Friday, March 18, 2022

The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1952) Western Noir

"A sorta riff on Bogey's The Petrified Forest and Tarantino's The Hateful Eight"

Directed by Joseph M. Newman. 

Newman directed Noirs (Death in Small Doses (1957), The Human Jungle (1954), Dangerous Crossing (1953), 711 Ocean Drive (1950, Abandoned (1949). He also directed four episodes of The Twilight Zone (TV Series).

Written by Edmund H. North and based on the short story by Bret Harte. Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle (Fallen Angel, Hangover Square, Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Road House, Storm Fear, and Dangerous Crossing. Music was by Hugo Friedhofer. 

The film stars Anne Baxter (O. Henry's Full House (The Last Leaf Segment), I Confess, The Blue Gardenia, The Come On) as Cal, Dale Robertson (starred mostly in Westerns) as John Oakhurst, Miriam Hopkins (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)) as Mrs. Shipton aka 'The Duchess', Cameron Mitchell (The Sellout, House of Bamboo, Ride in the Whirlwind, Hombre) as Ryker, Craig Hill as Tom Dakin, Barbara Bates as Piney Wilson, William H. Lynn as Jake Watterson, and Dick Rich as the Drunk.

Anne Baxter as Cal

Dale Robertson as John Oakhurst

Cameron Mitchell as Ryker

Miriam Hopkins as Mrs. Shipton aka 'The Duchess'

Dick Rich as the Drunk

This film drops you into Noirsville from the get go.

Night. A mining camp Main Street. Poker Flat. California. Hurricane lamps twinkle on a shanty towns ramshackle porches.

The light shines on a crust of frozen mud that glitters from the grooved patterns of wheel ruts and foot track depressions. We hear the tinkle of a piano. A wagon carrying two men is a moving silhouette. 

A nice disorienting close up of the Poker Flat hardware store window displaying gold pans, picks, kerosene lanterns showing the asking prices hand printed on small cards. Into this commercial enterprise juts the barrel of a rifle. Lamp light outlines it and the profile of the man wielding it. Its a shot like the ones Leone would later iconize in his mythological Spaghetti Westerns. Nice bit of style there. Bravo Joseph M. Newman.

The window

The rifle

The gunman

He steps into the street shouldering what looks like a loaded pack frame. He's followed by two other men. They walk further into town and the piano gets louder. They are avoiding any townsfolk.

The gangs leader, Ryker stops, stepping into the shadow of a tree. He hunches over to light a cigar when a man steps out of the saloon and walks past. It lights his face in a nice stylistic sequence. 

Its a very impressive introduction

Ryker meets up with a woman named Cal. We don't know her relationship for sure  but she seems very compliant. Ryker tells her to get the horses ready.

Ryker and Cal

Ryker and his men arrive at a combo Assay Office and Banking House. Ryker heads into an alley to go around back. 

He breaks in through the back and opens the front door. His men rush in. Ryker shuts the door. They go to work. The unpack their gear. They find the safe and put some blasting powder up against the combination lock. Ryker gets some mud from the back alley to make the charge adhere to the box. They cover that with blankets. Then light the fuse. 

It goes boom, but the blankets muffled the sound, however the charge jarred cast iron front door, creaks open when two prospectors are walking by. It gets their attention.

They pull out their guns and run towards the bank. Ryker runs behind the open door. When the two men enter, Ryker shoots them both in the back.

He slams the door shut but the sound of the gunshots gets everybody in town out in the street. Ryker runs to the back alley door and looks out. He tells his men quickly to go out the front door. The two dummies do so and start getting shot at. 

Ryker grabs to loot and scoots back down the alley. His two men get killed in a crossfire. 

Ryker is gone

Ryker meets Cal by a stable where they stashed the horses. Ryker gives Cal the money and tells her to keep it. He tells her hell be back for it.

Ryker gives Cal the money

The next day the town is so riled up over the robbery that a vigilance committee rounds up the towns undesirables and runs them all out of town. These are "The Outcasts" of the original story. John Oakhurst a gambler, Mrs. Shipton aka 'The Duchess' a saloon owner of ill repute, the town drunk, and Cal because of her association with Ryker. 

The Poker Flat Vigilance Committee

Getting run out of town

We got a tree over there for ya if ya come back

The Outcasts

Oakhurst is about to split off on his own for another boom camp called Sandy Bar, but the lady's persuade him to help them on the narrow trail over the pass. The drunk tags along. 

About eight hours out on the trail a storm is starting to blow in over the pass. John tells the group that they can shelter in a cabin that should somewhere up ahead. They soon meet up with Tom Dakin and Piney Wilson. They are two teenagers coming the other way. They are wanting to get married in Poker Flat on account that Piney is pregnant. Tom tells the Outcasts that they passed the cabin two miles back. John suggests that they all better get to the cabin to wait out the storm.

Craig Hill as Tom Dakin, Barbara Bates as Piney Wilson

The last third of the tale takes place in the cabin. It goes Noirsville when an obsessed Ryker, finding out about Poker Flat casting out their undesirables, tracks Cal and his money to the cabin.


The real eye opener here is the performance by Cameron Mitchel. He practically steals every scene with his intensity. He reminded me of what they said about the breakout performance of Bogart in The Petrified Forest. This was Mitchel's breakout performance. The Times review - "Cameron Mitchell is outstanding in the role. He is a brutally vicious and selfish murderer who is ready to use anyone, including his tarnished but undaunted wife, to hold his snowbound victims at bay." (NY Times)

Anne Baxter is very believable as the long suffering damsel in distress. Dale Robertson is excellent but he's playing the crafty gambler, poker faced, he's not giving anything away and gets overshadowed by Mitchells histrionics. The rest of the cast is well filled out. Twentieth Century-Fox Western Noir 7.5/10


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