Cackling Old West outlaw Rankin (Gene Barry) may literally be the Devil. But as the audiences can see he can be very much at the mercy of captors. Tied up, hooded and dragged he looks less than formidable though everyone with passing knowledge of him is terrified.
His evident lack of concern is galling given that he could die from the elements i.e. the desert and mountains he is being extradited through if the lawmen don't opt to kill him first. He seemingly can't help but toy with the posse that has captured him.
After they have travelled a fair distance Rankin, and the Marshall looking to bring him in, are the only survivors as the posse gets wiped out by bandits who appear to be under Rankin's control somewhat but don't seem anxious to free him and make him comfortable. They keep their distance and we wonder why.
No sooner do Rankin and the Marshall encounter noble farmer Gil Turner and his beautiful, mysterious wife Sarah (Janice Rule) than the Marshall very conveniently dies of complications from heat stroke, dehydration and a festering gunshot wound incurred from a bandit's rifle during the ambush on his posse.
Turner sees it as the responsible thing to do to transport the outlaw to authorities and entreats a very finite group of fellow travellers to join him in the task which could quite easily cost them their lives. Rankin of course plots his escape from the group who have more decency than common sense and strange things begin to happen.
Sarah remains terrified of what may happen if she is around Rankin for enough time for him to brainwash her into helping him. Her concerns are well founded as but a moment alone with him plants some evil ideas in her head.
There is a sense women sometimes feel that they are being discounted by men and even other women as offbeat or alarmist when they express a concern. Sarah appears to feel like that when her husband dismisses her concerns even though she has a precognitive ability that Rankin recognizes straight away.
Rankin tries to turn her because of it. He has a way of playing with people's heads that makes them forget themselves. He might well just be one of those guys who enjoys provoking people to elicit reactions merely for cheap amusement. But something about this guy suggests there is a lot more at work and we're meant to wonder if there really is.
Things he says are interpreted by other characters in the most threatening manner imaginable. Some of the statements are meaningless but his carefree manner and the things they know he has done add a menacing context. When the typical person knows something of someone else's arc they can project more onto them in the same vein.
Also if you talk to another man's wife like he isn't there when he IS there that doesn't tend to go over very well to this day. In the Old West. history tells us it was enough to get you shot dead. Rankin amuses himself by chatting up Sarah in front of Turner. She is unsure how to respond which causes Turner even more concern.
What if he is just a very bad man who has had a hard life, knows he is going to die and doesn't care anymore? Logically that is all he could be. In desperate circumstances those that keep their cool can seem like a lot more than they are. Any projection of the supernatural should remain an overreaction.
Rankin manages to manoeuvre his captors into crisis after crisis. Numerous times Turner has to stop the others who at first want to let the baddie go then want to just kill him. In the end the showdown between just the two of them appears inevitable and Sarah is so completely out of character due to hypnosis from Rankin that she might be of little help to her husband. She might actually be a potentially deadly distraction.
Whatever reviewers and the title may have led you to believe about the character Gene Barry plays here, the ending allows audiences to interpret it as they will. It ends decisively but what has really happened? More importantly, was he really anything supernatural?
This terrific TV movie was made at a time that The Virginian (featuring Drury as the title character, 8 episodes of which had been directed by Michael Caffey who helmed this) had only just gone off the air but whilst that show and Bat Masterson (starring Barry) were both on in reruns. Writer Calvin Clements also scripted numerous episodes of the TV series westerns Gunsmoke and Laredo.
With supporting actors that had appeared as guest stars on TV and movie westerns assembled here was a group who knew what they were doing and went out and did it with some inventive panache set against the perfunctory rugged western landscape. A very intriguing take on what was a dying TV genre this remains a highly entertaining film though given the brisk run time it is over a little too abruptly.
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