Three Violent People seems like an intriguing film at its surface- and the collateral promotional material supports this thinking. On viewing, however, you get the sense that it is really a ‘B’ picture with an ‘A’ cast. True, or no?
By the standards of the day, the film is definitely not the strongest when compared against its contemporaries. For a film with violence in the title, there is remarkably little of it until the finale frames. But Charlton Heston in his mid-1950s prime wasn’t in any schlocky films, was he?
And that is where Three Violent People comes in. Made as the last obligation for Heston’s contract with Paramount, it predates his rampant popularity that came with The Ten Commandments. Avid readers, however, will realize that The Ten Commandments came out prior to Three Violent People. So what gives?
A few things, the first of which is that they were not released that far apart. More importantly is the fact that in the 1950s there was no social media and there were no 20-screen multiplexes dotting suburbia. It took time back in the day for most films to reach a critical mass. As good as the studios were at promotion even in that, the end of the studio era, they are no match for the overnight juggernauts that even the weakest film of today merits.
Three Violent People is perhaps the last film that Heston made before he exploded and had the right of cast approval. Here he is Colt Saunders, a Confederate veteran returning to his beloved Barrel S ranch after four (or five- depending on who is doing the talking) years away at war. On his way home he evidently has his eyes peeled for a suitable wife.
And of course he finds one in Anne Baxter, and quickly they are wed in town before heading out to his ranch. Getting home after such a long absence, he finds the house disheveled and dusty, but livable. A quick morning discussion with his caretaker Innocencio (Gilbert Roland) reveals the worst. Carpetbaggers are afoot and most of his cattle have been rustled away by marauding Yankees!
Another surprise awaits Colt in the return of his one-armed brother Beauregard (who thankfully goes by ‘Cinch’ and played by Tom Tyron). Cinch is looking to sell his presumed share of the ranch back to Colt, but there is obviously something more in the relationship between the two men.
Heading to a neighbor for advice, Colt soon learns of the exorbitant tax bill owed, and after meeting with other ranchers decides to fight with the provisional government to keep his land. Cinch, always the realist, prefers to drive a previously hidden horse herd to market and recoup the proceeds, leaving the ranch forever.
Upping the ante, the Deputy Commissioner comes to the Barrel S to collect the taxes and inquire about this herd of horses, of which he has just learned of. During the conversation it is revealed that Mrs. Saunders was basically a call-girl in St. Louis. Colt would through her out, but learns at the last moment that she is also now pregnant with his child.
Unhappy over their disagreement, Cinch sets out to betray Colt and throws in with the Commissioner and his ilk. As the finale approaches, the two brothers stand across from each other with hand on hips, each wondering if the other will draw. As a very innovative timer, Cinch uses an upended whiskey decanter, stating simply that when the whiskey is gone, one of them will need to die. Ironically, as the air bubbles up into the whiskey and it slowly leaves the decanter, there is no sign of the whiskey on either the table or the floor beneath it.
The final shootout (actually the only real action in the film) is extremely well done and happens very quickly, as perhaps most really did. There is little if any strategy involved and in the course of thirty seconds or so it is all over. Rather than drawing it out with long expository shots of gunfighters shimmying along the ground a la The Gunfight at the OK Corral, director Rudolph Mate limits his efforts to purely the action at hand.
Sounds like a simple storyline, and it probably is. What does manage to turn Three Violent People around is the depth and reality of the film. The characters are well defined and the story makes sense from each character’s perspective. Unlike films of today, there is more to this film than a string of action sequences strung together by a threadbare plot. Here the plot manages to build tension throughout until the final climax, when there finally is some on-screen action!
Charlton Heston seems to fit his character like a glove. As Colt’s primary trait is intransigence, Heston’s traditionally stilted and rather leaden delivery is an ideal match. His only match here seems to be his leading lady. Both Heston and Baxter seem to do fairly well when apart, but when on-screen together they behave as if they are in on an inside joke, with both hamming it up more than the situation allows. In typical fashion for pictures of the time, Baxter seems overwhelmed by extravagant gown after gown.
Of special interest, though most viewers will miss it, are the actors who play Gilbert Roland’s on-screen sons. Of the five, two of them are played by Jamie Farr and Robert Blake. Not to be overlooked is Tom Tryon’s portrayal of Cinch, Heston’s brother. Though usually denigrated, here he plays the tough rather well and comes off perhaps better than the two leads. He plays most of the film as a bitter and secretive man but turns flirtatious and witty with Baxter- but managing not to incorporate the disconcerting persona Heston does when sharing the screen with her.
As good as the acting is, the cast is obviously constrained somewhat by what is a seriously set-bound shoot. Though photographed very well, most of the picture was obviously filmed either on soundstages or the Paramount back lot. But it doesn’t detract that much from the proceedings and the overall relatively high production values, though there is one rather painful rear projection sequence during a stampede which could have been done without.
Three Violent People isn’t the best Western ever made, but it is far from the worst. The highlights are by far the dynamic characters and gritty and realistic storyline, which grip and enthrall. The greatest question of all when the film wraps is just who are these three violent people?
The first surely is Colt (Heston), with Cinch (Tryon) close behind. But it is the third which perplexes. Neither Roland’s (gritty and tough) or Baxter’s (manipulative) characters fit the bill as violent.