Man in the Shadow review by Jackass Tom

For a short moment, the opening is reminiscent the opening of Touch of Evil. The shot begins in nourish black and white upon an old desert town. Two miscreants leave exit a building and head towards the camera in a rush of menacing music. The camera moves closer to the ground as the two men move closer to the fence that they enter and then cuts. Ok, so that’s not exactly the 10 minute follow the bomb opening everyone always talks about, but it sparked my memory, maybe because this seemingly B-grade film starred Orson Welles, a year before he shot Touch of Evil. While this movie is far from a Welles classic it still has a bit of a spark, but not too much.

Man in the Shadow is part Western, part crime flick that takes place in small-town Spurline (seemingly a Texas hamlet). Young sheriff Ben Sadler (Jeff Chandler) begins investigating the savage murder of a Mexican boy carried out by the two boys mentioned above. The investigation first leads him to the Golden Empire Ranch where the murder had taken place. The Golden Empire Ranch is big enough to engulf the small town of Spurline. Its owner, Virgil Renchler (Orson Welles) is large enough to engulf the sheriff (and quite literally as by this time Orson was the size of a brown bear).

Sheriff Sadler is young and naïve. As sheriff he believes in enforcing the law no matter who is involved. Even if the man is owner Virgil Renchler. But if Renchler decided to pull out of Spurline it would ruin the entire city. He holds more cards than ‘the law’. It’s a classic noir tale where ideals are tainted by the sins of greed. In the real world, those who have the power and money bend the rules with few consequences. Once Renchler learns of that a murder did indeed occur on his ranch, he uses his influence to try to turn the blame onto the frail man who blew the whistle.

The stage is set early on for Sheriff Chandler to do what it takes to bring the real criminals to justice. Most of the movie enforces the fact that he will not only be up against the ranch, but most of the towns people who would like to keep Renchler happy and doing business in their small town. What do they care if one “wetback” lost his life?

Welles’ character is interesting. Renchler isn’t devious… he didn’t set up a hit on the young boy. He merely wanted him roughed up for flirting with his daughter. On top of that he emphatically objects to a few other acts of violence within the movie. Instead of being pure evil ,deep down he is a good soul who gets deep into a rotten crime. A drop of blood gets on his hands and he begins breaking more rules in order to stay out of jail. The crime cover-up begins to snowball out of control. One body becomes two. Cars are booby-trapped. Soon Renchler becomes not just the leader of the Golden Empire, but the leader of a mob taking over the town. The subtle character transformation is more than I would expect from this small time flick. Rumor has it that Welles did a lot of re-writing of his parts. I’m not shocked by this and it wouldn’t be the first time.

Not a whole lot happens in the movie for sometime. And when something does happen, the movie goes back to repeating the same virtues… “now this person is dead”, “I gotta do what is right as sheriff”, “who cares if he was a ‘wetback’”. I’m not the type of guy who needs constant action, but if a movie pauses for moments of dialogue, these moments should push the movie forward or present new ideas. Even at 80 minutes it seems to drag a bit; that’s pretty bad.

There isn’t too much in this movie to get excited about. I’ve never heard of Jeff Chanlder and after seeing this movie, I wouldn’t doubt if he was merely a B-movie star. Orson Welles is of course in this movie to earn a few bucks that he could put towards Touch of Evil and maybe even The Trial (although that was still a few years away) and he seems to play a better, more well-rounded character than you would expect. But in the end, Man in the Shadow isn’t catchy enough to be good noir and there isn’t enough action for it to be a good Western.

3 out of 10 Jackasses
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