In the Old West, the further out into the wilderness you travelled, the less likely you were to find the law of the land, so men known as circuit judges were employed to head out to the most remote of the locations in the United States to enforce that law. All they needed was the book of law, a horse to ride upon, and a gun to enforce their decisions should certain folks not be too keen to stand trial or even be taken in. One such man was Judge Richard Thorne (Joel McCrea), and on one of his journeys he wound up in a small town controlled by the land baron Josiah Bannerman (John McIntire) whose son Tom (Kevin McCarthy) was notorious in the area for shooting his mouth off - and shooting his opponents dead. Thorne was here to make sure that never happened again...
By the nineteen-fifties, director Jacques Tourneur had moved on from his horror movies and film noirs to make Westerns, and this B-movie was one of those, probably the least seen of them but highly rated by those who did catch it. McCrea had been keen to work with him again after enjoying his experience on Stars in My Crown, so happily allowed himself to be recruited for what was in terms of budget something of a step down, this was a cheap production and to an extent looked it. What was in its favour was those involved, since they obviously all had a lot of faith in the project and were set on making its end result the very best they could. While nobody would call it an all-time classic, they had something they could have been justifiably proud of.
Unfortunately for most of its life, this film was in pretty poor shape, with the original negative lost and what remained a fuzzy public domain copy that may even have been in black and white rather than its original colour if you were unlucky with the print you watched. Yet quality will out, and it was such a compelling little oater that a true Western fan would overlook those drawbacks to appreciate its finer points, including a script based on the most prolific writer in the genre, Louis L'Amour, who wrote hundreds of Western tales on the page, though was not as often adapted for the screen despite his huge popularity amongst aficionados. Stranger on Horseback was assuredly one of the best adaptations of his yarns, and made you lament there were not more examples to enjoy.
McCrea of course loved this style of movie, if it had been up to him all he would have made would have been Westerns throughout his career, and he was a perfect match for this as the upstanding, moral hero who the cowed townsfolk begin to side with when they realise he can bring the Bannerman tyranny to an end. His love interest was Josiah's niece, Amy Lee, played by the tragic European actress Miroslava, who the next year would take her own life thanks to her romantic sorrows. Although her accent did not exactly match the role, she was a spirited presence who convincingly switched sides halfway through, though romantically she had little chemistry with the leading man. McIntire and McCarthy were excellent villains, knowing they can ride this out if they play by their own rules, and John Carradine reminded us he was in as many Westerns as he was horror flicks as the loquacious Colonel. Thorne's "won't take no for an answer" attitude to bringing Tom to trial made you ever more eager for that to happen, but there was suspense and action before we found out if he succeeded. Music by Paul Dunlap.