Hour before Dawn is one of those episodes that Laramie does so well. A controversial topic handled from all points of view, brilliantly written and acted and never quite resolving the complexities. Without getting politically into it I have to say the subject matter bothered me. I did not realise until I started watching the old westerns how many of them were about hanging. There were some very gut wrenching stories written about it. Life and death from all perspectives, including the hangee which rhymes with pardee. This one is one of the best with the very bad outlaw being a “ real” person, and one whom Slim treats decently, even though he is a totally bad man. So Slim’s concern about killing someone is not just a faceless person. Its someone he has “looked after”
There were some really good moments about the legal process. Slim believing it was all that mattered. Very Slim with Jess less inclined to believe but then getting the last line in about the process itself, if using a tree and lynching is so bad why is a public hanging okay. So nothing is clear cut. The question was never answered. Like most of the questions in the episodes. No real answers. Lots of things to think about. One of the things I really love about westerns (and science fiction) is that the format can be used be about things that aren’t really western. They can be morality plays, a way of handling controversial and difficult topics without preaching, and Laramie certainly did that, and they can use symbolism and imagery very comfortably. At least they can if the actors are good enough. One of the other things I have noticed rewatching the old westerns is how many western actors were also science fiction regulars. Not a coincidence I suspect.
The citizens of Laramie have a few moments, and Slim gets to stand up for the law, and Jess gets to stand up for Slim even if he has some sympathy for the citizens viewpoint. They do as is often in Laramie come through for the guys at the end. So not quite High Noon. But no matter what Slim has Jess. A favourite scene is Slim being surrounded by Crighton (Sp)and his gang. I wonder if there were any good bloopers of the cast trying to say Conn Crighton. It’s really hard to get out. Crighton may have his whole gang but Slim has Jess behind him. Guess who wins. On that subject, do you think Slim ever corners Jess about how come he knows everything about every bad guy who comes into Wyoming.?
Apart from the guest star ( more later) this is a terrific Slim and Jess episode. With both at their best. Jess is just there for Slim. No matter what. “Up to you. I’m along either way.” Lots of “looks” in this one that you can read anything into . Slim’s expression as he is handed the badge and Jess says “Put it on Sherriff” can be anything, from doubt to fear to determination. Read what you want into it. It was probably just the way it was filmed, but Jess and Slim are very close in this episode. As in very close physical proximity. All their conversations are held in what is a very intimate distance. As in very private between the two of them. Filming from low angles seems to increase the sense of privacy between them, Jess being incredibly perceptive and understanding about how Slim is feeling. And Slim willing to share things, fear, doubts, feelings with Jess that he would not share or admit to with anyone else. So Sherriff Slim like Sherriff False Mort has his doubts, but does not come across as well a bit of a wimp, like false Mort. Just a man who trusts his friend to listen to him.
I refuse to believe that sheriff was Mort Corey. Real Mort would not have been such a wimp. Although there may be some explanation for the running scared. When he turned around in the beginning there was a big dark stain in the middle of his vest just like he had been shot in the back. Maybe it was a case of too often to the trough.
Nah real Mort would not be like that.
There are some nice Laramie moments where things aren’t resolved. Slim does his duty but never get an answer to what it will cost. Jess gets beaten up for Slim, it only took a couple to do it. That badge must have been heavy. Interestingly Jess was not so brave about the beating up as usual. He tells Slim he’s all right but there is a definite little boy whimper there when he says it. I’m glad Slim did not have to hang Billy in the end.. I think he would have had few bad moments over it, later on.
The worst thing about this episode was not only was Slim hanging someone but he was hanging Sergeant Tyree. Ben Johnson would have to be just about my favourite western actor of movies and television. If he is in it I watch it, which means I have watched some very bad shows and movies but it’s worth it. Then again I’ve watched some pretty good ones too.
Almost as bad as them hanging Sergeant Tyree was that Ben Johnson did not even get his name above the credits as a guest star. I know he was supposed to be just a journeyman contract actor at that stage but surely anyone would have realised if a cowboy actor was going to get an Oscar it would be Ben Johnson. I read in one of Harry Carey’s accounts of the old western days that Harry Carey’s wife believed that despite Ben Johnston very humble attitude to his work, really he did know just how good an actor he was ( women’s intuition). I like to think he did. No-one could have pulled off the complete change of expression, body language turning to terror that you can see happens to Billy when he sees that noose and realises for the first time he is going to die without being completely aware of what they were doing.. And watch the smirk when he first sees Maudie. You know something is between Billy and Maudie and you can understand why she would want to help Billy. He really did love her. Even if he is plain bad. Just from that one smirk. And the speech about how is father is still alive. As well as the looks between Jess and Billy and Slim and Billy as he says it For that alone Ben Johnson should have got a guest star credit as well as a “This guy is going to win an Oscar” tick.
Also interesting to see how tall and big Ben Johnson really was when Billy is walking down the street with Jess and Slim. In the movies with John Wayne , Wayne towers over Ben Johnson. Which I realise just means that John Wayne was a huge man.
They did not show Ben Johnson riding enough. It always makes me feel cheated when you don’t see him ride much. But even as he rides into town., watch the way he holds the reins. Really long. Left hand high He always does and his right hand is sort of fingers lightly scissoring the reins, straight. Most unusual and probably very sensitive hands. I am not sure whether Ben Johnson did the fall of the rearing horse himself. He usually does turn his head to the camera when he dos his own stunts, and the rider certainly does but it is so dark it’s hard to tell. Perhaps Mary knows. Second watching I don’t think it is.
Some nice for shadowing when Billy says no rope will get me Slim cocks the rifle he is holding. No rope will get Billy. Followed by a “look” exchanged between Billy and “false Mort” Read what you will into that. Which one of us will be a coward? Perhaps.
Both Jess and Slim get a chance to practice the mother and father of dirty looks. Jess when he gets to play underling deputy and carry the Judges bag. Did that judge have any idea what he was risking when he told Jess to not forget the case? And they could have speeded up the paper work by several hours if Slim had done it not Jess. Slim can be awfully mean to Jess sometimes. Slim gets the longest drawn out dirty look in a western ever at Jess at the end when he manages to hold the expression through one tag line, both of them mounting and turning the horses around and riding off. Jess deserved it.
I wonder if Andy ever found out big brother was petting cats over supper, at the table. . Words may have been said at the ranch if he did. Seemed a bit of cat and dog in that the cat in the café and then for no real reason a dog outside. Symbolic?
Jess sure was eating. Again.. I love the way he gets un the last fork full of pie even as he’s leaving. And the gloves came off to eat at least. And getting very do-mesticated. As he’s talking to Maudie the first time in the restaurant without saying anything, he takes the napkins and sets the table, exactly right and he does not have to look down to do it. And some more good manner Jess used a plate to eat Maudie’s chicken but eth gloves were still on. Or maybe he was fixing a plate for Billy. We never saw.
It looks like Steve Hill’s horse joined the Crighton gang for a while, then stayed in Laramie to get ridden down the street for no reason in particular.
Poor old Hoot got an awful thump from Crazy Horse when they turned around to ride back to town after the posse. Crazy Horse just goes sideways bang into him. Hoot holds his ground so you can feel the pain from both riders’ legs getting squashed. Knew someone who had a bad fall from doing that when stirrups caught together. But I’m sure Jess only said “Please learn to ride that horse straight Slim, if you don’t mind old chum.”
Jess seemed to get cleaner as the episode went on. He was covered in dust in the beginning. You don’t see him put it it but Billy is wearing only his shirt in the court room but his coat when he comes out. They would have had to take the hand cuffs off to let him put the coat on in the courtroom. A bit risky.
If it was so cold why oh why didn’t the guys put on a jacket. I know Slim looks, well particularly good in that shirt with the stitched shoulders but looking good isn’t everything. If it’s that cold, put something warm on. Or don’t complain.
Jess must have learned a few lessons too . He had the spurs on but did not stick them into the wooden bench when he was lying on it.
One other thing worried me. I must have been watching too much Mythbusters. I don’t think those crates and sacks would have offered much protection against bullets. Lucky that gang of outlaws were such lousy shots. Crighton could not even kill Billy at point blank range.
Anyway a lovely episode, brilliantly written and acted, with lots of wordless “moments” between the characters. Slim and Jess. Billy and Maudie. Billy and Jess. Billy and Slim. Very complex ideas and forgive the pun nothing black and white. That Billy was such a bad man, made Slim’s dilemma that much more interesting. Particularly as Billy was kind of likeable.