Wanted: Dead or Alive
The whole notion of allowing or even encouraging people who are not sworn officers of the law to apprehend fugitives, and rewarding them for it with money, may seem to us bizarre, and indeed the practice is forbidden today in many countries outside the USA. It smacks of the middle ages or some time long ago before there were proper police officers. Posters bearing the heading Wanted Dead or Alive are even more shocking. The authorities are sanctioning the killing of an individual by a ‘civilian’. Mind, most of those WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE posters you see on Jesse James or Billy the Kid or whoever are fake.
Yet the tracking down of fugitives for the bounty is very common in Western movies.
In 1872 the US Supreme Court handed down a judgment in Taylor v. Taintor:
When the bail is given, the principal is regarded as delivered to the custody of his sureties. Their domain is a continuance of the original imprisonment. Whenever they choose to do so, they may seize him and deliver him up to his discharge; and if it cannot be done at once, they may imprison him until it can be done. They may exercise their rights in person or by agent. They may pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose. The seizure is not made by virtue of due process. None is needed. It is likened to the arrest by the sheriff of an escaped prisoner.
And there do seem to have been real bounty hunters in the West, such as the Dunn brothers, Bee, Calvin, Dal, George and Bill, out of Pawnee, Oklahoma (where they also operated as rustlers and robbers) who are best known for claiming the bounty on Dalton Gang member George ‘Bitter Creek’ Newcomb, who was their sister Rose’s boyfriend.
And Thomas Tate Tobin became a bounty hunter after putting an end to the notorious Mexican outlaws Felipe and Julian Espinosa, whose heads he brought back in a sack. He never collected the whole reward of $2,500 for the job, but he did go on to bring in a number of other Mexican and Native American outlaws in the years following.
So, given that outlaws abounded (in Western movies if not in the West), there was certain to be a whole army of men pursuing them wishing to cash in their quarry for $$$. And indeed, such is the case.
The titles of Westerns alone give us a clue: Bounty, The Bounty Hunter, The Bounty Killer, The Bounty Man, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and so on.
It’s a bit curious in a way because while we are used to sheriffs or marshals and their posses tracking down wanted men and bringing them in, and may even admire them for doing it, the idea of an individual gunman doing it for money is much less palatable. You wouldn’t think it was a suitable occupation for a Hollywood Western hero.
Warner Brothers’ The Bounty Hunter in 1954, directed by André De Toth, was the story of notorious Jim Kipp, ruthless hunter-down of wanted men who, in the classic Western way, shoots a fugitive in the rocks in the first reel, brings the body in flung over the man’s own horse and dumps it at the sheriff’s office, demanding the $500 reward. He won’t even give back ten bucks of the price for a pine box. He’s not there for charity. In town, he is feared and shunned. He is told, “Well, you know what they say about you, you’d turn in your own grandmother on her birthday if there was a reward on her.”
It turns out later, of course, that Jim Kipp’s pa owned a store and was shot and killed there by robbers. Jim was too young then to do anything about it but when he was grown he vowed to devote his life to bringing in such villains, dead or alive. So really, he’s a fighter for justice. And in any case Kipp is played by Randolph Scott, so obviously he can’t be an out-and-out baddy. Later in the story he does his Randy act and we see the pain on his face as he remembers his daddy’s demise and we sense his Scott-ish nobility.
So the Western is somewhat ambivalent to the bounty hunter. On the one hand he’s pretty well a lowlife, shunned by decent folks, but on the other he is bringing really bad men in and protecting the community. And in the case of Randy and other heroes, Hollywood always invented a justifying motive for the bounty-hunting.
Or take Henry Fonda in Anthony Mann’s The Tin Star (1957). In a somber opening scene we see him towing a pack horse with a body draped over it. Everyone looks askance. They don’t want killers on the loose but neither do they warm to the man who does something about it. Later, experienced Fonda will teach the young local lawman (Anthony Perkins) how to stand up to the town bully and assert his authority, and will serve the community thereby, earning some respect. But as a bounty hunter, no. He ain’t popular.
And given how puritan and bourgeois Hollywood was at the time, it’s surprising that anyone who isn’t wearing a badge would even be allowed to shoot people like that, even if Taylor v. Taintor had sort-of made bounty hunters part of the law enforcement system.
That’s why they always had to play down the pecuniary reward side of it and play up the social utility and/or the tragic motivation. When Wanted: Dead or Alive came on TV, it’s a wonder that Josh Randall made a living at all, given how often he donated his bounty to worthy widows.
Randy is again a bounty hunter in Ride Lonesome but we learn the tragic whys and wherefores of that. He’s not really after petty outlaw James Best, and certainly not just for the reward. He really wants Best’s brother Lee Van Cleef, and we find out why…
That’s when the bounty hunter was the hero. When he wasn’t, he could be closer to the outlaw he was pursuing than a goodie. In Garden of Evil, the same year as The Bounty Hunter, greedy bounty hunter Cameron Mitchell is looked down on by noble Gary Cooper. “I’ve killed better men than you just for a living,” Mitchell snarls. “Well, I’m gonna let you square yourself,” Coop tartly replies. “I’m gonna make you kill a man to his face.” Even dudish gambler Richard Widmark looks down on poor Cameron. Bounty hunters rank lower in the Western pecking order than cardsharps.
Lest we forget, though, Coop himself was supposed to be a bounty hunter in Vera Cruz the same year. That was one of the reasons why the casting was so absurd.
Remember in Chisum how chief bad guy LG Murphy (Forrest Tucker, giving in plenty) hires bounty hunter Nodeen (Christopher George) to be sheriff in Lincoln? Nodeen has a spaghetti-like cigar, limp and stubble so is obviously a real bad ‘un.
Josey Wales has a short way with the bounty hunter after him, in that saloon, you will recall. And remember the repellent Strother Martin and LQ Jones in The Wild Bunch (1969). They are just scum, robbing corpses and even digging gold teeth out of mouths. No doubt about it, secondary-character bounty hunters are not nice folk.
Spaghetti westerns had no such scruples. Leone ‘heroes’ could certainly be bounty hunters. Clint is always calculating the dollar value of the guy he is about to shoot next. In For a Few Dollars More (1965) he piles up the corpses after the final shoot-out and uses a cart to go and cash them in. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) he even has a business venture going, turning Eli Wallach in for the bounty, then shooting through the hanging rope so that Eli lives to be turned in another time. Mind, even Leone had some notion of justification. Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) may be a cold killing machine with his high-tech weaponry, slaying outlaws at will, but we learn that his sister was raped and murdered and he is after the culprit (Gian-Maria Volontè).
Back with Anthony Mann, The Naked Spur (1953) gives us a much more complex persona. James Stewart’s Howard Kemp is hunting down badman Vandergroat (Robert Ryan on fine form) for the bounty. He needs the money to buy back his ranch – when he was off at the Civil War his feckless wife sold it then disappeared. And the bounty on Vandergroat is the exact amount he needs. He is driven, almost psychotic in his quest. But in the end, he can’t go through with it. He just buries Vandergroat’s body and sacrifices the reward in order to have a new life in California with Janet Leigh. The bounty hunter redeemed.
In 1958 Charles Bronson was bounty hunter Luke Welsh, forced to rethink his life after another successful manhunt, in Showdown at Boot Hill. At least we assume he is rethinking; with Bronson it’s not always easy to tell.
The geezer-western The Bounty Killer (1966) has the old plot about the tenderfoot from the East who becomes a more ruthless gunslinger than the Westerners. Just off the stagecoach, Willie Duggan (the great badman Dan Duryea) is told by gunfighter Johnny Liam (Rod Cameron) that the only law in the West is worn on the hip. Willie takes Johnny at his word and becomes a ruthless bounty hunter. Of course he falls for sweet saloon singer Carole (Audrey Dalton) and she tries to reform him, you know how saloon singers do. But no dice, Willie cuts down a shotgun into a holstered sidearm, El Dorado-style, and roams the West shooting wanted men for the bounty.
When spurned by the townsfolk Willie gives them a sermon (really) on hypocrisy. They are happy to put up the money for the reward but despise the man who collects it and keeps their streets safe. He has a point. But Willie gets drunk, he shoots the barman and now, bitter irony, there is a price on his head! He rides to Carole’s ranch (thanks to a money present from Willie she has given up saloon singing), he throws away his sawn-off and they go off together. But, oh cruel fate, a young up-and-coming bounty hunter shoots him for the reward. And the young bounty killer is… Peter Duryea, Dan’s son. A moral tale.
The same year, the same company, Embassy, put out An Eye for an Eye, in which Patrick Wayne played Pat Garrett Jr, bounty hunter son of the famous sheriff (Pat of course was to play that Pat Garrett Sr in Young Guns in 1988). It’s actually quite a good picture, this one, with an excellent cast and interesting plot.
And in ’66 bounty hunters were ‘in’ because in Taste for Killing Craig Hill is Hank Fellows, a bounty hunter who has a rifle with a telescopic sight. He is after some soldiers who have stolen army money. Then he is offered double the bounty if he helps get the recovered money to Omaha, now that the soldiers are dead. Along the way, he is ambushed multiple times, but he manages to fight off all the attacks and finishes with double his money.
In The Bounty Man (1972) it was Clint Walker’s turn. In the opening scene Kinkaid (Clint) shoots one of the two men he is after (Hal Needham) and captures the other (Glenn Wilder). Then he goes into a saloon (tying his prisoner to the hitching rail before entering) and meets a band of lowlife colleagues – colleagues only in the sense that they too hunt down wanted men for the bounty – and these types are rather good as baddies, especially their leader, played very well by second-billed Richard Basehart.
We now get a couple of nice little cameos from Arthur Hunnicutt as the grizzled sheriff (of course he only did grizzled) and Gene Evans as the one-armed storekeeper, a former bounty-hunter who has now hung up his guns and found peace and tranquility selling flour. Sheriff Hunnicutt doesn’t cotton to bounty-hunters at all but grudgingly hands over the $500 reward money and also a new wanted poster, for a certain Billy Riddle, who is worth ten times that, five grand! Of course Clint and the lowlifes too will be after that bounty alright.
This Billy Riddle (John Ericson) is a slick charmer, though deep down no good. He is hiding out in the Nations so isn’t going to be easy to find and it’s sure gonna be dangerous when he is found. Keough’s gang won’t go to that trouble: they reckon they’ll wait for Kinkaid to capture Riddle, then they’ll kill Kinkaid and claim the bounty themselves. As if.
So here the hero is not too bad but the other bounty hunters are out-and-out lowlifes.
In 1991, in Into the Badlands, the great Bruce Dern plays TL Barston, an experienced bounty hunter on the trail of the half-breed criminal Red Roundtree, who has a price of $5000 on his head. But it doesn’t pan out too well for Bruce.
There are still modern versions. Bounty (2009) is a rather unoriginal story about a bounty hunter, Nate (Jarret LeMaster). The modern twist is that the hunted outlaw is a woman, The Sparkle-Eyed Kid, played by Michelle Acuna, with very un-19th century diction. The bounty hunter and quarry fall in lerve, naturally. Then Christolph Walz is a bounty hunter in Django Unchained (2012) and again in Dead for a Dollar (2022), and Kurt Russell is also one in The Hateful Eight (2015). The last segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) concerns an Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill) and an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson) and they have the corpse they are bringing in for the bounty on the roof of the stagecoach in which they are traveling. In the big-screen Wanted: Dead or Alive (1986) Rutger Hauer is Nick Randall, Josh’s great-grandson and the CIA hires him to track down a terrorist.
Elmore Leonard wrote a good novel The Bounty Hunters, but that was about evil men taking scalps for the bounty, which is a bit different.
There are plenty of men in Westerns who yes, track down miscreants for money, but they aren’t really proper bounty hunters. I’m thinking of the likes of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit or William Munny in Unforgiven. I guess in a way you could consider Paladin one in Have Gun – Will Travel but not really. He’s closer to the private eye, I think, paid to solve crimes, and maybe bring bad guys to justice but that’s sort of incidental.
Well, there we go. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of other bounty hunters. They do crop up in oaters quite a bit.