thursday's Child is better than all of them, but not a classic. All of these films are relentlessly grim - despite the presence of the great comedienne Jean Arthur in Thursday's Child.

Thursday's Child has moments when its parent-child conflicts echo The Halliday Brand. So does the scene of fires getting set.

The "outlaw couple on the run" subject recalls the last third of Gun Crazy, although the two films are quite different in feel. In Gun Crazy, the fairly "normal" hero has to cope with his extreme outlaw wife. In The Spoiler and Thursday's Child, this is turned into family tragedy, with honest parents coping with extreme outlaw children. The big focus in The Spoiler is on the father, although the mother is present; in Thursday's Child, the focus is on the mother. The finale with the hostage in Thursday's Child recalls an incident at the sister's house in Gun Crazy. And the very end of Thursday's Child recalls the climaxes of both Gun Crazy and The Spoiler.

Several Lewis films are about parents who abandon children. The son in Thursday's Child is in the early stages of doing so. We get an up close look at how ugly this is.

The son is one of many Lewis characters who have run away from home. He uses a new name, but it is not really clear he is using a "new identity", like many Lewis characters.

Lewis Themes

Thursday's Child continues such Lewis themes as caring for the sick, and funeral rituals.

Thursday's Child offers a variation of "people held hostage in their homes": the heroine is held captive not in her own home, but in her son's.

Both the heroine Julie and her friend Miss Kitty are examples of Lewis working women. We learn that Julie was once Miss Kitty's mentor.

Doc is another Lewis hero who reads. There is also a newspaper shown near Matt Dillon, while he reads some sort of document at his desk.

Doc's struggle to get food for the baby, perhaps relates to Lewis' "men who cook for and feed other men". His choice of food, brown sugar and condensed milk, perhaps reflects Lewis' love of sweets.


Festus deduces that Doc is involved with a new baby, because he sees him buying food Doc has used for such babies in the past. This is real, but very simple, detective work. Earlier, Festus figures out that Doc is courting the heroine. Aside from this, there is not much detection in Thursday's Child.

Many Lewis films have characters who heroically resist telling what they know. By contrast, it is easy for Festus to get Doc to speak up, and for Matt to then get Festus to speak. Both men really want to speak.

There is a government manhunt for the bad guy - but all we see of it are some soldiers riding by, and a verbal account from Matt.

Trees - and Camera Movement

There are two parallel camera movements, showing people arrive at the shack. Both view the characters from behind a row of trees in the foreground.

Other outdoor scenes have trees in the background. Matt and Festus track down Doc, in a scene that opens with a complex camera movement through a dead tree. Then the camera moves over to a landscape with living trees in the background. This becomes one of Lewis' pleasing compositions with trees.

Doc escapes by walking through tall vegetation. There are two shots.


Lewis has fun with the staircases at the saloon, and outside Doc's office. Both are involved with camera movement: a Lewis tradition.

The staircase at the saloon is at the left-hand wall, leading up to a landing on top. This is similar to the architecture in My Name Is Julia Ross.

A Long Take

A sustained long take combined with camera movement shows the characters holed up in the shack. Lewis' lateral camera moves gently follow Doc as he moves around the table: a kind of complex Lewis camera movement that also occurs in other Lewis films. Doc also gets some of Lewis' ubiquitous coffee from the stove.

But the shot does not stop there. It keeps going while Lewis turns his view of the room to an angle. Much discussion follows in this second part of the shot.

The Funeral

After the funeral, there is a striking shot that combines three Lewis motifs:

The Journey

One sequence is of higher visual quality than most of the rest of the film. This sequence, which occurs early on, starts with the heroine finding a note in her bedroom, and ends with her arrival in the shack.

The bedroom scene consists of two fairly long takes, linked by a dissolve. The two shots are perhaps the most beautiful in the movie:

There are some nice nocturnes, showing back alleys of Dodge City. Unlike The Rifleman and other Lewis, light comes not from street lamps, but from windows.

The journey takes place at night, through trees. This recalls the magical forest journey sequence in Border Wolves. The trees are thinner and more widely spaced in Thursday's Child, perhaps reflecting the locations available to Lewis. The scene is thus less fairy tale like than the earlier film, but it is touching all the same.

Intermixed with the journey, is a morning scene of Doc and Festus back in town. Even though Festus is a good guy and detective figure, he is linked to imagery often associated with bad guys in Lewis: huge boots, and whittling with a knife. Both the piece of wood he's whittling and his huge hat seem like phallic symbols, as does his knife. Festus also wears huge spurs, usually linked in Lewis to comic, exaggerated characters like Festus.

Doc has a sign by his office staircase, one supported by spiral metalwork.

A shot that starts at Doc's staircase turns into a camera movement following Doc and Festus walking through the town. This recalls a bit some of the Rifleman camera movements through North Fork, although it is shorter and shows fewer buildings.

The Last Shot

The last shot shows two Lewis favorites: a building with a triangular peaked roof, and a well in the background.

A Man Called Shenandoah: Incident at Dry Creek

Incident at Dry Creek (1965) is the first of three episodes Lewis is known to have directed, of the Western TV series A Man Called Shenandoah. This series starred Robert Horton, as a man suffering from amnesia, searching the West for his forgotten identity.

Incident at Dry Creek seems like a minor Lewis work. The story is fairly trivial, and the episode lacks much characterization. There is no political commentary, and production values are bottom of the barrel. The tone is grim. It is filled with personal Lewis motifs, however. There is plenty of plot, some interesting camera movements and stagings, and meaningful links with Lewis themes. The show becomes more interesting with repeated viewings, like many Lewis works.

A Thinking Hero

The hero does some simple detective work, in the later parts of the show. He tries to discover evidence against the bad guys. The detective work with the hotel clerk is solid.

A bad guy's confession, is discussed in terms of whether it makes good evidence. This perhaps relates to the interrogation scenes that run through Lewis. There is a further discussion of evidence and proof of guilt, between the hero and the Sheriff.

The hero reads a newspaper: one of many Lewis heroes who read. Newspapers are more typically associated with Lewis villains or anti-heroes however: the heroes usually read books. As in other Lewis newspaper scenes, the reading here is part of a scene in which the hero confronts another character.

The hero gets a deputy's job. He thereby becomes part of that Lewis pair, an older lawman and a younger, good-looking deputy.

Camera Movement

The hero is shown riding into town at the opening, with a small pan following him. At the end, he rides out of town in the reverse direction, with a reverse, small pan. Such paired camera movements are common in Lewis. Usually, they are far more elaborate, than these pans through a tiny arc. The concluding camera movement has a coda, in which the camera moves straight up a brief distance, bringing the gunsmith's sign into full view.

There are also paired pans across a hotel lobby. The lobby includes a staircase, often the subject of Lewis camera movement - although, this simple pan is far more perfunctory than most Lewis camera movements. It also has a lamp with glass prisms. This shot is reprised later, with the bad guy crossing the lobby: also typical of Lewis' use of parallel shots.

Lewis includes some static perspective shots, down the town's covered sidewalks. Lewis liked to shoot down such sidewalks in The Rifleman. The Sheriff walks from background to foreground, during an early such shot. He is seen through a nested series of porticos: the square saloon, the tilted bank portico, and nested most deeply, the level balcony of the hotel. Later, the camera moves down these same sidewalks fairly rapidly, as the hero walks forward.

A late scene in the Sheriff's office, has Lewis moving his camera back and forth from the right to the left and back, as the hero paces back and forth. The Sheriff, the stove and coffee pot serves as foreground objects, while the hero and camera move from one side of them to the other. This is a fascinating shot. We next get a dialogue sequence, with various close-ups. The scene then ends, with a revival of the back-and-forth camera movement. This is another shot in Lewis which gets a parallel echo!

A complex movement in the villain's hotel room, has the hero revealed only at the end of a swing to the right, then a swing to the left. The camera eventually moves forward. Throughout, we only see the hero's back. He is one of many Lewis characters who talk with their backs to the camera.

Lewis Architecture and Imagery

The gunsmith's office has a door, around the left hand corner of a side street. This is a fairly familiar architectural layout in Lewis - although the gunsmith shop lacks a second door on the main street, which would be the most typical Lewis pattern. The set-up here recalls Strange Town.

The saloon's swinging doors play a role in the shoot-out.

There is a picket fence is the front of the building next to the Sheriff's.

Both street lights and lanterns are lit, before and after the crime. Lewis is apparently attempting one of his nocturnal cityscapes. But the photography looks like daylight with a small filter on!

The mine recalls the one in The Quality of Mercy. Lewis makes a striking composition, full of triangles. The cords for the shades in the Sheriff's office, also provide some diagonals.

We get a view of a whole town and its businesses. The main city street of Dry Creek has a coherent geography. The Sheriff's is on the right. On the left, we have the gunsmith's, the saloon, the bank, the shoe repair without a portico, but with the angled roof that is the scene of the main crime, and finally the hotel with its balcony. The shoe repair building is also in the background during the shoot-out with the Tiller gang, earlier in the film. This sort of visual echo is not immediately apparent, till one has watched the film a number of times.

Lewis regularly shoots through pillars and posts on the town street. These shots often include camera movement. However, Lewis does not stage any of his trademark camera movements, which go from one side of a row of posts to the other.

Signs are everywhere in town, including a fancy one for the gunsmith. There is also what must be the most pathetically inept hand-lettered sign in Lewis: usually his signs are skillful works by professionals. This hand-lettering is clearly deliberate, meant to suggest a sign personally lettered by the Sheriff.

The Sheriff drinks coffee. We see it cooking on his stove, as in the Marshal's office in The Rifleman.

Bad Guys

A view of a dead outlaw opens with a view of his boots. This is another link in Lewis between boots and foolish male pride.

In addition to the main plot, the hero is also looking for a bad guy called Bart Tiller, who apparently has some clue to the hero's amnesiac past. When Tiller briefly shows up with his gang, they are that Lewis staple, a villain with two henchmen. Both henchmen get gunned down by the hero. However, the briefly seen villain is not characterized, and is hardly "suave" or anything else. The briefly glimpsed gang are seen from back views during a camera movement, a Lewis tradition for gunfighters.

The Gun Cult

Much of the plot deals with the gun cult - perhaps Lewis' chief interest in this material. It has some of the simplest, bluntest and grimmest warnings about the gun cult in Lewis. Unfortunately, this tragic content is relentlessly downbeat.


The heroine works at a gunsmith's shop, and we see her making a gun. This recalls the gunsmith shop in Long Gun from Tucson. The hero is attracted to her. She is one of Lewis' sympathetic working women, and she has the admiration Lewis shows to small businesses.

The young kid talks about his father giving him a gun for his next birthday. His father is plainly initiating him into the gun cult. This is always a serious event in Lewis, and it has sinister consequences here. This is the worst father in Lewis since The Halliday Brand, and the step-father in Face of Yesterday.

The hero is also shown to be an expert marksman. This is seemingly glorified, at first. But it too has its deeply sinister side.

The Sheriff gets wounded, with his arm temporarily in a sling. He is one of many Lewis gunslingers, whose shooting arm gets damaged.

The gunsmith sign shows up repeatedly, as a recurring motif. At one point, characters are standing underneath it. It suggests that the gun cult is controlling their lives. Even when the hero rides out of town in the last shot, the camera moves up to frame the sign.

A Man Called Shenandoah: Plunder

Plunder (1966) is the second of three episodes Lewis is known to have directed, of the Western TV series A Man Called Shenandoah.

It is not to be confused with the episode called Plunder (1967) of the series The Big Valley.

Lewis Subjects

The house at the start has features typical of Lewis buildings: That Lewis favorite coffee is served, by the hero. It is not clear who made the coffee: the hero or the woman.

SPOILERS. At the end Paul Fix shows up. He creates a character very different from the Marshal on The Rifleman. This is a nice reunion. But unfortunately I don't see where it has much artistic significance.


Well-done shots show the hero's face behind an array of wiry grass stems. This is both skillful and beautiful.

The last show shows the hero beneath a tree branch. Lewis loved tree branch shots. However, I have no idea if Lewis directed this shot, or whether it was done by a second unit.

A Dual Narrative

Lewis episodes of A Man Called Shenandoah, Plunder and The Death of Matthew Eldridge, each combine two narrative threads:
  1. The amnesiac hero searching for his identity. This appears in every episode, as an ongoing feature.
  2. The story of the characters the hero meets in the episode. These characters and their stories are solely in this episode.
Such a dual focus makes for a complex story construction.

I've seen dual construction described as a feature of contemporary television, with one-storyline extending over an arc of shows, the other storyline confined to an episode. Such storytelling is considered part of a New Narrative Complexity in modern TV. But here it is in the 1960's in A Man Called Shenandoah.

The TV series Coronet Blue was broadcast in 1967. But reportedly it was shot in 1965, but delayed by a network executive. It too has the ongoing plot of "a man with amnesia tries to discover his identity". I have no idea if Coronet Blue and A Man Called Shenandoah influenced each other. Or which were shot first. Coronet Blue is set in modern day New York City.

A Man Called Shenandoah: The Death of Matthew Eldridge

The Death of Matthew Eldridge (1966) is the third of three episodes Lewis is known to have directed, of the Western TV series A Man Called Shenandoah.

Lewis imagery begins right away. The hero is in black clothes. And rides a black-and-white horse.

The hero rides into a new town. This is another Lewis film that shows a whole town. It also has the hero defy the powerful and mass opinion.

The reference to the town being in a "Parish" indicates the tale takes place in Louisiana.

A Mystery Story

The Death of Matthew Eldridge is a mystery. The hero is accused of the mysterious death of wealthy big-shot Matthew Eldridge. Mysteries are a long-time interest of Lewis. Also typical of Lewis: his hero serves as the main detective investigator, leading a search for truth. Lewis admires such detective figures. Also typical of Lewis: the film celebrates the hero's opposition to the townspeople's jumping to conclusions about the mystery.

What is less clear is whether the hero performs that Lewis favorite genuine detection. Instead, he somehow intuits that people are lying and concealing a secret. He then pressures a witness to speak up, and tell what they know. This is indeed an effective way to reach the truth. Whether this qualifies as actual "detection" is another question.

SPOILERS. Paradoxically, what the newspaperman claims, that no one in town would kill the beloved Matthew Eldridge, turns out to be true. The newspaperman has drawn the wrong conclusion from this, however, deciding it implies that out-of-towner Shenandoah must be guilty.

The Sheriff

The less than macho Sheriff, recalls the un-macho lawman in Strange Town. Both are also ready to betray justice of orders from town leaders.

The actor who plays the Sheriff, Gregory Walcott, will soon return in Lewis' The Man from Nowhere.

Flashbacks: Surreal

What witnesses saw before the crime, is presented to the audience as flashbacks. Each flashback is linked to a specific witness. The flashbacks are brief, and only take up a small portion of the run time of the show.

The flashbacks present a huge contrast to the hero's current life. The difference can be called surreal. We have always seen the hero in low cost, ordinary clothes, riding around the West as an apparently penniless cowpoke. But the flashbacks show him in a fancy 19th Century suit and tie. And he is talking with wealthy Matthew Eldridge. This is an entirely different milieu and appearance for the hero. The second flashback show the pair inside Matthew Eldridge's luxurious mansion. It has one of Lewis' chandeliers with glass ornaments.

Flashbacks are fairly rare in Lewis' cinema. When they do occur, they tend to be enormously vivid. See the flashbacks in Man On A Bus, The Vindicators, The Death of Matthew Eldridge.

Links to Duel of Honor

The hero's fancy 19th Century suit recalls the Count (played by Cesare Danova) in Duel of Honor. A difference: the hero carries a leather brief case, making him look very business-like. The hero holds the briefcase in front of him, at a phallic angle.

The Count nearly gets killed by a bigoted local man in Duel of Honor. The hero of The Death of Matthew Eldridge is nearly killed by the rotten townspeople.

The Count's fancy suit is part of imagery signaling he is gay. Is the suit in The Death of Matthew Eldridge signaling that the hero is gay? It's a possibility, and an intriguing one. Such gayness might be a clue to the amnesiac hero's identity.

But one should also remember that 1960's American television was eager to show both the hero and other men dressed up in good suits. The suit could simply be an attempt to make the star look good.

Links to The Bullet

This episode recalls The Bullet:


The woman has been under the control and direction of first her father, then her brother. Her actions show her emancipating herself from this control. This has a feminist dimension.

The heroine pulls up a shade, letting light into her house. This symbolizes her new life. Oddly it recalls the title villain of The Mad Doctor of Market Street opening a curtain to light, near the start of the film. That villain's situation has nothing to do with the woman's in The Death of Matthew Eldridge, however.

The Big Valley: Boots With My Father's Name

Boots With My Father's Name (1965) is a downbeat episode - a soap opera, and a second rate one. It is full of personal subjects for Lewis - but most of the life has been drained out of them: Despite all of this, the episode mainly seems to be the story of a woman who is poking into the personal history of some very dysfunctional people. It is not much. Much of the material is underdeveloped. The gun obsession is mainly a single scene, showing the boyfriend polishing his phallic rifle. The illness and nursing are talked about, but not seen, unlike their detailed dramatization to come in a second Big Valley episode, Night of the Wolf (1965).



The fight in Heath's bedroom is in a single take. It starts out by moving laterally to Heath's bed. From that point on, all action at the bed, including the fight, is also partially visible in the mirror on the wall. The fight can be seen as a violent version of what is usually a friendly Lewis staple: an encounter between a man stretched out full length on the bed, and another man.

Victoria's descent of the Barkley staircase is accompanied by a camera movement.

A lateral track moves in front of the cannon and statue, as foreground objects. Unlike most such shots in Lewis, there is no one followed by the track.

A camera movement goes around Heath in a nearly circular arc, at the bar. Some fairly complex camera movements at the bar follow. Objects are slid along the bar, although without the huge camera movements that can accompany this in Lewis.

The shot where Victoria and Heath drive off in the background, while the aunt seduces her boyfriend in the foreground, combines depth staging, with shots of people moving forward or backward.

The Big Valley: Night of the Wolf

Lewis directed three episodes of the TV Western series The Big Valley. The best of these is Night of the Wolf (1965). This story is by no means a remake of Rifleman episodes, but it shares a good deal with some of them.

The Priest

The Taoist priest recalls the minister in The Martinet. Both are men who preach gentleness and kindness to others, and who do things that try to heal people's troubled souls. Neither has an official position; rather, they work as individuals in isolated Western towns.

The priest also recalls the Buddhist monk in Bombs Over Burma. Both are Chinese, both like to read, both are good guys who aid the heroine. However, the monk is a much fiercer character than the priest, taking an active role in China's war effort against the Axis.

Po-hsien is one of many Lewis heroes who likes to read.

Links to The Wyoming Story

Night of the Wolf shows similarities with The Wyoming Story (1961). In both, the hero goes off to a new town, laboring under a serious problem which causes him not to confide in his loved ones back home where he is going. This causes them considerable anguish in both stories. In both, one person back home knows the hero's secret, but cannot tell anyone else in the family.

Both Night of the Wolf and The Wyoming Story have a reunion between the hero and a young boy near the end; in The Wyoming Story it is the hero's son, in Night of the Wolf it is his adopted son. Both reunions are emotionally intense. And Lewis stages both in the same way, with identical actions from the pair, and nearly identical camera set-ups. (The build up to the reunion also recalls Gun Crazy: the hero and his adopted son have decided to part, then at the last minute they run towards each other. This is like the car rendezvous in Gun Crazy, where the hero and heroine decide not to separate after all.)

Both Night of the Wolf and The Wyoming Story are films in which Lewis shows a whole new town.

In both stories, there is an illness disaster which nearly wrecks a town (the new town Willow Springs in Night of the Wolf, the original home town of North Fork in The Wyoming Story). Both towns look decayed, and in a state of economic near-collapse.