The Pistolero of Red River / The Last Challenge (1967) ****

A little gem. Mature, thoughtful, cleverly structured. Plays with expectations. Another assured performance from Glenn Ford (Rage, 1966) with Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) permitted a character of considerably more complexity than normal.

Quite an unusual set-up. Marshal Blaine (Glenn Ford) is an ex-convict, his paramour Lisa (Angie Dickinson) is the local madam. Both are pretty much accepted in this small western town. Some hypocrisy comes Lisa’s way – her money acceptable to a storekeeper who out of earshot refers to her as white trash – but generally the townspeople are happy with an ex-gunslinger as lawman.

But he’s not your standard lawman. He’s very easy-going, not spending all is time upholding the law or out hunting varmints, and she’s not your typical madam either, mothers her employees, keeps unwanted men at a distance, and has made enough money for a fine rig and fancy clothes.

Blaine is sensible but ruthless, taking tough action to prevent a young kid getting into trouble with a dangerous gunman, but having no compunction about shooting the gunslinger. He’s not out for an easy life, but my he does enjoy it, though on a slack day finds fishing more fun than rolling in the hay with Lisa. She knows she has made a good catch, her friend still getting knocked about by her husband, and although Blaine doesn’t seem the marrying kind she has notions of having a baby.

But out fishing Blaine frees a villain Ernest (Jack Elam) who has upset the local Indians. Since they shared a cell way back, Ernest sees Blaine as an easy touch and when told where to go on that score fingers to blackmail Lisa. Meanwhile, this turns out to be an eventful fishing trip. Blaine buddies up with a stranger, Lot (Chad Everett), they fish, cook and drink whisky together until the newcomer reveals he’s on a mission to kill the lawman and take his title of fastest gunman in the southwest.

So you can see where this is headed. Except it doesn’t take that route. Because Lisa, worried that the youngster might well be faster on the draw, hires Ernest to kill him. And when that backfires, it’s only a matter of time before Blaine finds out and you wonder what that’s going to do to their relationship.

There’s some standard stuff, a poker cheat for example, but there’s a lot more going on. Blaine’s young deputy, mostly left to do the chores, tries to throw his weight around with the gunman only to end up with egg on his face. There’s an Native American in jail who we never see and a subplot involving his colleagues that looks like it’s headed in the direction of standard western confrontation until that notion is cleverly nipped away from under the audience’s feet.

Given credence by the worried Lisa is the idea that Blaine is coming to the end of the trail and it’s a testament to the direction that the tension lasts as long as it does. The promotional material gives out that the youngster is a tearaway threatening to shoot up the town, but that’s far from the truth, Blaine trying to talk him out of such rashness while at the same time seeing the boy as a reflection of his younger self.

There’s some brilliant dialog. “Of all the people ain’t worth saving,” Blaine tells Ernest, “you’re the first that comes to mind.” At their first meeting, Lot asks Blaine, “Where’s your tin star?” Retorts Blaine, “You better never see it on me.” As they part, Lot says, “We’ll be meeting again.” Replies Blaine, without aggression, “If that’s the way you want it.”

But there’s quite a lot that’s missed out. There’s no scene of Lisa hiring Ernest, just that he ambushes Lot. The jailed Native American is, as I mentioned, off-camera. There’s none of the usual massive build-up towards a showdown. And even as the shootout approaches, Lisa still doesn’t trust in Blaine’s skill and plans to shoot Lot herself.

That betrayal comes as a helluva shock. When has any lawman’s moll lacked such faith? As for Lot, gunslinging is all that he lives for, the measure of himself, and there’s a purity about him as he rejects countless offers of whisky and women even as he knows he’s making a terrible bed to lie in.

This was very much ahead of its time, especially in thwarting audience expectation not just in the representation of character but in the narrative. It proved a fine last hurrah for veteran Hollywood director Richard Thorpe (The Truth about Spring, 1965). Robert Emmett Gina (Before Winter Comes, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the John Sherry novel.

As it happened, I watched this back-to-back with Rage so ended with an even better appreciation of Glenn Ford’s talent but was also very taken with Angie Dickinson for the way her character twisted and turned as she attempted to create the outcome she desired. Definitely worth a watch.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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