Film Reviews

Man Without a Star (1955) – Blu-ray Review

From Eureka Entertainment‘s Masters of Cinema Range comes this Blu-ray release of the 1955 Kirk Douglas western Man Without a Star. Douglas plays Dempsey Rae, who we meet on a train journey from Kansas to Wyoming. Rescuing the much younger Jeff Jimson (William Campbell) from being run over by the train in the course of trying to hop aboard, they later see the brakeman killed by another man (an uncredited Jack Elam). With Jeff about to be arrested for the murder, Dempsey proves the young man’s innocence, and they share a $100 reward for uncovering the culprit.

Staying in town, the two men set to work on a large ranch for Strap Davis (Jay C. Flippen – the two men pretending to be fellow Texans) on behalf of new owner Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain). Dempsey teaches the slightly temperamental Jeff to undertake the various key parts of the job. Finally meeting Bowman, Rae finds himself falling for her. That said, he quickly becomes dismayed by her plans to triple the size of her herd, as it will crowd out the other ranchers sharing the available land. This puts him in direct conflict with Jeff.

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At a slight 89 minutes, Man Without a Star is a decent tale carried on Douglas’ star wattage and recommended to completists of either the western genre or Kirk’s career. The film is presented in what appears to be a 2:1 aspect ratio, with a nicely restored picture, with only a few softer images, but, overall, plenty of colour and minimal grain. This is supported by a vibrant stereo soundtrack.

Bonus features are kicked off with a commentary from western movie expert Barry Forshaw, and novelist and critic Kim Newman. As always, we aren’t told much about them if we are new to this range or their contributions, though at least this release tells us what line of work they are in. The first fact they tell us is that the title song is sung by Frankie Laine, who later did the Blazing Saddles theme tune. Which then takes them off on a tangent around his career – setting the scene for a really fun chat between the two men.

They talk about this film mostly as an enjoyable piece of fun – the director, King Vidor characterised as ‘slumming’ it, and the movie is short, almost throwaway, which it is not to suggest they are anything other than fond of it. Newman is familiar with the source novel and can speak to it being anti-capitalist, and is able to compare the two, as well as going all around his total knowledge of seemingly all and any films bearing a resemblance. Forshaw takes the conversation towards the key players more often, though often as a prompt to Newman’s knowledge and stories. How he gets the time to watch all of this stuff is mind-blowing. Both are great on themes, and similarities and differences to and from its contemporary releases. It is a genuinely great commentary track.

This is supported by an interview with Neil Sinyard (a talking head intercut with shots from the film, and running to 18 minutes). He tells us where the western was as a genre at this point, before contextualising this work and its place within that genre. He notes points of similarity and difference to films such as Shane, talks about Douglas’ career, referencing Champion, for example. He is excellent value on Douglas’ range in being able to play both good and evil characters. He is knowledgeable about tensions on set, as Douglas had wanted to direct it himself – and was later fairly dismissive of the end result, despite it having made him a lot of money.

This is very typical of the features on the Masters of Cinema range, but remarkable for how many and wide ranging his observations are in such a short interview, talking about the work’s use of movement, employment of emotion, before moving on to how Borden Chase got involved in fixing the screenplay. We learn of how forthright it is for its time in its sexuality and depiction of violence – even though much of the former is implied – noting, again, Shane‘s influence on this. In short, whoever plans these interviews is adept at asking the right questions. Finally we have the theatrical trailer from the time of release.

Accompanying the set is the standard booklet that comes with all Masters of Cinema releases. Running to a generous 32 pages, it follows information on the film’s cast and crew with the essay ‘The Wire and the West’ by Rich Johnson. An unusual but fitting choice of topic, given the main feature’s subject matter, it talks about the rise of barbed wire in the Old West, and the associated land disputes as ranchers attempted to cordon off large swathes for themselves. On paper this is a dry subject, but it is a good read as it looks at an issue key to the growth of the Old West, and central to many of the violent disputes dissected in films such as this. At around 11 pages of the booklet, this is a substantial piece of writing.

This is followed by ‘Working on the Railroad: The Westerns of King Vidor’ by Richard Combs. This takes a look at Vidor’s work on the macro level of what exactly did he make, then right down to the micro level of specific scenes and themes. These are two well-written, impeccably researched essays that form an attractive booklet complementing the release. This rounds out a set that, although largely for the completist, is very entertaining indeed.

Man Without a Star is out on Blu-ray on 15th August from Eureka Entertainment.

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