Paramount // 1950 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // March 14th, 2006
"All my life, I've been a snake. I've lived by my wits. I've gotten what I've wanted anyway I wanted it. Just lately I've been wondering just for once if I couldn't do something straight...do something a little decent." -- Choya (Alan Ladd)
Three years before he was to star in the classic western Shane, Alan Ladd took a memorable turn as the gunfighter Choya in Branded, a crackerjack western from breakout director Rudolph Maté (D.O.A., When Worlds Collide). Though the film has received very little attention in comparison to his other high-profile 1950s westerns, it's an agreeable little genre exercise that boasts top-notch performances and a notably exciting plot.
Devious outlaw Jefferson Leffingwell (Robert Keith, The Wild One) convinces lone gunfighter Choya (Alan Ladd, The Glass Key) to help him scam cattle baron Mr. Lavery (Charles Bickford, East of Java) and his wife (Selena Royle, Joan of Arc) out of their fortune. It seems that Lavery's son was kidnapped twenty-five years ago, and Leffingwell thinks that Choya can pass for the missing child once he has an identifying birthmark tattooed on his shoulder blade. Choya agrees, but once he's accepted as part of the Lavery clan, his conscience gets the better of him. After completing a cattle run for his adoptive parents, he revels all to his supposed sister, Ruth (Mona Freeman, Streets of Laredo), and heads off to find the Lavery's real kin.
Branded doesn't fool around -- it gets straight to the punch. Just moments after the name of the film is branded across a brown and white cowhide to start the credits sequence, the film launches directly into a violent gunfight that sees robber Choya pinned down in a general store and desperate for some means of escape. Grabbing the store owner as hostage, he narrowly manages to bust out and hightail it back to the hills to count his loot. These exciting opening scenes, as good as any western film climax of the era, set the tone for the entire picture, with a brisk tempo and well-photographed action sequences.
And it's tough western action that really defines the film, as Maté lets the story unfold naturally, with little or no exposition to slow things down. From the darkened campfire on the hill, to the Laverys' Texas ranch to the outskirts of the Mexican border, Branded keeps up a reliably fast trot as it ferries audiences from one unexpected twist to the next, with Leffingwell holding all his cards until the very last frame. The film is nothing, if not entertaining, but it also proves thought provoking in the final reel, as Choya and the Laverys are forced to consider the very nature of family and the role of parenting in their lives. It's not exactly Shakespeare, but it does have something to say about human relationships, and for that reason alone, Branded's fascinating twist on an age-old story is well worth catching for fans of sentimental tumbleweed dramas.
Ladd is surprisingly good as the morally upright desperado Choya -- a nickname that means cactus in Spanish, which refers to the character's prickly personality -- but he gets a lot of help from the seasoned screen actors with whom he's surrounded. The elder Laverys, played by Charles Bickford and Selena Royle, are pitch-perfect as the aging Texas settlers who so desperately want to believe that their son has returned, and the little-known Mona Freeman does a fine job at keeping the sexual tension between the two under wraps until their siblinghood is disproved.
As usual, the Technicolor process looks quite good replicated on DVD. The hues in Branded are bright and solid, and go a long way in offsetting the minor scratches and dirt that appear throughout the film. Flashes of blue light crop up occasionally, seemingly an age-related defect that I would have like to seen cleaned-up. Sound is provided by a passable Dolby mono track -- dialogue and music sound just fine. Par for the course on Paramount library releases, Branded is completely bereft of extra features.
Though Branded doesn't get much respect from Paramount, at least the price is right. This Alan Ladd oater is a dramatically sound, action-packed picture that will definitely please any serious classic western fan.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1950
MPAA Rating: Not Rated