Wounded in a shootout, notorious outlaw Quirt Evans (John Wayne) finds shelter with a kindly Quaker family. He is nursed back to health and falls in love with Penelope Worth (Gail Russell), whose warm heart and altruistic philosophy gradually changes his outlook on life. However, sagely, sharp-shooting lawman Wistful McLintock (Harry Carey) is certain Quirt will lapse into his outlaw ways, while bad guys Laredo Stevens (Bruce Cabot) and Hondo Jeffries (Louis Faust) are out to get him.
Angel and the Badman was the first movie produced by John Wayne and was considered quite a radical departure from your average Republic western. Later in his career Wayne’s pioneer spirit slid into reactionary conservatism but here he shows respect and genuine appreciation for the peace-loving, philanthropic Quaker way of life, albeit tempered with a certain scepticism as to whether their ideals can survive in the Wild West. The film does try to have it both ways, advocating pacifism and fighting for what is right as when Quirt coerces grumpy land baron Frederick Carson (Paul Hurst) into unblocking his dam and let local farmers share the water.
And yet the screenplay by writer-director James Edward Grant is nicely balanced and works better by not having the Worth family force their beliefs on Quirt - it’s their innate goodwill and decency that moves him. Indeed their saintliness is counterbalanced by their friendship with good-hearted atheist Dr. Mangram (Tom Powers), which shows human decency is not always bound with religion. Ultimately the story is less about an outlaw embracing religion than it is about him embracing community. This was one of only two films directed by Grant, the other being Ring of Fear (1954) a circus-set murder mystery starring pulp author Mickey Spillane. He was a close friend and regular collaborator with John Wayne, writing movies like Hondo (1953), The Commancheros (1961) and McClintock! (1963) before his death in 1966. Working with second-unit director/stunt co-ordinator Yakima Canutt, whose talents graced everything from Stagecoach (1939) to Where Eagles Dare (1969), Grant packs the film with some memorable stunts, with a cattle stampede and Quirt and Penny’s amazing plunge into a ravine being the standouts, while Archie Stout’s glossy black and white photography does some striking tricks with light.
This is easily one of John Wayne’s most unabashedly romantic films and its success is down to his chemistry with co-star Gail Russell. Unfairly maligned for her inexperience, Russell has a warm, lively screen presence and sells us on Penny’s innocence without making her seem hopelessly naïve. Note her sly smile when Quirt faints in her arms or the scene where she listens while he babbles in his sleep, plus her tearful speech towards the finale is really moving. Painfully shy and ill at ease with stardom, Gail Russell sadly became an alcoholic which wrecked her career and personal life before her tragically early death in 1961 at the age of thirty-six. Wayne was quite fond of Russell and briefly took her under his protective wing when they reunited for the popular seafaring adventure Wake of the Red Witch (1948), with her other notable film being The Uninvited (1944).
Also of note among the cast is former silent screen cowboy legend Harry Carey, who is wonderfully wry as the delightfully named Wistful McLintock - and gets the hero out of a fix since the pacifist message paints him into a corner. Like Wayne, Carey was a long-time collaborator with John Ford and in actual fact his trademark of holding his shoulder as he walks into the sunset inspired the iconic final shot in The Searchers (1956).