Rebel With A Badge: ‘Death Of A Gunfighter’ Reviewed
by Rachel Bellwoar
Out with the old, in with the new. At least that’s what the people of Cottonwood Springs would like to do with their aging marshal, Frank Patch (Richard Widmark), except Frank won’t go, leaving the town desperate for an excuse to fire him.
That excuse comes when Frank shoots Luke (Jimmy Lydon). Instead of acknowledging that Frank was provoked, and Luke shot first, the town decides to call Frank’s record into question and find him guilty of using his gun too much.
There’s nothing like a western where the town turns on its sheriff (see High Noon and Warlock for other examples) and Allen Smithee’s Death of a Gunfighter is right up there in terms of showing the smarmier side of life in the Old West. Much more of a precursor to Deadwood than the classic westerns where outlaws dress in black and sheriffs are heroic, film historian Neil Sinyard nails what makes Widmark’s casting so perfect in his bonus featurette. Unlike Gary Cooper or John Wayne, who tended to play good guys, Widmark was less predictable and could play both the noble and the villainous. That uncertainty is ideal for the actor playing Patch, because while he’s unquestionably the wronged party in this movie, he’s not necessarily a good guy — a realization that the film allows to dawn on viewers slowly because it’s so easy to get distracted by how lousy the townsfolk are. The thought of agreeing with them couldn’t be more unappealing, yet that doesn’t mean they’re entirely wrong about Patch (even if their actions are unjustifiable).
As Sinyard points out in his featurette, 1969 was a banner year for westerns (others released include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and True Grit), which could explain why Death of a Gunfighter got lost in the shuffle. Perhaps its cynicism didn’t click with audiences at the time either.
There’s also the whole “Allen Smithee” debacle. As screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner and film historian Henry Parke explain in their commentary, Smithee was a pseudonym Don Seigel and Robert Totten decided to use when Totten was fired and Seigel was brought in to replace him as director. Seigel didn’t feel like he’d done enough to deserve full credit while Totten didn’t want his name attached to the project anymore. Since then, other directors have adopted the same pseudonym, and Allen Smithee’s reputation has gone downhill (no one employs a pseudonym for no reason, after all), but Gunfighter isn’t just Smithee’s debut. It’s his exception – a film with a complicated production history, but where none of that shows in the finished product.
The short story is Widmark and Totten didn’t get along, but Joyner and Parke attempt to offer a little more context. What makes their commentary special, though, is the information they’re able to add from having interviewed some of the cast, including Jacqueline Scott, who plays Luke’s widow, and Michael McGreevey, whose character, Dan, develops a father-son relationship with Patch (maybe it’s McGreevey’s red hair, but the scene where they go fishing made me think of The Andy Griffith Show).
Author Richard Dyer provides a featurette on Lena Horne that also contends with how the film addresses race. Horne’s top billing for this movie alongside Widmark is a bit of false advertising. Usually cast as singers, Death of a Gunfighter gives Horne a strong dramatic role, but very few scenes in which to develop the character.
That’s true of the cast overall, though. Other than Widmark, Death of a Gunfighter is designed to be an ensemble movie, filled with familiar western faces like the always striking Royal Dano. Carroll O’Conner is arguably the other big name in the cast (though maybe even more so today than at the time) and he doesn’t have too many scenes either, but the quality of those moments is extremely high. It’s the kind of writing where characters only need a few scenes to make an impression and there’s so much unspoken subtext that adds history to the relationships, like did Patch and Luke’s widow have a thing at some point? Or when John Saxon arrives late into the movie as the county sheriff the town have called in to deal with Patch. While the expectation is that Saxon’s Lou will be someone who’s completely bamboozled by their complaints, he surprises when he immediately has the town pegged and knows Patch well.
In the essay booklet, Paul Duane looks at how Death of a Gunfighter throws a wrench in auteur theory. There’s also an excerpt from Siegel’s memoir, A Siegel Film (1993), an archival interview with Horne, and an excerpt from a Sight & Sound article where one of the students who worked on the “Exercise No. One” short film writes about the experience.
That’s the other great bonus feature on this set (and this is a five-star release when it comes to extras). “Exercise No. One” (1962) was a student film made at the University of Southern California starring Widmark and Whit Bissell. It’s 10 minutes of pure, what-would-you-do-in-that-situation suspense, with more powerful moments than its short runtime would suggest.
Other thoughts on Death of a Gunfighter:
- The music by Oliver Nelson is great. I especially appreciated the transition in the opening scene from Horne singing “Sweet Apple Wine” to jaunty music when the train pulls away, underlining how quickly this town moves on.
- This isn’t a beautified version of the West, where everyone talks about the heat, but no one sweats. Everyone is gross and sweaty. The art direction and set decoration are fabulous, too. For instance, it makes sense that the curtains in one of the bars would be made from the same material used in another character’s kitchen. It’s not like there would’ve been a wide range of fabrics to choose from.
- The emphasis on the arrival of modern times and cars reminded me of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.
- Ever since watching an interview with film critic Imogen Sarah Smith on Robert Mitchum, I’ve been very aware of actors who commit to having a limp when their character gets injured, and Widmark commits to his limp.
- I don’t know if Patch invented the “hat slap” (which is exactly what it sounds like), but it sure does a number on his victim’s pride.
- The tagline I used for the title of this review (“rebel with a badge”) is from the film’s theatrical trailer.
Death of a Gunfighter is available now on Region 2 Blu-ray from Indicator.