Wednesday, May 25, 2005

It Came from Netflix: Invitation to a Gunfighter

MGM has just released a bunch of mid-grade ‘60s Westerns to DVD. These aren’t going to make my home collection, but I’ve put them on my Netflix list. I’m not a gigantic Western buff, although there are some damn fine films in that genre, and I do own a goodly number of those. Still, even the middling ones tend to be good time killers, and it’s nice to see a gunfight from the days before everyone was ripping off John Woo.

Invitation to a Gunfighter proved exactly that; not a great movie by any means, but an adequate watch. I remember it playing on TV a lot when I was a kid—I remember commercials featuring a rampaging Yul Brynner smashing in storefront windows—but I never got around to seeing it.

One pleasing aspect of watching Westerns is to see all the familiar character actors that always popped up in these. Here these include the apparently legally mandated Pat Hingle and Strother Martin, a young William Hickey, as well as a brief appearance by Russell Johnson, aka the Professor on Gilligan’s Island.

The film is actually fairly ambitious, character-wise, coming during that late period of what might be called the Psychological Western. The film deals with racism (it was produced by social pic maven Stanley Kramer), but in a character-driven way that is a lot more interesting than if it involved a bunch of speechifying. The movie’s a bit too melodramatic and artificial (in that movie Western way) for it’s own good, but it’s really trying to be better than it ends up being.

After the War, ex-Johnny Reb George Segal (!!!) returns to his otherwise Union-supporting New Mexico hometown. (For some reason, I guess because he’s the only one to fight on the Confederate side, Segal’s the sole person in the movie to sport a thick Southern accent.) Once there, he learns that Hingle, the local Stock Corrupt Banker, has sold his farm out from under him. He kills the man who bought the farm, although we don’t know the circumstances, and barricades himself inside, waiting for the town to react.

Hingle maneuvers the town’s business community into hiring a gunfighter, who shows up in the excessively suave form of Brynner. From there it’s a character piece as we wonder who will end up killing who. Eventually, though, Brynner, who comes to hate the town and most of its populace, begins pushing his weight around in an extreme fashion.

I’d never heard this, but the film was obviously an inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s better known High Plains Drifter, although that film merged this one with Sergio Leone attitude and outsized violence, along with a note of the supernatural. Still, there are moments here that are directly mirrored, but then exaggerated, in Drifter. For instance, Brynner goes for a shave at one point. When he leaves the chair, we see that he’d been holding his pistol under his barber bib, just in case. In Drifter, Eastwood does the same, only uses it to kill a number of toughs who come into the barbershop to murder him.

Another interesting aspect of the film is that nobody in it is really likeable. Everyone is either corrupt, cowardly, a violent hothead or just plain damaged. The tragic parts of the ending, although heavily telegraphed, thus work a lot better than the seemingly mandated optimistic ending for the estranged romantic leads.

Three stars (of five) for Western fans, others can safely skip it.

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