Death of a Gunfighter ★★★½

Alan Smithee’s first film. Robert Totten had been directing but had a falling out with the star, Richard Widmark, and got the push; Don Siegel came in and filmed about half of it, but didn’t want to take the directing credit, so the studio invented Alan Smithee as a covering name. The second half of the film is stronger than the first, so maybe that is Siegel’s part, although there aren’t any obvious joining lines. It is one of those late 1960s-early 1970s Westerns about the end of the West. Widmark is the town Marshal, but the good citizens want to get rid of him: it’s the early Twentieth Century and he is too much of an old timer. And he shoots people. This is classic Western stuff, but a lot of the early presentation is crude: the mayor in his car frightening a horse is too obviously symbolic; there is some very heavy dialogue explaining why the townspeople dislike Widmark; and the solid citizens are too obviously an unpleasant sweaty bunch. And everything looks dreary, a bit like a TV Western. (I presume this is why Widmark fell out with Totten, but I may be wrong.) But politically I find it interesting: the town is controlled by a bourgeoisie of small-business men, but while they may be staid and respectable, they are also hypocritical (they visit the prostitutes; violence is hidden in the past and can erupt easily; bigotry is just below the surface) and when facing Widmark they are cowardly (their violence comes because they feel inadequate, when they don’t come up to their ideals of masculinity). And even the priest is part of this society of moral corruption. This might imply a Leftist response to American society (although, as I have said, a crude one), but against them is Widmark, the hero, the man of the past, of violence, the user of guns...a figure who is honest. He is much more a figure of the Right. It is as though 1960s anti-Establishment rhetoric has been co-opted by conservatives (c.f., Sam Peckinpah’s films): here dramatic complexity is possible, but it can also lead to the hysteria of the present American Right. What makes Death of a Gunman dramatically interesting is that Widmark’s character is problematically heroic: he may have a moral force compared to the respectable town folk, but he is also arrogantly bullying: his sense of superiority isolates him and finally weakens him. He rejects the advice of John Saxon with violence and even turns against the youngster who hero worships him. Compare this film with High Plains Drifter and it has none of the fascistic glorification of the heroic bully that Eastwood’s film has. (Although, in terms of plot, I don’t understand why the saloon owner turns on seems to be a bit of convenient plot manipulation.) Death of a Gunfighter isn’t a successful film, but it often seems as though it could have been a remarkable one: maybe it is a shame that Siegel wasn’t in control from the beginning.

September 2012