If you’ve written as many articles as I have, in the digital era, it would be nice if they were all up on the web, but they’re not, for a variety of reasons. A long time ago, I wrote a nice piece about Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965) — “William Inge as Walter Gage: Bus Riley’s Back in Town” in Literature Film Quarterly 16.2 (Spring 1988): 101-106 — a small budget Universal picture, shot entirely on their back lot, which nevertheless has a peculiar resonance far from the traditional Universal program film.
The reason for this is principally the film’s scenarist, one “Walter Gage,” who in reality is the famed playwright William Inge, who took his name off the project when Universal demanded cuts and changes in his screenplay, mainly to play up Ann-Margret’s role as Laurel in the film. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that Ann-Margret had anything to do with this; it was a front office decision, based on commerce alone. You can see from the poster above how luridly the film was marketed, and as usual, this ad campaign has almost nothing to do with the film itself.
Briefly, Bus Riley’s Back in Town centers on its eponymous title character, played with understated charm by a young Michael Parks, who has come home to his sleepy small town after a hitch in the service. Jocelyn Brando plays Bus’s mother, and Kim Darby plays his tomboyish sister Gussie. The family welcomes him with open arms, but despite their familial embrace, it’s clear that the town has changed, and not for the better.
All Bus wants to do is get on with his life and be an auto mechanic, but Laurel, Bus’s old girlfriend, now newly married to a rich man, wants to keep Bus on the side. She also discourages his desire to be a mechanic, thinking it’s somehow “beneath” him. Bus initially goes along with it, but eventually sees the relationship for the dead end it is, and jettisons Laurel for a relationship with Judy (the late Janet Margolin), settling down to be a mechanic, which is what he’s best at.
Directed with quiet assurance by the late Harvey Hart, who never really got a chance to show what he was capable of, and expertly shot by Russell Metty, the film is suffused with the romance of smalltown America, and shot in a dreamlike, almost overtly poetic fashion, although it doesn’t skimp on tragedy: Judy loses her mother in a house fire, and moves in with the Rileys; the older, male owner of the local funeral home offers Bus a job, but it’s obvious that his real motives are less than honorable.