At the end of the Civil War a group of rogue Confederate soldiers stole a shipment of Union gold they then buried in a cave near Phantom Hill, Texas. Tasked with finding the gold by the U.S. government, veteran Matt Martin (Robert Fuller) escorts the one man that knows the location: confederate renegade-turned-convicted-thief Joe Barlow (Dan Duryea). Having assembled a semi-reliable team, including one or two unwanted guests, Martin tangles with deadly Indians, violent outlaws and the unforgiving desert terrain, trying desperately to stay alive long enough to return the gold. Meanwhile Barlow tries his utmost to tempt the rest of the party into making off with the treasure.
Incident at Phantom Hill was the last film scripted by Frank S. Nugent. A former journalist and film critic, Nugent penned a number of westerns including eleven or so for the great John Ford. Among them masterworks like The Searchers (1956) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). While nowhere near that level of quality, lacking the lyrical qualities and humanism Ford brought to the projects, Incident at Phantom Hill bears Nugent's stamp with its winning combination of tight-plotting, vivid characterization and grit. Indeed the film is often quite brutal with a third act that casually slaughters two-thirds of the cast and a stark portrait of the western milieu as a merciless wilderness where death lurks around every corner. The set-up is interesting, rife with tension and suspenseful action sequences orchestrated by competent journeyman Earl Bellamy. Between directing routine westerns Bellamy tended to land eclectic assignments: e.g. Fluffy (1965), Munster, Go Home! (1966), Seven Alone (1974)) - but films like this, Toughest Gun in Tombstone (1958), Stagecoach to Dancers' Rock (1962) and vigilante sequel Walking Tall Part 2 (1975) were his bread and butter.
Although Nugent did not write Stagecoach (1939), Incident at Phantom Hill lifts several plot motifs from the earlier Ford western. As in Stagecoach the characters are western archetypes - including a prostitute with a heart of gold run out of town – placed on a journey through rough terrain that both tests their moral fortitude and exposes their true selves, for better and worse. Indeed a case can be made that Jocelyn Lane's sultry saloon gal Memphis (a cut-and-paste for Claire Trevor's Dallas) is the key character given the finale hinges on her making the right choice. Lane, a sensual presence, smoulders quite magnificently in clingy dresses barely period appropriate but also exudes palpable strength as a woman used to enduring injustice. Elsewhere Robert Fuller essays a blandly conventional square-jawed hero. When he isn't grimacing he’s growling at Lane despite an obvious attraction. On the plus side the filmmakers had the good sense to surround Fuller with a rich panoply of talented cowboy character actors including slippery Dan Duryea (good as always despite inhabiting the same oily goon he’s played a dozen times before), injun-hating Claude Akins and ‘oirish’ Noah Beery Jr. While the film struggles to involve the viewer in a subplot concerning Martin’s burning need to solve the mystery of his fallen brother the other story strands show promise yet are frustratingly undeveloped. Unlike Ford, Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann or Howard Hawks, Earl Bellamy simply serves up action like a capable ringmaster and otherwise squanders the story's dramatic potential. Having said that there are worse things to be than simply entertaining and Jocelyn Lane is always worth watching.