Bang, bang (silently)
I’ve always liked Lloyd Bridges in Westerns. He was a talented actor, I think. Just look at the way he played a grizzled, world-weary army officer in the peripheral Custer story Little Big Horn in 1951, then the year after that he was the petulant boy deputy to Gary Cooper in High Noon. I suppose many younger people these days remember him for those Airplane movies, and he did have a gift for comedy, but if we’re talking non-Westerns, for me he was always Mike Nelson – I was addicted to Sea Hunt as a boy. Still and all, though, Mr Bridges deserves greatest credit for his appearances in the saddle. Canyon Passage, Abilene Town, Last of the Comanches, Wichita and many more – he did 28 feature oaters, not to mention 44 episodes of different Western TV shows, including starring in The Loner and appearing in his son Beau’s Harts of the West. And he just looked right in the genre somehow.
The Silent Gun was a late-60s (i.e. post-The Loner) Paramount-made TV movie screened by ABC, Bridges’s only made-for-TV Western as far as I know. As expected, he was good in it.
The frontier firearm of the title is noiseless not because our hero had invented a prototype suppressor or anything like that. American inventor Hiram Percy Maxim, son of the Maxim gun inventor, is usually credited with inventing and selling the first commercially successful silencer around 1902, and our story is set way before that (though at an unspecified date and ‘somewhere in the West’). No, the gun is silent because Brad Clinton (Lloyd) carries his around unloaded. You see, in a shoot out in the first reel, he nearly shot a little girl on her way to church, and it so affected him that he wouldn’t fire a gun again. This was something of an occupational hazard because, well, he’s a gunfighter.
Dramatically, it would have been better if he’d accidentally killed the child, you know, like Brian Keith in The Deadly Companions, but I suppose it was a prime-time TV movie and they didn’t want to frighten the moms.
His sidekick, Billy (John Beck, who would soon be Poe in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid) despairs of him. How can you stay alive as a gunslinger if you won’t fire a gun? But Brad is out of it, fey and unshaven (looking really old) and he seems to have lost the plot.
They fetch up in Coleville, where Brad cleans up and shapes up, suddenly looking thirty years younger. This town was founded by rancher John Cole, one of those classic types who carved out a frontier empire thirty years ago but is now suffering from johnny-come-latelies making inroads into his power base. Good news: Cole is played by our old pal Ed Begley. Naturally he has a pretty daughter, for they were compulsory in them days (or in them movies anyway) and she is Lorisa, played by Susan Howard, later to be Donna Krebbs in Dallas. Given that Ms Howard was born in 1944 and Lloyd in 1913, the inevitable romance between them is perhaps a tad invraisemblable but I guess it gives a glimmer of hope to us old-timers.
The town boss, and, naturally, saloon owner, who wants the whole valley, you know how they do, is Sam Benner, slick in his dudish costume (and rather good hat). More good news, he is played by Pernell Roberts. Of course everyone thinks of Mr Roberts as, and often only as, Adam on the Ponderosa, but actually he was a good Western actor, most notably as the charismatic villain in Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome, but also elsewhere. It turns out that Sam and Brad ‘go back’. They were gunfighters together back in the day. But while Brad seems to be considering now taking the path of goodness and light, Sam is still dead set on nefariousness. And he has the sheriff (Russ Conway) in his pocket, to do his bidding.
Sam is a bit of a cad because he suggests to the fair Lorisa that he might leave her pa alone, but would expect something (suggestive smirk) in return. Naturally, Lorisa won’t have any of that.
Worse, Sam has sent for deadly hired gun Trace Evans (rugged, lean and mean Michael Forest, one of Roger Corman’s favorite actors), one of those fastest gun in the West chaps. Rancher Cole begs Brad to accept a US marshal’s badge and clean up the town, and you can see that Brad wants to but how’s he going to do that and face down Trace with an empty gun? Problems, problems. Of course, only Billy knows that the pistol is empty. All the others are well aware of Brad’s rep and are afraid to draw on him. But just how far will his reputation take him? Sooner or later, if he’s cleaning up the town, he’s going to have to face live ammunition.
We had been rather humming and hahing as to whether Brad is a goodie, or going to be one, but midway thru the film he is nice to a lamb, so that clinches it. He’s on the side of the angels.
It all builds to a climax, as is right and proper, and Lloyd delivers the time-honored line to Pernell, “There’s not enough room for the two of us.”
It’s all pretty conventional and unoriginal in a Western, to be honest, and we’ve kinda seen it all before. The empty gun is the only new gimmick. And between the first and last reels (if TV movies have reels) there isn’t a great deal of action. However, it’s reasonably competently and professionally done, directed by Michael Caffey (69 Western TV episodes, no features) and written by Clyde Ware (17 episodes of Gunsmoke). It’s the acting that makes it. We also get Edd Byrnes as a punk gunman, though sans comb.