Directed by Allen Smithee …. aka …. Alan Smithee

For the unaware, Mr. Smithee, is a pseudonym for a director unhappy with the final cut of a film for any variety of reasons who has had his name removed from the actual screen credits. Death of a Gunfighter represents the first theatrical release to employ the mysterious Mr. Smithee.

In actuality the film was directed by Robert Totten who up to this point had worked mainly in television on a number of shows including westerns like Bonanza and The Virginian. When an apparent fallout between Totten and the film’s star, Richard Widmark, led to the director’s departure, he was replaced by Don Siegel who had just worked with Widmark on 1968’s Madigan. Apparently neither director wanted to take credit for the final product prompting the creation of the fictitious Mr. Smithee. Don’t let that deter you from taking a look at this character driven oater with plenty of “faces” you’re sure to recall and enough gunplay to satisfy hardcore western enthusiasts.

Western veteran, Widmark, is an old school town Marshal with a penchant for using his guns. While he’s hero worshipped by a young Michael McGreevey on the cusp of manhood, he’s frowned upon by the business community who want to separate themselves from the past as they usher in the 20th Century.

In the opening scene, Widmark, will have to kill a man in self defense which only causes further dissension between himself and the town folk aside from Lena Horne playing his long time love interest. An interracial relationship? Yes indeed but to be honest Miss Lena is rather wasted in the film and the plot misses an opportunity here to at least lend some focus to the love affair.

Now about that credit list and those filling out the casting call. Kent Smith as a shopkeeper. Harry Carey Jr. as the Reverend, Royal Dano as the Undertaker, Dub Taylor as the town doctor, Victor French as the barkeeper, the Man With No Eyes himself, Morgan Woodward, as the wealthy businessman, Kathleen Freeman in a listen close and you’ll here her voice and not likely see her in the background briefly during the opening credits and how about a superb Carrol O’Connor as the real villain of the film who owns the local saloon.

John Saxon? Yes indeed. He’s in here too in a fine elongated cameo as Widmark’s former protoge called in to push Widmark out of the job/town.

“He’s all used up.”

When the community leaders approach Widmark with the news that he’s fired they’re faced with the fact that he has no intention of turning in his badge and to prove his point he punches Kent Smith to the ground goading him to take the altercation further. Cowardice and shame soon follow which will lead to further violence and even suicide leaving the blame squarely at Widmark’s doorstep.

“Fear is the only Goddamn thing they understand.”

Widmark’s belief is to rule the town with force but lurking behind him is the unsavory, O’Connor, plotting and stirring up the town to rid themselves of the gun toting Marshal. Like many actors playing the heavy, O’Connor, shines brightly making the film that much better than it might have been without him. He and Widmark will face off in a satisfactory fistfight only slightly marred by some shoddy wigs on the stuntmen.

Saxon is brought in by the money men to either convince Widmark to hang’em up or arrest him. I’ll admit I assumed this was going to lead to the pair facing off in a gun battle but in keeping with this being a character driven piece at heart, the pair exchange some harsh words and Saxon leaves town with a warning for his old teacher. Still, Saxon gets one final scene that is a winner during the final battle when we’re looking to see O’Connor get his just due.

I guess it’s no secret just how the film adapted from Lewis B. Patten’s novel is going to end as it’s telegraphed in the title and bookended in the film with Lena boarding a train in black accompanied by a coffin in the opening and closing shots. It’s just a matter of how we get there and showcasing a first rate cast surrounding Widmark who by this time was a veteran of movies having begun his career in unforgettable fashion playing the psychopathic Tommy Udo in 1947’s Kiss of Death. A role that he would forever be associated with despite playing a number of heroic roles in various genres and even a comedy or two along the way before moving into supporting roles and television once the 1970’s came along. For more on this fine actor have a look at my A to Z spotlight.

Death of a Gunfighter offered up Lena Horne’s return to filmmaking after a 13 year hiatus to work primarily on stage. She not only starred opposite Widmark, she was enlisted to sing a mournful song over the opening scene. Her previous on screen credit was 1956’s Meet Me In Las Vegas. She would make only one more appearance on the big screen as Glinda The Good in 1978’s The Wiz.

Youngster Michael McGreevey had previously worked with Widmark in 1967’s The Way West and I best recall him playing opposite Kurt Russell in some early 70’s Disney flicks. As for all those character actors involved here like Dano and Taylor, one could write a book and play six degrees of separation for hours using them as a focal point thanks to having 458 acting credits between just those two alone never mind adding in Miss Freeman or Woodward’s totals.

Director Siegel was just gaining steam as the 60’s closed. He was working mostly in television by this point despite having some classic 50’s titles under his belt like Riot in Cell Block 11, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Line-Up. He’d just had a pair of titles hit the screen in 1968 that gave a hint of what was to come in the 70’s, Madigan and his first film with Eastwood, Coogan’s Bluff. The 70’s? How about Two Mules For Sister Sara, The Beguiled, DIRTY HARRY, Charley Varrick, The Black Windmill, The Shootist, Telefon and Escape From Alcatraz. That’s a pretty solid roster of titles.

A staple on TV ages ago I know I had seen this as a kid but really couldn’t recall the film so this offered up a welcome revisit that felt like a first time viewing. I picked the film up on DVD thanks to the Made On Demand branch of the Universal Vault Series.

No poster but I do have a nice lobby card prominently featuring the two leads.