The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Bullet for a Badman (Universal, 1964)


One of the better Audie Westerns

Bullet for a Badman was the 22nd and penultimate of the many
Westerns Audie Murphy made with Universal, a series that had begun way back in
1950 with Kansas Raiders. By 1964 some
viewers accused the studios and the actor of being repetitive and they allege that
the later pictures are weak. Murphy himself grew tired of them and said that
the only thing that ever changed in them was the color of his horse.
One of the better Westerns Audie did for Universal
by Bullet for a Badman, however, this
is not a fair criticism. Audie was a much better actor than he himself thought he
was (as anyone who watches him as Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn’s brother
in the John Huston-directed The Unforgiven in 1960 will know). Universal’s Audie Westerns had high
production values and were usually shot in attractive Western locations by good
cinematographers. This was especially true of Bullet, photographed by the great Joe Biroc up at Lone Pine. Support
acting was always competent or better and the director was rarely top drawer
but Universal didn’t use nonentities either. Bullet was helmed by RG Springsteen, a hugely experienced hand,
whose experience with Westerns ran from 1936, when he was assistant director on Fast Bullets, to directing George Montgomery
in Hostile Guns in 1967: 143 film and
TV oaters in all. True, they were hardly great classics of the genre, but they
were never less than professional.

One good
feature of this movie is that there are shades of gray in the characters; they
aren’t all simply white hats or black hats, though it is true that the headgear
shade was generally on the darker side. Most of the characters are pretty bad
eggs. Not Audie, of course. He is tough but decent, as he always was. The story
is a fairly simple one: there is a charismatic outlaw, Sam Ward (Darren
McGavin) who escapes from a life term in prison and comes looking for his
ex-wife Susan (Beverley Owen), who is now Mrs. Murphy. She doesn’t want to
know. She has cast off Ward and settled down with Audie, and her son thinks
Audie is his dad. Audie, once a Texas Ranger, is an honest farmer and has hung
up his guns. Of course we know he will soon be strapping them on again.

Ward and his gang rob the local bank and cold-bloodedly murder the bank clerk
and there is a big shoot-out in town from which only Ward escapes, to join his
latest squeeze, Lottie (Ruta Lee). A posse is organized, of none too reputable
men, and they set out after Ward. Audie does too, separately, but joins up with
them. It is now a question of who is worse, the murderous robber or the greedy
and brutal pursuers?
Outlaw former pal of Audie, Darren McGavin
posse, in order of badness starting with the worst, is comprised of sadistic saloon
slicker Alan Hale Jr.; unscrupulous lowlife Skip Homeier; crusty old buffalo
hunter George Tobias; young gunslinger Berkeley Harris; and greedy but squeamish
townsman Edward Platt. Hale is splendid, as he always was. He rarely played the
out-and-out baddy but when he did, boy, was he bad. Homeier had of course made
a career of the punk kid role ever since shooting Gregory Peck in the back in The Gunfighter in 1950. By the mid-60s
he wasn’t a punk kid any more, just a punk. Tobias, Harris and Platt were not
so well known to Western fans: Tobias usually played the slightly dim pal of
James Cagney and neighbor Abner on Bewitched
but he also had a sideline in Western heavy from 1940 onwards and was
especially good in Fox’s excellent Western noir Rawhide in 1951. This was Harris’s first big-screen Western and the
following year he had a small part in Shenandoah
but mostly he did TV work. Platt had one of those recognizable faces and you might
place him from Get Smart or as James
Dean’s juvenile officer in Rebel Without
a Cause
but he appeared in Westerns from Backlash in 1956 to Santee
in 1973, and was a regular of Western TV shows.
Three members of the posse of lowlifes: Berkeley Harris, Skip Homeier and Edward Platt
excellent Ray Teal is in it and should have been in the posse, maybe as a
corrupt deputy, but was wasted just sweeping the sidewalk back in town. Really
annoying, that.
George Tobias enjoyable as none too scrupulous buffalo hunter and tracker
McGavin plays the main bad guy, who turns out to be a good badman. McGavin didn’t
really ‘do’ Westerns and you probably know him as Kolchak the Night Stalker but he made 74 Western appearances
between 1951 and ’78, mostly TV ones, though he had been in The Great Sioux Massacre as No. 2 to Joseph
Cotten. Curiously, one of those TV Western shows he did was episode 2 of Cimarron Strip in 1967 which had a remarkably
similar plot to Bullet for a Badman
bad guy escaped from prison wants his ex-wife back and is ready to kill the new
husband to achieve that, but gets into Indian territory. McGavin’s OK as the badman,
though it really needed a more charismatic charming-rogue type, maybe Dan
Duryea or Lyle Bettger.

Bullet for a Badman was written by the Willinghams, Audie pals who
wrote his Whispering Smith series. They
were usually steadily competent rather than inspired on Westerns but I must say
that in Bullet they did rather a good
job. I like the way that the cold-hearted badman Ward gradually shifts into the
Audie goody camp and the officers of ‘the law’ turn out worse than the villain.
Audie doing his thing
course there should have been seven in the posse and there were only six, so
that’s why they probably were all (except Audie, natch) killed, by Indians or
each other. No gang or posse should number six, or eight, seven being the
Mystical Western Number.

One of
the better Audie Westerns, and definitely worth a watch, e-pards.


8 Responses

  1. This is one of Audie’s better Westerns and has a stellar cast. Plenty of fast paced action and unscrupulous characters to keep you entertained.

  2. Jeff, I hope that you will find some time to dedicate to RG Springsteen one day as an expert in the genre – on the B side even if I know you do not want to use the word anymore… – as his "oeuvre" shows it even if you already have written on some of his films like Black Spurs too, maybe others in your lovely blog. I think he directed some episodes of major TV westerns shows as well. JM

    1. Yes, a classic AC Lyles oater, even if Howard Keel and Jane Russell weren't exactly my all-time favorite Western stars…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.