James Cagney, mostly known for his crime-gangster movies (“White Heat” is my favorite) and musicals (Oscar-winning “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), tried to broaden his range and revive his career in “Run for Cover,” a gentle, occasionally poignant, offbeat Western directed by Nicholas Ray.
This was Cagney’s first Western since “The Oklahoma Kid,” made by Lloyd Bacon in 1939. As for Ray, of the 20 features he directed between 1949 and 1963, he made four Westerns “The Lusty Men,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Run for Cover,” and “The True Story of Jesse James.”
Released right after the cult movie “Johnny Guitar,” “Run for Cover” is not as strong, thematically or visually. It’s also not as moody or evocative as “The Lusty Men,” which can also be counted as a Western. But it’s more satisfying than Ray’s later Western, “The Story of Jesse James,” which was miscast with Robert Wagner playing the titular role, intended for James Dean before he accidentally died in a car crash.
The narrative, written by William C. Thomas, based on a story by Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch, bears slight resemblance to Fred Zinnemann’s Oscar-winning “High Noon,” in 1952, starring Gary Cooper. Cooper’s Will Kane might have served as a model for Cagney’s sheriff, even if it’s not as fully etched.
In this film, just as in the urban melodrama, “Rebel Without a Cause,” Ray explores a generational rift, here manifest in the relationship between aging drifter Matt Dow (Cagney), fresh out of prison and determined to go straight, and his “surrogate son,” the orphan Davey Bishop (John Derek)
Released from a six-year prison term for a crime he did not commit, Dow goes West, where he meets Bishop, a 20 year old youngster. Riding along, they become involved in a train robbery and are later ambushed by a posse. When Bishop’s leg is smashed and, they are taken to a farm, where Helga Henderson (Viveca Lindfors) lives with her father (Jean Hersholt, in his final screen role). Helga nurses Bishop, while falling in love with Dow.
The townsfolk offer Dow the tin star, and the newly appointed sheriff appoints Bishop (who is now a cripple), as his deputy.
But the latter’s bitterness over his bad accident pulls the duo apart, sending them into different directions.
Indeed, Bishop’s gun wound and subsequent impairment continue to signal Dow’s guilt as well as Bishop’s morally flawed man, inevitably leading to a tragic and fatal Oedipal struggle.
Things come to a violent boil, when Dow and Bishop find themselves occupying opposite sides in a combat involving Gentry (Grant Withers), chief of a widely known gang, and a band of Indians.
As always, Ray’s sense of locale is vividly conveyed, and here it includes the world of Swedish immigrant farmers, as well as actual native ruins in Aztec, Mexico. The film is shot in stunning Technicolor and VistaVision by Daniel Fapp.
Ray’s exact compositional sense is as always in evidence, and the final confrontation gets full emotional and geometric treatment from him.
Well into his 50s, Cagney was beginning to show his age, and in five years he would retire from the screen; his last performance (before a comeback in Milos Forman’s 1981 “Ragtime”) was in Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three” (1961). Even so, Ray elicits from Cagney’s serenity and solitude, which balances the actor’s trademark brash cockiness and intensity
There are reversals in film history and this is one of them. Grant Withers whom Cagney had supported in his film debut (“Sinner’s Holiday,” 1930) and then in his third movie (“Other Men’s Women”, 1931) is playing Gentry, a secondary role, in “Run for Cover.”
The movie opens with title credits, accompanied by the song “Run for Cover,” by Howard Jackson and Jack Brooks. It ends with a classic Ray utterance, three words that represent sort of bitter benediction.
Though Ray did not write the scenario, throughout the text, there are words and sentences that are quintessential to his singular vision. Take for example one of Dow’s speeches to Bishop: “Why don’t you stop feeling sorry for yourself? You think you’re the only one in the world ever got a raw deal. There’re a lot of people in this world who’ve had a tougher time than you or me. It comes with the ticket. Nobody guarantees you a free ride.”
As with other films by Ray, “Run for Cover” was first appreciated and much praised by French critics, including Truffaut, Godard, and Jacques Rivette.
Matt Dow (James Cagney)
Davey Bishop (John Derek)
Helga Swenson (Viveca Lindfors)
Mr. Swenson (Jean Hersholt)
Gentry (grant Withers)
Larsen (Jack Lambert)
Morgan (Ernest Borgnine)
Running time: 93 Minutes