The whole notion of the showdown was fundamental to the Western. The plot of the first great Western novel, The Virginian (1902) depended on it and countless movies gave us the last-reel confrontation between goody and baddy as the climax of the picture. Republic released The Showdown (a Bill Elliott oater) in 1950, Louis L’Amour published Showdown at Yellow Butte in 1953, Jock Mahoney won a Showdown at Abilene in 1956, Charles Bronson had an indecisive Showdown at Boot Hill in 1958, and Universal put Audie Murphy in Showdown in 1963. And ten years later Universal used the title again, though with a different story, in yet another Showdown.
I don’t remember it, actually, and may not even have seen it at the time (though that would have been odd) but reader John Knight mentioned it in a comment on another 70s Western we reviewed recently, The Culpepper Cattle Company. So I watched this Showdown last night.
This one, unlike Audie’s rather ordinary black & white effort a decade earlier, is quite a glossy picture, 99 minutes of Todd-AO 35 Technicolor with some great New Mexico and Sequoia National Forest locations shot by Ernest Laszlo, no less.
It stars Rock Hudson and Dean Martin. Both these actors often did Westerns as non-leads or co-stars. Rock was paired with James Stewart in Bend of the River, with Robert Ryan in Horizons West, with Kirk Douglas in The Last Sunset and with John Wayne in The Undefeated. Dino partnered Wayne in Rio Bravo, Sinatra in Sergeants 3 and 4 for Texas (and very bad they were too), Wayne again in The Sons of Katie Elder, James Stewart in Bandolero! and Robert Mitchum in 5 Card Stud. Rock was quite good in Westerns; he rode well and did a good job of the tough-but-decent Western hero. Dino was in some pretty weak Westerns, to say the least, but he was always charming and enjoyable in them. And in Rough Night in Jericho he was excellent as the bad guy.
Showdown has the old plot about two brothers – or in this case best friends – on opposite sides of the law. They grew up together and became partners in a ranch but Billy (Martin) left and fell in with some undesirable elements while Chuck (Hudson) stayed and became a lawman. In the opening scenes Billy holds up a train and of course it will be Sheriff Chuck’s job to hunt down the robbers, allowing for anguished conflicts.
There’s a slight Butch Cassidy vibe as both pals exchange badinage and both fall for the same gal, Kate (Susan Clark). Chuck marries her but Billy more than half loves her too. Unlike Etta in Butch Cassidy, though, Kate is a rather shrewish wife and a nag. She says she does it because she loves Chuck but it makes her come across as an unsympathetic character.
The director was George Seaton, hardly a name to set the blood of Western-lovers coursing hotly through their veins. It was the only Western he directed, though he was one of the producers of The Tin Star and also deserves encomiums, panegyrics and paeans from all true Westernistas because he was the voice of The Lone Ranger on Detroit radio station WXYZ, where he claimed to have originated the "Hi-Yo, Silver!" catchphrase because of his inability to whistle.
There are occasional black & white freeze-frames which segue into little flashback vignettes as both characters recall their younger days of buddiness. There are probably too many of these, to be honest. They do rather slow the action down.
It’s set very late – Billy tells Kate he has been in Cuba with the Rough Riders – but of course all the clothes and guns are 1870s, as usual.
It was the last Western of both Hudson and Martin, both perhaps slightly past their sell-by date, and the last film of director Seaton.
There’s a fair bit of action. Billy uses a derringer at one point. So it has its moments.
The final showdown is a bit of a cheat, though, because it isn’t a confrontation between Chuck and Billy at all. They in fact unite against the bad-guy accomplices of Billy in that robbery.
It’s harmless enough, no great shakes but perfectly watchable.