Stranger on Horseback (1955) Movie Review

Joel McCrea as Judge Richard Thorne
Miroslava as Amy Lee Bannerman
Kevin McCarthy as Tom Bannerman
John McIntire as Col. Buck Bannerman
Nancy Gates as Caroline Webb

Rated: PG 
Duration: 66 Minutes

Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Produced by: Robert Goldstein
Screenplay by: Herb Meadow / Don Martin
Photographed by: Ray Rennahan
Music by: Paul Dunlap

Based on a story by Louis L’Amour, “Stranger on Horseback” stars Joel McCrea as Judge Richard ‘Rick’ Thorne. A voiceover at the beginning informs the audience that a “United States circuit judge needed three things to bring justice to this country – a law book, a horse and a gun” and pilgrim, Judge Rick has all three. 

Arriving at his destination in the town of Bannerman ostensibly to check out everything is being run legally and all above board the Judge realises that every store, saloon and hotel bears the name of Bannerman, which is an obvious red flag in anyone’s book.

He is greeted by Col. Buck Streeter (John Carradine), a representative of the town’s owner, Josia Bannerman (John McIntire). Thorne instantly recognises corruption when he sees it, probably aided by the fact Streeter is played by John Carradine.

He impresses upon Streeter that he is not open to bribery, refusing the offer of a more expensive room on the house and insisting he will pay for his own whisky.

Taking up space in the office of Sheriff Nat Bell (Emile Mayer) Thorne starts sifting through paperwork relating to land claims and deportation orders and such.

In order to demonstrate that he has a heart and is not just all about business the Judge reverses a deportation order on a Mexican family, prompting Streeter to suggest his boss will now probably give the father a good job, which is probably the last thing Bannerman would want to do.

Upon querying the identity of someone he saw being buried when riding into town both Streeter and Bell become cagey. Upon further questioning by the judge, it transpires that Tom Bannerman (Kevin McCarthy) is responsible for having killed the dead man supposedly in self-defence. 

When the Judge questions the sheriff as to why the killer is still free Streeter suggests “It’s the frontier sir. The garment of social conscience fits loosely” to which the Judge replies “I’m here to tighten it up”. 

Meanwhile, out at the Bannerman ranch Bannerman Junior places himself in harm’s way by holding up a glass of whisky for his cousin Aimee Lee (Miroslava)  to shoot out of his hand.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. He’s a psycho. The local bank manager Arnold Hammer (Richard Braithwaite) turns up to warn the Bannermans that the Judge wants to speak to Tom.

Hammer is also engaged to Aimee Lee although it’s doubtful the relationship is going to end on a good note. Even crazy cuz Tom agrees, telling Hammer “she’ll finish you off inside a couple of weeks”.

Riding into town to invite the Judge out to the ranch Tom Bannerman is greeted with the news that he is under arrest for murder. When Bannerman remonstrates by pulling his gun on the Judge, who is unarmed, he receives a punch in the face and is then frog-marched to the hoosegow.

Sheriff Bell saves the life of the Judge before someone can shoot him in the back, the Sheriff now enjoying being on the side of law and order for once, even if it makes him feel ‘kinda lonesome’.

Things start to take a nasty turn when the Judge quizzes Paula Morrison (Jaclynne Greene) the widow of the murdered man, only to find out that Tom Bannerman had probably assaulted her thus leading to a confrontation in which her husband was shot in the back.

She tells the Judge she was given a gun that her husband supposedly used to take a shot at Bannerman even though he’d never carried one before. The Judge visits the local gunsmith Vince Webb (Walter Baldwin) and asks him if he recognises the weapon which he’s unable to do but then admits that he saw Tom Bannerman murder Morrison.

Webb’s daughter, whom Bannerman had promised to marry, then admits she saw him shoot Morrison twice, the last shot whilst the dying man was on the ground.

In one of those coincidences specific only to film Aimee Lee espies the Judge taking a dip in a local stream and inveigles him to take her back to the Bannerman ranch on the pretext of having lost her horse.

He and Josia Bannerman meet for the first time with the ranch owner, telling the Judge “You can’t come in here mister, and tell me how to run my land”. The Judge advises that Josia get a good lawyer to defend his son when goes on trial for murder, only to be told Tom won’t be needing one. He makes his excuses and leaves.

Realising the Bannerman’s will not allow the trial to go ahead the Judge decides to take the accused to the nearby town of Cottonwood and an ‘honest jury’. On his way to see the sheriff after having another confrontation with Josiah Bannerman in the town saloon, he notices there is someone in his hotel room.

Upon opening the door he finds Amee Lee on her own. They embrace but it soon becomes clear she’s there to use her womanly wiles in order to persuade the Judge to release Tom Bannerman.

Declaring he’s “given that no-fool judge enough time to change his mind” Bannerman makes his play and sends the boys over to the jailhouse and free his son but when they get there the Judge has already left for Cottonwood with Tom.

The Judge, Sheriff Bell and Tom Bannerman meet up with Vince Webb and his daughter who have agreed to testify against Tom in Cottonwood. Hiding from their pursuers the group take a detour to their proposed destination with Tom Bannerman warning they’re heading towards canyon territory.

Realising the Judge is going to get to Cottonwood by the other trail Josia Bannermen tells his men they’re going to bottle their prey up in the canyon they’ll need to pass through on the way to town.

Aimee Lee catches up with the Judge to try and stop him from getting killed by Josia and the boys but he takes her gun away instead and presses on.

Riding along a small trail through a canyon Tom Bannerman pushes old man Webb over the edge. As the judge tries to retrieve the body Bannerman decides to pull the same trick with the sheriff be he in turn is stopped by Aimee Lee, who finally realises her cousin is a cold-blooded killer.

Faced with either having to surrender Tom Bannerman to Josia and boys or shoot Tom if anyone makes a move the Judge surprisingly gives in and rides off on his own.

Just when everyone concerned, including the audience, thinks the Judge is giving up he jumps from his horse and starts taking out the bad guys.

After a prolonged shootout the elder Bannerman, who has taken a liking to a man with spirit, saves the Judge’s life by shooting one of his own men who is about to kill him.

He then requests that the Judge treat his murdering son kindly before riding off with the parting request to “Take Aimee Lee with you. I set no table for them that turns against me”.

Directed by Jacques Tournier, a filmmaker known mostly for directing a series of classic horror movies back in the 1940s such as “Cat People” and “I Walked With a Zombie”, “Stranger on Horseback” is a neat little independent production that packs a lot into a short running time of just over an hour. Both director and star McCrea reunited immediately afterward in another classic Western, “Wichita”.

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Steve is a film scholar of note, gaining both an MA in film studies and a Ph.D. for his thesis on the silent films of John Ford. Steve, a scriptwriter and published novelist, provides much of the content you see here and is a dedicated aficionado and longtime fan of John Wayne, John Ford and Western films in general.

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