Looking at one of many favourite episodes of this ultra-cool and sophisticated cowboy show for the Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon.
It was really tough to pick one episode of Have Gun Will Travel; the series had several standout stories and fine acting showcases over six seasons chronicling the exploits of the gentleman cowboy Paladin (Richard Boone). I love the show, and only discovered it a few years ago when it came out on DVD (and at the same time happened to be airing on Canadian TV). You’d be hard pressed to name a cooler cowboy than Boone, the possessor of that magical calling card that comes with its own theme music. There are a good dozen episodes that could be called essential, but I settled on The Long Night because it has a little of everything that I feel made the series great and unique.
Boone plays a fearless man, an expert with a gun, but if he can work out of a standoff or an argument with his intellect, he’d always rather do that than pull his weapon: “I rarely draw it unless I intend to use it.” This is a man who plays chess against himself, and to every interaction and situation he brings a high level of perceptiveness, reason and logic. He can drill down to find the truth of a mystery in a way that sometimes rivals Sherlock Holmes. He never shies from confrontation and challenges, yet is so articulate, calm and strategic in his interactions that he usually gets people to change their minds or see things his way. A natural born leader who understands all aspects of the human personality (especially a lady’s nature), he always has a wise word for the troubled and a clever plan to get out of a jam.
The show had some fine writing that often reached for social commentary, which bridged the Old West to current times through a lead character with more modern sensibilities. There was always lots of opportunity to include some deep thinking on issues that might challenge audiences of the late 50’s and early 60’s, if you wanted to think deeply. If not, then you always had a plain fun good guy/bad guy action yarn that any kid could enjoy and follow further through cereal toys and comic books. All those things made Have Gun Will Travel and its hero Paladin so fascinating then and still, and most of them are on display to some extent in the episode The Long Night.
As the episode begins, Boone is riding along minding his own business when he’s forced at gunpoint to wait under a noose, where’s he’s briefly interrogated by a bearded and intense Kent Smith, playing a prominent and powerful owner of “most of the Panhandle.” Smith tells Boone “she’s dead” then waits for a reaction. Boone has no clue what that means, and we soon learn that last night, Smith found his wife with some mystery man. As the man escaped, Smith shot at him, but his wife stepped in the path of the bullet and was killed. Now a distraught Smith wants that man to die too, but all he knows of him is that he wore a black shirt and rides a black horse. Viewers of the series know that Boone fits that description, and so do two other men in the area: James Best and William Schallert. Now all three stand under that noose and are told that one must confess to being the wife’s lover or all three will be hanged in the morning. We know Paladin’s popular with the ladies but his morals wouldn’t allow him to stoop to adultery (not to mention he’s the star of the show) so he’s out. Is it Best the handsome troubadour, or Schallert the refined rifle company salesman (who claims he’s never fired a gun before), or neither?
Boone sums it up as they talk their way through that long night — they’re three men with three stories. Plus one tight spot and one deceptive widower. As Boone starts demanding more info, he also chips away at the details of Smith’s story and discovers that Smith actually murdered his wife a good half hour after the black shirted man ran off. Smith was treating his wife like just another piece of property, she turned to another for companionship and understanding, and he reacted not in the heat of passion but as punishment for disobedience. As Smith gets increasingly unhinged and immune to Boone’s reasoning and the other men’s pleas, Boone devises a plan that will only work if he confesses to being the wife’s lover. It’s a lot of character examination and tension to fit into 24 minutes and it works out to a tightly told tale.
The Long Night was directed by Andrew McLaglen who helmed most of the season one episodes, and the script was by Sam Rolfe, the show’s co-creator, story editor and by season two, the show’s producer, making it a good representative sample of the series’ feel and spirit. You really get a good feel for Boone’s appeal in a story like this, and he was at his charismatic and charming best in those early seasons. Watching him here, gruff, tough, smart, uncompromising and determined, you can understand why it is, that even though Have Gun Will Travel didn’t beat competing show Gunsmoke in the ratings, the show could claim the edge in female viewership (it’s said that over 70% of the fan mail came from women). The only thing lacking in The Long Night which keeps it from being an essential is an appearance by Kam Tong as Paladin’s companion Hey Boy. But when you’re talking about great series, no one episode can do more than invite you to the whole; if you’re a fan you’ll fondly recall far more than one guest and tale, and if you haven’t seen Have Gun Will Travel, make sure to check out a lot more of this great western show.
This post is part of the Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts, please tune in through this link to see all the other classic episodes and series discussed March 27 -29.