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With: Robert Taylor, Louis Calhern, Paula Raymond, Marshall Thompson, James Mitchell, Edgar Buchanan, Rhys Williams, Spring Byington, James Millican, Bruce Cowling, Fritz Leiber, Harry Antrim, Chief John Big Tree
Written by: Guy Trosper
Directed by: Anthony Mann
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 84
Date: 09/15/1950

Devil's Doorway (1950)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Indian Summer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves came out in 1990, many were impressed with what they thought was the first Western with a sympathetic view of American Indians. I suppose at the time, few had seen Delmer Daves' Broken Arrow (1950); in that movie, Jimmy Stewart plays an ex-soldier who rescues an Apache and starts to see the Indians as human beings. He even falls in love with an Indian girl. Fewer still have seen Anthony Mann's Devil's Doorway, which was made in 1949, and held from release until after Stewart's film paved the way. But while Broken Arrow and Dances With Wolves are generally peaceful and hopeful, Devil's Doorway takes a darker, angrier view.

Robert Taylor stars as Lance Poole, an Indian who fought alongside whites at the battle of Gettysburgh, and returns home, a hero, with a Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, he does not return to a hero's welcome. He tries to settle down to cattle ranching, but discovers that -- thanks to crooked lawyer (Louis Calhern) -- whites have been given the legal right to homestead on his land. At first Lance tries to play nice and hires a female lawyer Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond). But thanks to the manipulation and back-stabbing of whites, Lance ends up as a "renegade," engaged in a full-on war with his neighbors.

The movie runs a lean 84 minutes and has no room for sentimentality. The characters are all but stripped of anything but their ideals. Even the opening scene collapses inward. Lance rides across open plains during the titles, and then wanders into a dark bar for a quick drink. He's surrounded by slats of darkness and unfriendly faces that loom large in the corners of the frame. Mann somehow creates a brutal tension simply from this visual presentation of themes, perhaps because the issues at stake here are so emotional. Some have criticized Taylor, a popular pretty-boy actor in the 1930s (but not so popular in the 1940s) as being wrong for the role, but he gets across the needed amounts of fear, anger, frustration, and disappointment.

Devil's Doorway marked a turning point for Mann's career. It was the end of a cycle of six low-budget films he made with the great cinematographer John Alton. Alton had developed a specific high contrast look that provided striking blacks and whites with little gray in-between. Most of their films together had been films noir, but Mann began transitioning into other genres, including the Western. After this came the equally moody The Furies, and then began his superb cycle of James Stewart films that would launch him into the "A" list. (Alton also made it to the "A" list, winning an Oscar for his color cinematography on An American in Paris.)

This was a rare, hard-to-find film for ages, but now it's available through the Warner Archive. The disc has no extras.

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