Sex and Death in the Old West

Dorothy Malone is terrific in Jack Slade, an excellent little western from 1953 that stars Mark Stevens in the title role. First off, she’s so damn SEXY, hot as blazes, with a long, muscled throat and a strong, lusty body (she looks great in jeans and flannel shirts), as lithe and carnal as a whip. It’s more than physical beauty, though. It’s what Malone does onscreen, with eyes, face, torso, her whole being. Dorothy’s character takes one look at Jack Slade and she KNOWS what she wants, it’s marked in every part of her. And what she wants is Slade. When Malone kisses Stevens, it’s almost pornographic; she clearly wants sex from this guy and as fast as she can get it. She can barely wait for the vows to be said. Audiences must’ve been twitching in their seats watching her.

Watching Malone, I have to ask: who said the 1950s were repressed? Dorothy breathes sex and desire in this film the way the late, great Jean Harlow did; it sluices from her pores like water from a smashed dam and overwhelms the screen. And when she gets her man she weds him (“Marry me,” she pants, “now, today”), takes him home, beds him—but she can’t keep him. Not that Jack’s a wanderer or womanizer. It’s worse: he’s a legal killer. And he can’t stop what he does. Killing’s his job, and his job attracts killers. It’s the endless cycle of violence, in which killing bad guys forces you to keep on killing, as more killers come gunning for you. When (spoiler alert) Jack himself is finally gunned down, he warns his slayer that “they” will be coming for him, because he’s the man who shot Jack Slade. And the cycle will go on.

Jack Slade was a real historical figure (1831-1864), who managed stage lines and the Pony Express, keeping mail and passengers going through. As the film makes clear, the job was dangerous, because stage lines and coaches attract bandits. And Slade has to make the way safe. Which means, in western terms, killing. The film shows a LOT of killing, beginning in the first minutes, when 13-year-old Joey Slade (his original name) throws a rock at a man harassing two tussling boys and kills him. It’s an accident, Joey sobs, but still, a man is dead, and Joey and his dad must leave town. Held up by stagecoach bandits, Joey’s dad is shot by a thief, and Joey swears vengeance on all killers. Adopted by the kindly stage driver (who dubs him Jack), he grows up to become one of the most feared guns in the West. Thereafter the film’s killings come every seven or eight minutes, guns drawn and fired with little warning. One scene has Slade ride up to an enemy’s house, drop off his horse, pull out his pistol, and plug his opponent in the gut as soon as that man exits the door; then he shoots another man aiming from a window. There’s no pause, no come-out-with-your-hands-up speech. If you blink, you’ll miss it. And it doesn’t stop until so many bodies litter the set, it looks like the end of a Jacobean tragedy.

All these killings, however, wear away at Jack, and he starts to drink (as well as sweat; his cotton shirts become progressively wetter, sweat spreading through the fabric like fungus). He hates himself for what he does, but what he does is needed. Stagecoach robbers are ruthless and there’s little law to hold them. Although the town folk are initially grateful, eventually they turn on Jack for his violence and drinking (he rides over a small girl during one binge) and demand justice. Meanwhile, Slade’s wife, aware how the killings and the booze are draining him, tries to hold on; she’s losing him by inches and knows it (though you suspect his penchant for violence is one reason why she loves him). Jack’s end is inevitable; no redemption awaits, no escape is possible. It’s only a matter of time, he warns his wife, before they’re wrenched apart by his fate.

Stevens plays Slade as if he were a dying man, with long, sightless stares into the distance, or eyes turned inward to a private hell as he belts down repeated whiskies (no wonder he sweats).  Probably best known for his noir roles, as in The Dark Corner, in which he played tormented, guilt-ridden men, Stevens brings the same anguish to Slade, his body bent beneath the burden of his memories; with his drawn looks and stooped build, he looks ready to shatter, in both mind and body. Described by IMDB as a “second-tier star,” Stevens’ career was, if not large, interesting. His screen persona was too contained, too pent-in for real stardom, and sometimes he pulls out Slade’s agony to the point where you want to yell, “Snap out of it!” But the good-bad guys he played were odd and complex, as in Cry Vengeance or the twisty noir Time Table (which he also directed), in which he’s a villain posing as the hero. My sense is that Stevens enjoyed such dark roles that cast him against type. They gave him a chance to go beyond conventional heroics and explore the danger at the heart of such haunted men.

Like its star, Jack Slade is also complex and dark; it’s part of a slew of 1950s low-budget westerns that were already questioning and revising the standard myths. Yet the western genre archetypes were so deep, so rooted, they reached into such small, low-budget gems like Slade (the film was produced by Monogram/Allied Artists). Jack Slade came out the same year as Shane and three years before The Searchers, and it examines the same classic Western paradigm as those bigger-budgeted films: the Outsider who brings in law and order but can only do so by violence. At story’s end, with peace restored, he must be rejected; his very nature demands it. Thus it ends for Slade, shot down by his best friend coming to bring him back to stand trial. If that’s not quite like the historical account (in which Slade was lynched by a fed-up community mob), it does make the point. Jack lives and dies by his gun. His job is necessary, but by necessity it must also be short. Like his life.

What Slade’s script and direction also add is the fatalism of noir. Like its lead actor, the film is deeply noir in look and structure. Slade is not only haunted by his past, he’s doomed by it. Jack may, as he declares, “hate killing, but “after the first it comes kinda easy.” He sees himself as a bad man, just BAD, marked, like Cain, by his grim deeds. “Nobody knows what’s inside of us,” he muses, “what makes us the way we are.” Like many western protagonists Slade is a loner but, in true noir style, he’s also the solitary anti-hero who acknowledges the fragility of human bonds and the loneliness of existence (“I guess we’re all alone,” Jack remarks bitterly). By fulfilling his duty Jack destroys not only his soul but what links he has to the common human herd. Director Harold Schuster stages scenes in depth, with Stevens frequently isolated in screen background or foreground, or striding through a clustered group straight up to the saloon bar where he drinks alone (the bartender follows him around with glass and bottle at the ready). He’s the man who brings Death, pursuing it relentlessly while it pursues him, like a besotted lover that can’t be appeased.

That may be why the character we’re really drawn to is Slade’s wife, who, as acted by Malone, is so gorgeous and tough, and so real, raw, and sexy in all she does, that you root for her. She’s the good girl who smolders like the bad one, but without guile or deceit; she’s the force of Eros itself. Malone plays her role from the gut, straight and true; in her scenes with Stevens she focuses so deeply, with such held-back feeling, that I remembered them long after. Her farewell to him is one of the best things I’ve seen: quick, poignant, no sentiment, but utterly sad—you know this woman will never get Slade out of her blood. During a saloon showdown Malone takes out a bad guy with one swift shot from the hip; no frills, no wasted moves. I actually applauded. What an underrated actress! This lady had balls as well as beauty. I surrender, Dorothy.

You can watch the movie Jack Slade (in noirish black-and-white) by clicking here. For another take on the historical Slade, click here to see the episode “Jack Slade” from the 1950s western TV show Stories of the Century.

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