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Devil’s Doorway

Posted by martinteller on September 21, 2012

Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) is a highly decorated Union veteran, returning home to Sweet Meadows, his vast tract of land.  It’s some of the best land in Wyoming and it’s made him rich.  Poole is also a Shoshone.  The new homesteading law allows anyone to claim his land as their own… anyone, that is, except an Indian.  Led by the unscrupulous and bigoted attorney Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), the white men prepare to descend upon his property.  Poole finds an ally in another attorney, the naive and idealistic Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond).  But a resolution appears to be impossible….

Let’s get the uncomfortable out of the way.  Yes, Taylor is a Caucasian actor, playing in blackface (redface?).  It’s silly, distracting, and probably offensive.  However, he plays it as respectfully as he can, and the characterizations of the Native American seemed largely free of the usual ugly stereotypes.

In fact, Mann deftly avoids the typical clichés and delivers a nuanced tale.  This film comes right as he was making the transition from noirs to westerns, and shows his usual deftness with complex morality in both genres.  While Coolan doesn’t have many redeeming qualities, Poole is a quite ambiguous character and his choices often have shades of ethical ambiguity.  It’s a really strong performance, and he carries the film on his shoulders well.  The supporting actors are less memorable, but each does a more than passable job.

The film sports fantastic visuals by ace cinematographer John Alton.  Taylor, Mann and Alton lend the movie a lot of noir cred, and it shows in the dark themes, morally gray characters, dramatic camera angles, deep shadows and brutal, unglamorized violence.  Another win for Mann, a satisfying film exploring bigotry, justice, pride and principle.  Rating: Very Good (83)


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