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DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER (director: Don Siegel/Robert Totten; screenwriter: from the novel by Lewis B. Patten/Joseph Calvelli; cinematographer: Andrew Jackson; editor: Robert F. Shugrue; music: Oliver Nelson; cast: Richard Widmark (Frank Patch), Lena Horne (Claire Quintana), John Saxon (Lou Trinidad), Michael McGreevey (Dan Joslin), Darleen Carr (Hilda Jorgensen), Carrol O’Connor (Lester Locke), Kent Smith (Andrew Oxley), Larry Gates (Mayor Chester Sayre), David Opatoshu (Edward Rosenblum), Jacqueline Scott (Laurie Mills), Mercer Harris (Wil Oxley), Morgan Woodward (Ivan Stanek), Dub Taylor (Doc Adams); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Richard E. Lyons; Universal; 1969)
“The title tells it all.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title tells it all. It’s one of those High Noon type of Westerns where one good man serves as the law for a town of unworthy cowards and hypocrites. There was the makings of a good pic, if it weren’t so overly melodramatic and unconvincing. It looks like a movie made for TV. Allen Smithee was the name credited as codirector, but was an alias for Don Siegel. The Directors Guild of America, after this film, said it was okay to indicate such a false name in a movie in which the director or directors did not wish in the end to be associated with. Director Don Siegel (“Madigan”/ “Charley Varrick”/”Escape from Alcatraz”), who only spent two weeks finishing it off, realized this wasn’t his film and chose to go that route. Robert Totten (directed episodes of TV series such as “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke” and “Mission: Impossible”) helmed most of the film. The film’s star, Richard Widmark, had a falling out with Totten and requested the change. Too bad Siegel didn’t do the whole film, it could have been a good one. It’s taken from the novel by Lewis B. Patten and written by Joseph Calvelli.

For the last twenty years Frank Patch (Richard Widmark) has been the efficient and hard-nosed marshal in Cottonwood Springs, an early 20th-century western town he cleaned-up at the request of the town burghers but now is civilized and they do not want him any more to be a reminder of their frontier past; they want to bring in Eastern investors and move ahead to a new era. When the marshal kills the drunk Luke Mills in self-defense during an arrest, the leaders get up enough nerve to confront him and request that he retire. But he refuses, as he rejects the future and still yearns to live in the past. They thereby call in the county sheriff, Lou Trinidad (John Saxon), to arrest him for the murder of Luke. He’s an Italian whom the marshal many years ago forced on the bigoted town leaders to accept as his deputy. The marshal refuses to be arrested by Lou, who decides to leave town rather than face his one time benefactor.

The dastardly bar owner Lester Locke (Carrol O’Connor) tells us that the marshal is “the town conscience, who knows every dirty secret and truth about us all.” The tension mounts as the town council figures out ways to get rid of the Marshal. In the process we learn of the secrets he has over the cowardly newspaper publisher Andrew Oxley (Kent Smith) and his confused son Wil (Mercer Harris). We see how wormy the mayor Chester Sayre (Larry Gates) is and how much of a back-stabber council member Ivan Stanek (Morgan Woodward) can be, as he instigates the firing of the marshal from behind closed walls which eventually leads to his demise.

As the violence ratchets up, Frank takes time off to marry the black proprietor of a bawdy saloon, Claire (Lena Horne), and play mentor to a lovesick youngster, Dan Joslin (Michael McGreevey).

The festering hatred makes way for the all too predictable climax, in this death of an era film. But it wasn’t interesting enough despite building up the suspense. Widmark keeps things perking, but the film in the end has little to say about hatred or bigotry (against the town’s Italians, Negroes, and Jews) that can be deemed pertinent.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”