Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Death of a Gunfighter (Universal, 1969)

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Pretty routine

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This film is curious in that the director, ‘Allen Smithee’, didn’t exist. The first director was Robert Totten, with whom lead Richard Widmark argued so much and whose pace was so slow that Don Siegel was hired to replace him and Siegel finished shooting in nine days afterwards. Totten was chiefly a director of TV shows and it is evident. He only helmed two other feature Westerns, both 1970s, both weak.

 

It’s a mediocre picture anyway, whoever directed it.
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As for the acting, it’s hard for any star to play a tired, washed-up marshal without coming across as a tired and washed-up star. That’s how Widmark appears. Roger Ebert wrote that “This is one of Richard Widmark’s best, most fully realized performances” but I must say I can’t see that myself. He seems to be going through the motions (though with the occasional spark). He and writer Joseph Calvelli (from a Lewis B Patten novel) semed to be going for a High Noon vibe, with the loner marshal the only one with guts enough to stand up and fight. But it’s about as far away from High Noon as you could get. The picture is very much the Richard Widmark Show but either he wasn’t in the mood or the writing or the directing weren’t up to scratch. Whatever, it’s definiely not one of Widmark’s best (he was capable of great things).
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Lena Horne does a good job as his lover, the saloon owner, but the script  doesn’t give her a chance. There are a couple of stalwarts, Royal Dano and Harry Carey Jr (Harry as a priest), but they can’t save it either. I quite liked John Saxon as the Italian county sheriff.

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The plot is fairly preposterous as Widmark leaves corpses all over town. There is some attempt to show ‘progress’, with electric light and a horseless carriage (which always symbolizes the coming new century and the end of the West – see Monte Walsh, The Shootist, Ride the High Country and many more), and that old-style gunfighter law officers are no longer needed. The town council repeat this endlessly but they are so murderous and finally shoot him to death (given the title, this can’t be accounted a spoiler) so their credibility suffers. It is hinted that they kill him because he knows secrets about their past but apart from one of them having shot a man in the back, nothing is suggested as to what this past might have entailed.
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Nor is it explained why on earth a marshal would want to hang on to a job at all costs when he was universally hated and despised and the whole town is bent on shooting him down like a dog.

 

There is a faint echo of town-taming movies like Warlock or Man with the Gun as the pusillanimous townsfolk hired a tough marshal to establish law ‘n’ order but then want him out when his methods prove unsavory and deter investors.

 

The music and photography are ordinary.

 

It’s a million times better than many of the spaghettis coming out at that time but as an American Western it’s ho-hum.

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6 Responses

  1. I thought this one was pretty bad. I like Richard Widmark but he could only do so much with the script. The final shoot-outs were decent, but by the time it got to that point I was just happy it was over. The only way this movie could have worked would be if they made it more of a character study about a psycho lawman not ready to relinquish his power. Otherwise, he comes off as a delusional idiot instead of being sympathetic. Like you pointed out, why would anyone want the job when everyone hates him and wants to kill him? I liked the lovely Lena Horne, but that's about it.

    1. You're right, it wasn't very good. Pity, because Widmark was capable of very good pictures.
      Jeff

  2. Another weekend, another Widmark western. (I know it’s Friday but I have the day off work so the weekend starts now.) And again renewing my acquaintance with a film I first – and last – saw in the 1990s. I remember having rather liked it then and guess what… I still like it now. So, much as I hate to disagree with your characteristically well-written review (well actually that’s not true, it’s always more fun to disagree (I boringly agree with perhaps 80% of your reviews that I’ve read)), I have to say I think you’re too harsh on this one. Hear me out…

    Granted, this is no masterpiece. One does have to suspend a certain amount of disbelief in the premises of the plot. And the camera lighting is terribly flat and bright, late-60s TV-style (it’s a bit reminiscent of an Ironside episode or something), perhaps due to Mr Totten’s background in directing for the small screen. But some of the staging of sequences and framing of shots is very good (one guesses that Mr Siegel was responsible for those bits). The film does flag a bit in the middle, pretty much whenever Widmark is off-screen and the plot focuses on other not very interesting characters. But… contrary to your critique I find Widmark himself to be *excellent* in this, projecting a mix of stubbornness and weariness, toughness and vulnerability that I found genuinely quite affecting. One result of the over-lighting of the film is to accentuate the lines on his face, making him look older than he was at the time (54?), in keeping with the admittedly by this point not exactly original man-out-of-his-time theme. It does make for a rather melancholic motion picture, but movie-wise I don’t mind a bit of melancholy…

    Two odd things in this film (I see you reviewed it ten years ago so these may not have stuck in your memory). 1. Carroll O’Connor plays the local slimy opportunist, an OK performance but for some reason he’s not dressed as a Westerner but more like a white hunter type who’s wandered in from a safari movie set in southern Africa… 2. There’s a very strange moment in the camerawork. A young woman character is cleaning a window or something and the camera literally *zooms in* and lingers on… filmed from the back… the upper part of the lower part of her body (a young man character looks on, clearly, er, distracted by her features). I’m not particularly into (either for or against) feminist film studies but if one wanted to discourse upon the ‘male gaze’ one could hardly find a better place to start than this rather jarring and, frankly, icky, piece of direction and cinematography…

    The (unremarked-upon) inter-racial relationship and eventually marriage between Widmark and Lena Horne adds another layer of interest, although as you accurately observe Lena sadly isn’t given an awful lot to do…

    All-in-all, I’d give this another look if I were you! Though expect you’ll still hate it 🙂

    1. Glad you like it. You obviously agree with Roger Ebert more than with me. Fair enough. Roger was a proper film critic, I’m just an amateur blogger. I haven’t felt the urge to watch it again, to re-evaluate it. Perhaps I should. I do like Widmark, generally. You’re right, I don’t recall those two points you mention, Carroll and the sleaze shot. Maybe it if comes on TV I’ll give it another go.

  3. I’m far more amateur than you. Your blog is a constant source of erudite insight, even- or especially- on the rare occasions I disagree with you.

    Sometimes a film appeals to one even when one can see its glaring flaws, this one is in that category for me. If you ever do watch it again I’d be curious to know if it still leaves you cold.

    Another Widmark film from a bit later on, that I’ve not seen in a long time, but this movie brought me in mind of it, was called When the Legends Die. Have you seen that one? Not a Western proper, but sort of Western-adjacent, it’s one of those contemporary films about a washed-up rodeo star. Not a patch on Junior Bonner but OK – and RW gives another ‘Autumnal’ performance.

    1. It’s certainly true that two people can see the same film and take completely opposite views on it. Of course there is little objective about what makes a ‘good’ film and a ‘bad’ one; it’s a subjective matter in many (but not all) respects.
      I referenced the Widmark Legends film in my article on rodeo and the Western, https://jeffarnoldswest.com/2020/07/rodeo-and-western/
      Best wishes,
      Jeff

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