James Cagney would never be my first pick to act in a western. The star who made his name playing gangsters and later returned to his native song-and-dance genre did not exude “cowboy”, at least not at this point in his career. In Tribute to a Bad Man, Cagney is 57 but still a tough guy. The title of the film is confusing at first, as we wonder who this “bad man” might be. Cagney starts off the picture seeming rather congenial, but we gradually see just how deep seated his “badness” is.
The story is narrated by Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) who comes across a gun fight in a valley belonging to Jeremy Rodock, although the young man has not yet heard this name. Steve scares away the aggressors and attends to a man shot in the back who is this Rodock (Cagney). The two develop a simple friendship overnight on their way back to Rodock’s farm where Steve will get work.
Rodock is a horse wrangler and has the largest and most successful enterprise for raising and selling the animal anywhere in the area. His expanses of land on which the horses graze, however, leave plenty of opportunity for theft, which Rodock strictly punishes by hanging. At home, Rodock has a young ethnic woman (probably meant to be Latina but played by Greek Irene Papas) who appears to be his mistress. Upon meeting her, Steve is immediately struck by Jocasta’s beauty –as are others who work and live on the ranch– but respects Rodock too much to do anything about it.
Through Jocasta’s pleading that Rodock not go around killing the people who have wronged him, and Steve’s passive approach to justice, we come to understand just how bad this Rodock is. In a final display of his meanness, the man punishes the three thieves who have temporarily crippled his mares by cutting their hooves too closely by having the men walk barefoot to the nearest town. Steve at first seems pleased by the equitable punishment and Rodocks’ abstention from killing, but as the torture takes a toll on the men, he gets fed up and decides the man is cruel. Steve attempts to leave the ranch with Jocasta, but the woman cannot shake her man, not matter how brutal he is.
Tribute to a Bad Man is tragically absent of any likeable characters. Although Steve is tolerable, he wanes on the pathetic side in strong contrast to the abject meanness Cagney brings to Rodock. The part was originally planned for Spencer Tracy, who I think would have brought some logic to his cruelty rather than acting on pure animal instinct as Cagney seems to do. The latter’s approach makes it impossible for us to believe the man can ever change to someone soft enough for the woman he loves.
Dubbins’ performance is adequate as the looker on who relates the story of Jeremy Rodock through his own experiences. The plot is really meant to convey Steve becoming a man through the influence of Rodock and Jocasta, but one has to dig past the story’s muck to find that conclusion.