RAMROD is an absorbing, fairly dark Western depicting a brutal range war. The bloodshed is incited by a manipulative woman (Veronica Lake) with "daddy issues"; this grim tale with interesting psychological overtones calls to mind "noir Westerns" such as BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948) and especially PURSUED (1947).
Connie Dickason (Lake) wants to marry a sheep rancher, but her cattleman father (Charlie Ruggles, in a somber role) drives the man out of town. Connie takes over her erstwhile fiance's land and hires Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) as her ramrod to run the operation. Dave, a one-time drinker due to the deaths of his wife and son, is now a responsible gentleman who has great respect for the sheriff (Donald Crisp) and insists on doing everything by the book. Little does Dave know that Connie has gone behind his back to plan a stampede that will directly lead to multiple deaths.
The film reunited Lake and McCrea, who starred in the classic SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS in 1941. Lake's Connie uses her feminine wiles to trick men into doing what she wants. She's ultimately revealed as a very coldhearted woman. It's a rather unusual character and an interesting performance by Lake. McCrea, as always, is the sturdy Western hero who can always be counted on to do the right thing. I always enjoy McCrea in a Western; it's the movie equivalent of "comfort food."
Somewhat to my surprise, the movie is just about stolen by Don DeFore, as McCrea's sexy (Don DeFore?!), morally ambiguous sidekick. DeFore's performance was a revelation; I wish he'd done more roles like this instead of constantly being relegated to playing the comedic second banana to the male lead, such as in WITHOUT RESERVATIONS (1946).
The film has an excellent supporting cast. I liked Arleen Whelan as Rose, the resourceful dressmaker who quietly loves Dave. Whelan had an important role in John Ford's YOUNG MR. LINCOLN in 1939. Whelan appeared in about 30 movies and TV shows; I'd like to see more of her work.
Donald Crisp plays the by-the-book sheriff with quiet dignity. His relationship with McCrea in this film made me think of his role as Robert Taylor's mentor in SADDLE THE WIND (1958) over a decade later.
Preston Foster is the slimy rancher who is in cahoots with Connie's father. Watch for Lloyd Bridges in a small role as Foster's henchman. Nestor Paiva, Sarah Padden, and Ray Teal are also in the cast.
Ben Johnson is said to have worked on this film as an uncredited stuntman, a job he performed in many films before landing more substantial roles -- notably in John Ford Westerns -- beginning in the late '40s.
This 95-minute film has strong production values, including location cinematography in Utah by Russell Harlan and a musical score by Adolph Deutsch. The extensive outdoor filming gave the movie an authentic, "dusty" feel. Lake and Whelan's dresses were designed by Edith Head.
This film was directed by Andre de Toth, who was married to Veronica Lake at the time this film was shot. De Toth and Lake were married from 1944 to 1952 and had three children.
RAMROD is available in the United States on VHS. The print I watched from Republic Pictures Home Video was of good quality.
The movie has been released on DVD in Spain.
It can also be seen from time to time on the Encore Westerns Channel.
Fall 2012 Update: RAMROD will be available on DVD from Olive as of November 20, 2012.