The law-and-order film, of which High Noon is the progenitor, consists of several key elements. A central character is the town, the name of which provides the title for two of these films. Hadleyville's abandonment of Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon provides the central moral conflict. While several perspectives are given for the town's failure to support the marshal, including the disability of his mentor, the pacifism of his Quaker wife, and the fear of the judge who sentenced Frank Miller to death, the central point is made by the mayor (Thomas Mitchell) during an ad hoc town meeting at the church. Upstate businessmen are considering investing in Hadleyville, he argues, and a gunfight in the streets on a Sunday will drive them away. He urges Kane to leave and convinces the town not to support him. The commercial interests of the town, seeking to protect their prosperity, reject the moral certitude of a noble marshal.
The middle-class interests who fear the impending conflict are not the only faction within the town. In the saloon and the hotel there are less progressive—but equally commercial—interests who see in the return of Frank Miller the potential for increased profit. These more rapacious entrepreneurs have been subdued by Kane's taming of Miller. The film suggests that the commercial and moral progress of the town was made possible only by Will Kane's defeat of Frank Miller five years earlier. Now the same people who have benefited from Kane's law and order turn their backs on him in his hour of need.2
The marshal (or sheriff or deputy in some cases) is the other central character in these films. In High Noon, he is Will Kane. Kane has quit as marshal, has married Amy (Grace Kelly), and is ready to leave town when he hears that Frank Miller will be arriving on the noon train. Although Kane never states his reasons for staying to face Miller and his gang, frequently telling people that they would not understand, it is clear that the source of his action is moral integrity. There is a strong suggestion that the conflict between Kane and Miller has a personal side to it; Kane and Miller apparently vied for the attentions of sultry saloon keeper Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado). But within the context of the story, these personal conflicts are subordinated to the public threat posed by Miller and the moral duty this places on Will Kane. Even when everyone has abandoned him—the town, his wife, his friends—and he is facing near-certain death, he must still confront Miller and his gang. The marshal thus represents the virtuous individual, meeting the threat to community even with the potential for death that it entails. The townspeople's failure to support him leads him to reject them, throwing his badge to the ground in disgust, but only after he has successfully fulfilled his moral duty.
Other significant elements include youth, women, and the villain. High Noon suggested that the relationship of adults to adolescence was paternalistic, but also that youth was unreliable, as suggested by Kane's relation with his deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges). Harvey clearly wants to be Kane: he is angry because Kane did not recommend him as his replacement; he is furious when the manager of the saloon suggests he is not as brave as Kane; he is sleeping with Kane's former lover. Because Harvey represents the next generation, the film seems to suggest that the impatience and ignorance of youth undermine its ability to offer an adequate moral replacement for the generation that is passing away. Both Kane and Helen Ramirez tell Harvey that he is too young and that he does not understand the moral necessity that roots Kane to Hadleyville. The next generation seems ill prepared for responsible citizenship. The moral failings of the town have corrupted it.
There are two types of women in these films: the civilizing woman who seeks to end violence and endorse the community, and the dark woman who understands the marshal and the need for violence. In High Noon these are Amy, Kane's newly wedded Quaker wife, and the saloon keeper, Helen Ramirez, respectively. Helen, the former lover of Kane and Frank Miller, currently is romantically involved with Harvey. Douglas McReynolds notes that neither Amy nor Helen performs a significant ideological function: Helen represents the temptation of sexual license, a corollary to the potential authoritarian power of Kane; Amy represents the temptations of middle-class domesticity that undermine the moral fiber of the town (206).
The ostensible villain, Frank Miller, is an ominous absence through most of High Noon; his vicious nature and threat to Kane are revealed through reference and innuendo.3 At one time a citizen of Hadleyville, Miller was the main obstacle to Kane's campaign to establish law and order. A faction persists in the saloon and the hotel that thinks Miller provides a potential for increased income. The other business interests in town see Miller's return as a threat, although that threat will be alleviated if Kane leaves. within the context of the tale, Miller is an outsider, an external threat who has been repulsed once and now must be expelled (Corkin 134-35; McReynolds 205).
The interweaving of these elements in High Noon offer a vision of American society in which the middle class has lost the nerve to defend itself, leaving an imagined individual who retains a clear moral vision to face this threat alone. Ultimately, the threat defeated, the individual leaves the shamed community in disgust, condemned for his cowardice and weakness. Youth and women offer little hope for redemption; the civilizing female (Amy) can only endorse fleeing from responsibility and is herself converted to the need for violence by her husband's predicament. Harvey is ignorant of the moral duty of the individual and too impatient to acquire the trappings of authority. High Noon is thus a strong voice criticizing the cold war consensus for its lack of public virtue and its failure to support the noble, virtuous individual who risks all to defend a community unworthy of that defense.
The consensus criticized in High Noon seemed dominant and unchallenged during the Eisenhower years of "peaceful coexistence" (1953-1961). That consensus, however, was still perceived as tenuous, although the source of threats had changed. while the fear of an external threat persisted, people increasingly came to believe that internal fragmentation of American society was the source of trouble. Joanne Meyerowitz notes that, after the Korean War, women's business groups increasingly argued for more opportunities and rights, in contrast to the attempt to return women to the household identified by May as common in the earlier years of the cold war. James Gilbert identifies the mid-1950s as the high point of fears of juvenile delinquency (63). In 1954, Senate hearings focusing on comic books and juvenile delinquency led to the industry's self-censoring Comics Code (Nyberg 53-128).
The Tin Star seems on the surface to support a stronger consensus by reversing the ending of High Noon. A sheriff disillusioned with the law-and-order position, much like Will Kane, regains his faith and returns to defend the community. Closer examination reveals that rather than a reversal, The Tin Star offers a different perspective, not a story of the loss of public virtue but a cautionary tale of how private bitterness and alienation can undermine the strength of consensus.
In The Tin Star, the disillusioned sheriff turned bounty hunter, Morg Hickman (Henry Fonda), comes to a town very similar to Hadleyville. Hickman lost his faith in his community when the town failed to help him and his sick
wife in their time of need. Feared by the town, he mentors the young sheriff, Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins), to confront Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand). Through his growing affection for the woman and child who take him in, Hickman regains his faith that the community is still worth defending and leaves to find a town where he can again become a sheriff.
In a scene toward the end of The Tin Star, the town fails to support the young sheriff as he confronts a lynch mob led by Bogardus. Unlike in High Noon, the town elders offer few excuses; the judge claims that as a man of the law he cannot participate, and the banker (who is also the mayor) tries to get the sheriff to leave town. There is little need for excuses, since the film can only be seen as a sequel to High Noon, where those excuses were already offered. At a time when his western films were noted for their panoramic, open, colorful backgrounds, director Anthony Mann shot The Tin Star in black and white, on a set that is a virtual replica of Hadleyville. The place is never named; it might be termed "Hadleyville prime." The failure to restate the moral conflict, however, alters the terms of debate. The moral tension within the film is less the public failure of the town to support its sheriff than the private conflict within the ex-sheriff.
High Noon hints that Will Kane is a man of questionable moral standing: he is portrayed as authoritarian; he has had an affair with Helen Ramirez; he is given to fits of temper. Morg Hickman in The Tin Star is cast in a morally ambiguous light from the moment he appears leading a packhorse with a dead body draped across its back. He rejects formal authority and wants nothing to do with law and order. He is perceived as a threat to the town, someone with whom the sheriff should not associate and for whom there is no room at the hotel (McReynolds 204). The noble individual is thus further alienated from the community than was Will Kane but is still essential to it. Throughout the film the town elders try to force Hickman to leave and threaten to remove the sheriff from office if he continues to associate with him.
While the people of this town, like those in Hadleyville, fail to support the noble individual in his time of need, The Tin Star does not condemn them as High Noon damned Hadleyville. In director Fred Zinnemann's portrayal, the return of Frank Miller threatened the breakdown of social order; the fictional community—like McCarthy-era America—should have rallied to its own defense. In The Tin Star, the lynch mob led by Bogardus seeks to hang the McGaffey brothers (Peter Baldwin and Lee van Cleef) because they have killed Doc McCord (John Mclntire). Doc is represented throughout the film as the moral center of the town: he delivers the babies that people the families that give the town identity and purpose; his diaries, in which he records all these births, serve as the only history of the town. His murder is a stab at the town's heart and offers some justification for the desire to seek revenge against his killers.4 Where Hadleyville failed to meet the challenge of a potential threat, this town becomes violently enraged over an actual attack; the town elders, who will fail to support the young sheriff against Bogardus's lynch mob, are eager to join the posse to catch the McGaffeys. While the mob is thus not condoned in The Tin Star, its motivation is more understandable than is Hadleyville's fear of Frank Miller. Bogardus represents the implied Frank Miller: a threat from within. He is a citizen of the town, the proprietor of the livery. He aspired to be sheriff, but sensing his desire was based on having a "shooting license," the town council gave the job to young Ben. The actual crime committed by the McGaffey brothers is less significant than Bogardus's attempt to lynch them.
The failure of public virtue that drove High Noon is, in The Tin Star, reduced to background to the reconversion of Morg Hickman to the law-and-order position. Director Anthony Mann takes the issue of civic virtue presented in High Noon and makes it secondary to the private virtues of family in The Tin Star. In fact, the brief failure of the town's virtue and the bravado of the young sheriff in its absence provide the epiphany Hickman needs. The moral corruption of Hadleyville that leads Will Kane to throw his badge to the ground in disgust creates the scene for a renewal of faith in Morg Hickman. This is made possible because The Tin Star offers an intermediate level of community that is lacking in High Noon. Whereas Amy represented marriage and middle-class prosperity as a temptation that would keep Will Kane from fulfilling his noble duty (McReynolds 206-7), Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) and her son Kip (Michel Ray) represent family as a necessary integrating device for the maintenance of social order. Nona is the widow of an Indian. With her mixed-blood son she dwells on the outskirts of town, and she takes Hickman in when the hotel refuses.5 The growing affection between Nona and Morg is the key to his reacceptance of duty and willingness to return to the role of sheriff, as evidenced by the scenes of the search for the McGaffey brothers. Bogardus leads a posse of angry citizens, abandoning the sheriff to his own devices, while Hickman refuses to accept a deputy's badge and rides back to the Mayfield home. Finding that young Kip has ridden after the posse, Hickman rides out to protect the boy. He meets with the sheriff, who thinks he is tracking the McGaffeys, to which Hickman replies, "I'm not looking for McGaffeys. I'm looking for a boy." Only after discovering that Kip, who is safe, has found the brothers does Hickman help the sheriff capture them. The public duty of finding the brothers takes second place to the private goal of protecting his surrogate son; only after he has achieved this private goal can he turn to the public duty.
As Hickman re-creates the family he has lost, he regains his sense of moral duty. Reincorporated into a family, he also dons the badge Ben has been trying to get him to accept throughout the film. To the prefabricated family offered by Nona and Kip is added the relationship with Ben owens, for whom Hickman takes on the role of father. At the end of the film Hickman has been accepted into the community; the final scene, where he, Nona, and Kip ride through town on a buckboard while the townspeople call him by name and wave, erases the ominous and icy greeting he received from these same people in the first scene. When young Ben asks him to stay on as sheriff, he says no;
he and his new family will settle somewhere else that needs a sheriff because this town already has one.
The importance of the private family to the public community is also seen in the relationship between Ben Owens and his fiancée, Millie (Mary Webster), the daughter of the dead sheriff Ben replaced. She eschews violence but learns through the intervention of Doc McCord that the sheriff's role is necessary. Like Amy of High Noon, who takes up a gun and shoots one of Frank Miller's men, Millie comes to understand that the noble duty of the sheriff must be performed. By the end of the film, as Ben and Millie walk hand in hand, the sheriff is now incorporated into the town, his idealism bound to the community's defense. Where the domestic promise of Amy tempted Will Kane from his duty, the domestication promised by Millie assures that the duty will be performed and passed on to the next generation, as Hickman has passed his skills on to young Ben.
The Tin Star unwrites High Noon. The transformation of the public failure of High Noon into the private failings of The Tin Star may reflect the changed context of the film; by 1957 McCarthy and HUAC no longer dominated the political scene, and peaceful coexistence was the order of the day. The external threat of communism, which had justified the witch-hunt hysteria of the early 1950s, seemed less important than the internal threats posed by the fragmentation of the American cold war consensus. While The Tin Star seems to reverse the message of High Noon, it ultimately begs the question by altering the terms of the moral dilemma. Relocated within a family, the alienated Hickman is reincorporated into the community in a way Kane could never be; his personal life in order, he can now return to his public role of defending the community, and the community, its future secure, can concern itself with purely private matters. Like the town of The Tin Star, consensus America is no longer expected to defend itself, merely to offer a supportive environment for noble individuals. The personal begins to outweigh the public, and the retreat into privacy, condemned in High Noon, becomes virtuous in The Tin Star.
By the end of the decade, America's position in the cold war seemed to be worsening. The potential threat of Sputnik and assertions of missile gaps suggested graver threats than had been perceived since the end of the Korean
War in 1953. Overt tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had eased somewhat, and prosperity continued, but something clearly was amiss. Prosperity and anticommunism appeared insufficient to give meaning to people's lives, as evidenced by the torrent of prescriptions for the tranquilizer Miltown, the unease on the part of many women that would be popularly identified by Betty Friedan (1960), and the void at the center of American culture that was revealed by Allen Ginsberg and the beats and the stories of John Cheever and other New Yorker writers. It was a time to reassert American consensus, but a consensus around what?
Warlock is not even a real town but an offshoot of the larger Bright Star. It is not a commercial center like Hadleyville but a mining community surrounded by the San Pueblo ranch. The citizens are threatened by the vicious illegalities of the San Pueblo rancher Abe McQuown (Tom Drake) and his gang, who have terrorized five previous deputies, massacred Mexicans, and killed the barber in cold blood. Warlock seeks to protect itself by hiring a vigilante, Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda). Once McQuown is subdued, Blaisedell becomes the feared presence, and he is forced to confront the new deputy, Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), a former member of McQuown's gang.
Michael Coyne offers a strong reading of Warlock as presenting the centrist position between the Far Left (the anarchy of McQuown) and the Far Right (the authoritarianism of Blaisedell), while treating the film as an allegory for director Edward Dmytryk's experiences as the only member of the Hollywood Ten to cooperate with HUAC (84-104). In this version, Johnny Gannon becomes the avatar of Dmytryk. Originally a member of the McQuown gang, Gannon becomes disillusioned over the bloodshed and joins with the town as its deputy, protecting it from the ravages of both Blaisedell and McQuown. Coyne offers a convincing interpretation of the film, but there is a much more complex treatment of the law-and-order theme than suggested by this allegory. The potential of the young Warlock to turn into a capitalist haven a la Hadleyville is secured by the conversion of Gannon to the side of law and order; the willingness of Warlock's residents to support him in the face of the threats from McQuown and Blaisedell suggests that potential will be realized. Warlock thus offers a more optimistic conclusion concerning the future than does High Noon, one more akin to The Tin Stars promise of the rise of noble heroes. But it promises more from the town than either of the previous films, hence offering less faith in the noble individual and more in the supportive community.6 That community, however, has no identity, no face, no center.
As an unincorporated town, Warlock has no public officers of its own. Its order is provided by a deputy to the sheriff of the nearby Bright City. Similarly, its law is provided by a judge—on acceptance. He is not really a judge but fUnctions as one as long as the town accepts him as such. Judge Holloway (Wallace Ford) is a cripple, given to bellicose outbursts in defense of the law and against the vigilantism represented by Blaisedell. The judge sees Blaisedell as representative of "anarchy, murder and violence," although Blaisedell's authority is based on the same acceptance as that of the judge. "There's something bigger than all men; that's the law," the judge tells Blaisedell. Yet this law that he represents is only valid "on acceptance." It provides no help to Gannon when he confronts McQuown or Blaisedell. It is as crippled as the judge who bears it. Likewise, there is no moral center to Blaisedell, who tells Gannon, "I remember when I first killed a man. It was clear it had to be done, though I went home afterward and puked my insides out. I remember how clear it was; afterwards nothing was ever clear again, except for one thing. That's to hold strictly to the rules. It's only the rules that matter. Hold onto them like you were walking on eggs, so you know yourself you've played it as fair and as best you could."
"The rules" for Blaisedell serve the same function as "the law" for the judge: they provide a means of existing in human communities that lack a moral center. The center does hold in Warlock, as Coyne suggests, but what holds it together has no intrinsic meaning. Rules may keep order, but they do not provide moral clarity. Thus Warlock may suggest greater faith in the American community's ability to come together to defend itself, but what is being defended has become increasingly undefined.
The absence of an inherent meaning to the community in Warlock renders the film incapable of offering a coherent meaning or stable roles for any of the characters. Warlock fails to grant moral certainty to the marshal as in High Noon and The Tin Star. There are, in fact, two marshals: Clay Blaisedell and Johnny Gannon. Blaisedell is hired as marshal-on-acceptance, a community-sponsored vigilante. A hired gunfighter, he supplements his income by dealing faro at the casino of his clubfooted partner, Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn). Blaisedell recognizes that his situation is temporary; once he has defended the town, it will come to fear and reject him. This is, in fact, what happens. Rather than turn on the town, however, he, like Hickman in The Tin Star, finds a sense of identity through the affection of a young woman, although this identity is lost when he is forced to kill Morgan. With Morgan's death, Blaisedell realizes his inability to assimilate into the community and must either destroy it or be driven away. When he faces the sheriff, he refuses to shoot, throws his gold-handled Colts into the dust, mounts his horse, and rides away alone. The people of Warlock come together for their own defense, again unwriting High Noon, but the provider of law and order has lost the moral certitude that was exemplified by Kane and regained by Hickman.
Gannon, a member of McQuown's gang who is disillusioned by a massacre of Mexicans, plays the role most akin to the noble marshals of previous films. Representing legitimate authority, he stands between the villainy of McQuown and the morally ambiguous vigilantism of Blaisedell. Unlike Kane in High Noon, he is not adept at gunfighting; the skill is all on Blaisedell's side. Gannon, however, represents a legal order and thus has the community as a support, as seen by the willingness of the town to aid him. The authoritarian elements of Will Kane are thus expelled from Warlock, while the legal consensus is offered as the hope of the future. While Blaisedell leaves town taking the authoritarianism with him, he is not in search of another Warlock, where the center will defend itself. He is instead in search of another town in need of a vigilante; the authoritarian is not reformed as in The Tin Star, nor is he completely expelled. He is still traveling from town to town, stopping wherever he is permitted. The center has held, but it has not led to meaningful change. It is a vacuous center, without meaning, and thus lacking redemptive power.
The meaninglessness of the community renders social roles unstable. McQuown, a lawless killer, is the initial threat, but as he and his gang are subdued, the threat to the town begins to be posed by Blaisedell. An interesting role reversal occurs as Gannon, the former gang member, becomes deputy, forcing an ultimate face-off with the original provider of order, Blaisedell. Nor is Gannon the only gang member to change sides; Curley (DeForest Kelly) helps Gannon in the fight with McQuown, although he had been one of the staunchest of McQuown's men. Similarly, Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone) moves from wanting Blaisedell and Morgan dead to asking Blaisedell to help Gannon, declaring that she no longer cares about their feud. By the end of the film the villain has become the hero, and the hero has been expelled as a potential (if not actual) villain.
Gender roles also become ambiguous in Warlock. Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michaels) plays the civilizing woman who tempts Blaisedell with domesticity. Morgan, Blaisedell's partner in the casino, is the darker woman, whose love for Blaisedell leads him to commit murder. Lily Dollar, a former bar girl and ex-lover of Morgan, also represents the dark side of woman. She has come to town to seek revenge on Morgan and Blaisedell for killing her lover, Bob Nicholson. These images are less clear than in the other two films. Lily keeps a genteel house and cooks dinner, suggesting a domestic side that is unusual in the dark woman. She falls in love with Gannon and settles down in Warlock, putting aside her hatred of Morgan and Blaisedell. Jessie, likewise, claims that she is not the good girl one expects; she plays that role, but she protests, "I hate being an angel."
Morgan also plays confused roles. Although he is portrayed as a better gunfighter than Blaisedell, he is also the domestic one. When they first see their spartan rooms over the saloon, Morgan tells Blaisedell, "I'll bring in all new stuff and fix it up real fancy." Lily notes that Morgan cares more for Blaisedell than for himself, a sentiment Morgan reinforces. "It's all been for you," he pleads when Blaisedell finds that he has murdered Bob Nicholson to protect Clay from a gunfight. When Blaisedell informs him that he will settle down in Warlock with Jessie, Morgan goes on a drunken rampage, forcing Blaisedell to kill him. Blaisedell carries the body to the saloon, where he confronts the town in his grief. Kicking the crutch out from under the crippled judge, he tells him, "Crawl for it, crawl past a real man." He then sets fire to the saloon, creating a funeral pyre for his friend. Blaisedell's grief over the death of Morgan and his threats to the town bring to the surface their implied homoerotic relationship. Having killed the uncivilized woman in his life, Blaisedell cannot settle down with a civilized woman in Warlock; instead, he must ride out of town, alone, in search of other avenues through which to express his wildness. "Maybe I need to find another Morgan," he tells Jessie when she pleads with him to stay.
Failing to identify a moral purpose or identity of the town apart from rigid adherence to law, and unable to contain either authority or gender within their traditional roles, Warlock ultimately undermines the consensus it seems to advocate. While reinforcing the ideological consensus through the confrontations of Blaisedell, McQuown, and Gannon, the film cannot give it meaning or define social roles within it. Women in The Tin Star and High Noon were firmly lodged in their respective realms. Millie and Amy are the conventional forces of civilization who eschew violence in favor of negotiation, who tame men to live in the domestic realm of the indoors. Helen Ramirez and Nona Mayfield may have some of that domestication within them, but by dwelling on the moral and geographic fringes of the community, they provide a female counterpart to the noble male. In Warlock, those roles become murky. The dark woman, Lily, can be domesticated by the town, but the light woman cannot domesticate the authoritarian individual; instead, he must be surrounded by even darker companions of questionable gender (Morgan), suggesting the crisis of masculinity that K. A. Courdileone has examined as a prevalent theme of social discourse in the late 1950s. The apparent nobility of the individual, Blaisedell, can survive only when it is linked to a perverse, crippled version of himself, lacking any semblance of nobility. The town, which needs its crippled judge, is thus equated with Blaisedell—ignoble and following only his rules— who needs the crippled Morgan. While consensus is reaffirmed ideologically in the larger vision of containing the enemy, the battles are lost in the little containments of gender, authority, and any real moral content of the crippled rules that define the consensus position.
As the 1950s come to a close, Warlock suggests the cold war consensus is fragmenting. In the wake of red scares, threats of missile gaps, growing disaffection with an increasingly powerful and interventionist state, and the emergence of potential dissidents, the consensus lauded earlier in the decade is harder to find. Where it does exist, it seems to lack any inherent meaning other than preventing its own dissolution. The moral vacuity and role confusion of Warlock mirror this changing cultural environment.
By 1968, faith in the American community seems to have been shattered. Released in the same year as the Tet offensive in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson's decision not to run for the presidency, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Vincent McEveety's Firecreek suggests that the consensus is dead, leaving only conformity. Women and youth have become incapable of redemption, and the villains are more conscious of moral issues than the heroes. Firecreek represents the growing irony and self-criticism of Westerns of the Vietnam era (Corkin 2) but also a rare version of the law-and-order Western after 1959.7 As such it presents an interesting reflection on the fate of the cold war consensus as the seeds of dissent bloom into the flowers of rebellion in the 1960s.
Firecreek is a decrepit, poorly built, and more poorly maintained "cemetery of a town." "It's barely even here," villainous Bob Larkin (Henry Fonda) says.
It was settled by pioneers on their way to Oregon who saw in this hardscrabble valley land for which no one would challenge them. The residents are, in the words of the storekeeper Mr. Whittier (Dean Jagger), "a town oflosers." "There are a lot of old people here," part-time sheriff Johnny Cobb (James Stewart) tells Bob Larkin and his men. When Larkin and his men disrupt the night to hold a wake for a dead member of their gang, the terrified townspeople go along with it. "Look at them," Mr. Whittier tells Cobb, "they're terrified because today isn't exactly like yesterday." This is the antithesis of Hadleyville. Where Will Kane was rejected because of the fear of a disruption of commercial progress, no one in Firecreek, including Sheriff Cobb, will oppose the Larkin gang. Conforming to the sameness of each day in run-down Firecreek has left them incapable of progress, of defending themselves, of doing anything other than hoping the threat will go away. The only member of the town who sees a need to confront the Larkin gang is the half-witted teenager Arthur Firecreek (J. Robert Porter). When the gang kills Arthur, they are, in effect, murdering the town; the killing occurs while Cobb is back at his farm, and all the citizens of the town stay indoors and do nothing. When Cobb discovers the body in the morning, he walks through the main street of town calling out, "How could you let this happen?" while all the citizens of the town sit at their windows, saying and doing nothing. They have become moribund through their own fear and timidity, seeking merely to maintain sameness. This is no robust community but a set of ramshackle hovels that serve as the coffins of the walking dead. There is nothing here to defend, and no one to defend it. As the young killer Earl (Gary Lockwood) says to Larkin, "This ain't no town we got to hurry through."
Firecreek strays far from the visions of marshals provided in earlier films. Although his role is not morally ambiguous (he is a family man who attends church), Sheriff Cobb does not act from moral certitude. There are no noble individuals in the town of Firecreek, save for the young Arthur. The sheriff is a farmer who is only a part-time lawman, paid two dollars a month and sporting a homemade badge on which the word "sheriff" is misspelled. He is unwilling to confront Larkin's gang, instead asking them to keep it down and not to disturb the peace. It is only after Arthur has been killed and the town terrorized that the sheriff is willing to face the gang. The moral certitude of High Noons Marshal Kane is suggested only at this point, with both the sheriff and the town indicted for their moral weakness.
Firecreek sees youth as lost and adrift, lacking any sense of morality or focus. McEveety's film offers two trajectories. The first is suggested by the younger members of Larkin's gang, particularly Earl, and by the young girl Leah (Brooke Bundy). In an early scene Earl assaults Leah and is stopped only by the arrival of Larkin, who wants to avoid open conflict with the town they are nearing. Earl gives Leah five dollars to pay for her torn dress. This satisfies her, and the attack is forgotten. Later, when the men begin to terrorize the town in the middle of the night, Leah dresses up to attract her would-be rapist, seeing in Earl a potential beau. Firecreek suggests that this trajectory for lost youth—delinquency, perverse promiscuity, and moral turpitude—is one of the consequences of the lost consensus.
The other trajectory, represented by Arthur Firecreek, the simpleminded assistant to the storekeeper, is equally unredemptive. Found wandering alone by residents of the town when he was a preteen, Arthur did not even know his name. He thus took the name of the town as his own. He is the only resident who wants to face the gang and drive it out. Even the erstwhile sheriff is unwilling to face them, and he restrains Arthur from acting on several occasions.
When Arthur hears screams in the night from the house of Meli (BarBara Luna), he investigates. Finding Meli being raped by one of the gang, Arthur tries to stop him and accidentally kills him. The gang sees this as murder and demands that Arthur be jailed.
The alienation and rootlessness of youth in Firecreek is a major change from the 1950s. Where High Noon saw youth as corrupted by the immorality of the town, and The Tin Star saw the idealism of youth as a counter to the cynicism of a disillusioned adult world, Firecreek suggests that the loss of identity for youth spells disaster all around. Adolescents in this film are vicious killers and rapists, whores, or starry-eyed half-wits whose idealism is quashed by the community's apathy. Left alone, Arthur acts on noble impulses. This results in his death, because no one in the town, not even Sheriff Cobb, will support his action. In the end, it is not Arthur's idealism but his murder that brings Cobb to the defense of the town. That an innocent half-wit could be lynched angers Cobb; while he argues that he has regained a sense of virtue, that conclusion is questionable. His shoot-out with the Larkin gang seems motivated more by a desire for revenge than by moral rectitude.
The women of Firecreek may still serve a civilizing function, but one that has only perverse and debilitating consequences. Johnny Cobb's wife (Jacqueline Scott), pregnant and going through a painful false labor, asks him why they settled in this valley rather than continuing on to the more fertile Oregon. Here the civilizing role of woman has led to a domesticity that created a town of losers who settled for "so much less than they wanted." Beside this passively corrupt domesticity sits Dulcie (Louise Latham), Leah's mother, a man-hating, brutal woman. When she first appears, she is holding a belt in her hand, ready to beat Leah for consorting with a local boy. Dulcie is frequently said to want no men around. The domestic women of Firecreek offer no hope of building civilization; instead, they either domesticate society to the point where it cannot and will not defend itself (Mrs. Cobb) or are rendered bitter and mean because of their failure to do so (Dulcie).
The dark woman in the film is Meli, an Indian who married Cobb's brother and bore a child by him, and who now runs the restaurant. There are rumors of a possible sexual liaison between Meli and Cobb. Meli does not represent the empathy between noble men and women, as did Helen Ramirez and Nona Mayfield; instead, she is one more dark secret buried under the veneer of civilization in Firecreek. Evelyn (Inger Stevens), very blonde and never seen out of doors, is a closer parallel to Helen Ramirez, yet she never speaks to
Cobb during the film, conversing only with Larkin. Evelyn settled in Firecreek with her father after her husband was killed by Indians, but she seems out of place. Clearly lodged within the domestic realm but not domesticated, she is attracted to Larkin. Larkin is also attracted to Evelyn, telling her that he will return to settle down with her. she will, like Amy in High Noon, take up a rifle at the end of the film. Unlike Amy, though, she will shoot her potential lover, Larkin, before he kills Cobb, not in the back but sniping from a window. Since the violence of man cannot be domesticated without man's losing all dignity, the only recourse is to kill the savage.
Where Cobb continually lies to himself, Larkin is completely self-aware. He recognizes his own desire to lead, even if the group is only a band of savage marauders. He identifies the similarity between his own position and that of Cobb, with both trying to hold things together for their respective communities: "We're both holding on to a greased pig." He identifies Evelyn as different from the others in this "cemetery of a town." Where Will Kane, Morg Hickman, and Clay Blaisedell understood the situation within the communities they sought to defend, vicious killer Larkin, rather than Sheriff Cobb, is the one who truly understands Firecreek. Firecreek implies that nobility of purpose can no longer be found within the heroic individual, but that it is known only to the enemy, who will not act on it. Larkin follows the letter of the law, if not its spirit. Like Blaisedell in Warlock, he plays by the rules, although on the fringes. He and his men are hired guns riding south from the northern range wars where they had been employed. He works within the law, just as Morg Hickman claimed. But while Larkin can see some nobility in himself, his gang has none. His followers engage in two attempted rapes, disrupt a church service, terrorize the town, and hang Arthur—all in less than twenty-four hours. When Evelyn shoots Larkin to save Cobb, it is at once an act of defense of the town and a mercy killing; she has given the noble villain his only possible exit from a world where domestication means emasculation.
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