Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Gunfighters (1947)

The recent Randolph Scott Blogathon at 50 Westerns From the 50s made me aware just how many of Scott's Westerns I still need to see, while the admiration everyone expressed for the man and his work made me enthusiastic to get started on the project sooner rather than later.

Tonight I watched GUNFIGHTERS (1947), a really excellent Western which I believe must rank in the upper tier of Scott's Westerns of the '40s and early '50s, before he began his notable collaboration with director Budd Boetticher. The film has a wonderful cast, a strong screenplay by Alan LeMay (THE SEARCHERS) based on a Zane Grey novel, and lovely Cinecolor photography by Fred Jackman Jr.

The film begins with an absolutely terrific sequence behind the opening credits, with the arresting colors and action sweeping the viewer right into the story of Brazos Kane (Scott), a man whose prowess with a gun is so legendary that even a friend is tempted to see if he can outdraw him. It's interesting that most of the technical credits for this Harry Joe Brown production, released by Columbia, don't come until the end of the film, which helps make the film's unusually striking opening scene possible.

Kane is determined to put his guns behind him but goes out of the frying pan and into the fire, arriving at a friend's home just after he's been killed. Kane is accused of murder by the local deputy (Grant Withers, recently seen at a much younger age in SINNERS' HOLIDAY), but he's saved from a lynching by another old friend (Charley Grapewin). The sheriff (Charles Kemper), who is much wiser than his deputy, recognizes that Kane is no murderer and lets him go, encouraging Kane to hit the trail to California.

Kane lingers in town to try to solve his friend's murder, becoming entangled with a land baron (Griff Barnett) and his two lookalike daughters; Jane (Dorothy Hart), the good daughter, falls for Kane, while not-so-good Bess (Barbara Britton) is in love with her father's foreman Bard (Bruce Cabot), who doesn't seem to have clean hands regarding the murder. There's another ranch employee, Ben (Forrest Tucker), who's a truly bad man likely to end up facing Kane with their guns drawn.

GUNFIGHTERS is a densely plotted, well-written story which also finds time for Kane to counsel a young would-be gunfighter, Johnny (John Miles), in one of the movie's best scenes. Only after Kane has patiently instructed the young man on his technique and warned him about how hard it is for a gunman to live down his reputation does Johnny learn that he's being schooled by the man he wants to kill.

Kemper's sheriff might be the film's best-written character, who has some really marvelous dialogue in his exchanges with Scott. I would have enjoyed seeing even more of him. Withers' not-so-nice deputy is part of a memorable scene where Kane keeps plugging him with bullets until the deputy spills the beans on what he knows about the murder. It's a pretty brutal scene for a 1947 Western.

Cabot's foreman draws a certain measure of sympathy because of his love for Bess, but he's not a good man, and Tucker's Ben is pure evil, happily shooting at old men and musing on his favorite ways to kill people. Ben is a snake who needs to be stamped into the ground.

With similar hairstyles and coloring, Hart and Britton look so much alike that it's entirely believable Kane initially mistakes one sister for the other; I wasn't clear if they were meant to be twins or simply sisters, but their resemblance was such that one of my only problems with the film was my own difficulty early on in telling the characters apart! In this publicity still with Randolph Scott, Britton is on the left and Hart on the right.

GUNFIGHTERS was directed by George Waggner. The film's locations included Sedona, Arizona, and Vasquez Rocks in California. The movie runs 87 minutes.

GUNFIGHTERS does not appear to be available in an authorized DVD. I was able to see it thanks to GetTV, which incidentally has been on the air one year as of today, February 3, 2015.

Randolph Scott fans should find GUNFIGHTERS a most satisfying Western.


Blogger Jerry E said...

I never quite understand, Laura, why it seems that "Gunfighters" is not more highly-regarded, even among aficionados. Which is why I am so pleased you chose to review it and wrote such an excellent, compelling piece about it.

It was, I believe, Scott's first in a long stream of colour westerns AFTER his 1946 watershed. I only got to see it myself for the first time within the past few years but found it, as you did, a most enjoyable example of Scott's work.

A really strong cast (Tucker, Cabot, Withers) and two very beautiful female temptresses plus a good screenplay based on Zane Grey's story 'Twin Sombreros'.

Really glad you chose to write so positively about this particular film.

11:54 PM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

I've seen this one quite a few times (Encore Westerns used to show it a lot), and I couldn't agree more; it't top-notch Scott (and the sisters confused me too!) Random thoughts: It was funny how Cabot seemed so confident, even though the imported gunfighter had just lost. I guess he thought local talent was better? And this one might set a record for the number of friends-of-Randolph-who-die (Santa Fe easily holds the brother record.)

6:20 AM  
Blogger Kristina said...

I saw you tweet enthusiastically about this so I was very curious-- looks great and amazing cast! Barbara Britton was so pretty, always like to see her in a good part in westerns, recently got DVD or her TV show Mr. & Mrs. North with Richard Denning. Nice review and another new movie on my radar.

6:34 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry and Maricatrin, I'm so delighted to hear from a couple people who also liked this film! I was kind of surprised to discover it -- as Jerry mentions, it doesn't seem to be that highly regarded; I sure don't hear it come up in discussion of Scott's non-Boetticher movies. Such an enjoyable film!

Kristina, I hope you'll like it when you see it -- I'd also love to know what you think of MR. AND MRS. NORTH as I've considered picking it up.

Best wishes,

7:11 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I don't know why it isn't mentioned more. I agree it's very good. I've only seen it once (Western Channel if memory serves) and was glad to catch up with it and look forward to seeing again some time. Your review brought it back pretty well. The two contrasting sisters were an interesting part of the whole thing.

Not only is this a very good Scott Western in its own right but it was his first on which he partnered with Harry Joe Brown. Their second production CORONER CREEK, directed by Ray Enright, is also strong--and it is interesting how it introduces a motif that would be come back so strongly in the Ranown cycle; it's set in motion by the killing of Scott's wife (maybe it was a fiancee in this--it's been awhile), setting him on a trail of revenge.

It's a pleasure to think about how good that production company was from the beginning, with good films all through before hitting its peak with the very last ones they made, RIDE LONESOME and COMANCHE STATION, which are among the definitive masterpieces of the genre.

11:52 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Curious, I looked up CORONER CREEK and found it was Randy's fiancee in that one, which is what I had a feeling was right when I wrote that before.

I also see that you wrote a very good review of that in this blog, and also very positive as you were about the present one.

(Forgot to put a link in here but you could do that in your reply or people could just look it up).

12:01 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Blake! And for the mention of CORONER CREEK (1948) -- here's my review of that one. A great point that these films are significant inasmuch as they were the start of Scott's partnership with Harry Joe Brown.

It's curious that I often seem to hear CORONER CREEK mentioned in discussion as a favorite non-Boetticher Scott Western, yet I don't recall the title GUNFIGHTERS coming up, and I thought it was so enjoyable.

I'll be reviewing some more Scott films very soon, thanks to the Warner Archive, including a couple of titles which intrigued me when I read about them in the Scott Blogathon.

Best wishes,

12:38 AM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

I think many of Scott's pre-Boetticher westerns are undervalued; some folks seem under the false impression that Boetticher plucked Scott out of low-grade B-westerns and single-handedly made him a western great. But Scott had been doing quality westerns for a long time (Tall Man Riding is another really good, overlooked title that springs to mind), and I think it's notable that the most celebrated of the Scott-Boetticher collaborations (Comanche Station, Ride Lonesome, The Tall T, Seven Men from Now) all have screenplays by Burt Kennedy. The Clint Walker western Fort Dobbs, co-written by Burt Kennedy, feels much more akin to these four films than, say, Decision at Sundown or Buchanan Rides Alone (I do like both Buchanan and Decision; I think Decision has one of Scott's best performances.)

7:40 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Maricatrin, along the lines of your opening sentence, if you haven't already had the pleasure I recommend Blake's blogathon post on Scott and THE NEVADAN, where he writes in part: "But looking at his career whole, no director, not even Boetticher, can take all the credit for finding the soulfulness of Randolph Scott. He had been working on it himself the whole time, in modest films like THE NEVADAN tapping the knowing humor and quiet self-possession, as well as the inwardness and tenderness, that would finally become so awesome in their humanity in the years of full maturity." I love that.

Some of my favorite earlier Scott Westerns are THE DESPERADOES (1943) and COLT .45 (1950). Liked TALL MAN RIDING quite well also.

Best wishes,

8:54 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

I am really pleased that your review has highlighted so well, Laura, that Scott was "tops" several years before the "Ranown" cycle.
There are very few of his films that I don't love (and the others I certainly like) from "ABILENE TOWN" in 1946 onwards. His collaboration with Nat Holt produced some fine westerns (some were a little variable maybe) but it was the deal with Harry Joe Brown that produced most of the really great ones, as Blake has said.
I like Maricatrin's point on this. Hits the nail on the head.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Maricatrin's point is well-taken and I think most of us would agree. In the Blogathon, it comes up again and again that Scott evolved over the course of his films and had made many that were very fine. Maricatrin, you'd probably enjoy going through those pieces and the discussions if you haven't.

The problem with film history now when it comes to genres is that certain things get singled out--and often, they are outstanding--and then get treated as if they existed by themselves. So, everyone feels they need to know Ranown cycle or Mann/Stewart and a few other Westerns from Ford to Peckinpah and then they assume these are somehow works that are self-sufficient. More people should read T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" which I took to heart at an early age. The idea of building on what has gone before applies so well to genres, Westerns especially.

Just to reply briefly (and not to go on all day as I might want to about this) about Burt Kennedy and Budd Boetticher. They were lifelong friends and both always gave each other credit for what the other contributed to the Ranown cycle. It's not always that way with writers and directors but in this case it was.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

Laura, many thanks for supplying that quote and link, I hadn't had the pleasure. The Nevadan was another favorite I forget to mention (favorite line: "you're just a loveable character who worships gold.") I did not enjoy The Desperadoes at all the first time around (I kept wanting Scott to be in it more), but later when I watched it for a second time it was with the fore-knowledge that Scott was in a supporting capacity, and I actually loved it; it seemed like I was watching an entirely different film! I see that I like Tall Man Riding a good deal more than you did, but we're in total agreement on Colt .45:-)

Jerry, thanks. Generally I just hit a finger;-)

Blake, I love what you said about Scott at the end of your article; very true, well put. And I think that you're 100% right about the whole Film Essentials Existentialism(??) phenomenon. And I meant no detriment to Boetticher (it's good of you to keep the record clear), I threw out the observation more in reaction to the auteur theorists who don't give a hardworking screenwriter enough credit.

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Frank Gibbons said...


Your review is outstanding and I can't add anything of value to it or to the insightful comments it elicited. I found "Gunfighters" on "Amazon Prime" and I could tell immediately that this was a quality film. The print was below par against certain darker backdrops -- blotches of colors played against the darker setting. Perhaps if I watched it on my smart TV this issue may have been resolved.

I thought Charles Kemper and Grant Withers were both terrific. Make no mistake, Withers could act and I've always been partial to Kemper -- it's too bad he dies in a car crash at age 50. I recognized Sedona and the on-location shots definitely boost the quality of the film. Not only is this a fine Western, but I would suggest that it is an influential one. I see bits of "Gunfighters" in "Shane" where the man who wants to put down his guns is called by necessity to execute the bad guys. Also, Scott's torture scene of Withers presages Alex Nicols brutal shooting of James Stewart's hand in "The Man from Laramie (although Mann was always pushing the envelope on depicting pain.)

I genuinely got confused tracking the identities of the two sisters. It's not only that they look remarkably alike but at one point they appear in each other's customary outfit. Starting at the 51:33 mark at the rendezvous at the old mission, Bess shows up in a checkered green shirt and jeans while Jane arrives in a riding skirt and blouse. I had to go back a second time to get things straightened out.

"Gunfighters" is a fine Western that should receive more attention as well as critical reevaluation from certain critics.

Although he won't see this at this point I too, like, Blake Lucas, am a big fan of T.S. Eliot.

4:12 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Mary-Catherine, I enjoyed and was interested in all your comments!

Frank, thank you very much for your kind feedback. I likewise very much enjoyed all your comments and enjoyed that I have not been the only one to be a bit confused by the sisters' appearances. Knowing both actresses better, I hope I'll do better next time but definitely a challenge!

I really like your points about how GUNFIGHTERS foreshadows scenes from later classic Westerns.

Best wishes,

1:12 PM  

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