The town of Spurline is basically run at the beck and call of local cattle rancher Virgil Renchler (Orson Welles), who owns many acres of grazing land in the area. But with that kind of power comes a recklessness, and a lack of control over the worst instincts of his men, who he supports unconditionally no matter what. The breaking point may have arrived, however, when two of his employees march into the living quarters of the Mexican labourers Renchler employs and drag out one of the younger members, into a tool shed where he is beaten to death, it would seem these men believe they can get away with anything. But what they didn't reckon on is a witness...
Man in the Shadow was one of those quickie B-movies created by producer Albert Zugsmith to turn a fast buck in the movie industry. He was a filmmaker whose output varied wildly in quality, from the occasional classic to outright trash, with perhaps more of the latter than the former, but he knew how to assemble a solid cast and this was no exception. The biggest name here was Welles, who had taken the role of the villain to make some money to pay his tax bills, but this led to Zugsmith repaying the favour by financing his next project as director, Touch of Evil, a movie substantially better known than this one. Not that this work was worth dismissing, however.
That was down to Welles doing his trademark boosting of his material, or interfering behind the scenes if you prefer, by rewriting Gene L. Coon's screenplay to give it more weight than the average programmer. Coon is now best known as a producer on Star Trek when he moved to television full time (he created the Klingons), but he churned out a number of these sorts of scripts; what he thought of the star "freshening up" his efforts went unrecorded, but it has lent the film rather more interest among Welles cultists than something of a lesser quality, and heaven knows there was plenty of that to come. With that in mind, you might expect to see quite a bit of him in the bad guy part.
On the other hand, the sad fact was that most audiences of the day were not lining up to watch Welles, so in fact it was the first-billed Jeff Chandler who was the biggest draw. Tragically, he did not have long to go in his career which was cut short by his early death, but the strapping, positively masculine star retains a cult following to this day, possibly because he was that rarity in the movies, a Jewish cowboy. He was devout in his faith, and this marked him out as not your conventional WASP leading man of Westerns, no matter that he took to these productions like a duck to water. Man in the Shadow was not strictly a Western, however, as it more took the template of the social conscience pictures that had become popular in the nineteen-thirties and had not entirely died out two decades later: the Civil Rights era made them all the more pertinent.
The issue here was the treatment, or indeed mistreatment, of America's immigrant population, specifically those from South of the Border, though director Jack Arnold (now best known for his science fiction, but with other strings to his bow as this was evidence of) was not about to beat the audience over the head with the lesson-making. Chandler played Sheriff Ben Sadler, a straight-ahead pillar of the community who has never given much thought to the Mexican workers until that witness appears in his office and tells him the murder he has seen. This unfolds as a case of racism as the victim was courting Renchler's daughter (Colleen Miller) who is a virtual prisoner on the ranch, but develops into a warning against tyranny when his men set about reaffirming their hold over the cowed locals, culminating in dramatic scenes of Sadler dragged behind a truck in the town square. How has it come to this, asks the film, in a warning to all decent people on the nature of power? Perhaps more well-meaning than dynamic, until the finale at least, but very worthwhile as both commentary and thriller.