There are some things you just never expect to see on film and one of those is James Cagney in a western movie. Funny enough, you could have said the same thing about him being in a musical but Yankee Doodle Dandy among others will prove you wrong. Suffice it to say; seeing Cagney in a western is not a bad thing as the man is such a dynamo when it comes to his craft, you know that the end result will be a good one. Directed by Robert Wise in gorgeous Cinemascope, Tribute to a Bad Man is a fairly standard western as far as westerns go but due to said director, the cinematography and the performances by all involved, the film is really quite good and highly entertaining.
Tribute to a Bad Man sees Cagney star as Jeremy Rodock who is the head of a horse ranch. Rodock is tough as nails and has little sympathy or forgiveness for anyone. You either do as he says or you get fired, simple as that. Coming to the ranch is a man named Steve who helps Rodock out after a bit of an accident. Steve is a very inexperienced fellow when it comes to the big wide world and learns that there are all sorts of people in it including Jocasta who he falls in love with and who also just so happens to be the woman that Rodock himself is in love with. The young man from Pennsylvania comes to know that his boss is harder than he ever thought him to be and learns that Rodock has what they call the ‘hanging fever’ and once you have it, there is almost no way to excise it. When a neighbouring ranch owned by Rodock’s former partner starts to steal his horses, Rodock’s strength of character is soon put to the test.
Again, Cagney is in magnificent form here and he all but makes this movie on his own. Thankfully he has a strong supporting cast around him and it really bolsters the story of his character who might seem as rough and tough as they come, but when it all comes down to it, he has a heart just like everybody else. Don Dubbins who plays Steve and Irene Papas who stars as Jocasta are the other two main players of this film and they also help to form the other two sides of a love triangle which comes to permeate this film. There is a lot of drama between the three of these characters as the movie goes along and for the most part, Rodock has no idea that Steve is in love with Jocasta. What Rodock does have is a large temper and part of that is always reserved for the jealousy he feels over Jocasta as she is literally the only woman for as far as the eye can see. The conflict with the neighbouring ranch not only tests Rodock’s mettle but Steve’s as well for he has never had to really fight for anything and now he not only finds himself fighting for Rodock and the man’s rights, battling against those who would steal Rodock’s property, but also has to combat the feelings he has for Jocasta. Though this picture is mainly about Cagney’s character, the film is just as much about Steve and his coming into the world as well.
Dramatic though it may be, you do get a couple of laughs out of the film and it has nothing to do with the situations taking place or any part of the script whatsoever. No, the smirks come when you see Cagney as he slips in and out of his accent every now and then. For the most part, Cagney simply talks normally, but there is the odd time when it seems like he catches himself and tries to talk other than in his normal speaking voice and it is really quite humourous. All in all though, as standard as the movie might be, it is a good one and a very solid western film through and through.