Monday, October 9, 2017

Kirk Douglas is a Man Without a Star

Kirk Douglas as Dempsey.
Borden Chase penned some of the most important Westerns in film history, to include: Howard Hawks' Red River plus the Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborations Winchester '73, Bend of the River, and The Far Country. He co-wrote the screenplay for Man Without a Star (1955), an engrossing Western that may not rank with the aforementioned films, but still remains a compelling "adult Western."

Kirk Douglas plays Dempsey Rae, a cowhand that keeps drifting further north as large ranches with their fences begin to dominate the Western landscapes. While stowing away on a train, he meets a young greenhorn (William Campbell), whom he later dubs the Texas Kid. After Dempsey rescues Texas from a probable hanging, the young man clings to the veteran cowboy. Dempsey eventually takes Texas under his wing and gets both of them a job at the Triangle Ranch.

Jeanne Crain as the new owner.
They settle in nicely until two events trigger a series of conflicts. First, one of the smaller ranchers decides to use barbed wire to preserve fresh grass for his herd. The mention of "barbed wire" gets Dempsey fired up (we learn why later) and he decides it's time to move on. His plans change, though, when he meets the Triangle's new owner: the beautiful Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain).

Although Man Without a Star was based on a 1952 novel by Dee Linford, it shares many similarities with Borden Chase's other Westerns. As in The Far Country, there are two strong female characters: Crain as the ambitious rancher and Claire Trevor as a brothel madam. However, the film's central relationship is between two men: Dempsey and Texas. That's a recurring element in all of the previously-mentioned Borden Chase Westerns (e.g., John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River, James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy in Bend of the River, James Stewart and Walter Brennan in The Far Country, etc.).

Richard Boone, as a baddie, with Crain.
Indeed, one of the challenges in Man Without a Star is its brief 89 minute length leaves little time to explore relationships and themes. For example, once Reed Bowman shows up, the Texas Kid vanishes into the background for a large chunk of the film. Similarly, Reed is nowhere to be found in the film's closing scenes. Thematically, Chase and his fellow writers use the barbed wire fences as an analogy for the impending civilization of the West (much as Sergio Leone would later use trains in Once Upon a Time in the West). However, again, there is insufficient running time to explore this theme in any depth.

Claire Trevor and Kirk Douglas.
Screen veteran King Vidor directs with a sure hand and adds some nice humorous touches. My favorite is when Dempsey and the Triangle's foreman (Jay C. Flippen) are engaging in a pleasant breakfast conversation as Texas fights another ranch hand outside the bunkhouse. The camera never leaves the breakfast table as we hear the punches and grunts from the fisticuffs. Another funny scene is when Dempsey asks to see the new bathroom installed in the ranch house...imagine that...a bathroom in the house!

Man Without a Star was remade just 13 years later as A Man Called Gannon with Tony Franciosa in the Kirk Douglas role and Michael Sarrazin as his protege. It's a respectable Western, but lacks the verve and cast that makes Man Without a Star required viewing despite its limitations. It also doesn't have a catchy title song sung by Frankie Laine!


  1. This is a favourite of mine, but I haven't been able to watch it in a while since the VCR gave up the ghost (sob!). I bet Jeanne Crain had a blast playing this character.

    Man Without a Star was also reworked for an episode of The Virginian called Duel at Shiloh. Brian Keith had Douglas' role, and the younger cowhand was given to series regular Gary Clarke as it recounted how "Steve" came to Shiloh.

    PS: Your fingers slipped when typing, as you did not mean to say "John Ford's Red River".

    1. Thanks for info on THE VIRGINIAN...very interesting! Yes, Hawks--not Ford.

  2. Howard Hawks' RED RIVER