Becky and Rich, the astute duo behind Classic Becky's Brain Food and Wide Screen World are hosting The Cinemascope Blogathon from March 13 to 15. Revel in the variety of movies that entertain to this day.
The wide-screen process came of age in the 1950s as a competitive draw to what audiences could find on their tiny television screens. It came of age in a period when the so-called adult western was at its height and many westerns benefited with the breathtaking scenic backgrounds of their stories. Such westerns as Broken Lance, River of No Return, The Last Wagon and The Professionals told their stories of perilous landscapes and desperation through the breathtaking marvel of widescreen. A strong influence on the 1950s westerns was film-noir and although director Phil Karlson may be better known for his crime pictures that fall under the noir purview, his half dozen or so westerns also feature tough-minded characters caught in the whirlwind of destiny. 1958s Gunman's Walk may well be Karlson's masterpiece in the genre.
Frank Nugent wrote the screenplay based on a story by Ric Hardman. Nugent was Oscar nominated for The Quiet Man and his previous westerns include The Searchers and Fort Apache, and the Karlson directed feature They Rode West.
Van Heflin (Johnny Eager, Shane, Airport) stars as Lee Hackett, a powerful rancher who raised two sons in his own image, that of the law unto himself. The passage of time is a theme in many westerns of this period and time weighs heavy on Lee Hackett. He strives to be one of the boys by insisting his sons refer to him by his first name. The longtime ranch foreman jokes about Lee's need to keep ahead of the boys when it is getting harder to keep up with them.
Both of Lee's sons are troubled. Davy, the younger played by James Darren (The Guns of Navarone, Gidget, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) is finding his way in life more in step with times. Davy's attitude toward the Natives from whom Lee wrested his land is the opposite of his father's casual racism. Davy is attracted to Cecily Chouard, who is part French and part Sioux. Davy refuses to wear a gun. He is more thoughtful than his father and brother appear to be. Cecily or "Clee" is a empathetic and strong young woman as played by Kathryn Grant (Anatomy of a Murder, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) in one of five pictures she made with Phil Karlson. Ms. Grant and James Darren can also be seen to good advantage as a couple in the previous year's Karlson noir, The Brothers Rico.
Ed Hackett is played by Tab Hunter (Damn Yankees!, Battle Cry, Track of the Cat) and it is an excellent performance of a narcissist psychopath. Seeking to emulate his father in toughness, the changing times have given Ed little in the way of opportunity to prove himself and to best the older man. Ed is ruthless in his dealings with underlings and toward Natives, yet often tender toward his brother. His need to prove himself through destruction and violence has made Ed a fast draw when that skill is no longer admired.
Out on the range during a round up of wild horses the vastness of the physical background gives us a sense of what Lee Hackett has tamed for his own and the freedom of the characters. Freedom, that in Ed's case, leads to the wanton murder of Cecily's brother witnessed only by two other Sioux working the roundup. Once the company reaches town or civilization the Hackett family is faced with how their actions are viewed in the new reality. The physical constraints of sidewalks and bylaws and society that actually provide freedom to many, cages Ed in and ties him in knots.
The script plays with many levels of the events, the family dynamics, the changing times, the crime and the romance. Robert F. Simon (TVs Bewitched) represents the law. A contemporary of Lee's, he knows the past, but he also accepts the present. Lee feels entitled to bully the Court, but finds the hated Sioux accorded rights as well. The Hackett pride, and fear for Ed, is ripe for the fleecing by a lying horse trader played by Ray Teal (TVs Bonanza). Constrained by society, Ed Hackett looks for ways to explode. Mickey Shaughnessy (Designing Woman) is a deputy assigned to keep an eye on Ed. The character sees all and understands much. Davy learns to stand apart from the Hackett name. Lee Hackett ignores his own doubts about his parenting and the nature of his sons. Eventually, thoughtlessness and violence lead to a devastating conclusion where compassion may finally have a chance to grow.
Gunman's Walk has riveting performances and an interesting story. The Arizona filming location combined with the impressive effects of Cinemascope give to the movie a physical sense of the character's inner turmoil. And George Duning's whistled theme will stay with you for days.