Gunman's Walk (1958)




Dir: Phil Karlson - Cast: Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, Kathryn Grant, James Darren, Mickey Shaughnessy, Robert F. Simon, Ray Teal, Edward Platt, Will Wright, Bert Convy

One of the many father-son western dramas made in the fifties, like most of them seasoned by Freudian overtones and influenced by Elia Kazan's adaptation of Steinbeck's East of Eden. Hunter and Darren are two brothers, Ed and Davy Hackett, one hot-headed and irresponsible, the other peace-loving and disciplined, both striving hard to gain the love and respect of their father, Lee Hackett, a former gunman and Indian fighter turned rancher. Both also have feelings for a halfbreed Sioux woman, Clee (Kathryn Grant, who would later become Mrs. Bing Crosby): Hunter lusts after her, Darren wants to marry her (1). 

Gunman's Walk is a relatively unknown movie, most probably because it lacks star power. Van Heflin and Tab Hunter are both excellent as, respectively, the troubled father and the hot-headed son, but there was no Lancaster, Douglas or - indeed - James Dean to attract large audiences. Director Karlson had done a couple of violent melodramas, most of them in the noir genre, but he wasn't a big name either and his inventive use of the widescreen must have suffered a lot when the film was shown pan & scan on television. The film isn't perfect, but it's actually one of the better adult westerns about a father son conflict from the period. 

Things escalate when Ed rides one of his father's men over a cliff when they're both vying for a white stallion (3). The man was half-breed Indian and also Clee's brother, and Ed probably acted out of frustration because she preferred Davy's company to his. He's brought to trial but is acquitted because a drifting horse trader testifies in his favor, and the man's testimony is valued higher than those of two Indian witnesses. Things go from bad to worse when Hunter shoots (and nearly kills) the very man who saved his neck at the trial (because he thinks he has stolen that beautiful white stallion) and breaks out of jail (killing an innocent man doing so) when his daddy is still busy covering up things for him ...

The screenplay (by John Ford regular Frank S. Nugent) tells the story of the family drama in a punchy, economic style, but the underlying theme of racial prejudice is elaborated in rather heavy-handed fashion; it's no doubt well-meant, but feels a little unwieldy. Characterizations might also feel a little schematic today. However, Karlson's direction is typically vigorous, marked by sudden outbursts of (quite brutal) violence, creating a brooding atmosphere of despair and doom. Long before Heflin accepts it, we understand that the outcome can only be tragic. This western deserves more attention, but please watch it in widescreen. 


Notes:

* (1) According to Wikipedia Grant married Bing Crosby in 1957, so around the time this film was shot. She largely retired from acting after her marriage and would appear on television under the name of Kathryn Crosby; since she's still listed as Kathryn Grant here, I suppose she was not yet Mrs. Crosby.

* (2) Karlson did a couple of violent crime thrillers in the 50s that were well-received by some critics but never hit the big time. He then did an Elvis movie, Kid Galahad, and a couple of Mat Helm movies in the 60s and finally hit the gold vein with his penultimate movie, Walking Tall, in 1973. The film made him a fortune because he owned a large percentage of it.

* (3) There have been discussions on the net whether they really sacrificed a horse in this magnificent, but truly horrifying scene. According to this site, a dummy was used:



Comments

  1. Thanks, Simon. Father-son movies are a staple of the genre. And you get your dramatic conflict by splitting the son into two characters, one good, one bad. I haven't seen this one, but would have trouble believing Tab Hunter as a villain.

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  2. I guess many would have, but he's quite convincing. And Van Heflin is great.

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  3. This is the first time to watch this cowboy drama tonight November 25, 2013. I agree, very good acting. Van Heflin is quite compling; as well Tab Hunter is a convincing bad son. The movie has held my interest.

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