Weird Western: The Fiend Who Walked the West (1958)
A Western remake of the popular noir film "Kiss of Death," but vicious enough that it was rebranded and released as a horror film.
By Max Sparber
There is a question of when a thriller tips over into being a horror film, and there is no firm answer to that. For my tastes, 1958's "The Fiend Who Walked the West" is so preoccupied with the psychopathology of its title character, and so invested in his violence, that it is functionally a horror film, in the way, say "Psycho" or "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" is.
A marketer at Twentieth Century Fox clearly agreed, as Robert Evans' biography, "The Kid Stays in the Picture" includes a section on the film describing the decision to market it as a horror film. Indeed, the film was originally called "The Hell-Bent Kid" and was changed to make it sound more like a horror film.
The film is a remake of 1947's "Kiss of Death," a well-regarded nor film that gave a showy first role to Richard Widmark, who played a giggling psychopath and netted an Oscar nomination for it. The film was lurid, even by noir standards, but, compared to "Fiend." felt positively restrained.
A large part of this is the film's move to the Wild West — a marvelously strange decision, one I would like to see more of, but one that dramatically refocuses the story. "Kiss of Death" is set in a network of urban criminals, with an established code of conduct, and Widmark's psychopathology is triggered by and supported by this code.
But the West is far less established, and so when our cowboy killer is triggered to engage in brutal murders, he just seems like a lone psychopath, carrying out senseless, petty revenge schemes on a brutal and lonely frontier.
It doesn't help that the extraordinary Widmark was swapped out for Robert Evans, later an Oscar-winning producer but here seeming like a petulant child. The actor is young, cruel-faced, has a thick New-York-by-way-of-elocution-schools accent (he sometimes sounds like Jack Kennedy), and the shruggy, upsettable mannerisms of James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause." It's not a great performance, but it's a memorably edgy one.
Evans finds himself in prison with Hugh O'Brian, who was mostly a television actor but has a genuine screen presence. He looks exactly like the sort of rugged, scowling he-man you would find on the covers of men's magazines battling bears or weasels, but he plays his role with a profound, simmering torment.
He was the fall guy for a crime that went wrong, and, worse still, ends up doing time with Evans, setting off a string of horrific murders. Evans starts in prison, poisoning a man who bullied him, but, once free, he goes after O'Brian's former criminal colleagues. He casually fires an arrow into one of their mothers, and, when questioned about it by a lawman, snipes the man from a high bluff.
The film lavishes an attention on the scenes that, in a thriller, might feel excessive, but in a horror film feels just right — the whole point of these sequences is Evans' brutality, and it's always hinted at, even when not shown outright. He takes up with a local prostitute, and from that moment on she is never seen without bruises.
Unable to take care of Evans legally, the local sheriff arranges for O'Brien to escape. There is a quick cat and mouse during which O'Brien tries to maneuver Evans into legal trouble, and then O'Brien just gives up and decides the kill the man.
Here's where the film really comes into its own, because O'Brien straps on his side arm, takes a room in town near Evans, and proceeds to slap him silly every time he sees him, knowing the younger man can't stand humiliation and will response with violence.
Evans has been such a callow, manipulative creep throughout the film that there is an undeniable pleasure to watching O'Brien cuff him, even though, in terms of good taste, the film has completely gone off the rails. These scenes are perversely sadomasochistic, eventually coupled with a whiff of sexual perversion (O'Brien especially likes to humiliate Evans when the younger man is attempting a seduction).
It's a weird road the film takes us on. O'Brien initially seems more sensitive than the square-jawed star of pulp fiction magazine covers he resembled, but if you've ever read any of those magazines, you know there is a meanness to them. If you've read Mickey Spillane or Charles Willeford, you've gotten a sample of it, a sense that the authors enjoyed cruelty, and created stories that encouraged us, too, to enjoy it.
And so the whole structure of "Fiend" is to make us want to see someone be cruel to Evans, and to transform O'Brien into the man to do it. And, honestly, in a film full of vivid violence, this is the element that strikes me as the most horrific.