This is the most difficult kind of a review to write: a movie that had absolutely no impact on the reviewer at all. The film exists. I exist. I experienced the film. After the film, what did I take away from it? Nothing. (I'm forcing myself to write this, because after doing seventeen one dollar DVD reviews, I'm far too anal to simply start skipping titles now.)
VENGEANCE VALLEY (1951) is a movie that I wouldn't expect many people to love, but which I also wouldn't expect many people to hate either. There's just not a lot of substance to get excited one way or the other.
Ray Collins (Boss Jim Gettys in CITIZEN KANE) is the aging owner of a cattle ranch. He has two grown sons: one who was adopted as a child (Burt Lancaster) and one biological son (Robert Walker). The adopted son is this western's good son and the biological is the movie's bad son.
That's basically all you now need to know. The good son moves through the picture doing good deeds and picking up the pieces left behind by his bad brother who goes around being -- you guessed it -- bad. That sentence summaries about ninety percent of the movie's scenes. There's no questionable morality, no ethical ambiguity, no real reason to think much, give any thought to the character's inner lives or even to think of them as real people at all.
As an aside, there would appear to be the glimmers of a good idea buried deep within the backstory. It's the adopted son who turns out good. Is there some resentment from their shared childhood that turns the biological son into a twisted, petty, immature adult? Ray Collins mentions that he adopted Lancaster partly because he needed help raising Walker. Was it the influence of this boring and disgustingly moral older sibling that turned Walker from the path of nice to the path of naughty? Was Walker damned from birth? Unfortunately, the movie doesn't seem very interested in these questions.
What makes the film even more unlikable is that even within the broad strokes of the good guy vs. bad guy characterizations, the individual people aren't even portrayed in an interesting manner. For instance, given that Robert Walker is an out and out baddie, you'd have hoped that the filmmakers could have made him an interesting villain - a bad guy you could cheer for, or at least sympathize with. But he isn't a powerful and strong evil guy. His bad nature is communicated through him being extraordinarily whiny, sniveling and annoying. Sure, this makes the audience dislike him, but it doesn't make him fun to watch.
The only character I really enjoyed seeing was played by John Ireland. He enters the film initially seeking revenge for his sister (she's impregnated and then abandoned) and later becomes the bad son's hit man. Ireland understands how to create an enjoyable villain. He scowls, growls and grumbles. He also has the advantage of getting the script's best lines: "I'm gonna kill a man before I leave here," he barks at the town's sheriff immediately after getting off the inbound train. ("Anybody special, or will I do?" retorts the sheriff.) This is how to portray a villain with no redeeming characteristics at all. Make him fully bad; don't make him annoying.
(Incidentally, John Ireland is a popular fellow in the Wal*Mart one dollar DVD bin. Without trying or realizing, I've managed to pick up at least three of his films. It's a shame the movies themselves all been pretty lousy, but I've been entertained by Ireland's performances in all three.)
Other than John Ireland, I really can't think of much else to recommend about the film. (The cattle ranching sequences are done well, if you're really into cows.) The only thing I believe I'll remember about this movie is that typing up this review taught me how to spell "vengeance" properly. (Three e's. Who knew?)