(USA - 1950)

by Alfred Eaker

Cast: Alan Ladd, Mona Freeman, Charles Bickford, Robert Keith, Joseph Calleia
Genre: Western
Director: Rudolph Mate
Screenplay: Sydney Boehm & Cyril Hume from Max Brand's novel Montana Rides
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Composer: Roy Webb

The three greatest forms of art to have emerged, thus far, in America are Jazz in music, Abstract Expressionism in painting and the western in cinema. Both Abstract Expressionism and Jazz have seriously lost their edge. The rough experiments of a Charles Mingus and Willem De Kooning have given way to a smooth and safe experience. In a 21st century design-oriented America, painting and music are for the elevator and the office. The art gallery experience is hardly a conceptual one. There isn't even the slightest hint of danger or provocation in most contemporary art galleries and the experience, more often than not, is more akin to taking a stroll through an L.S. Ayres department, the flat geometric abstractions across from kitch landscapes. Western cinema, perhaps resembling something too biblical, is too dusty, too archaic, too blue collar, and resembles an alien experience to the post-Matrix generation. Instead of allowing itself to be sanitized, the western film seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur. The few westerns that have appeared are more akin to contemporary action films, which seem to confuse an organic, spiritual edge with stylized, winner-take-all violence. When a contemporary western attempts anything resembling a spiritual experience, such as the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, many viewers ridicule it as "unrealistic". Of course, there is Dances with Wolves, but that fluke of saccharine, politically correct spirituality still had white man Costner as the greatest native of them all. The New Mexico art gallery scene has the only real hold on Western mythology, but even the bulk of that scene packages and hawks it as hack nostalgia in second rate commercialized, illustrative "art" and justifies its neutering of the art form with its boasted sale to tourists. Disputably, the 1950's proved the greatest decade for all these art forms.

Rudolph Mate's "Branded" emerged at the dawn of the 1950's. It stars Alan Ladd and is little remembered today, due in part to Ladd's being cast in George Steven's phenomenally popular Shane a mere three years later. I do not side with the consensus of contemporary criticism in the reassessment that Stevens' classic is overrated, just as I will not concede to revisionist criticism regarding "High Noon" although I do believe there were, and still are, better westerns (i.e.; ' Henry King's 'The Gunfighter', Budd Boetticher's ' The Tall T', or Anthony Mann's 'Naked Spur' ) However, "Branded" is as almost as good as the film which sealed the surprising superstardom of Ladd.

There is something quintessentially cinematic and mythic in the image of a man on a horse under an expansive sky. "Branded" fills that bill to the Technicolor rim, contradicting an often held opinion that westerns simply look better in black and white. Sydney Boehm's unpredictable screenplay comes from a Max Brand novel and meshes well with Mate's sense of pacing.

Alan Ladd was an actor of limited range, and came off best when his persona of icy precision was used to full advantage, as it is here in the role of Choya. This film literally starts off with a bang. Choya is holed up in a general store, surrounded by enemies. He pulls off an exciting escape and teams up with T. Jefferson Leffingwell (Robert Keith) and his aptly named partner, Tattoo (John Berkes). Leffingwell has a guaranteed get rich scheme. Leffingwell knows of a wealthy ranch family with a long lost son who was kidnapped 25 years ago. The son had a unique birthmark, which Tattoo tattoos on Choya's shoulder. Once Tattoo's services are no longer needed, Leffingwell brutally murders his partner to increase his share. Choya doesn't seem to care.

Choya arrives at the Bar O-M Ranch looking for work. The ranch foreman, Ransom (Tom Tully) recognizes a gunslinger when he sees one and is reluctant to take Choya on, but does so at the insistence of the rancher's daughter Ruth Lavery (Mona Freeman). Choya plays the chip on his shoulder to the hilt, resulting in a fight in which he conveniently loses his shirt, revealing his "birth mark." Upon seeing Tattoo's handiwork, the family is convinced that Choya is their long lost son.

Along the way however, Choya starts developing a conscience after coming to like his new family in the Laverys. Additionally, falling in love with his "sister" doesn't help. After feeding Choya enough background information to fool the ranchers, Leffingwell, tired of the long wait, pops up to make a nuisance of himself and throws that monkey wrench into the unfolding plot. Keith registers trashy slime to perfection in the role. Ladd is equally impressive in the role of Choya and has, in Matte, a rare director who expertly knows how to utilize his actor's limitations and personality. Matte draws a tormented, internal fire out of Ladd, by keeping it under a layer of thick, exterior ice. Ladd's character is so apt at piling lie upon lie while we increasingly sympathize for the victimized family, that we genuinely do not know which way he will go and, indeed, initially find him to be no better than Leffingwell. "Branded" is a film which does not flinch from conveying a struggle towards spiritual redemption and Matte enhances this with his cinematographer's eye for sumptuous composition.

"Branded" is a bit like discovering music from the Gil Melle Quartet after repeated exposure to the better known masterpieces from Miles Davis & John Coltrane. Compared to the likes of Ford, Mann, Boetticher, Peckinpah, or Leone, Rudolph Matte is barely a blip on the radar, but his "Branded" is a worthwhile blip.



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