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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

'Gunman's Walk' - An Underseen 1950s Western

Fans of tall, blond and dreamy 1950s movie star and singer Tab Hunter will want to approach Gunman's Walk (1958) with caution.  Here, Hunter is tall, gorgeous...and completely despicable.  The blackness of his character at times stretches credulity, but I'll bet you won't regret the experience of this underappreciated, thematically layered, and well-crafted western.

[This post is my contribution to the 'Underseen and Underrated' CMBA Spring Blogathon.  Go here to see all the posts this week, and take the road less traveled, film-wise.]

This western was made by Columbia Pictures and directed by Phil Karlson, better known for directing noirs such as 99 River St. and Kansas City Confidential, than westerns.  The story by Ric Hardman was converted to the screen by Frank Nugent, who over the prior decade had penned many scripts for John Ford, including The Searchers, The Quiet Man, and Mister Roberts.  Getting top billing in the cast was veteran Van Heflin, followed by Hunter, and then James Darren and Kathryn Grant, at the time recently wed to Bing Crosby. Character actors Will Wright and Edward Platt, had small but memorable roles. 

The story revolves around a rancher, Lee Hackett (Heflin), who raised his two sons, Ed (Hunter) and Davy (Darren), to revere him, and instilled in them a sense of inferiority that manifested very differently in each son.  Ed is hotheaded, always wanting to equal or best his father, while Davy is introverted and generally compliant.  Lee, who the sons call by his first name, sees himself more in rambunctious Ed, and has trouble communicating with Davy.  However, Ed has developed a pathological streak, and Lee indulges him and protects him, which only frustrates the competitive son more.  Eventually Ed causes the death of a half-Indian ranch hand, the brother of a young woman (Grant) recently courted by Davy, by running him off a cliff while on horseback.  The only witnesses are two Indians who testify in court that the death was no accident.  However, a stranger appears and testifies the opposite, and Ed is let free.  This stranger, who was nowhere near the incident, expects payment from Hackett by in the form of ten of his best horses, including a white mare prized by Ed and Davy.  Lee relents, feeling he has no choice if he wants to protect Ed, but when word of this gets to Ed, a series of deadly confrontations ensue, leading up to the dramatic climax. 
James Darren (left) as Davy Hackett and Tab Hunter as Ed Hackett
Why Watch?
In 97 minutes, the film cleverly explores three themes in some depth. Credit screenwriter Nugent, whose script is economic and incredibly believable throughout.  The first, and most obvious theme, is family dysfunction, with an emphasis on the destructive side of masculinity. In the 1950s Hollywood 'discovered' the teenage/young adult market, and a great number of films explored topics of the generation gap, rebellious youth and clueless adults.  Think Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle, to start. Gunman's Walk was very much of its time in this regard. 

The central male characters, father and two sons, compellingly play out the family drama.  Lee (Heflin) is essentially a good man, with a strong reputation in the community, but with his alternating competitive and indulgent treatment of his sons, has created a situation even he can't control. As Ed, Hunter himself was apparently very happy to get different sort of role and relished it. Early in the film we learn he's reckless with a gun--in a challenge to his father, he suggests each shoot a tin can that the other is holding in his hand, and while Lee decides the can needs to be positioned on a fence instead, and has just set it down, Ed shoots with no warning.  It goes downhill from there.  Ed reveals himself to be incredibly racist, boorish, and murderous. I had a mixed reaction to Hunter's performance. He did a great job of making me despise him, pulling out all the stops; yet he went so far on the black side that he lacked a nuance that would allow us to see some positive elements of his character. In a telling piece of film-making, a frustrated Ed throws a shot glass at his father's reflection in a barroom mirror. 
Davy Hackett is Ed's opposite - he's calm, sensitive, and respectful of his father, despite having reservations about the violence his father tacitly endorses. As a result, Lee can't relate to him and the son feels somewhat rejected.  Later in the movie Davy begins to stand up for himself--at one point during a confrontation with his father he says "Hey Lee, whadda ya know?  Without your boots on you aren't even as tall as I am!"  James Darren's portrayal of Davy is serviceable, if not remarkable.  Ultimately, the film leaves it to the audience to determine what was the cause of the family's downfall -- Lee's poor parenting, Ed's despicable character, circumstances, or all of the above.
The second theme is racism, as it relates to the treatment of Native Americans. Here there isn't a doubt which side the film is on...while the white settler and local Sioux have come to an uneasy arrangement, the Indians are portrayed as victims of white supremacy. Viewers be cautioned, as there are constant slurs thrown at and about the Indians, 'half-breed' being the most common. As a modern viewer this grated on me, but I suspect this unfiltered dialogue was realistic of the time and place.  The Indian characters were never fully fleshed out, and the half-Sioux protagonist 'Clee' (Grant) didn't do much more than serve as a victim and love interest.  Yet the film clearly endorsed the legitimacy of Davy and Clee's relationship ... in an overt way that was in line with the trend of films of that era beginning to shed less than a favorable light on the country's racist past. 
The third theme is the evolution of the West and the role of law and order, moving from the early settlers who maintained open ranges for livestock and used guns to defend their territory, to the next generation of settlers establishing towns with laws and those elected to enforce them.  The film title draws attention to the danger of two men carrying guns, about to confront each other on the streets of the town, and makes it clear that guns are not welcome in the local town; much of the conflict stems from Lee's unwillingness to accept that his way of life, represented by his desire to always openly carry a gun, even when that is no longer accepted among the majority.  Lee himself is still well respected, and he's allowed a lot of latitude as a result, but even he respects the 'appropriate' use of a gun, which Ed clearly oversteps again and again. The gun is can be seen here as a symbol of masculinity gone amok, as Davy rejects gun violence, Ed relishes it, and Lee is somewhere in between.

For me the greatest pleasure of the film is Heflin's performance as Lee.  Those familiar with my blog know I'm a big Heflin fan, and this film is one I'd point to for evidence. He becomes Lee Hackett, using a physical swagger and gravelly voice to make him a presence to be reckoned with, and he's not afraid to be unlikeable, through his racism, or goading of his sons. Yet, he maintains a degree of our sympathy because we can see Lee engaging in a human struggle to maintain his status, while his society, and his family, are falling apart around him.  He lets down his guard enough that we can see the humanity underneath the hard exterior. 
Tab Hunter, who is still with us, in his memoir Tab Hunter Confidential had great praise for Heflin: "To me, Van was the ultimate actor.  He completely disappeared into character, and everything he did was completely believable."  He also commented about how Heflin was committed to extra rehearsals at Hunter's request, to help him work out details of his scenes.  Heflin and Hunter were together on screen two other times, in Battle Cry (1955) and They Came to Cordura (1959), the latter which I reviewed here.

Director Karlson deserves credit for his clever stagings of the drama, as does cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr., who captures the beauty of the Tucson, Arizona location, and the claustrophobia of the many indoor scenes.   It's a notably darker film than most of John Ford's, perhaps more 'noir-like', but at the time did significantly well at the box office, perhaps as result of Hunter's star power.  Ultimately, though, this film is little remembered, possibly crowded out by the western classics from Ford, Howard Hawks, made with bigger stars like John Wayne, James Stewart and the like.  Those interested in seeing the film today can find it on demand with a subscription to STARZ, which owns licenses for Columbia films through their relationship with Sony Pictures, or with an internationally produced DVD or Blu-Ray.  The trailer is linked below.

10 comments:

  1. Gunman's Walk is a fine example of filmmaking from an era when the adult western exploded. The contrasting themes and fine cast make for an intense viewing experience. I hope more people will put it on their must-see list after reading your fine exploration of the movie.

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    1. Thank you for weighing in, CW. Glad you endorse this one as an adult western to be sought out!

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  2. Nice choice! Something I liked about Hunter's casting was how creepy and disturbing his great looks, in this case still on the boyish side, become once his bully streak and immaturity show through. I'm with you on Heflin, what a talent and always a pleasure to watch, never showy. Just saw him in the last few weeks in ACT OF VIOLENCE and TOMAHAWK.

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    1. You're so right about Hunter's normally good looks being so menacing and creepy here -- he made my skin crawl!

      On Heflin not being showy...I heard an interview with his daughter in which she mentioned her father abhorred 'overacting'. Makes sense! He was also amazingly versatile - his role in JOHNNY EAGER was 180 degrees removed from Lee Hackett.

      Thanks for stopping by, Kristina.

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  3. I'm not much of a western gal, but your enthusiastic review has got me thinking.... maybe I need to see this!

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    1. Great! There is a lot to it, but of course I wouldn't call it the best western ever ;-) But a good entry in the genre.

      Thank you for reading!

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  4. Great choice for this blogathon—the kind of '50s western that uses the genre to explore areas we don't normally associate with it. I caught it once on TCM, wish I had recorded it. And I am totally with you on Van the Man. He had enormous range, could do comedy or drama, play a hero, a milquetoast, a slippery, morally ambiguous character, or an out-and-out baddie (The Prowler), all with total credibility. Thanks for reminding me of it, I need to see it again!

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    1. Hi Lesley, thanks. It really is a compelling film. And 'Van the Man' -- love it!! I've written about him before and probably will again; as he is one of my 'obsessions.' I agree with you - he was especially amazing in THE PROWLER.

      Thanks for reading!

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  5. I am a big fan of this little oater, mostly due to the direction of Phil Karlson (love his work) and the fact that I'll watch Van Heflin scratching himself if necessary. Since I am not particularly enamored of Tab Hunter, I have no problem with his character being a wanker -- but it demonstrates that he could do excellent work when he had to rise to the occasion. Good job, Jocelyn.

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    1. Thank you! Good to see all the love for Heflin. I need to watch more Phil Karlson's work -- I thought 99 RIVER ST was fantastic.

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