Joseph H. Lewis was one of the saints of the Hollywood B-picture, responsible for thirty-eight movies between Courage of the West (1937), and Terror in a Texas Town (1958). Although he is probably best known for his rabidly stylised noirs Gun Crazy (1949) and The Big Combo (1955) – sleepers the world woke up to only slowly – Lewis’s career began and ended with the western (after retiring from cinema, he worked the genre a further thirteen years on TV).
Released in 1957, The Halliday Brand was his penultimate movie. It would seem to have been written as a self-consciously psychological western, the plot the familiar old one of past and future, father and son in conflict, the crises arising around issues of sex and otherness. But, as he did without fail, Lewis circumvents cliché and the limits of budget with energy. To watch The Halliday Brand is to watch a film that is perpetually simmering, on the point of boiling over.
Big Dan Halliday (Ward Bond), is founding father and sheriff of his town, responsible for originally wresting the land away from the Native Americans (the Halliday brand depicts a buried tomahawk). His eldest son, also called Daniel (Joseph Cotten), has chosen to have nothing to do with his father’s law-giving, preferring to work the family ranch. When Halliday’s daughter falls in love with a ranch-hand whose mother was an Indian, however, the old sheriff’s race-hate and desire to keep his family’s blood “pure” come to the fore, and he manipulates events so that the man is brutally lynched, leading Daniel to swear to destroy his father, and wage a single-handed guerrilla war against his clan.
An instinctive rather than an intellectual composer of thereby surprising images, Lewis litters the foreground of his frames; here we see looming faces, enormous pistols, broken branches from rotten trees, a dead man’s foot, each infecting the scenes played around them. Lewis could hurl a camera around with the best of them (seek out the incredible Gun Crazy and 1950’s unfairly unknown A Lady Without Passport for some of his most wildly bravura sequences), but The Halliday Brand seems paralysed by its own bitterness, unfolding in long, static takes; though even here the camera makes imperceptible movements to reframe, rephrase.
The central casting – Ward Bond as the patriarch, Joseph Cotten as the son – is, to put it mildly, bizarre: Cotten was born in 1905, Bond in 1903 and, except for whitening Bond’s hair slightly, little has been done to suggest any age difference. The casting also carries connotations of collision: Bond, himself notoriously right-wing, was a stock member of John Ford’s company and therefore a creature of the past; Cotten forever associated with the liberal Orson Welles’s new modernism.
That’s the surface, anyway, but there are layers. Ford, who started directing in 1917, helped build the language of the future; Welles, whose films tore forward, yet constantly reached back toward an idealised past, taught himself that language primarily by screening Ford, whose movies he adored. And another layer: Bond was a founder and the chief rabble rouser for the rabid Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the body self-appointed as Hollywood’s main cheerleader/ witch hunter for the anti-communist blacklist. During the McCarthy period, it had become a kind of rite of passage for actors who might be suspected of harbouring any left-leaning sympathies to let Bond clear their names by allowing them to appear in a film with him.
For a Western, The Halliday Brand is intensely confining, claustrophobic. Space is denied – except for one moment, near the end. By now Bond, gunning for his son, has been abandoned by his townsfolk followers, reduced to a one-man posse searching the wilderness. Cotten’s disembodied voice calls out from nowhere, pulling him up short, and the two carry out a brief shouted conversation, Lewis filming Bond only, through waving strands of tall grass, so that after a while it feels as though it’s the grass itself that is talking to him. Meanwhile, behind him, his horse wanders slowly into the far distance, leaving him utterly alone: it’s here we get the suggestion of space, and it’s not a liberating feeling.
Finally, out in this desolate place, father and son come to blows in a brutal, awkward fight, no grace to it. Although the entire film has been pointing to the moment, when the son’s fist strikes the father’s face for the first time, it still feels terrible. Old Oedipus in denim, no mother in sight.