Sunday, October 4, 2009

“No matter how fast you are…there’s always somebody faster…”

TCM ran one of my favorite Westerns the other day, the 1956 oater The Fastest Gun Alive. I like this one for a myriad of reasons: Glenn Ford is the star, and while I couldn’t really call myself a huge fan he definitely had an affinity for the western genre (Jubal, 3:10 to Yuma, etc.)—something about being in the saddle seemed to suit him. And while it addresses a common theme prevalent in the movie western—the gunfighter or man-with-a-fast-draw who gets challenged by every snot-nosed punk convinced he’s quicker on the trigger—it does so in an unusual and entertaining fashion (courtesy of a better-than-average script by director Russell Rouse and Frank D. Gilroy, based on Gilroy’s story The Last Notch).

Outlaw Vinnie Harold (Broderick Crawford) and his gang (John Dehner, Noah Beery) ride into the town of Silver Rapids and barely have enough time to shake the dust off their boots before Harold guns down Clint Fallon, a man with a reputation for being a fast gun. As it turns out, Harold considers himself numero uno in the quick-on-the-draw department, and is compelled to challenge anyone who thinks he’s faster (this is attributed later on in the film to an incident in which Harold’s wife ran off with a faro dealer, prompting an obsession with being the best). Kevin McGovern (J.M. Kerrigan), who witnessed the shooting, takes the news of Fallon’s death back to the neighboring town of Cross Creek, where he proceeds to regale the men folk with tales of Harold’s shooting prowess.

George Temple (Ford) is also a resident of Cross Creek, a mercantile operator with a dark secret. He, too, is proficiently fast with a firearm (we are introduced to him onscreen as he’s practicing his craft by himself far beyond the town limits) but because “trouble follows a fast gun” he and his wife Dora (Jeanne Crain) have been constantly on the move as George’s reputation catches up with him. When resident Harvey Maxwell (Allyn Joslyn) starts to hint that the general store business isn’t a particularly “manly” occupation—in addition to McGovern’s boasting about Harold—George gets liquored up in the local saloon and drunkenly demonstrates to his fellow Cross Creekians that he is “the fastest gun alive,” prompting the townspeople to look at George through different eyes.

But the next morning in church, George realizes that his demonstration was a huge mistake—once word gets out that about Temple’s talent, the town is certainly to be visited by any gunman or drifter anxious to take him on. The town rallies around George, deciding to keep mum about the day before and swearing an oath before God that they won’t reveal his secret. As this is taking place, Harold and company ride into town, looking for fresh horses since they’re on the run from a posse after robbing a bank in nearby Yellow Fork and killing a customer during his escape (the brother of Yellow Fork’s sheriff [Paul Birch]). The son of Cross Creek’s saloonkeeper (Rhys Williams) lets George’s secret slip, and an enraged Howard vows to put a torch to the town if they don’t reveal George’s identity.

What I enjoy most about Fastest is the plot twist about the community coming together to support George and his wife; he’s clearly well-thought of to the point whereby they’ll resort to this rather unorthodox tactic of dummying up about his fast gun to convince him to stay—even though several of the men are a bit nervous because George has a few notches on his gun. (It’s later explained that the gun belong to George’s father, a sheriff who insisted on teaching his son how to be better than he was.) I’ve seen Ford in a lot of westerns but his performance here is a real revelation; his Temple is a man who, though he becomes a hero in the end, displays a lot of un-heroic characteristics: he’s insecure, short-tempered, and isn’t always truthful with his wife (he had told Crain that he tossed away his father’s gun a long time ago, even to the point of elaborately describing how it sank in the water).

By this time in his career, Broderick Crawford’s star had lost a bit of its luster (though he still continued to make appearances in feature films) but he was still a recognizable celebrity, thanks to his weekly appearances as Chief Dan Matthews on the syndicated crime drama Highway Patrol, which ran for four seasons from 1955-59. Many of his feature film forays were a bit one note, and I honestly have to say Fastest was probably his last hurrah onscreen. Though he’s both jowly and growly (his speaking tones remind me of character actor James Gammon in this film), he’s still capable of projecting the proper menace needed in a villainous role—I just wish he’d taken the time to maybe add a little nuance to his character because the man known as Vinnie Harold is a fascinating individual. When a bank customer recognizes Harold as he and his men hold up the Yellow Fork bank (“Vinnie Harold! I thought it was you!”) Vinnie pulls out his gun and blows the man away without batting an eyelash, responding: “Now you can be positive.” Vinnie’s right-hand-man, Taylor Swope, is played by Mister John Dehner, and it’s one of my favorite performances of his; a man who knows that Harold is crazier than a bedbug and is willing to leave a wide berth between the two of them so as not to find himself suddenly gasping for breath as a result of being riddled with bullets. He’s got a beautiful response to Crawford when Brod announces that Cross Creek is going to be a swell place to roast hot dogs and make s’mores: “Ain’t it bad enough that we’ve got one posse following us?”

Fastest also features some first-rate support from some wonderful character actors: Beery, Joslyn, Leif Erickson, Virginia Gregg, Florenz Ames and Joseph Sweeney—the actor who plays the elderly Juror #9 in both the television and movie versions of Twelve Angry Men. There are also uncredited contributions from John Dierkes, Vivi Janiss, Kenneth MacDonald, Addison Richards, Dub Taylor and Glenn Strange—Strange plays the sheriff of Silver Rapids, who tells Vinnie and his bunch that they have three minutes to ride out of town after Harold guns down Fallon. The great thing about this scene is that it doesn’t matter a damn whether Strange is faster than Crawford or not; he just gives him that “Frankenstein monster” stare and Crawford is only too anxious to put as much daylight between him and that jerkwater burg. Russ Tamblyn also has a prominent role in Fastest as a Cross Creek yute with genuine Terpsichorean talent—his dance number (in which he uses a shovel as a pogo stick, then grabs another to make stilts) is entertaining, but it seems a bit out of place here.

Oddly enough, The Fastest Gun Alive is available on DVD—the copy I have was an Australian import purchased off eBay in March of last year (released by a company called JL Entertainment). The DVD is an all-region disc, and it is in the NTSC format so you can play this disc on a Region 1 player with no trouble at all. I bought it because the cover very clearly said “Widescreen” but on the back the info says “Standard”—which is sort of like wearing a belt and suspenders at the same time. (After watching it on TCM, however, I took my copy and put it into the player—and it is letterboxed, just as advertised.)

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