Man in the Shadow (Jack Arnold, 1957) 🇺🇸

Man in the Shadow |

January 11, 2022

A year before Touch of EvilOrson Welles was already being haunted by a devil, the one who gives this modern western a distinct feeling of film noir.

“The devil is in the details”, as the saying goes, but in Man in the Shadow he’s right out in the open. As long as darkness has the upper hand over light, he behaves as bold as brass. His green-hued face with its false nose seems to loom out of a pool of toxic blood. The sulphurous fumes he exhales poison his victims, who turn a diabolical yellow. The poster beckons us into the land of fantasy – unsurprisingly when you know that the man who designed it, Constantin Belinsky, was an old hand when it came to monster movies (such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, also directed by Jack Arnold). And in case you didn’t know, the little devil has hidden his initials, C.B., in the right-hand corner of the poster.

Orson Welles, in his role as Virgil Renchler, has a murderous look in his eyes and a corpulent body that carries a threat. His pudgy fingers clasp a large cigar as he sits in his office surrounded by trophies: the cow horns symbolise the power of his “Golden Empire” ranch (we never get to see the cows’ tails, the budget couldn’t stretch that far!). He rules over the little town in New Mexico with an iron fist, imposing a reign of terror with the help of his Stetson-wearing henchmen and a wrathful German shepherd who loves nothing more than to attack intruders (and terrorised Welles during shooting!). The ranch owner is a megalomaniac who thinks he’s above the law – until the day he meets one of its representatives, the newly elected sheriff.

Jeff Chandler plays the man of law, who ends up tearing off his sheriff’s star to give himself the freedom to “Now, I can do it my way”. After getting thoroughly bored picking up the occasional drunken tramp in his Far West village, he now finds himself surrounded by cowards, all alone as he sets out to investigate the murder of a migrant worker on Renchler’s property.

The pre-title sequence uses dancing spotlights to reveal the crime, committed at night inside the ranch. The film is not about finding the guilty parties, because we know who they are form the start. Rather, it seeks to denounce the rampant discrimination and racism of the era, particularly towards Mexicans. Two cowboys emerge from the shadows and cross a deserted courtyard as they head for the shacks where the “devil’s workers” are housed, men who are endlessly exploited and treated like dogs. Dramatic music mixes with the grating sounds of the joyful post-meal singing coming from the workers. The cacophony is unsettling and a feeling of panic sets in, waking Renchler’s daughter in her white, virginal nightgown (played by Colleen Miller, wide-eyed on the poster). Terrified by the impending event, she turns the light on in her bedroom. In vain. There’s no gratuitous violence, just the cruelty that lies in the details: a handsome young man is dragged by his slicked-back Elvis-style hair inside a hut. The summary execution takes place off screen. We only hear the victim’s cry as he is killed with a pickaxe handle. Evil has triumphed.

An equally vicious scene echoes the beating inflicted on him. It’s another moonlit scene, where the sheriff goes to a mysterious appointment in an abandoned house and is knocked out as two strangers wearing jeans and Stetsons batter him with their rifle butts. A bit like the hero of The Incredible Shrinking Man, another Jack Arnold movie, Jeff Chandler’s well-muscled body belongs to a “sinking man” who almost goes under after being bullied, bashed and humiliated so many times.

But he’s nothing if not stubborn, and persists in his quest to penetrate the impenetrable, entering the forbidden world of the “Golden Empire” and ignoring the signs telling him “No trespassing, violators will be shot”. The tension builds as the temperature soars. The asphalt shimmers on the endless Great Plains roads and the fans struggle to cool down the sheriff’s office, where he has to deal with his alcoholic, corrupt colleague, feet on the table as he ogles photos of magazine pin-ups. The scene is set for lies, manipulation and intimidation. The murder is dressed up as an accident, the witness bumped off, the sheriff’s wife harassed with anonymous phone calls and his car sabotaged, nearly killing him. Then comes the final humiliation, illustrated on the poster: we see him, feet and hands tied, being brutally dragged along at the end of a rope attached to a pick-up as it circles triumphantly round the courthouse square.

The film could well have finished on that sombre note, with Orson Welles coming out the winner. But instead Jack Arnold opted for an optimistic ending. The invincible man of law picks himself up and dusts himself down yet again. Just as his unquenchable thirst for justice is about to be snuffed out by the foaming fangs of the watchdog set on him, the dark of night is banished by the headlights of the townspeople who have come together as one to save him. The devil, dazed and defeated, is frogmarched off to some form of purgatory before being reborn a year later as a corrupt cop – happily for every film noir fan!

Check out the French version of this article.