Though it’s easy for this film to be overshadowed by Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Yates, in retrospect, Rawhide is a spare outpost western nevertheless loaded with tension and talent. It is set against the backdrop of a network of stagecoaches transporting mail across the continental United States.
Rawhide Station is one such spot looked after by old-hand stationmaster, Sam Todd (Edgar Buchannan). He has been entrusted with training up young Easterner Tom Owens (Tyrone Power), whose father is division manager of the overland mail. This is a bit of on-the-job training before he moves back to the comfort of the East.
Power is slightly past his matinee idol prime, but he can still pretty nearly fake it with his dashingly handsome good looks. Meanwhile, Buchannan is always ready to be called upon, in a pinch, to play such a scraggly type, aided by his gravel-filled throat. It gives him instant credibility.
For whatever reason, Henry Hathaway is rarely remembered as a director, but when you take stock of his work, both in westerns and noir films, he really does have quite the catalog to his name over a very prodigious career spanning decades. Scriptwriter Dudley Nichols had a prominent career of us own as did cinematographer Milton Krasner. Thus, the technical credentials on the film are quite an impressive array.
But what makes Rawhide actually take as a contentious tale of the West is the rest of the cast. My, oh my, is the cast good. It’s stacked with a steady, reliable group who know their parts and play them handily. It’s tough to choose a standout.
Because Owens finds himself being held hostage by a pack of escaped convicts on the trail for gold. It just so happens a feisty young woman (Susan Hayward), toting a child back east, also has the unpleasant fortune of getting caught in their crosshairs.
This man, still fresh-behind-the-ears, is forced to grow up right quick in the face of such a dubious bunch. Hugh Marlowe plays an exceptionally perceptive bandit calling the shots, saddled by the trio of incompetents he broke out of prison with.
Jack Elam, with that wall-eyed stare of his, made a living for himself as one of the great heavies of all time, right up there with Lee Van Cleef. Because their eyes say it all. He’s the most lascivious of the bunch, prone to violent acts and leering at pretty women. Zimmerman has his hands full because while his other two cronies are older and more obedient, they’re no less dumb. Dean Jagger plays a near grandfatherly old coot while George Tobias is the scruffy foreigner Gratz.
As we settle in for the long hall, Rawhide becomes a game of survival in pursuit of incremental victories like trying to sneak S.O.S. notes to incoming travelers. Then, they manage to swipe a knife from the kitchen to begin chiseling an exit out of their room on the road to escape. All the while, in the back of their mind, they’re thinking about staying alive so they can find the gun dropped out by the corrals. It’s the faintest of hopes
They are further concerned with protecting the young progeny Vinnie has vowed to take care of ever since the passing of her sister in California. It all matters because each individual piece is a single entity in this entire patchwork of cat and mouse — a chess match playing out on all sides. What hangs in the balance are the lives of all those involved. When those are the constant stakes, it’s extremely difficult to have a tedious story.
In a single instance, the tripwires start going off, and the bodies start tumbling. We hold our breath to see who will make it out alive in such a precarious showdown. It plays its hand well. Power readily accepts the challenge at hand with grit and determination, while Susan Hayward has nerves of iron packing a shotgun to finish the job. The harrowing adventure gives us two stalwart heroes in the end.
In considering our leads, it does feel as if Power is making a concerted effort to maintain his box office pull, while Rawhide feels more like a stepping stone for Susan Hayward as her career progressed to continually more interesting parts in the 50s. But in neither case does it feel like we’re dealing with preening stars. They ably claw and fight for survival with the pack of criminals in their stead.
I will admit the way the story is bookended as just another tale along the “jackass mail” line from San Francisco to St. Louis, “Oh Susannah” playing in the background, somehow cheapens what we’ve witnessed. It seems to momentarily lose its credibility as a grind-it-out western. Maybe we can just say it’s faulty advertising and leave it at that. Otherwise, Rawhide has more in common with the lean constructions of Budd Boetticher than any kind of superficial high-adventure cowboy picture. It comes with real guts.