Shortly after the Civil War a the Reno Brothers and their gang of outlaws terrorized Southern Illinois. Frank, Sim, John, and Bill Reno had often been in trouble before. As youths, they were rumored to be responsible for numerous acts of arson and violence. During the war, at least some of them made a good living by joining the union army under one name or another, collecting their singing bonuses, then deserting -- only to start the scan over again. After the war, the Reno Brothers and their cronies became the first organized gang of train robbers in America. Their base of operations was the farm of their sister Laura; also on the farm was thier "good" brother, Clint.
The historical events concerning the gang and their downfall form the basis of Tim Whelan's 1955 western Rage at Dawn. The film was written by Horace McCoy, one of many the writer of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? did during his stint in Hollywood. McCoy based the script on a story by Frank Gruber, a legendary mystery and western writer and later the creator of three television westerns: Tales of Wells Fargo, The Texan, and Shotgun Slade. This was one of director Whelan's last films after a career that spanned four decades.
The plot is a typical one. After the youngest brother (Bill) is killed in a botched holdup, the brothers discover (and dispatch) an informant who was actually a spy for the Peterson (read Pinkerton) Detective Agency. The Agency sends in operative James Barlow (Randolph Scott) to infiltrate the gang. Complications arise in the form (and a pretty good form at that) of Laura, the Reno sister, who despises what her brothers are doing.
The gang is captured and Barlow must race to save them when he hears there is a lynch mob after them. (SPOILER ALERT: He doesn't.) This twist of an ending elevates the film from many other weterns.
Since this one is based on history, we can't let a few facts get in our way. The movie was shot in California, which (for some reason) viewers thought did not resemble Illinois -- especially with the California State flag in the background in one scene, along with telephone wires and a 48-star American flag. Bill was never killed in an ambush; he was hung. Laura was never the innocent as portrayed in the movie; she was complicent and abetting the gang. John Reno was never hung; he ended up in jail. The necktie party was actually three separate incidents. And the gang actually ranged across the mid-West.
The heck with history. The film moves along quickly, even though Scott does not appear until 20 minutes into it. The cast is great. Along with Scott, we have Forrest Tucker (Frank Reno), J. Carroll Naish (Sim Reno), Myron Healey (John Reno), Richard Garland (Bill Reno), Denver Pyle (Clint Reno, the "good" borther), Edgar Buchanan (the crooked Judge), and the lovely Mala Powers (Laura Reno). Also in the cast are familiar faces Kenneth Tobet, Jimmy Lyndon, Arthur Space, Ray Teal, and Howard Petrie. At 87 minutes, this movie is certainly worth your time. It's an above-average western and an above-average Randolph Scott flick -- although somewhat below those directed by Budd Boetticher.
One year later, in 1956, Elvis Presley starred as Clint Reno in Love Me Tender, a musical verssion of the Reno Brothers story.
In a showdown between Rage at Dawn and Love Me Tender, I wonder which would win.
For more Overlooked Films today, check out Sweet Freedom, Todd Mason's interesting blog.