“I didn’t have the sense to know the difference between a war hero and a murderer.”
Wes Tancred (Richard Egan) is a notorious gunslinger, known for allegedly having killed his best friend with no provocation, while his back was turned. While Wes has received a full pardon, that doesn’t stop rumors from spreading. There’s even been a song written about him, calling him “black-hearted” and “white-livered.”
Unable to escape his own reputation, Wes takes on the alias of “John Bailey” and finds himself at a farm/outpost run by Ed Burrows (Joe De Santis) and his son Jody (Billy Chapin). They kindly let “John” stay on at the outpost, helping out around the place in exchange for meals and a place to sleep.
When trouble strikes, a group of outlaws arriving with a plan to rob the stagecoach when it arrives, Ed is killed. Wes must escort Jody to the home of his aunt and uncle in the nearby town of Table Rock, where more trouble awaits.
Tension at Table Rock was directed by Charles Marquis Warren. The film was written by Winston Miller from the novel Bitter Sage by Frank Gruber.
Richard Egan is a perfect fit for his role as a loner outlaw unfairly accused of cold-bloodedly murdering his best friend. He can be somewhat of an intimidating presence, but his fair and honest treatment of people as the film moves along leaves the viewer convinced that he’s misunderstood, and that his crime was not a crime at all, but self-defense.
The supporting cast is strong here as well. Dorothy Malone and Angie Dickinson are a few familiar faces delivering solid performances. Cameron Mitchell offers up one of the film’s most interesting characters, a sheriff dealing with the emotional and physical scars of a past trauma.
Most impressive, though, are Joe De Santis and Billy Chapin as Ed and Jody Burrows. They are simple, hard-working people, who kindly allow Wes to stay with them during his travels, and who don’t deserve the trouble that comes to them. De Santis’ performance is brief but very effective. His death is glossed over somewhat quickly in favor of moving Egan’s story along, but it’s still one of the film’s most powerful moments.
Chapin’s character of Jody brings one of the film’s most interesting elements, the friendship between young Jody and Wes. This friendship contributes greatly to the viewer’s understanding of and appreciation for Wes, and increases the emotional stakes as the “storm” of crime and violence builds in town.
Tension at Table Rock isn’t the most fast-paced Western you’ll find, and it feels somewhat longer than it is, but it has pretty successful mood-building (thanks in part to a wonderful score), good performances, and a well-staged final duel. It’s a bit of a hidden gem, which I’d definitely recommend for genre fans.