Tension at Table Rock (1956)

This was a “B” Western film from the 1950s, similar to tons that were produced on the movie studio assembly line. Why take the time to review it and hopefully have others read it? This was better than the average “B” film and one of the better stories about the stranger with a background who stops to help a town stand up to a villainous force.

Richard Egan portrays an outlaw who kills an accomplice in self-defense, but is held for murder. He killed a very popular outlaw, so popular that Eagan’s character quits crime and changes his name to avoid the publicity. Assuming a new identity, he winds up in the town of Table Rock, when it is besieged by cattle drivers, who are under the protection of a crooked town boss. Even the sheriff is under the thumb of the town boss, much to his wife’s disapproval, which points to her interest in Egan’s straight-arrow character.

The storyline of a stranger who saves a town is well-used. Westerns are probably the most liberal use of this dramatic device. Films like High Plains Drifter, Bad Day at Black Rock, Roadhouse use this premise. TV shows such as Mannix, The Rockford Files, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, Bonanza, The Rifleman, The Virginian, The Fugitive, and many more shows put their character in the crosshairs.

Egan’s character, although an outlaw at the beginning of the film, found his moral compass and put away his gun, until he was forced to again use it. This strong, man of few words, reminds me of Clint Eastwood, particularly the character he played in High Plains Drifter. Westerns were full of protagonists who say very little, but let their actions do their talking. I found it compelling that a character starts out as an outlaw and quickly changes to a law-bidding, rescuer as in this film. Egan does not show much outward emotion in this film, his expressions and voice change very little, but the viewer can see the wheels turning as he sizes up a situation and must decide how and when to respond.

I happened to watch this film one night on Turner Classic Movies and was hooked enough to watch it again. This film does not rise to the level of “classic” but it is a very good one. One of the worst things about this film is the title. Table Rock is the town where it takes place, and more than a little tension is in the air. It was adapted from a book by a different name (Bitter Sage), so I am not sure why this was a great choice.

Westerns were the staple of the 1950s, produced on the backlot, using pulp material for the story and employing actors under contract to the studio. Westerns, unless they required extensive location work, and big stars, were cheap to produce, and could be fine-tuned to tell any kind of story.

Richard Egan and Angie Dickinson

Egan, a familiar face in many films of the era. He worked up to leading man status, but never quite got to the “A” list of actors. He appeared in action films as well as romances, he projected a solid, handsome and morally sound image in the technicolor 1950s. Egan was beefy, like Victor Mature, and had roles in many period films. He has a measured, deep and reassuring voice (like Clint Walker), which got him voice work. Interesting to note, also released in 1956 was Egan and Elvis Pressley in Love Me Tender.

The other stars of the film were Dorothy Malone and Cameron Mitchell. Malone had a long film and television career, as did Mitchell. Malone started in films in the mid 1940s, in many bit parts and “B” films. She earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the 1956 film Written in the Wind.

Mitchell got his start on the stage before moving films in the 1940s. In the 1950s, he had many supporting film roles and guest starring jobs in television. In the next decade he worked extensively in Europe and had his most remembered role in The High Chaparral.

Dorothy Malone and Cameron Mitchell

The film had a very good supporting cast of familiar faces. This was one of Angie Dickinson‘s first roles, but she only appeared onscreen for a few moments although you see her smoldering persona and comfort before the camera. Royal Dano was a popular character actor with a voice similar to Walter Brennan and a thatch of bushy hair. He appeared in many films in a variety of roles. Edward Andrews played the town boss and had a very long career in television and films, usually as a military officer, well-heeled businessman or lawyer. John Dehner was the trail driver, a harsh but practical man. He had a long career, often in Westerns. DeForest Kelley (Star Trek) played the hired gun, which he often did in his early career. Kelley is especially good in this role, he doesn’t play it as a cardboard sociopath or super-tough guy, he is almost a charming fellow. Paul Richards plays the popular outlaw who is killed by Egan’s character at the beginning of the film. Richards has a familiar face and voice, he often did commercials and other voice work.

For some reason, they make Egan’s character irresistible to the women in the film. He rejects Dickinson’s character and she frames him for murder. The sheriff’s wife (Malone) takes a shine to him, but he turns her down and leaves town. Talk about a guy with girl problems.

Egan and Malone. What’s going on here?

The film was directed by Charles Marquis Warren, who had a long career in films and television, particularly Westerns. Although he only directed this film, he was also a writer and producer, working on many “B” films and grinding out episodic television. Warren might be best remembered for helping to produce and create three of the most influential television Westerns: Gunsmoke, Rawhide and The Virginian.

The film’s score is done by the masterful Dimitri Tiomkin (Rio Bravo, High Noon, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) and edited by Doane Harrison (Remember the Night, The Major and the Minor).

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