Unfairly overlooked intelligent western with terrific performances from the two male stars and thematically prefiguring both Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Granted it appears slow but it’s the slow-burn kind of slow that works exceptionally well. Too often under-stated means under-rated while subtlety rarely attracts critical plaudits. And if you see the role of the screenwriter as probing personality and uncovering self-delusion rather than merely devising pithy lines then this is one for you.
Johnny (James Stewart) is a two-bit (“honorary”) sheriff in a two-bit town stuffed full of losers. Into his patch comes a gang of hired killers fresh from range wars led by the wounded Bob (Henry Fonda) and including cocksure trigger-happy Earl (Gary Lockwood), mean Norman (Jack Elam) and dumb Drew (James Best). With Bob side-lined with his injury, it’s not long before the gang kicks off, Earl half-drowning a man, smashing up the saloon and nearly killing a pompous preacher (Ed Begley) while Norman attempts to rape Native American squaw Meli (Barbara Luna). They think a few dollars will repair the damage and nullify hurt feelings.
But for the most part tensions just simmer, it looking like the outlaws are temporary visitors, Johnny using diplomacy to settle matters, and none of the townspeople inclined to get into a shooting match. And there’s a rich seam of characters who even when they skirt cliché seem to offer if not necessarily something new but not shop-worn either and with emotional depth.
Headstrong teenager Leah (Brooke Bundy) is attracted to dangerous Earl even though he would as soon rape as romance her, level-headed Evelyn (Inger Stevens) finds solace in a man she knows is a killer and midwife Dulcie (Louise Latham) is so dry her language could cut you with a knife. Johnny’s too trusting wife Henrietta (Jacqueline Scott) bewails “why did we settle for less than we wanted,” storekeeper Whittier (Dean Jagger) would be a knife-whittling charming elder statesmen except for his habit of going for the jugular, and hero-worshipping stable boy Arthur (Robert Porter), too old to be just cute and verging on a calamity, “couldn’t tell you what day it was.” And there’s a hint that the upstanding Johnny ain’t quite so perfect, the question of Meli’s white child left dangling in the air.
It’s the kind of “cemetery” town people end up when they’ve nowhere else to go, the inhabitants discomfited “because today didn’t turn out like yesterday.” Johnny’s the worst offender, stopping here on his way to a better life further west because all he “saw here was land nobody wanted and ground that nobody would be challenging me for.” The only person who will stand up for law and order is the witless Arthur who unwittingly triggers trouble. The townspeople mirror the villagers in The Magnificent Seven (1960) who require the assistance of mercenaries before they can stand on their own two feet except in this case nobody is rushing to the rescue.
The initial stand-offs between Johnny and Bob are under-stated, serving to stoke up tension, and the twist is that it’s Bob who tries to avert a showdown, feeling sorry for the sheriff, knowing he will be no match for a proven gunslinger, while the climax provides a surprising saviour. In fact, Bob is the most self-aware of all the characters. He tells Evelyn “you are living even more in the past than I am” and that “I don’t have your temperament to accept another empty day.” And even though he doubts the quality of his gang, he can’t give them up, or the power of being in charge. “I’ve been alone, didn’t like it…I can’t gamble with being a nobody, I’ve been that, doesn’t work for me.”
Among the ton of great touches are Johnny’s badge, made by his kids, title misspelled, the climax in a dust whirlwind, the pompous preacher whose bluster can’t save him, and the most terrible wake you will ever witness.
It’s quite astonishing that a film with such a high quotient of characters – except Johnny at the end – lacking redeeming features could work so well. Director Vincent McEveety was the epitome of a journeyman, best known for television and Disney (Herbie Goes Bananas, 1977) go-to guy. This was his debut feature – if you exclude Blade Rider, Revenge of the Indian Nations (1966) stitched together from episodes of television’s Branded – and it sank at the box office despite the presence of Stewart and Fonda, admittedly at the tail end of their marquee power.
Outside of the wake and the climax, the best scenes are under-played. McEveety lets the words do the talking, a good choice given the exemplary writing (as indicated above) and three principal actors who can be relied upon to ignore the temptations of over-acting. He handles the action well and there’s a growing sense of terror as the townspeople realize what their cowardice has let them in for.
There’s a nod here and there to High Noon (1952) with the town full of cowards but from today’s perspective it’s as a precursor that the movie is perhaps more interesting. Henry Fonda’s (The Best Man, 1964) performance, complete with pitiless stare and thick stubble, seems a rehearsal for Once Upon Time in the West (1969) while his gang, like The Wild Bunch (1969), complete with squabbling outlaws and leadership challenge, are “running out of borders.” You might notice how Fonda’s death here – the movement to the side when shot, the shock in his eyes – while markedly less operatic closely resembles a similar scene in Once Upon a Time in the West. And if you want further reference to Sergio Leone’s epic, how about a nearby town called Sweetwater.
You might think you’ve seen this James Stewart (The Rare Breed, 1966) performance before but it’s a subtle variation on the hapless character of Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and far removed from the take-charge characters of this decade. This is man who has fooled himself into thinking he is something he is not, a man of the west in name only.
Inger Stevens (House of Cards) again delivers, like the other townspeople acting tough to hide the weak interior. There’s a terrific supporting cast. Gary Lockwood (2001: A Space Odyssey) is given more rein than anybody else outside of Ed Begley (Warning Shot, 1967). Look out also for Dean Jagger (Elmer Gantry, 1960), Richard Porter (Mackenna’s Gold, 1969), Jay C. Flippen (Hellfighters, 1968), Louise Latham (Marnie, 1964), James Best (Shenandoah, 1965), Brooke Bundy (The Gay Deceivers, 1969) making her movie debut, Barbara Luna (Che!, 1969) and Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West).
Credit for the intelligent screenplay goes to Calvin Clements (Kansas City Bomber, 1972), also making his first picture.