Death of a Gunfighter (1969)

Dir: Robert Totten, Don Siegel - Cast: Richard Widmark, Carroll O'Connor, Lena Horne, Dub Taylor, John Saxon, Morgan Woodward, Jacqueline Scott 

(Note: if you haven't watched this movie yet, you might want to check it out first; this review contains spoilers)

This is an intriguing, low-spirited western, in many ways a grim comment on the town westerns of the fifties. However, it's best known for creating the pseudonymous "Alan Smithee", used when directors who were members of the Directors Guild of America disowned their own movie. Reportedly Widmark and the original director (Robert Totten, a TV director making his feature debut) fell out and eventually Don Siegel was asked to take over the movie. When it was finished, Siegel refused to take screen credit for his work, but Widmark didn't want Totten's name on the credits. The film was then credited to the fictitious "Alan Smithee". 

Richard Widmark plays an aging town marshal, Frank Patch ("Old Patch"), who was appointed by the townspeople when the West was still Wild and the town needed a trigger-happy lawman for its protection. Today the marshal has become an anachronism, a man who could scare off the new investors the townspeople are trying to attract. When Frank kills a drunken citizen in self-defense, the townspeople sustain the killing was unnecessary and ask Old Patch to leave, but Frank refuses, because they had told him he could be their marshal as long as he desired ...

There's some good camerawork on display, but the film often has the look of a TV movie, and therefore some have concluded that it was Totten who must have done most of the directing; others have noticed similarities to Siegel's 1976 The Shootist (The Duke's Last Hurrah) and therefore concluded it should be considered as a Siegel movie. Only years after the release of the movie it became publically known that Allan Smithee was a fictitious name, and the "new director" was praised for his work; Roger Ebert said the young man allowed the story to develop in a natural way and also called the movie one of those rare efforts to populate the West with real people living in  a real historic time. Other comments have been more reticent; while Ebert thinks the movie is populated with real people, Philip French thinks the townspeople are mere caricatures; French also notices that the 'liberal' sentiments are presented in rather unsubtle manner. Ron Scheer likes the movie to a certain degree, but thinks the storytelling gets a little confusing along the way and also has problems with the film's bloody finale.

As said, the film reads like a comment on fifties westerns, notably High Noon. Those films had brought the town community front and center, as Don Graham put it in an essay on High Noon. Until then their main function had been to set in high relief the superior skills of the hero and the villain. Now they were shown with all their human failings and defects, and the results weren't always pleasing. The script of Death of a Gunfighter is literate, expressing America's ambiguous relationship with guns and law enforcement; it shows how a once welcomed lawman of the Wyatt Earp type, could become a nuisance and possible danger when he refused to change his habits. At the same time it shows he hypocrisy of the townspeople who have hired a person to do their 'dirty work' but simply decide to get rid of him when he has become an obstacle for their future plans. The town council has planned the departure of the man from the past, but doesn't know how to proceed after his refusal, other than to do it 'his' way, that is: shoot him to pieces in the town's street. 

An aging Richard Widmark is exactly the right man for the job: occasionally you get the odd feeling that he is Old Patch, a man who has outlived his own time. He is surrounded by a very fine ensemble of character players you know from numerous other westerns. Carrol O'Connor (in his pre-Archie Bunker days) is a bit of a surprise as the vile business man hatching plots against the marshal, ruining other people's lives in the process.  So far so good, but there are a few drawbacks. Lena Horne is underused as the woman Widmark all of a sudden decides to marry: a black singer and saloon owner (and former prostitute) who has been his misstress for years, and  there's also a superfluous subplot involving John Saxon as a county sheriff of Greek descent who happens to be a former prot├ęge of Old Patch. Both subplots, and the characters they're feature (one black, one Greek) are supposed to underline the moral superiority of Widmark's character. Like Philip French stated, it all feels very 'liberal', and very unsubtle ...

And then there's this violent, melodramatic ending. Like Ron Scheer I have some serious reservations about it. This is what Ron has to say about the final scene:

"It’s no easy task to pull off a story about a tough but likable lawman who gets shot down in cold blood. To raise that kind of unhappy ending to the level of tragedy, he has to do something or be someone who earns his death."

The ending in particular reminds us of Siegel's The Shootist; we get the idea that Old Patch stages his own death, as if he desires to create a final act to his own show. But in the case of The Shootist, the arranged 'ultimate shootout' was indeed a last hurrah, an honorable homage to a man, an era and a myth. In the case of this movie, the final act feels like pseudo-execution, more suited to a criminal than to a lawman who has served his town loyally over the years. And indeed: the cruelty and excessive bloodletting of the movie's finale, seems inspired by Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde, released one year before.


* Don Graham, High Noon, 1979, University of New Mexico Press

* Philip French, Westerns, Aspects of a movie genre, London, 2005



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