Kirk Douglas's Wandering Banjo Player
For me "Man Without a Star" is one of those westerns which I would class as "The Good, The Bad and The Cheesy". The good is that Kirk Douglas is in fine form as an easy going travelling cowboy whose past returns to haunt him, the bad is that other than one impressive action sequence it lacks the drama I expected. And then there is the cheesy and it doesn't matter that Kirk Douglas can hold down a tune, having him singing and playing banjo in various scenes is just wrong. But despite the cheesiness of the musical scenes and the lack of drama/action "Man Without a Star" still you interested through a decent enough storyline surrounding Douglas's character Dempsey Rae.
Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas - 20000 Leagues Under the Sea) rolls into Wyoming with young Jeff Jimson (William Campbell - The High and the Mighty) in tow having not only saved him from a beating but also a wrongful hanging. Immediately coming to the attention of the local ranchers Dempsey and Jeff are hired by foreman Strap Davis (Jay C. Flippen) to work on The Triangle ranch owned by bossy woman rancher Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain - Cheaper by the Dozen). Despite having the hots for Reed, Dempsey is pushed to the limit when other local ranchers start using barbed wire, bringing back memories of his past. But despite wanting to move on Dempsey finds himself forced to take a stand when a bunch of Texas cowboys start causing trouble out on the open range.
"Man Without a Star" starts really nicely as we are introduced to the laid back and confident Dempsey as he rides on a cattle train. It immediately builds up this image of an easy going wandering cowboy, one whose comfortable with who he is and doesn't want for anything other than a happy life. At the same time we meet Jeff who Dempsey takes under his wing and this again builds up the image of Dempsey as someone who is happy to pass on the lessons he has learnt from his life. This build up of the character of Dempsey continues for about half the movie as does his relationship with Jeff and others such as the rancher he agrees to work for.
What is particularly nice is that there is a nice amount of sexual tension going on between Dempsey and rancher Reed Bowman, the confident Dempsey flirting with his woman boss and at the same time she seems to want him. But there is an ambiguity to it because you don't know whether it is pure raw sex appeal which attracts Reed or whether she is willing to do what ever to get what she wants.
Having built up the character of Dempsey director King Vidor then moves into what is really the meat of "Man Without a Star" as Dempsey's past troubles causes him to want to leave but at the same time you have the Texas cowboys who start causing trouble and Reed's manipulation of Jeff to get back at Dempsey. It means that "Man Without a Star" moves into familiar territory as you have Dempsey having to face his issues to take on the bad guys who are starting to cause trouble on the open range, killing at will and basically taking on Reed in the process.
The problem is that whilst the actual storyline to "Man Without a Star" is quite well worked there are some major flaws and the most obvious one is that at times it heads off towards being cheesy. Now Kirk Douglas can hold down a song and if it is really his banjo playing then kudos to him, but the musical scenes don't fit into the storyline delivering far too much humour. It sadly comes across as incredibly cheesy especially when the singing and banjo playing then goes into dancing at the same time.
The other issue is that whilst "Man Without a Star" features some action sequences most are not that impressive, they fail to command your attention. The exception is the rather spectacular gun fight over a heard of stampeding cattle which delivers excitement and pace in equal measure. Maybe director King Vidor didn't want to make just another stereotypical western featuring too many action standards but for me the lack of really exciting action scenes spoils things.
The saving grace to "Man Without a Star" is Kirk Douglas because he plays the easy going Dempsey Rae brilliantly with a wonderful confidence yet when his past returns to haunt him there are the signs of inner turmoil and fear. The best part is that Douglas oozes raw sex appeal so the flirtations with Reed have real energy and there is also that element of cockiness as he knows he's capable of handling himself.
Aside from Douglas who really does carry "Man Without a Star" there are some nice performances from Jeanne Crain as Reed Bowman and William Campbell as Jeff Jimson but it is Claire Trevor as Idonee who shines out. The character is slightly ambiguous but it is obvious that Idonee is a lady of ill repute who plies her trade in the local bar but Trevor delivers that element of good heartedness about her that deep down she really cares for Dempsey.
What this all boils down to is that "Man Without a Star" is an okay western and has a decent enough storyline to keep you interested and with Kirk Douglas on form it is well worth a watch. But it does have issues most notably the cheesiness of a couple of banjo enhanced musical moments and despite one impressive action scene the rest failed to really get the adrenalin pumping.