Time for another Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, in which two blogger friends (me and Mike’s Take on the Movies) pick films for the other to watch & review once a month.
Gunman’s Walk is a drama about the conflict between two brothers, played by Tab Hunter and James Darren, as they grow up and apart into opposite personalities, while they also struggle to differentiate themselves from their macho, powerful and much-admired rancher father, Van Heflin. Darren is a measured, stable, quiet, considerate young man who treats the Sioux with respect, and has little use for violence. Hunter is a loud, brash, hot-tempered, immature and spoiled bully whose answer to every situation is to get in faces, push people around verbally or physically and draw his gun.
I recently wrote of Robert Wagner in The True Story of Jesse James (made one year before this) that he didn’t convince me of seething anger or complexity, and I bring that up here because in the TCM intro to the movie Robert Osborne said the Gunman’s Walk role of troubled, violent brother “Ed” came down to a choice between Wagner and Tab Hunter. I’m glad Hunter got it because he did an excellent job, displaying talent and using his looks to great effect. It works well here to have someone that handsome and strapping playing such a cruel boor; his eyes and intent stare are ice cold, ruthless and soulless. His physique makes him totally convincing as the young man who’s grown too big too suddenly to be used to it himself. He’s no longer easily controlled when he’s bad, and he shows that he knows and enjoys that, is proud of, even drunk on, his ability to threaten people with his size and presence. At the same time, his mind hasn’t developed far past adolescence, so he’s impulsive, throws tantrums, and apes adult behaviour, but is infuriated when it doesn’t quite work and he just ends up acting inappropriate. He’s a bigot, taunting like he’s on a playground, and a dangerous gun who still treats it like a plaything. Most of all, and fitting for the common 50’s portrayal of the privileged, tortured and stunted youth, he’s fixated on getting daddy’s love and respect more than working toward being a real grown-up, and thinks the best way to prove his manhood is through meanness and murder. And through it all he still has the desire to give his little brother a gift of a white mare, which shows that somewhere in there he actually has feelings and could be a nice guy. It’s quite a fine, and for me surprising, performance from Hunter; not having seen too many of his movies I’d made assumptions about him being strictly a romantic heartthrob type and after this I’m curious to see more, especially his westerns.
Darren is good too, he doesn’t do any remarkable or flashy acting but with Hunter being all turmoil and trouble all the time, it serves just fine to have Darren be calm, caring and centered, even if he comes off that way due to underacting. He falls in love with a half-breed played by Kathryn Grant, whose brother (Bert Convy), their hired hand, is driven off a cliff in a stupid and deadly act by Hunter. As Hunter goes on trial for the death, Darren defies father and brother and gets closer to Grant and by extension to new attitudes and ways of life. Darren is generally a searching and wise type here but he throws in a nice sassy moment where he tells Heflin how short and small he looks without his boots on. The smirk Darren uses to punctuate the putdown says everything about his newfound confidence and understanding of the errors of his father’s and brother’s ways.
Best of all is Van Heflin, who we first see as a busy, assured, proud man occupied with his empire, disappointed with what he sees as Darren’s wimpiness, and amused by Hunter’s feisty independent spirit. As Hunter gets more defiant and reckless, Heflin is slow to grasp the obvious condemnation and fear being expressed by everyone in town. Hunter’s just being a typical young man, says Heflin, cut from the same cloth, drinking and carousing like they all did at that age. Heflin’s finally told “that was a different time,” one in which the lack of law allowed, even required justice through shootouts and superiority through might. Now, when Hunter distorts that kind of behaviour with hatred and rage, and takes it to the extreme, he’s stepping outside limits and boundaries that are getting tighter and stricter as society progresses.
Hunter becomes like a wild beast that needs to be put down, and by the climax the question becomes who will have to do the job. Heflin has lots of great scenes here, one comes during practice shooting at bottles, when Hunter dangerously takes a dare from Darren and shows off, shooting at a can barely an inch away from Heflin’s hand, while his back is turned. Heflin spins around and tells Hunter that any other man who tried that would be dead now. The next second he’s laughing it off, half proud and impressed. Another great bit has Heflin realizing that a man (Ray Teal) perjured himself to help Hunter get acquitted in the trial, and has come asking for his “payment” in horses. It’s a powerful moment when it dawns on Heflin with shock and disgust that a) his son really is a murderer and b) he’s being blackmailed and can do nothing about it.
Gunman’s Walk was directed by Phil Karlson, who did a lot of noirs that I like, movies like Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street, The Phenix City Story, plus a number of westerns that I should get around to watching like The Iroquois Trail and Thunderhoof. The anti-gun message and negative portrayal of macho behaviour is a bit heavy and preachy in some places, which threatens to absolve Hunter’s character from personal responsibility; he may be young but is old enough to make his own choices and know better. But the movie is rich and complex enough to balance those notes out and overall the message is clear: that in any age or setting, violence and bigotry are unwelcome, and a man ill-equipped to handle adult emotions and situations, one fueled by hatred and resentment, is always a danger. I liked Gunman’s Walk a lot, it’s a good looking, well told and acted western and a must for fans of Heflin.
Now go check out the movie I assigned to Mike, a romantic comedy starring one of my favourite actors.
screen caps from