Death of a Gunfighter (1969)
An aging town marshal (Richard Widmark) is a bit too trigger happy with his gun for modern times and is forced out by the town that hired him 20 years previously.
It’s unusual for a film to contain so few likeable characters, yet there are simply no good guys here. Even the comedic additions – in the wise-cracking Walter Brennan type roles – turn sour as the movie progresses.
Nevertheless, I liked this film precisely because it eschews the good vs the bad in a Western, and in this regard perhaps goes further than even the anti-heros of the spaghetti sub-genre. In terms of visuals, the film could at times pass for an italian effort – the film looks gorgeous and captures a western town torn between its frontier past and cosmopolitan future rather brilliantly. The juxtaposition of the town square and the old saloon being the best example. There are also flashes of cinematic exuberance, for me the major highlight being a crane sequence as the camera follows a young boy about to avenge his father’s suicide.
Widmark may seem like an odd choice for a protagonist in this role but is credibly assured. Frankly however it’s once again the supporting cast – so typical of the genre – who brim with memorable performances. Top of this list is the slimey Carroll O’Connor, whose jovial features hide a simmering bitterness. But it’s disingenuous to single out O’Conner in particular because the whole of the town – and specifically the old men of the town council – are a great acting troupe indeed. These men cast sad shadows across their council table, men without backbone but with a sense of vision of where they want their town to go. It’s this depthness of character which I feel makes this film just a bit more than a typical western. At the end of the movie, these elders chillingly execute the marshal who he has served them perhaps too well over the decades. The finale is admittedly gloomy, brutal and inevitable – but in a manner doesn’t frustrate the viewer. Moreover, the circular narrative that opens and ends this film has a certain kind of charm.
Despite the above, there are however problems with pacing throughout the movie and at times not much appears to be happening. I assume this is down to the switch in directors (apparently at star Widmark’s request). That said, given the off-screen problems with this production, it’s perhaps surprising to say that this is possibly one of the more complicated and uncompromising American Westerns of the 60s.
An under-rated film which although devoid of the WOW factor is well worth a watch. Similar themes emerge in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch released in the same year, so if you like this, you may wish to try that out. It’s a lot bloodier than this film though – but also better.
Hotdog rating: 7.5/10