Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Cinemascope blogathon: Gunman's Walk (1958)



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.







      

25 comments:

  1. What you said about sidewalks being constrained - is that a metaphor within the movie?

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    1. Yes. It may have been an illusion, but there was a sense on the open land that true freedom existed. You had to walk the line in town.

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  2. That's fascinating. I've always thought of sidewalks as essential components of city life, but even when I lived in Columbus, there were neighborhoods without sidewalks, which made no sense to me until I learned about the phenomenon of urban sprawl. Now that I think of it, these areas were suburban, meaning more rural, meaning more like the country. Maybe there's a connection?

    Thanks for joining the blogathon.

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    1. There is a ritzy neighbourhood to the north of us that lacks sidewalks. My husband says it is because rich folks don't shovel snow or they don't want gawkers.

      Hey, you can't have a blogathon without me!

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  3. I've always thought that the western was the best way to spotlight Cinemascope -- the vast distances, unrelenting sunlight, and a symbol of freedom to just move without contstraint. That is why your analogy of sidewalks and having to toe the line is just wonderful! I haven't seen this one, and I'll have to remember to watch for it. Excellent job, CW!

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    1. Thanks, Becky. I tend to think of the westerns first when considering Cinemascope for those same reasons. The tight ensemble cast makes this one feel "small" or "tidy", but the look is "big" or "wide".

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  4. wwell, if I have to watch a western, it better be in Cinemascope! And Tab Hunter can't hurt either.

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    1. Yes (CaftanWoman shakes finger at FlickChick), you "have" to watch a western! I like my Tab Hunter as a movie nice guy, but he is genuinely impressive in this role.

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  5. You make this sound well worth watching and I'm intrigued by the thought of Tab Hunter in a role like this, after seeing him as a good guy in 'Track of the Cat'. Will hope to catch up with this film.

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    1. Tab knocks it out of the park in "Gunman's Walk". There's a lot to enjoy about this western. Hope it comes your way soon.

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  6. I really enjoyed your write-up on this film. I never even heard of Gunman's Walk, but now I'll keep an eye out for it and try and will try to watch it within the month. Can't keep me away from a good western....especially one with Van Heflin in it!

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    1. Van Heflin is always a draw and, as is his way, he brings a lot to the character of Lee.

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  7. I bet the Arizona landscape looks amazing in this film.

    I agree with Becky – westerns seem to be an ideal genre for CinemaScope, and this sounds like one worth hunting down. Thanks!

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    1. The location is quite striking. I think a bunch of us should get together and start a "Gunman's Walk" cult!

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  8. Never saw Van Heflin give a bad performance. He SO deserved the Oscar for Johnny Eager.

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    1. I'm surprised Heflin didn't have more Oscar nominations in his career. I can't think of a role where he didn't excel and improve the work of his co-stars.

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  9. CW, you're certainly right about the Western genre making great use of the wide screen. On the surface, one could argue that the vast landscapes lent themselves to Cinemascope, but it's more than that. You provided a perfect example with your screen cap of Tab Hunter and James Darrin. They are not just on opposite sides of the frame, but there seems to be a vast distance between them--just like the big difference in the attitudes of the brothers they play.

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    1. You are so right. The proper use of Cinemascope amazes us with glorious vistas and subtly influences our psychological understanding of the characters.

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  10. I'm not a fan of Westerns but even I have to admit that those endless vistas were MADE for CinemaScope. I love how it was pitched as an alternative to television, surely a much more appealing one than 3D films!

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    1. Heaven knows I love my TV shows, but if I had the choice between the comforts of home and a tiny B&W set and the chance to settle back in the theatre with glorious Technicolor Cinemascope views, I'd dig into my pocket money for a ticket.

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  11. Westerns in CinemaScope are just the bee's knees, aren't they? Unfortunately, I've never seen any in a big screen, but I highly enjoy the scenarios when they are on TV. Gunman's Walk seems interesting, as it is whenever Van Heflin plays the lead.
    Kisses!

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    1. I enjoy so many of these westerns on television, but I can't help imagining how glorious they would look on the big screen. Someday maybe. Someday.

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  13. This screenplay represents having quite a few levels of this functions, the family unit design, this adjusting situations, this transgression along with the ambiance.
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  14. This real demands connected with sidewalks in addition to bylaws in addition to contemporary society that basically produce overall flexibility to a lot, cages Edward with in addition to connections them with knots.
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