Here’s a strange one. I just had to look to see where it fell in careers, Richard Brooks’s and Robert Taylor’s, because it’s… well, it’s something else. It’s sort of early in Brooks’s directing career, before he took off, and it’s at the very end of Taylor’s MGM contract. Taylor plays a villain in it. And Brooks handles his villainy in a singular way–he never lets anyone get away from it. Some of the scenes play like a hostage situation, but hero Stewart Granger can always leave. Lloyd Nolan and Russ Tamblyn play skinners to Granger and Taylor’s buffalo hunters and they too can leave. Even “Indian girl” (literally, the character has no other name) Debra Paget could, until a point, leave. But no one does. Taylor holds them–and the viewer–captive.
At a certain point–the film gets off to a rocky start, with Brooks having the most trouble establishing the character relationships effectively–it becomes clear it’s not about watching Taylor’s crazed gunslinger turned buffalo hunter (he’s an Indian War veteran, clearly suffering from the experience) redeem himself, but about seeing if the rest of the cast can survive knowing him. And Taylor’s performance might be his best. Once it becomes clear he’s the villain, he’s amazing. Absolutely terrifying, with all the trappings of a tragic character, but he’s so evil, it’s impossible to feel any sympathy.
Brooks juggles two big issues (The Last Hunt certainly signifies, the same year as The Searchers no less, the developing consciousness of the American Western… it also shares a theme with The Searchers, which is a little odd)–buffalo hunting and racism. The two wear heavy on an already somber Granger. Granger, second-billed to Taylor here, gives a great performance too. Brooks doesn’t deal much in subtext here and Granger’s perfect at dealing with conspicuous unrest (even though a lot of his internal turmoil is silent).
The rest of the cast, except Paget, is fantastic. Brooks’s direction is excellent, as is (after the first act) his dialogue. He has some problems with the day-for-night shooting and some rear screen projection, but it’s forgivable. Brooks really makes something great here and it’s a quiet (even though it’s Cinemascope) mid-1950s great.
Directed by Richard Brooks; screenplay by Brooks, based on the novel by Milton Lott; director of photography, Russell Harlan; edited by Ben Lewis; music by Daniele Amfitheatrof; produced by Dore Schary; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Stewart Granger (Sandy McKenzie), Robert Taylor (Charlie Gilson), Lloyd Nolan (Woodfoot), Debra Paget (Indian girl), Russ Tamblyn (Jimmy O’Brien), Constance Ford (Peg) and Joe De Santis (Ed Black).