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Monday, May 1, 2017

DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER (1969)

With original director Robert Totten & replacement helmer Don Siegel each refusing credit, this minor Western became the debut feature for the prolific, if nonexistent, Allen Smithee. It also boasts a claim to fame with Richard Widmark & Lena Horne in an interracial romance neither objected to nor taken note of. Alas, there's little else of interest in this tv-ready Western about old ways giving way to new in the fast growing town where bullish Chamber of Commerce types want to force Widmark’s out-of-step/trigger-happy Marshall into early retirement. It’s one of those Westerns that wants to be a Greek Tragedy (hubris all over the place), but hobbled with the paint-by-numbers production values of Universal Studios in the ‘60s, where company head Lew Wassermann made even the classiest pic look like a Movie-of-the-Week. (Typically, the backlot Western town is all fresh paint & pasteboard.) Siegel, who bonded with Widmark on MADIGAN/’68, initially turned it down (script problems), but ended up coming in for the last week or two when Widmark refused to continue with Totten. He had a point. Much of the opening is blunt, obvious, almost comically overstated, but the real problem is that Widmark’s character doesn’t fit the storyline. He only shoots in self-defense and, in a real stretch, gets blamed for a suicide. A big fatalistic finale with the town council going ballistic is ridiculous. For Siegel, it was onward & upward, from galley to glory years. For everyone else, back to the tv grindstone.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: But credit this story for being the rare Western with a plot that doesn’t boil down to Stranger Comes To Town.

WATCH THIS NOT THAT: For an actor usually tagged as a tough urban type, Widmark made quite a lot of Westerns. Try Edward Dmytryk’s little-seen, undervalued WARLOCK/’59 with Henry Fonda & Anthony Quinn.

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