Man in the Shadow (1957)
Directed by Jack Arnold (With These Hands (1950)) and written by Gene Coon (from TV’s Star Trek series) this slightly above average drama is about the law in a Texas town which depends on a wealthy landowner for its very survival. Jeff Chandler plays the Sheriff that takes his oath of office seriously enough to challenge Orson Welles the landowner whose ranch is the size of several small European countries. On the ranch a Mexican drifter perhaps even an illegal alien is killed by the landowner’s ranch foreman and all but the Sheriff are willing to overlook it to protect their jobs and town’s very existence. Poor decision making by the ranch hands eventually leads to a showdown.
The film begins with Juan Martin (Joe Schneider) being dragged out of the workers’ living quarters then beaten and killed by Ed Yates (John Larch) aided by Chet Hunaker (Leo Gordon). A young woman in the main house awakens to a scream runs to the window sees nothing then goes back to bed. Another worker who witnessed the murder flees the ranch. Next we see Sheriff Ben Sadler (Chandler) and his deputy Ab Begley (Ben Alexander) dealing with the morning’s business which includes throwing out the town drunk Hank James (James Gleason) who’d spent the night in their jail cell. Jesus Cisneros (Martin Garralaga) who’d been sitting quietly in the small office tells the Sadler he’d witnessed a friend & fellow drifter being beaten by Yates & Hunaker the night before and he thinks Yates killed him with a pickax handle. The Sheriff decides he must investigate even though his deputy reminds him that the incident took place on the Renchler ranch and perhaps he should just leave well enough be. Sadler reminds Begley that the people elected him to uphold the law and as long as he’s Sheriff that’s exactly what he’s going to do.
Sadler drives out to the expansive fenced ranch and pulls up to the main gate where he’s greeted with suspicion by an armed “guard” (Mort Mills). After saying he wants to meet with Virgil Renchler and the “guard” calls the main house to get approval the Sheriff is allowed in and then must drive the four miles to the main house. At the house Sadler is greeted by a barking dog Rocco who is eventually calmed down by Yates. “Skippy” Renchler (Colleen Miller) the woman who’d heard the scream comes out the front door to greet the Sheriff she already knows. Yates then leads Sadler to Virgil Renchler’s (Welles) office. After asking to speak with him alone Sadler then tells Renchler about Martin and the accusation against Yates. Renchler in no uncertain terms then tells the Sheriff who is boss in this part of the country and that he (Renchler) is the law. After Sadler is dismissed we learn that Renchler only wanted Yates to beat up the drifter who’d been seen with his daughter Skippy. Welles who hardly exhibits any real involvement in his role plays the stereotypical powerful man except when it comes to his daughter. The attractive Miller’s Skippy is a stereotypical uncontrollable daughter of a wealthy man who’s pursued by his most powerful underling (in this case Yates).
Back at the office while Sadler is typing a report about the incident Begley walks in with Hunaker who claims to have accidentally run into a worker with his truck. Of course the body is identified as Martin’s by Cisneros at the coroner’s (Forrest Lewis) office. Skippy is able to get into town to tell Sadler about the scream she heard and her innocent relationship with Juan. Then several of the town’s leading citizens advise the Sheriff to forget it that the drifter means nothing to them but Renchler who has the ability to withdraw his commerce from their businesses means everything. These citizens include councilmen Herb Parker (Paul Fix) and the recognizable William Schallert. The only support he seems to get is from Tony Santoro (Mario Siletti) the barber who likens Renchler to Mussolini. Sadler decides to get a warrant anyway to investigate the tool shed where Cisneros said Martin was killed. After talking his way past the gate guard again he drives up to the residence where Rocco is instantly at his car window. He threatens to shoot the dog before a ranch hand leashes him and is then told by Skippy that Yates has already cleaned out the shed. Sadler decides to have a look anyway. While he’s doing this finding a spot of blood on a piece of wood Yates is sabotaging his car. When he drives away he has an accident but is O.K. after being treated by Dr. Creighton (Harry Harvey). While returning to his office he finds Begley drunk and that his deputy had told Renchler where Cisneros was staying. He rushes to Aiken Clay’s (Royal Dano) ranch to find that the drifter has been shot dead. Sadler then decides to go home where he learns his less than supportive wife (Barbara Lawrence) has been receiving threatening phone calls. After receiving one himself he advise her to go to her sister’s to stay the night.
The most climactic moments occur in the final third beginning with a desperate decision by the Sheriff followed by a stupid decision by Hunaker which leads to a return of the wild West. You’ll probably find yourself saying “it’s about time” at the end of this film and not because of its 90 minute length.