Whoa, this was a doozy of a little Western! A familiar enough story but with new trappings, and, man, did I enjoy it. Basic plot involves a wealthy man, Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), buying/forcing everyone else out of a large area of land. He's not above a little murder to scare the rest of the farmers out. His hired gun, Johnny Crale (Ned Young), kills a Swedish farmer for him. But just when McNeil thinks he's got everything in hand, the Swedish farmer's son, George Hansen, shows up, played by Sterling Hayden. He proves more stubborn and ornery than they figured, and things naturally boil to the inevitable showdown -- with a few twists along the way, so that things aren't quite what you expect.
Things I really loved about this movie: Hayden's character, Hansen, never touches a gun. Doesn't ask for one, doesn't even think about one, even after he's beaten and finds out what's really going on. Hansen is a seaman (how appropriate for Hayden!) and whaler, and when he heads to the final fight -- it's with a harpoon! Now that's not something you see everyday in a Western!
Johnny Crale, the hired gun... what an interesting character he turned out to be! He's the only complex character in the film. Crippled (lost his right hand, had to relearn to shoot left-handed), ready to hang up his gun... but won't, losing his nerve... but finding it again. He seems constantly on the verge of of regretting his actions and breaking away from it all with his long-suffering girlfriend, but always returns to what he knows best: killing. And he's pretty vicious about it. Not content to kill somebody, he empties his gun into them after they're down. It's wild and a bit unexpected. He's definitely a bit unbalanced and it was so cool to watch his cold fish character vacillating. When a victim finally stands up to him without fear, he completely trips on it, and really starts losing his hold on things. It's all quite fascinating and really turns the villain into something yet again.
Victor Millan as Jose Mirada was excellent. Probably my favorite character.
And I loved how the film opens with the final showdown, cuts before you find out what happens, and then goes back and tells how we got there. The script is very tight, nothing wasted (Dalton Trumbo is the screenwriter, so this doesn't surprise me). The plot takes several standard Western tropes and twists them ever so slightly.
I think the only thing I didn't like was the score, which just seemed oddly perky and out of place. But that's a very small complaint in a movie that went way beyond my expectations. When I started the film, I thought it'd be just a throwaway Western... but that was not the case at all. This one's a keeper. It's available on Netflix instant viewing.