- Directed by Jack Arnold
- December 12, 1957 (Houston, San Antonio) / December 12, 1957 (Fort Worth) / January 22, 1958 (US)
When a local rancher’s men go too far and kill one of his migrant workmen, the sheriff goes after him and confronts the realities of the world in which he lives.
Man in the Shadow is a modern Western that’s more revisionist than mythmaking. In fact there’s zero mythmaking. This movie touches on racism and corruption and a group’s willingness to put their head down and stay safe rather than stand up for what’s right. I would expect nothing else from writer Gene L. Coon who was largely responsible for many of the more thoughtful aspects of the original Star Trek. This deftly examines social issues of that time without being obvious.
Our main character is newly elected sheriff Ben Sadler. He begins investigating a report by migrant worker Jesus (Martin Garralaga) that Jesus witnessed the murder of his friend Juan Martin (Joe Schneider) on the Golden Empire ranch. That name is a bit on the nose.
The Golden Empire is owned by Virgil Renchler (Orson Welles) and his ranch and its business is what supports the small cow town of Spurline. Renchler is the all-powerful evil land baron that you can find many Western films. He doesn’t necessarily set out to do evil but what he does is evil as he’s only looking out for himself regardless of the consequences. When something terrible does happen that he doesn’t plan on he is more than willing to cover it up and let it slide.
Welles is cold in the part though not maniacally evil. He can be friendly and sociable but is not someone you would want to cross. Renchler can perhaps be best described as amoral. People are a tool to use and he has no more concern over them than the silverware in his kitchen.
Chandler’s sheriff is no saint either in this story. Not only is he somewhat concerned to investigate anything that touches on the ranch, but he doubts Jesus because of who and what he is. He is though willing to do his job and check things out even if his deputy doubts the story because of the same prejudices as Sadler.
There is a nervousness in Chandler’s performance. As the story progresses Sadler comes to realize that the town he lived in and the people he knows are not as he thought they were. He sees the racism that allows them to ignore or explain away what is clearly a murder and the cowardice that lets them be okay with Renchler having so much control over their lives. How often does that happen in real life? Chandler is amazing as the sheriff whose ideals and perceptions confront reality.
Sadler encounters one roadblock after another. Everything from loyal ranch hands to the cowardly townspeople not necessarily trying to cover up for the Renchler but trying to keep the town alive and everything stable. They have a golden goose that keeps things going in the area. The individuals as well as the group look out for their own best interests at the expense of the right thing. This is an all too real bit of life.
The blatant display of racism in Man in the Shadow is a little surprising for the time when this movie was made. Regardless of the situation in the country at the time, on screen in cinema everybody was getting along fairly well. Here bigotry is right out in the open. Nobody calls it out but it most definitely occurs. This pushed discussing a hotbutton issue as far as they could.
There is the idea here that all it often takes is one person to show others that it is indeed possible to do the right thing. That the group needs an inspiration to break their fear. It isn’t until the end of the film when the townspeople see just how terrible things have gotten when they decide to act.
Aside from his biases, Sadler has other issues. Keep in mind this was filmed in the 50s so they pushed it as far as they could but there is an apparent affection between the married Sadler and Renchler’s daughter Skippy (Colleen Miller). Skippy? Really?! For modern audiences nothing much comes of it but for audiences of the time this was probably pretty serious stuff and I give them props for that.
Man in the Shadow is about 80 minutes or so long so there’s not much extra which is a benefit. The stage is set pretty quickly and then they get right into the story. Every character is rounded out and you understand where they’re coming from. People are portrayed as terrible but not evil for the sake of being evil. And nobody is a saint.
Man in the Shadow is very fine Western noir film. There is good direction and good dialogue and a great story with fantastic performances. This one may be a little obscure, but you should search it out and watch it. You will not be disappointed!