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

Friday, July 21, 2017

Showdown at Boot Hill (Fox, 1958)

Bronson gets his first lead role

Charles Bronson appeared in big-screen Westerns from 1954, getting small-to-middling parts in pictures such as Vera Cruz, Apache and Drum Beat. His first Western lead role, though (and indeed his last until the 1970s) was Showdown at Boot Hill, a rather dull 1958 black & white B-picture made by Regal Films and released by Fox. Regal was a minor producer of low-budget B-Westerns and sci-fi flicks in the 1950s, owned or part-owned by Fox.

The title had a touch of the lurid about it, as well as being inaccurate because the eponymous final fight at the cemetery turns out not to happen.

The picture was directed by Gene Fowler Jr (left), a former editor whose first movie as director this was. He is best known for such marvels as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Married a Monster from Outer Space. He mostly did TV work, though the following year he would direct Fred MacMurray's last (and worst) feature Western, The Oregon Trail.

The writer was Louis Vittes, who also did mostly TV scripts but occasionally rode out on the big screen (this was his second feature Western). Unfortunately, between them Fowler and Vittes cooked up a picture that is (I think) supposed to be profound but succeeds only in being pretentious.

Bronson (right) is Deputy US Marshal Luke Welsh, arrived in a small Kansas town to find and bring back to justice a certain Con Maynor (Thomas Browne Henry) who is wanted for three murders. He finds his man and shows his warrant but Maynor shoots it out in the hotel and Welsh kills him. For some reason, the townspeople set themselves against the lawman and do everything they can to thwart him. Their main ambition seems to be to deny him the two hundred dollars reward for Maynor and their tactic is to refuse to identify the dead man.

Certain elements of the townsfolk even decide to kill the marshal, although why they should be so against him and wish to defend a murderer is never made clear. They know the dead man’s brother (George Douglas) as he is a local rancher but they hardly knew Con, yet seem to want to do everything to defend his name and avenge him. It’s all rather implausible.
The US marshal with a height complex
Welsh has a photograph taken of the corpse which should do as an ID and get him the reward when gets back to St Louis but the townsmen shoot up the photographer’s studio, busting the plate and the camera, so that scheme is a flop.

The leading townsman is John Carradine, who combines the professions of doctor, barber, undertaker and preacher. He is given some dialogue so portentous as to be downright silly, such as, “There's a Boot Hill in every man's soul”, which of course there isn’t.
Carradine, exercising one of many of his professions
Welsh is supposed to be obsessed with his shortness. While Bronson does indeed look diminutive alongside the top-hatted Carradine (who was six foot even without the stove-pipe) he wasn’t that small (he was 5’8” or 1.74m) so this idea doesn’t work too well. Anyway, quite frankly, who cares? Welsh explains that being so short, bounty-hunting was the only career open to him. Right. His new girlfriend Sally (Fintan Meyler) tells him an undeniable truth: “No matter how many men you kill, it will not make you an inch taller.” He can’t have been very bright if he hadn’t thought of that.

Sally is the virtuous but ashamed daughter of the town whore Jill (Carole Mathews) and she waitresses in the hotel, living an austere and joyless life. I think she is supposed to recognize a kindred spirit in Welsh. They fall in love. Jill has a gambler-gunman lover (Mike Mason) who also unaccountably takes against Welsh (Why? I think we should be told) and tries to gun him down in a saloon but Welsh is too fast for him and he falls wounded. Later he manages to shoot his own lover with a shotgun. Doh.
Finally Welsh attends the funeral of Con at Boot Hill, gunless, thus showing his manhood or something. There is a damp-squib ‘showdown’ and Welsh and Sally fall into each other’s arms to live HEA.


One good thing: Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales has a walk-on part with his burro.

Showdown at Boot Hill aims to be a tense psychological Western and ends up looking like an overwritten episode of some TV show. I suppose it has a certain offbeat/rarity interest, and Bronsonistas might like to see it but myself I never thought Mr. Bronson much of an actor, certainly not in Westerns anyway, and I’d say that the film is skippable.


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