The Virginian was loosely derived from Owen Wister's genre-defining novel from the turn of the 20th century, which had already been made into several feature films, most notably an early Gary Cooper talkie. The show did not re-enact the novel; instead, as the Smallville of westerns it keeps the titular and otherwise anonymous hero (James Drury) in a presumably-uneasy friendship with the hothead Trampas (Doug McClure), whom the hero eventually kills in Wister. Looming over both men is the technical star of the show for its first four seasons, their employer, cattleman Judge Henry Garth (Lee J. Cobb). "It Tolls For Thee" is a Garth-centric episode, which means Fuller gets to work more with Cobb than with the rather dull Drury and McClure, and to pit Cobb against special guest star Lee Marvin.
As writer and director, Fuller portrays Judge Garth as a man determined to transcend the violence that earned him his empire. The lady editor of the local paper presents the judge with a gift-watch inscribed by Joseph Pulitzer, who sees Garth as the last of a breed of gunmen who conquered the west. Pulitzer's tribute is sincerely offered ("A timepiece of admiration from a newsboy to a cowboy"), but Garth bristles at the assumption that he remains a gunman, and that the West is still ruled by violence. As a judge, he's dedicated to the rule of law, but keeping order often takes him to the edge of violence. His soiree is disrupted by a drunken ex-cowhand whom The Virginian had fired and who now starts smashing windows. The V-man comes outside and starts pounding the drunk, getting into more of a rage as he goes, until Garth pulls him off and slugs him to calm him down. Mr. V. will sulk awhile thereafter, but his attitude will be the least of Garth's worries.
All the while, Garth has been stalked by an outlaw gang led by Kalig (Marvin). Kalig is some sort of renaissance man of evil, a cold-blooded intellect who did time as a law student, a Marine and a convict before taking over the gang by shooting its erstwhile leader Sharkey (Warren Kemmerling) in the back and leaving him for dead. He thinks he has a plan for the perfect kidnapping to net himself a $100,000 ransom, but it'll require split-second timing to isolate the judge from his men, snatch him and get away with him. For a show supposedly already being ribbed for its alleged padding, Fuller makes timing important here and later in a suspenseful episode that also allows for lengthy dialogue scenes between Cobb and Marvin. Fuller even manages to bring Garth's watch into play when Kalig's spiteful destruction of it finally drives the judge into a rage that threatens to disrupt a rescue plan that depends on perfect synchronization of gunfire by the rescuers. Accidents of timing matter as well, as the ranch hands catch up with the kidnappers just as another group, led by the still living and vengeful Sharkey, starts firing on Kalig.
For Fuller fans, the acting duel between Cobb and Marvin is probably the meat of this movie. It's a battle of underplaying, often as subtle as the correct pronunciation of "Pulitzer," as Cobb tones down his characteristic bluster to play a benevolent authority figure while Marvin plays a hard-to-rile, nearly emotionless villain. Kalig denies that revenge has anything to do with his kidnapping the judge who sentenced him to prison, calling revenge "an inhuman word for small minds." He claims to have taken Garth simply because he's the only man in the region who could produce the big ransom, but Kalig also enjoys tormenting the judge, both physically and mentally. In a perhaps-unconscious homage to The Big Heat, Marvin toasts Cobb in the morning by dumping a cup of hot coffee on his bound hands. More often, Kalig tries to expose Garth as a hypocrite who'd revert to savagery if the chips were down. Throughout, Kalig resists analysis, defying all attempts to explain his crimes. "There's no thought in the murderer as the poet and the romanticist would have you believe," he tells the judge. Nor is there remorse, "If you mean an apparition of the slain party," which is aimed as much at his men who fear Sharkey's return as at the moralizing Garth. That remorselessness proves a practical flaw, since Kalig simply refuses to anticipate Sharkey's attack, which reduces Kalig's gang to manageable numbers before Garth's men take action. In the end, of course, it'll be one-on-one between the judge and the outlaw, the climactic dilemma being not whether Garth will be saved but whether he is saved, so to speak -- whether he can restrain himself from killing Kalig in cold blood and proving everything the villain, and to some extent the people back east, presume about him.
The Virginian is one of those maddening shows that has obvious production values but persistent technical limitations. One outdoor shot might be taken at a magnificent location, and another on the most obvious soundstage -- and regrettably most of the scenes with Kalig's gang are the latter. Fuller apparently lacked the means or budget to shoot their dialogue scenes on the same rocky hills where they action is staged. But with Cobb and Marvin in the foreground speaking Fuller's dialogue you forgive the backdrops. Those limitations aside, "It Tolls For Thee" could pass easily for and compare favorably with most B westerns of this era -- a genre that shows like The Virginian probably did much to kill off before the coming of spaghetti westerns. By nature, it's a minor Fuller work, but on the other hand it seems unmistakably his, from the physical ordeal of Judge Garth to the celebrations of journalism. Because it is a feature film for all intents and purposes, it deserves a more prominent place, if not too prominent, in the Fuller canon.