Randy is at Lawrence
The Stranger Wore a Gun is a Scott-Brown production for Columbia and a priori a cut above some of the Westerns Randolph Scott did. It was directed by André de Toth, too. But it is far from his best effort.
De Toth was born in Austria-Hungary, where he was known as Sasvári Farkasfalvi Tóthfalusi Tóth Endre Antal Mihály; ‘André De Toth’ was perhaps slightly more Hollywood-friendly. He fled to England before World War II where he worked with Alexander Korda. He immigrated to the US in 1942 and directed his first film there in 1944. He did a lot of hard-boiled crime pictures and did not scruple to show violent scenes.
He loved Westerns and directed eleven Western movies, six of them with Randolph Scott. They were mixed: some, like Riding Shotgun (1954), were superb, whereas others, like The Stranger Wore a Gun, were average.
It’s in nice color and acceptably photographed by Lester White, who did quite a lot of second-feature movies and TV Westerns (especially Rin Tin Tin and The Roy Rogers Show) over the years but nothing really special. The Iverson Ranch and Lone Pine locations are attractive and properly Western. The original music by Mischa Bakaleinikoff, though, is pretty corny and old-fashioned a lot of the time, especially during the horse chases, which also remind you of old 1930s programmers. For example, we have speeded-up film when horses gallop. At least they didn’t ‘ride’ those fake horses in the studio.
The story starts in the Civil War when Jeff Travis (Randy) is a spy for Quantrill in Lawrence. The Confederate guerrilla leader William Clarke Quantrill was all the rage at the time, having appeared in several movies, such as Kansas Raiders in 1950 or Woman They Almost Lynched the same year as The Stranger Wore a Gun, in both pictures played by Brian Donlevy, as well as on the page in Frank Gruber’s Quantrell’s Raiders (Quantrell was a frequent alternative spelling), also in ‘53.
Travis has wormed his way into the confidence of a Lawrence family but then betrays them. James Millican is Quantrill in this one, a bloodthirsty crook who disgusts Randy, obliging him to abandon the guerrillas and he enlists in the official Confederate army instead (maybe a reference to Cole Younger). During the sack of Lawrence we understand that we are watching a 3D movie as a torch is thrown at the camera and then guns are fired directly at us. Later, everything imaginable is thrown at the camera, a chair, a jug, the kitchen sink. Unfortunately, most spectators, then as now, saw the movie in 2D so they must have wondered what was going on. In 1953, 3D was a new fad, and De Toth made what many regard to be the best ever 3D film, the Vincent Price horror flick House of Wax. This was odd in a way as he only had one eye and could not appreciate 3D at all.
The scene now shifts to the Mississippi after the war, where Travis has become a card player on a riverboat. Glam gambler Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor, in her eleventh of twelve Westerns; she was most famously Dallas in Stagecoach but had also been wooed by Quantrill in Dark Command in 1940) clearly has a soft spot for him. In any case she saves him when Yankees recognize him as the spy of Lawrence. He jumps overboard and makes for Prescott, AZ, on Josie’s advice.
The rest of the movie, and the greater part, is a stage-line story as Randy inveigles his way once more into the confidence of an honest father and daughter, the Conroys (Pierre Watkin and a rather timid Joan Weldon) but this time can’t bring himself to betray them. The Conroys’ stage is frequently held up by evil town boss Jules Mourret (George Macready) and his henchmen (Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine and four others) and from here on in it’s a standard, though I do not to say corny, plot.
Mourret has a rival, the Mexican bandit Degas, played quite extraordinarily badly by Alfonso Bedoya. He has clearly just learned his lines and says them with an inane grin on his face. Perhaps the part was supposed to be comic but if so, it fails. His gang too comprises six men. Didn’t they know that they should have had seven each? Everyone knows that seven is the proper number for posses and gangs in Westerns. But the budget wasn’t top-notch so maybe they saved a bit there.
Paul Maxey (the corpulent sheriff from The Road to Denver) is the very fat saloon keeper, which is good.
Yakima Canutt’s son Tap is in town too and Franklyn Farnum was on the stage. Ernest overacts with gusto, as usual. Marvin is about the best actor after Randy. Scott and Marvin have a proper quick-draw showdown. I shall leave you to intuit who wins that.
The screenplay was written by Kenneth Gamet, who adapted Yankee Gold by John M Cunningham. Gamet was one of the preferred screenwriters of Randolph Scott but with the exception of the excellent Coroner’s Creek (where he adapted a superb Luke Short story) his scripts weren’t very good in my opinion, and it was quite often the writing that let Scott’s oaters down. From 1957 on, Gamet mostly wrote Casey Jones episodes for TV and that was probably his métier. There is something about the plot of The Stranger Wore a Gun which vaguely prefigures Yojimbo and its spaghetti reincarnations, as Randy plays two gangs off, one against the other.
Randy rides his fancy palomino Stardust and on one occasion shoots Lee Marvin’s hat off. Best of all, on the riverboat he uses a derringer. He did that in A Lawless Street, too, thus disproving the Jeff Arnold Derringer Hypothesis (JADH) that derringers were exclusively reserved for crooked gamblers, ladies and city slickers. I mean, if Randolph Scott used one, well… Actually John Wayne had one too, Betsy, in Big Jake. Oh well, there goes another prejudice.
Sometimes both gangs try to rob the stage at the same time so we get an almost farcical coming and going as they end up fighting each other instead.
It all climaxes up on Raccoon Pass (which is a bit odd in Arizona; perhaps they meant the Raton Pass) with a mega shoot-out when all the bad guys except Mourret are eliminated. Mourret himself has to be held back for a dramatic death in a burning saloon.
Finally Randy says he is through with guns and goes off to California with Claire. Not terribly original.
Of course Scott delivers in his usual understated but excellent style. The film is watchable – every Randolph Scott Western was – but, to be brutally frank, a shade weak.
André De Toth wrote (in De Toth on De Toth): “I believe Randolph Scott could have gone further as a performer. But he did not have the ambition to step up, to be better in anything except golf.”
I think this was a bit rich coming from De Toth. Perhaps if he had made a better film, Randy might have “stepped up”.
In his excellent book The Films of Randolph Scott (McFarland, 2004) Robert Nott tells a couple of good stories about the making of this movie, such as a description by Lee Marvin of a burning stage hurtling by Randy, who ignored it, calming sitting reading The Wall Street Journal. There’s also an anecdote about Ernest Borgnine. One day on the set De Toth asked Borgnine if he could ride.
Borgnine mounted a horse and with a slew of other riders, did a scene in which they had to come riding down a hill fast. According to De Toth, Scott’s double, who was riding next to Borgnine, missed his mark.
‘Once more, please,’ De Toth said.
‘Why? Didn’t I ride like the wind?’
‘You did great. Ride like the wind again.’
‘Yeah?’ Borgnine replied incredulously. ‘Well, I have no idea what I did that was great. This is the first time in my life that I was on a damned horse.’
Years later, Joan Weldon met Claire Trevor at a party. Trevor didn’t recognize Weldon. When Weldon reminded her that they had done a film together, The Stranger Wore a Gun, Trevor said, “Remember you? I don’t even remember the film.”
It is a bit like that.