Starring: John Payne, Eduardo Noriega, Gabby Hayes, Sterling Hayden, Gail Russell

Director: Lewis R. Foster
Released: 1949

Mood: If you’re having a mentally taxing week at work and need a Western that’s almost entirely driven by action and would actually be more enjoyable if you don’t think too hard about the plot.


I wish I was here to write a glowing review of El Paso. I truly do.


There are a lot of great things about this movie. But it ‘paynes’ me to say that lead actor John Payne is not one of them, so the film overall is only ‘good’.


El Paso is still worth a watch for avid Western fans, though!


There are lots of strong performances, the action is basically non-stop, and the cinematography holds up. For a 1949 Western, it’s got some solid entertainment value.


photo of the El Paso blu-ray dvd


El Paso begins in 1865, with Clay Fletcher (John Payne) recently returned to his Southern mansion from the Civil War. He’s staring moodily into a fire, reminiscing about dancing with a pretty young thing.


Being a former lawyer, Payne immediately gets the opportunity to go to El Paso and collect a signature from a judge. Surprise! The girl he’s missing is the judge’s daughter Susan (Gail Russell).


On the stagecoach, Fletcher meets the wisecracking peddler Pesky (Gabby Hayes) and a gorgeous con artist (Mary Beth Hughes as Stagecoach Nellie). Once in town, Fletcher gets beat up and robbed of his finery by Bert Donner (Sterling Hayden) and his gang of ruffians, who thrive on stealing land from poor farmers and controlling the law – including Judge Jeffers! But Payne is saved at the last minute by Mexican rancher Don Nacho Vázquez (Eduardo Noriega).


You need to remember all of them for later.


Fletcher sees an opportunity to have it all, staying close to his gal (Gail Russell as Susan) AND setting up a law practice to save the local farmers. The bad guys are used to getting their way, so they don’t like that. There’s an obligatory montage of Fletcher learning to quick-draw from Nacho and then it’s game time. Much fighting ensues.


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


The best thing about El Paso, besides Eduardo Noriega and Gabby Hayes (we’ll get to them in a minute) is the action. Holy crap, is there a lot of action.


Multiple fist fights and all-out brawls. Horseback chases. Wagon chases. Every second scene is something exciting. There’s no slow middle in this film, it’s got great pacing.


The final showdown is really well-shot for this era, especially considering the cheaper film quality used, and that it was made by Pine-Thomas Productions (a B-movie branch of Paramount). There’s a massive windstorm stirring up dust that is incredibly atmospheric. The only downside is you really can’t tell who any of the men are, so you don’t know who is getting shot. You have to literally wait ‘til the dust settles.


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


Despite the complete lack of Southern accents in a story about El Paso, almost everyone other than John Payne is memorable in this movie.


Gabby Hayes is instantly That Old West Guy. He’s hilarious in both his wheezing-yet-sassy delivery AND his physical comedy. You know him, you love him, you want to hug him – and stop him from buying a battle chicken.


Eduardo Noriega is the smoothest, most captivating guy in El Paso. He also has the most gorgeous horse. Seriously, I couldn’t stop staring at them both.


Noriega’s powerful performance is surprising for 1949. Instead of casting a white guy in brownface, or the Mexican character being written as dumb or submissive, you have this commanding Mexican actor who gets to outshoot everyone – and outshine the lead in every scene. There are a lot of actual Mexican extras playing Mexican townsfolk in El Paso, too, and an actual Native American playing a Native guy (Chris Willow Bird, although he has no lines and is uncredited).


Sterling Hayden gives you everything you need in the chiseled, privileged, Brom Bones-type meathead bad boy. And Mary Beth Hughes is the definition of bombshell – I’d watch an entire movie about her as Stagecoach Nellie.


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


And now for the man of the hour.


My problem with John Payne in El Paso is that he feels like an ACTOR, like a visitor in a Western. He was clearly good-looking and did brilliant stunt work throughout his career, even in quite a few Westerns. But here he feels kind of aloof.


I just couldn’t get into him as Fletcher. As the lead he was supposed to hold the whole thing together, be the sun the whole production orbits. Not believing in him makes the other characters feel slightly untethered, and makes the weaker plot points more obvious.


It’s not all Payne’s fault though. The writing wants to capture fans of romance, comedy, drama, and action. It makes the dialogue a little thin and vapid, and the characters’ choices seem flippant.


Watching it is like going along with what seems like a typical Western, everyone’s falling for funny local con artists and making eyes at each other and having dust-ups with loutish bad guys. And then BAM! The good guys are all getting murdered and we’re riding off to do lynchings. But the end credits are coming and we can’t leave it dark, so it’s like, “whoops, we killed an innocent preacher! We feel real bad about it. Let’s all parade back into town smiling and basically holding hands and never mention it again.”


But because of its attempts to please everyone, El Paso does manage to give you more twists and turns than you’d expect from what is now a highly familiar premise in Western storytelling.


Is El Paso one to watch over and over again? Probably not. But it’s got a brilliant supporting cast, making it a fun addition to the collection for anyone who loves one of those actors. Personally, I’m obsessed with Gabby Hayes and am currently hunting down his other Westerns. All 194 of them…