Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)
Directed by Robert Wise, with a screen story and screenplay by Michael Blankfort that was based on a short story by Jack Schaefer, this ill-titled Western features James Cagney (in the title role) as Jeremy Rodock, a roughhewn man and earlier settler of Wyoming who, not unlike the actor did himself, breeds and trains horses on his expansive ranch in a valley he calls his own. Cagney was filling in for Spencer Tracy, who was originally slated to play the role but effectively ended his relationship with MGM when he argued with Wise; his demands had already delayed the production. Don Dubbins (his first credited role, also filling in for another actor, Robert Francis, who'd tragically died in a plane crash early in the production) plays Steve Millar, a Pennsylvania grocery store clerk who'd decided he wanted to be a cowboy wrangler, traveling from East to West to become one. His character provides narration at the beginning and end of the film. Stephen McNally plays McNulty, a relatively new and accomplished ranch hand on the Rodock spread who unfortunately has eyes for Greek immigrant Jocasta ‘Jo’ Constantine (Irene Papas), a former Cheyenne saloon pianist (and more) for whom Rodock provides safe haven. Because of Rodock’s ‘no strings attached’ generosity, she loves him though she has trouble voicing it. He loves her too but, because of his tough nature, age, and the younger men he employs, it is difficult for him to convey his feelings as well. Others in the cast include Vic Morrow (his second film), Royal Dano, and Lee Van Cleef.
Millar arrives at Rodock valley with no knowledge of the man or his ways. But because of his presence alone, he's able to scare off some rustlers who kill the rancher and steal his horses. Rodock is surprised that the young lad doesn't know his name or reputation; he's equally ‘impressed’ that Millar doesn't show him any respect and ‘adopts’ him. Of course, he needs the ‘boy’ to remove a bullet from his back, though he'd never let on that he needs anything from anyone. Their journey back to the ranch together earns each the beginnings of what would become reverence from the other. Needing a job, Millar is quickly absorbed into Rodock’s wranglers, which include foreman Fat Jones (Van Cleef), McNulty, Baldy (Chubby Johnson), and harmonica playing Abe (Dano). Peter Chong plays Cooky, who helps Jo with making the meals (or vice versa).
Millar learns that Rodock is a tough but fair taskmaster who's intolerant of anyone that would dare try to steal any of his horses. In fact, he's set himself up as their judge, jury, and executioner when he catches anyone doing so; no due process (that'd be 200 miles away), just Wild West justice with a quick neck breaking by rope. This causes Jo much anguish, she hates to see her man get the hanging fever; Millar too is made uncomfortable the first time he witnesses it, causing him to ‘worship’ Rodock a bit less. Rodock’s jealousy (and insecurity?) causes him to beat up, then fire McNulty when he catches the ranch hand around Jo once too often. Rodock’s former partner, L.A. Peterson (James Bell), is caught and shot while associating with a couple of wayward rustlers (played by James Griffith and Onslow Stevens). When he returns the body to his widow (Jeanette Nolan), her son Lars (Morrow) is enraged.
Later, Lars is caught with McNulty and the surviving rustler, after the latter two had performed a particularly cruel act - crippling some of Rodock’s stolen mares so that they could later take the foals free and clear of Rodock’s brand. Though Millar had decided he'd had enough of not being able to have Jo either, she'd refused him too, and Rodock’s brand of justice, he aids the rancher because he and Abe were the only ones left after a sale to Western Union. Perhaps because of a change of heart with regards to hanging, brought on by Jo and/or Millar, and the crippling act itself, Rodock decides to make Lars, McNulty and the other rustler walk to Fort Whitney, the nearest official law. However, after a couple of days of this, Millar convinces him he's doing it out of revenge instead of just punishment and so he frees two of the men, giving them horses, and takes Lars home to his mother. Lars is ungrateful and would have killed Rodock if not for her.
Millar and Rodock return to the ranch where Jo is ready to leave with the ranch with the youngster. Rodock allows them to go but later catches up with them to give Jo back her earrings, which had been an earlier gift from him. As he's riding away, Millar recognizes that she still loves him and turns the buckboard (e.g. wagon) around. Millar rides off into the sunset as do Jo and Rodock, who declare before the open spaces and the horses that they'll be getting married.