Appellate Judge James A. Stewart carries a law book, a horse, and a gun.
"In the Old West, justice and courtrooms were often strangers…"
Enter the Stranger on Horseback. Circuit court Judge Thorne (Joel McCrea, The Virginian) relies on "a law book, a horse, and a gun" as he rides into a bad situation: a town controlled by Josiah Bannerman (John McIntire, Wagon Train). Thorne soon discovers the situation's worse than he thought: Josiah's son Tom (Kevin McCarthy, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) has killed a man "in self-defense." Thorne soon turns it into worst-case scenario: he announces he wants to bring the case to trial.
Thorne's the right man for the job—or at least the only one who can survive it. When Tom tries to draw his gun on Thorne, the judge disarms him and slugs him with a casual ease.
Thorne quickly finds an ally in the sheriff (Emile Meyer, Shane), but friends are few and far between. He may get some unexpected help from an unlikely (except in movies) source: Tom's beautiful cousin Amy Lee (Miroslava), a pistol who's sharp with a gun.
Stranger on Horseback, based on a Louis L'Amour story, boasts the scenery of Sedona, Arizona, on the DVD's back cover. That's true, but you get a lot of talk before the action scenes against a beautiful backdrop in the movie's last quarter.
It moves slowly at times, but Joel McCrea's delivery sharpens the dialogue, mostly centered on his growing frustration ("Is there a place in town that doesn't belong to a Bannerman?"). Otherwise, the characters are one-note. That's good for the villains—Tom's a cowardly tough-talker who's suitably whiny when the odds shift and Josiah's a suitably crusty old town boss—but Miroslava makes the growing fondness Amy Lee has for Thorne seem unlikely.
The film basically builds to a final showdown between Thorne and Josiah. Thankfully, it's a great one, one that even manages to build a little tension, even though the expected resolution still plays out just as you'd expect.
At the start of the movie, you'll notice a warning that the original masters have been lost, and this version was taken from the British Film Institute's library. The DVD distributors did take care to restore the color picture, but there are some flat scenes and other flaws. At times, scenery that should have looked appealing is merely muddy. Sound quality's all right.
VCI has included several bonus features here: There are two episodes of Tales of the Texas Rangers, a radio show starring McCrea that seems more like Dragnet than Gunsmoke with its emphasis on police investigation; it still manages a showdown in "Trigger Man." Two audio features profile McCrea and the making of the movie. At around 10 minutes each, they're interesting and done well, but they'll leave you wanting more. There's also a theatrical trailer which keeps hitting home the point that McCrea is macho.
Some alert viewers might object to the sloppy preview cards for other DVD attractions at the start and their questionable spellings (Loyd Bridges?).
More than 50 years later, the story of a town controlled by a capricious boss has been done to death. Still, it's a decent cheap B-Western redeemed by a good showdown; if you're a genre fan, you might find that makes up for a lot. It's also preserved with loving care.
With extra points for a good presentation on DVD, this one earns its B. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• "Tales of the Texas Rangers" Radio Episodes
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