John Wayne starred in some of the screen’s most iconic Westerns, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for ANGEL AND THE BADMAN. Perhaps it’s because the film fell into Public Domain in the mid-70’s, and I’ve had the opportunity to view it so many times. Yet I wouldn’t keep coming back to it if it weren’t a really good movie. It’s Wayne’s first film as producer, and though it has plenty of that trademark John Wayne action and humor, it’s a bit different from your typical ‘Big Duke’ film.
Wayne plays Quirt Evans, an outlaw on the run. The wounded Quirt encounters a Quaker family, the Worths, who take him to file a land claim before the big guy finally passes out. They bring him back to their family farm to nurse him back to health, and pretty daughter Penny, unschooled in the ways of the world, falls in love with the mysterious stranger. A romance blooms just as Quirt’s arch-rival Laredo Stevens and his gang ride in. Quirt’s gun has been emptied by the peace-loving Father Worth, but he manages to bluff his way through the encounter in an effectively dark scene.
Also arriving on the scene is the ominous presence of Marshal ‘Wistful’ McClintock, a rifle-toting lawman who’d like nothing better than to put a rope around Quirt’s neck. When Penny and her family take Quirt to meeting, the love among the Quakers gives him cold feet, and he rides off with his old pal Randy to bushwhack Laredo’s crew, who’re plotting to rustle a cattle drive. Quirt relapses to his old ways of wine, women, and song before having a change of heart and returning to Penny. But while the lovers are out picking blackberries, they’re ambushed by Laredo and company, causing their wagon to go over a cliff and grievously injuring Penny. Quirt has to once again strap on his guns, and goes out seeking revenge…
Wayne’s Quirt Evans is not a “good guy”; he’s a killer and a thief who becomes a changed man by the love of Penny and her family. The theme here is spiritual vs secular, with love conquering all in the end, and not in a corny way. Writer/director Grant doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with a Bible to get his point across; he simply and effectively uses the “show, don’t tell” method. Grant was a former Chicago newspaper man who came to Hollywood in the 30’s and worked for MGM. After WWII, he began a long and fruitful collaboration with Wayne, working on ten of Duke’s films, including SANDS OF IWO JIMA , HONDO, THE ALAMO, and MCLINTOCK!. Grant, like most of Duke’s cronies, was a heavy drinker, who fortunately got sober through AA, and became actively involved in the program’s Hollywood chapter.
Not so fortunate was the beautiful but tragic Gail Russell, who sweetly plays the role of Penny. Gail was a Paramount contract player dubbed “The Hedy Lamarr of Santa Monica” by studio publicists. She was also what was then called “painfully shy”, suffering from an acute anxiety disorder. Someone suggested to the young Gail she take a few drinks before going on set to calm her nerves, and soon her alcoholism was off and running. She made a splash in the films THE UNINVITED and OUR HEARTS WERE YOUNG AND GAY before co-starring with Duke in ANGEL AND THE BADMAN; the scenes between the two show an obvious fondness for each other, and rumors of an affair abounded, which the ever-gallant Wayne always denied. They also appear together in WAKE OF THE RED WITCH, but a series of drunk driving charges curtailed her career. Producer Wayne gave her the female lead in Budd Boetticher’s 1956 SEVEN MEN FROM NOW opposite Randolph Scott . She continued to act in low-budget films and television, though by this time her disease was far too powerful for someone of her sensitive nature. In 1961, her body was discovered in her small studio apartment, dead of heart and liver failure, empty bottles strewn all over the place. Gail Russell was just 36 years old.
Duke’s pal Bruce Cabot has the part of rival outlaw Laredo, and mentor Harry Carey Sr. turns up as the marshal. Other Wild West characters dotting the landscape include Symona Boniface , Joan Burton, Lee Dixon, Kenne Duncan, Louis Faust, Paul Fix , Olin Howland (in a great comic relief part), Brandon Hurst, Rex Lease, Tom Powers, Marshall Reed, Irene Rich, and Hank Worden , as well as the beautiful vistas of Monument Valley. The rousing cattle rustling scene and obligatory barroom brawl are well staged by second unit director Yakima Canutt and his ace stunt crew, which included Richard Farnsworth and Ben Johnson .
ANGEL AND THE BADMAN may not be the Greatest Western Ever Made, but it’s as entertaining as all get-out, and as I stated holds a special place in my heart. Those who still believe John Wayne only played one type of character should watch this one, and the chemistry between Duke and the tragic Miss Russell is on a par with the great screen teams of the past. It’s a Western for people who don’t even like Westerns, filled with romance, action, good humor, and, most importantly, redemption. You really don’t want to miss this one, and if, like me, you’ve seen it before… see it again!
ANGEL AND THE BADMAN is now streaming on The Film Detective!