Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) is travelling through Wyoming by train, but he’s not a legal passenger, he has sneaked onto one of the carriages and is currently enjoying forty winks in the straw, his head propped up by his saddle, when he feels the train grind to a halt. He then hears a commotion outside and takes a look, to see a young stowaway, Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), has been discovered by the guard and is scuffling with him. Dempsey rescues the kid from the tracks and puts him in the same carriage he was in, and a friendship is struck up, though that night they are both awoken by the guard accosting another illegal passenger, and getting stabbed to death for his trouble…
Man Without a Star was one of the first films to be made by Kirk Douglas’s production company, which he created to offer more opportunities and better starring roles for himself, and you could certainly tell this had been very specifically tailored to his talents. At this point in his career he was known for his monstrous ego, so you can imagine that being the head of production as well as the leading man gave him carte blanche to behave as he liked, which tended to suit his own status rather than looking out for anyone else. Nobody was allowed to overshadow Kirk, that was the big no-no, therefore he was in practically every scene and it was clear he was the man we were here to be watching.
Campbell, whose Jeff sees Dempsey as a father figure even if he has a habit of hotheaded rebellion in the face of the older man’s tutelage, was a less than appealing performer here, not helped by the fact we always saw Dempsey as in the right and Jeff as wet behind the ears and petulant. If he had been rather more friendly and accommodating to the good advice that comes his way, we would have warmed to him better, but then if that were the case he might have been a scene stealer and you had the impression Douglas would never have allowed that. By the time they have rolled into the nearest station and the Sheriff is making enquiries about the dead guard, we were set up for a series of clashes.
Dempsey reveals that the killer (played by an uncredited Jack Elam) was not Jeff, and wins a reward of fifty dollars for his trouble, which he opts to stay around in this small town for, in spite of being warned away. This sounded as if he would meet nothing but menaces and opposition, but he does find some allies, notably Claire Trevor as the owner of the saloon, Idonee, an old pal from way back, who sets him straight on the lie of the land around there. Dempsey and Jeff get jobs on a ranch and though the kid needs a lot of teaching, things are looking up, but that won’t last since the ranch is about to get a new owner and she’s – gasp! – a woman! Reed Bowman, for it was she, was played by Jeanne Crain, obviously relishing the opportunity to play a harder-edged character than she was mostly known for.
Douglas knew how to pick his leading ladies, and enjoys a good rapport with both Trevor and Crain, but if there was a theme, it wasn’t so much the woman’s place in the Old West, it was how much we were sacrificing freedom for progress, a common one in Westerns and one which would go on to be ever more emblematic of the American genre in the decades to come. This was encapsulated by the barbed wire that has been introduced by the ranch owners to make sure there is no question whose territory belongs to whom, something Dempsey feels goes against his firmly held principles. But he needed a real, flesh and blood antagonist to square off against, rather than the wire, that was, and Richard Boone as Steve Miles fitted the bill, exemplifying the coldhearted business of taking the liberation of being out in the West as your own man and making it into a commodity. But don’t think this was completely serious, as Kirk gave himself the best lines, the best action, and even a song to play with his banjo: if anyone was the boss, it was him, and maybe not so much nominal director King Vidor. Frankie Laine sang the title song.