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Now on DVD: Fox Western Classics

The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950)—The original anti-Western, which is to say, a 20th century Western, obsessed with 20th century issues: publicity, celebrity cults, empty images. Gregory Peck kills young challengers, so like him that, in somewhat typical Western fashion (see The Furies), they want to kill him—to win his title as #1 Killer. The title exists for no other reason than to be held; perhaps also to score girls. Which is presumably how Peck has managed a wholesome 50s wife with a young brat in need of a good influence, both of them enabling a conscience in the aging gunfighter realizing killing can protect against his own death for only so long. Peck, of course, himself fleeing the dynamite villainy of Duel in the Sun for the righteous leftism of To Kill a Mockingbird, is good guy in a bad world that’s made him who he is. And director Henry King (whose scenic State Fair and The Black Swan really deserve rediscovery) films with a Boetticher-like simplicity: cowboys in a small town, all spying on each other, attempting to resolve a central problem according to their one or two quirks. But The Gunfighter is an anti-Western precisely because it evinces a total inversion of Boetticherian ethos. Here, the only code is that of treachery, and there is no hope of protecting and enforcing public morality; there’s hardly hope for finding it privately. Don Siegel would do this whole movie far more poignantly and perfectly in his Western/John Wayne eulogy/elegy The Shootist, by actually moving the action to the 20th century (against a backdrop of newspaper ascension), and by extending some respect and private mystery to untethered cowboys and the myths they blazed. The Gunfighter, on the other hand, isn’t meant as the last Western. It’s meant to undermine the entire genre altogether. When it is, of course, just another good genre piece with a punchy conceit.
Rawhide (Henry Hathaway, 1951)—Another closed-set Western less interested in the Tennysonian nostos of Ford’s pioneers; in the Sophoclian fatalism of Mann’s Sisyphean, hubris-tainted avengers, who lose autonomy the more they try to gain it; in the Arendtian idylls of Hawks’ idling ragtaggers, locking themselves up to hang out and save the world; than in MacGuyver-like physics problems. Good guys are trapped in their house by bad guys, with limited tools and time to outsmart them. Fey Hugh Marlowe is a crackling do-badder; Susan Hayward isn’t putting up with this shit; Tyrone Power is, forgettably, Tyrone Power. Perfectly crafted by Henry Hathaway, who reserved his personality for behind the camera. Whatever personality this does have—and there are enough close-ups of Jack Elam to make up for any lack of Romantic passage—is due completely to screenwriter Dudley Nichols, with another of his shut-in confrontation flicks.
Garden of Evil (Henry Hathaway, 1954)—The set’s find. Three men (Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Cameron Mitchell) set out to help a woman’s (Susan Hayward’s) husband (Hugh Marlowe), buried in a gold mine far in the Mexican wilderness. Each of the men has ulterior motives—money, sex—while Hayward, worse, perhaps doesn’t have a motive of love/sex at all; is simply hoping to find a dead husband on her return. Each of the men, also, is unsure how to proceed in their traveling, tenuous, makeshift society; whether to win the girl by good graces, or rape her. Widmark, as another of his shambling, wisecracking shammers, plays Iago to a stolid, solid Cooper, the ostensible good guy made to wonder what’s worth being good about. And Hathaway composes in wide-screen as if lining his actors up for a firing squad, which only adds to the declamatory style and existential slow-burn. But he—or the great Milton Krasner—’s a genuinely apt composer:
It’s a film in which everyone has their reasons, but, though they’re the same reasons, nobody is quite aware of his own until, left to talking on an endless trek, he has nothing else to think about. In a way, it’s a Western Ballad of Nayarama: men traveling really out of duty, ostensibly out of greed, but ultimately for no other reason than to die. Because eventually, the money issue fades as there’s little chance of living—but not much else to do. Then again, as they also realize, if they’re going to die, they might as well die for something; the problem throughout, even in this lush, romanticized desert, is finding some Romantic ideal. And there is, until the finale, none to be had. A 20th century Western—men doing their duty to do something—in the best way.

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