Rudolph Maté’s Branded emerged at the dawn of the 1950’s. It stars Alan Ladd and is little remembered today, due in part to Ladd’s being cast in George Stevens’ phenomenally popular Shane a mere three years later. I do not side with the consensus of contemporary criticism in the reassessment that says Stevens’ classic is overrated, just as I will not concede to revisionist opinions regarding High Noon (1952), although I do believe there were, and still are, better westerns: Henry King’s The Gunfighter, Budd Boetticher‘s The Tall T, or Anthony Mann’s Naked Spur. However, Branded is as almost as good as the film which sealed the surprising superstardom of Ladd.
There is something quintessentially cinematic and mythic in the image of a man on a horse under an expansive sky. Branded fills that bill to the Technicolor brim, contradicting an often held opinion that Westerns simply look better in black and white. Sydney Boehm’s unpredictable screenplay comes from a Max Brand novel and meshes well with Maté’s sense of pacing.
Alan Ladd was an actor of limited range, and came off best when his persona of icy precision was used to full advantage, as it is here in the role of Choya. This film literally starts off with a bang. Choya holes up in a general store, surrounded by enemies. He pulls off an exciting escape and teams up with T. Jefferson Leffingwell (Robert Keith) and his aptly named partner, Tattoo (John Berkes). Leffingwell has a guaranteed get rich scheme. Leffingwell knows of a wealthy ranch family with a long lost son who was kidnapped 25 years ago. The son had a unique birthmark, which Tattoo tattoos on Choya’s shoulder. Once Tattoo’s services are no longer needed, Leffingwell brutally murders his partner to increase his share. Choya doesn’t seem to care.
Choya arrives at the Bar O-M Ranch looking for work. The ranch foreman, Ransom (Tom Tully) recognizes a gunslinger when he sees one and is reluctant to take Choya on, but does so at the insistence of the rancher’s daughter Ruth Lavery (Mona Freeman). Choya plays the chip on his shoulder to the hilt, resulting in a fight in which he conveniently loses his shirt, revealing his “birth mark.” Upon seeing Tattoo’s handiwork, the family is convinced that Choya is their long lost son.
Along the way however, Choya starts developing a conscience after coming to like his new family. Additionally, falling in love with his “sister” doesn’t help. After feeding Choya enough background information to fool the ranchers, Leffingwell, tired of the long wait, pops up to make a nuisance of himself and throws a monkey wrench into the unfolding plot. Keith registers trashy slime to perfection in the role. Ladd is equally impressive in the role of Choya and has, in Maté, a rare director who expertly knows how to utilize his actor’s limitations and personality. Matte draws a tormented, internalizer fire out of Ladd, by keeping it under a layer of thick, exterior ice. Ladd’s character is so apt at piling lie upon lie while increasingly sympathizing with the victimized family that we genuinely do not know which way he will go and, indeed, initially find him to be no better than Leffingwell. Branded is a film which does not flinch from conveying a struggle towards spiritual redemption, and Matte enhances the message with his cinematographer’s eye for sumptuous composition.
Branded is a bit like discovering music from the Gil Mellé Quartet after repeated exposure to the better known masterpieces from Miles Davis & John Coltrane (and there is something so right in likening the western genre to jazz) . Compared to the likes of Ford, Mann, Boetticher, Peckinpah, or Leone, Rudolph Maté is barely a blip on the radar, but his Branded is a worthwhile blip.