"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Gunfight at Dodge City (United Artists, 1959)

McCrea is very good, McIntire is outstanding.

At first blush The Gunfight at Dodge City is a straight-down-the-line, clean-up-the-town B-Western in which Bat Masterson replaces his murdered brother Ed as sheriff and brings law ‘n’ order to Dodge. The title and poster apparently tell all: we expect a classic 50s Main Street showdown.

But it’s more than a B-movie. It has relatively high Mirisch production values, good Cinemascope color and some classy actors.

Notably, of course, Joel McCrea. In his mid-50s and near the end of his career, looking rather stocky, he was still that quiet, calm lead that was ideally suited to the Western hero. In this he reminds me a bit of Matt Dillon: he is low-key, strong, quietly authoritative. He’d cleaned up Wichita, of course, four years earlier, for Jacques Tourneur and RKO. Now he does the same to Dodge for Mirisch/United Artists.

In fact this film was shot contemporaneously with Comanche Station with Randolph Scott and the two stars then immediately retired. They came out of retirement together for the fine Ride the High Country in 1962, directed by Sam Peckinpah.

In The Gunfight at Dodge City, McCrea was directed by Joseph M Newman, a solid workhorse who had made a number of rather average pictures, including the curious Fort Massacre (again with McCrea) the year before.

John McIntire as the town doc and sidekick of Bat is superb, as he could be. This was one of his finest roles in a Western and the movie is worth seeing just for him. He also has some decent lines, written by Martin Goldsmith and Daniel B Ullman (Wichita, Colt .45, later to do a lot of TV work including an episode of Bat Masterson).

There’s a decoy love interest, as Bat falls for Ed’s fiancée, Julie Adams, who, he finally realizes, is cold and hard, and then there’s glamorous Lily (Nancy Gates), co-owner of The Lady Gay saloon, with whom he finally realizes he is in lerve, though not till the very last reel. There are often two ladies in Westerns, a prim & proper one and a saloon gal; usually the hero plumps for the 'good' one but it's refreshing when he goes for the racy dame.

A weakness of the film is that the principal baddy, evil Sheriff Regan, is bland. Don Haggerty doesn’t cut it and of course without a plausible tough guy as opponent, Bat’s victory is smaller.

Naturally, all resemblance to history is entirely coincidental. Dirty Dave Rudabaugh (slick and slim Richard Anderson) shoots Ed (in the back) and then is shot by Bat. The Thompsons (occasionally oddly referred to as Townsends) make an appearance, though Ben (Walter Coy) is awfully decent and Billy (Wright King) no psychopath but a mentally-handicapped boy in need of hospitalization. Never mind. Who needs history? You want history, read a history book.

Kansas looks very like California. The music is ho-hum. The outcome is predictable. Still, McCrea is very good, McIntire is outstanding and altogether this is a three-revolver Western that you will enjoy.



  1. I agree with your assessment but not with Universal as distributor, at least not in the U.S. Walter Mirisch produced for United Artists.

    1. Oops. You're right. I've changed it. Thanks!