Man Without a Star (1955)

Genres - Western  |   Sub-Genres - Traditional Western  |   Release Date - Mar 24, 1955 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 89 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

The title of this Western, along with its pacing, is extremely deceptive, referring not to the badge of a lawman as one might expect in this genre, but to the star that a man might follow in navigating unknown territory -- it refers to Kirk Douglas' Dempsey Rae, a laconic, good-natured (but lusty and two-fisted) cowpoke who's wandered a long way from his former home in Texas. It takes audiences a little while to figure out what Rae is about, just as they might find themselves wondering exactly what this Western -- based on a story co-authored by oater-veteran Borden Chase (whose actor son Frank Chase appears here, as Little Waco) -- is about. That's mostly because it's divided into three distinct "acts," each with its own texture and feel but all interlocked. The first act is the most genial, introducing Rae and Jeff Jimson (William Campbell, in one of his best performances), a tenderfoot drifter that Rae takes under his wing, through a string of scrapes with the law, with even some comic relief injected into the proceedings. Dempsey's character suddenly darkens, showing a dangerous, self-destructive side, almost exactly 30 minutes into the movie, when one character introduces the subject of barbed wire. That opens up the second act, in which Dempsey is tempted by the lusty Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain, playing a more appealing version of a character that Barbara Stanwyck might have also portrayed), whose motivations, mixing carnality and greed, help to break up the friendship between Dempsey and Jeff. And Dempsey is confronted by Steve Miles (Richard Boone), a Texas gunman with whom Rae obviously has some history, at the wrong end of a gun. And the third act shows Rae's redemption, of his self-respect and manhood. There's enough violence either threatened or shown to satisfy genre fans, and also a surprisingly complex array of characters set within a realistic dramatic framework, which gives this movie an appeal beyond the boundaries of the Western. Director King Vidor allows Douglas to carry his portrayal almost -- but not quite -- over the top, and gets from Crain a convincingly lusty and libidinous performance as his would-be romantic foil; their scenes together push the limits of 1950s film proprieties in ways that are far more believable than much of the overheated action in the earlier, Vidor-credited Duel in the Sun.