[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]
After meeting at a waterhole and engaging in a brief stand-off that soon turns friendly, Matt Dow (James Cagney) and studly young Davey Bishop (John Derek), set off together to the nearby town. When they stop to shoot at a hawk, the workers on a passing train, having just been held up, assume these two are more robbers and toss out a sack of money. Before Matt and Davey can return it, the workers reach the town and exaggerate the story to whip up a posse, leading to the shooting and permanent injury of Davey. When Cagney confronts the posse with the truth, their resolve freezes. Even when backed by numerical superiority, people will go to great lengths to make James Cagney less angry.
As a depiction of mob violence trumping civilized order, Run for Cover never reaches the operatic heights of Johnny Guitar's Trucolor conflagration, but Cagney's undiluted presence gives this more elegant film some of the bite one expects of a Ray film. Even so, this is not a film that plays on the explosive Cagney. Before I had heard of this film, I found myself thinking how great it would have been if Ray, that most passionate of directors, had collaborated with Cagney, that most passionate of actors. My delight at learning of their actual partnership soon turned to surprise as I saw the two craft something more elegiac than forceful.
The wounded Davey recuperates in the home of the Swensons, a Swedish emigré father and daughter who planned to head to California without realizing the scope of the country and ran out of money before reaching their destination. Their subplot is a dour one: they set up in the town to make enough money to get to California, but because they were broke they couldn't hire anyone to work the land. Because they have no one to work the land, they cannot make any money to realize their dream. The daughter, Helga, accepts this with resignation, and she looks at the arrival of Matt and Davey as a spark of life in her trapped existence. Matt begins to court her, and when she notes that, traditionally speaking, she shouldn't even be speaking alone with him, the coy, boyish smile that crosses Cagney's face takes 20 years off, until he's the same young buck who burst onto the screen in the early '30s.
Like the protagonists of several of Ray's films, Matt has to make his own family after the loss or alienation of his own. Imprisoned for six years on a false charge (hence explaining his hatred of mobs and their swift, directionless vengeance), Matt got out to a wife who had long since left him and a son who would be about Davey's age. Ergo, he uses his courtship of Helga and his surrogate fatherhood of Davey to fill the holes in his own life. Though 21 years her senior, Cagney's effervescence makes his wooing of Helga more lilting and charming than predatory, and he still asks the father—to whom he is far closer in age—for permission for her hand. (He does so in an amusing game of chess where he clearly lets the father win and the father jovially calls him out on it and admires the man's shrewdness in tacit flattery.)
Where Run for Cover's depiction of a chosen family differs drastically from, say, the makeshift nuclear unit in Rebel Without a Cause is in the reaction of Davey. Jaded and embittered by his wound, Davey looks for any excuse to give up, and despite a flash of initial enthusiasm, he recognizes Matt's gesture of making him deputy is just a patronizing way of giving the boy something to feel good about. Not only does Davey reject these attempts at indirect adoption, he undermines Matt's authority and ethos as sheriff, effectively rebelling against the father figure he never accepted in the first place. While Matt continues to uphold an idea of law as the new sheriff, Davey often lets things lapse in the elder's absence. When Matt returns with a robber he has assured will get a fair trial in his town, they ride up and see a dead man's feet swinging in the air and the sound of revelry coming from the mob in the saloon, celebrating their slaughter.
The final act, in which a robber who was Matt's cellmate recognizes him and causes the town to suspect him of being in cahoots with the criminals and a chase ends in arrow-ridden Comanche territory, dips into the realm of the excessively grandiose after the more graceful tone of what came before. Nevertheless, Ray finds the beauty and grim elegance of a forced double-cross and the lonely ride to a doomed scenario. Whether framing a disturbingly serene shot of Matt and Davey overlooking the massacred gang with "so it goes" finality or descending into a makeshift underworld for the climax, Ray always manages to make something memorable of even the most questionably plot turn.
As was demonstrated with Helga's story, the Wild West is not so free as it seems, and money controls the destinies of its inhabitants just as it does everywhere else. Money prompts the climactic betrayal and leads to a misunderstanding that plunges Matt into a guilt that Dean's Jim Stark could not even begin to fathom. If the horrid resolution to Rebel Without a Cause shows a disgusted falling-in-line with acceptable social parameters, Run for Cover's end is of a more senseless kind, a punishment on an almost cosmic scale for a man who may never escape the fate that was unfairly thrust upon him and now repeated in grisly terms. And just as the solidified union of Jim and Judy is tainted with trauma, so too is the peaceful dénouement of Run for Cover completely undone by the knowledge of what Matt and Helga won't have in their lives. He was capable of happy endings, but has a director ever inserted more unsettlingly ironic ones than Ray?