Out west in 1878, Texan outlaw buddies Jim Dawkins (William Holden), Lorn Reming (Macdonald Carey) and 'Wahoo' Jones (William Bendix) take a break from robbing stagecoaches to do a good deed by rescuing spunky tomboy Rainie Carter (Mona Freeman) from murderous racketeers led by maniacal Charley Calico (Alfonso Bedoya). Forced to separate, Lorn goes on to more violent and profitable robberies while Jim and Lorn try to lay low by reluctantly joining the Texas Rangers. At first the situation suits Lorn fine as he convinces his pals to tip him off about any Ranger activity. Yet as years go by Jim starts to take pride in upholding law and order. For the sake of friendship, all three try to avoid direct conflict but Lorn grows more ruthless and murderous. A showdown seems inevitable. Meanwhile Rainie, now blossomed into a beautiful young woman, must choose between Lorn and Jim.
Paramount studios remade their own 1936 western The Texas Rangers as this splendid Technicolor effort. Not to be confused with the 1993 follow-up mini-series to Lonesome Dove of the same name written by Larry McMurtry and starring James Garner, Streets of Laredo is among several like-titled works inspired by an old western ballad also known as The Cowboy's Lament recorded by everyone from Johnny Cash and Burl Ives to Marty Robbins and Joan Baez. Scripted by reliable western hand Charles Marquis Warren, who penned scripts for landmark television horse operas Gunsmoke and Rawhide and directed several big screen oaters including the weak Elvis Presley vehicle Charro! (1969) (which shares some thematic parallels), the film actually retains a lot from the original 1936 script written by legendary filmmaker King Vidor who nonetheless goes uncredited.
Although a romantic western at heart, Streets of Laredo boasts a moral complexity and compelling psychological dimension that points the way towards the more challenging westerns of Anthony Mann. British born director Leslie Fenton, formerly an actor in some notable films before carving a career in solid westerns like Whispering Smith (1948) with Alan Ladd and The Redhead and the Cowboy (1951) pairing Glenn Ford with Rhonda Fleming, paints a convincing picture of a west where cowboys survive by their wits, hustling from place to place. However while smirking Lorn is more than content leading an amoral life, Jim and Wahoo go from reluctant do-gooders with a hidden agenda to out-and-out heroes. Love is certainly one motivating factor but Jim also feels a growing need to see justice done. That need to civilize the wilderness and bring order to chaos is the defining theme of the western genre. The pursuit of justice makes Jim and Wahoo feel part of a community which comes to mean more to them than simply surviving on the trail even as it sets them on a collision course with wily Lorn.
William Holden is remarkably charismatic as the conflicted Jim and Mona Freeman engagingly essays a more complex love interest than was the norm in Forties westerns as she convincingly transforms from hick farm girl to a smart, gutsy, forthright young woman. William Bendix is a gregarious presence as the affable Wahoo while Alfonso Bedoya, who famously didn't need no stinkin' badges in The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), is splendidly slimy as despicable Charley Calico. Yet perhaps most surprising is Macdonald Carey as the manipulative yet oddly affable chief antagonist, Lorn. For thirty years beginning in 1965, Carey headlined cheesy daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives. That's right the same one Joey starred in on Friends. Back in the Forties though Carey was known as king of the B pictures. Fans of Hammer Films may also remember him from Joseph Losey's cult science fiction chiller These Are the Damned (1963).
Cleverly scripted, the well thought out plot puts the characters in suspenseful situations and lets the friendship between Jim and Lorn unravel by means of a romantic rivalry that eventually opens the former and then a smitten Lainie's eyes to what a manipulative, self-serving scoundrel the latter truly is. Also worth noting, the climactic shootout reaches a novel and thematically appropriate resolution with a pleasing proto-feminist subtext.