One of the thrills of Kino-Lorber’s classic releases is their emphasis on lesser known or forgotten films, many of them in the public domain, that deserve new consideration. Jack Arnold’s 1957 western noir Man in the Shadow is no different. The film opens with two white ranch hands beating a young Mexican migrant worker to death, in a tension-filled scene laden with the kind of chiaroscuro we expect from rain-soaked city streets and not isolated ranches. The act is a catalyst for the rest of the plot, focusing on the efforts of the local sheriff, Ben Sadler (Jeff Chandler), of a small Texas town to bring the murderers to justice. Along the way he’s beset by townspeople who advise him to leave well enough alone, fearing retribution from Virgil Renchler (Orson Welles), the owner of the Golden Empire Ranch and the town’s effective oligarch. The closer Sadler gets to the truth of the young worker’s death, the more he reveals the ugly underbelly of a town ruled by fear and racism.
Man in the Shadow follows a fairly well-worn narrative – the good local lawman fighting against violence and corruption as usual – that becomes more immediate because of the underlying racial and class components of the crime and how the town reacts to it. Although it’s never quite spoken, the townspeople imply that the death of a migrant worker is less important than the money and safety provided by the ranch, and the danger that Renchler will take his business away if he’s challenged. Sadler first learns of the murder from another worker, Jesus Cisneros (Martin Garralaga), who calmly states that the ranch is a bad and dangerous place to work. Cisneros is then protected by Aiken Clay (Royal Dano), an impoverished laborer who becomes one of Sadler’s only allies. The other is Tony Santoro (Mario Siletti), the local barber, who compares Renchler’s rule over the town to the mafia in Italy. In other words, the only allies that the sheriff finds are people marginalized for their class, race, or status.
The starkness of the narrative is part of what makes it so powerful – this is a story of corruption and the way in which the powerful exploit racism and wealth to control the narrative. While Welles plays Renchler with a more complicated characterization than a mustache-twirling villain, there’s no “both sides” issues here. This is more a story about whether the town as a whole will do the right thing or allow themselves to be controlled by a wealthy man and his thugs. The use of racial slurs, even by the good guys, draws the racism into relief, and even helps to complicate Sadler’s characterization and arc. Renchler thinks he can let his boys get away with murder because of who they murder—the death of a Mexican worker, they think, counts for far less than anyone else. Town officials, local cowboys, shopkeepers, and even Sadler’s own wife encourage him to simply abandon the case, that the death of one Mexican laborer isn’t worth jeopardizing the economic future of the town, and there’s ample opportunity for him to do so. But his constant refrain is that if a powerful man can act with impunity, then there is no such thing as law and order.
Kino-Lorber does their usual exceptional job in restoring the film to a pristine print. The special features are thin on the ground, with one commentary from Troy Haworth and the inclusion of the theatrical trailer, but this just places more emphasis on the qualities of the film itself. Man in the Shadow as a noir replaces seedy back alleys and city streets with sun-scorched landscapes and isolated ranches. But the hardboiled element of “down these mean streets a man must walk who is not himself mean” is there in the center, attempting to right the wrongs of the actions of the rich and powerful with little thanks and even less support. It’s a strong, sparse, intense film, and feels uncomfortably topical for a movie made in 1957.
Man in the Shadow is available on Blu-ray from Kino-Lorber.