Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gunslinger (American Releasing, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I was too tired for anything much heavier than a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation, so I went back to the vaults and dug out an episode containing the show’s original host, the far queenlier Joel Hodgson (interesting “playing” a character called “Joel Robinson,” probably because “Robinson” was a lot easier for the other cast members to pronounce than “Hodgson”). The film was Gunslinger, a 1956 production by Roger Corman for American Releasing (which later became American International Pictures) and which hooked my curiosity simply because of the novelty of Corman doing a Western. It turned out to be a knockoff of Johnny Guitar with admixtures from The Harvey Girls, Destry Rides Again (particularly the all-out saloon-floor fight between the two female leads) and Shane.

At the start of the film Scott Hood (William Schallert), the marshal of Oracle, Texas, is bidding his wife Rose (Beverly Garland, second-billed) to make him coffee so he can prepare for a busy day of fighting Oracle’s criminal element. Oracle’s criminal element appears sooner than he expects in the form of two ratty-looking killers who hang out outside the Hoods’ home and stick a shotgun through his open window, quickly dispatching him. Rose insists that the town’s mayor, Gideon Polk (Martin Kingsley), appoint her as marshal until a male replacement can arrive from out of town — and the mayor reluctantly does so. (At this point I joked that this movie could be shown on a double bill with Blazing Saddles, with Gunslinger appealing to people who are voting for Hillary Clinton and Blazing Saddles to those supporting Barack Obama.)

Rose is convinced — correctly — that her husband was killed by a criminal conspiracy involving the mayor and the town’s saloon owner, Erica Page (Allison Hayes); Erica is buying up the land along a proposed railroad right-of-way and will lose everything if the railroad locates its line somewhere else — though she doesn’t seem to have much of a Plan B other than having her minions massacre everyone in town. Rose runs afoul of Erica by insisting that her saloon, the Red Dog, close at 3 a.m. as state law stipulates rather than remaining open 24/7 — and Erica responds by hiring professional hit man Cane Miro (John Ireland, top-billed and no doubt looking fondly back to the days when his co-stars were John Wayne and Montgomery Clift instead of Beverly Garland and Allison Hayes) to knock Rose off, though she doesn’t tell him who the intended victim is until the day before he’s supposed to do the hit.

In the meantime Cane and Rose meet and start an affair, though Cane is also involved with Erica — a weird inversion of the usual romantic triangle! — and at the end the railroad decides to bypass Oracle after all, Cane shoots Erica, then for no apparent reason Cane goes out and shoots at Rose as well (he’s shot the woman who paid him to kill Rose and he’s in love with Rose, so there’s no reason for him to kill her, but I guess he just hates leaving a job unfinished), only Rose wins their gun battle and kills him instead. Then she rides out of town, and on the way out she runs into the new (male) marshal, gives him her badge and, when he says, “Looks like a nice, quiet, little town you got here,” Rose replies, “Yeah. Yeah, it is.” (To which my partner Charles joked, “Sure, it is — now! Everyone’s dead!”)

What’s disappointing about Gunslinger is that it’s the sort of cheap “B” movie that with just a little more time and care could have been quite good — it would have still seemed like a cheap ripoff of Johnny Guitar but at least it would have been a good cheap ripoff of Johnny Guitar. Rose herself is a marvelous character, torn between a commitment to the usual social role of a woman and determined to bring her husband’s killers to some sort of justice even if she has to dress (in black jeans) and act like a man to do it. The antagonism between her and Erica is nicely drawn, and the idea of a hit man falling in love with his victim, though also not exactly original, has a certain kinky appeal — especially when, as writers Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna (presumably not the one who was William McKinley’s Karl Rove) do here’ it’s pushed to having him fall for the villainess who hired him as well.

Gunslinger suffers from Corman’s cheap production — the film was shot in seven days, it was raining through much of the time (so much so that some scenes were rewritten to take place indoors and others shot under tarps, with Ronald Stein’s musical score used to cover up the noise of rain hitting the tarp), Allsion Hayes broke her arm failing off a horse (Beverly Garland accused her of doing it deliberately to get off the film) and the ever-resourceful Corman actually shot some of Hayes’ closeups while she was in the ambulance about to be taken to the hospital. Just about everyone who’s commented on Gunslinger (including the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 talk-back crew) noticed the tire tracks clearly visible on screen as Rose chases Cane on horseback en route to their final confrontation — so the Iverson Ranch, where this film was shot, was more developed and less pristine than it had been when Republic used it for similar scenes 15 years earlier! — but that’s not what’s wrong with this film.

What’s most wrong with it is a clunky script that stops in its tracks way too often to deliver reams of boring exposition, and also Corman’s decision to shoot it in color — particularly Pathécolor, at the time (and for years later) the only process cheap enough for American International to afford — which gives the film flashes of red in an otherwise almost all-blue cast. (Then as later, red and blue were the only colors Pathécolor could do justice to — but then given American International’s specialties in beach-party and horror movies, maybe that’s all they needed: blue for the sky and the sea, red for the blood.) There’s a marvelously quirky character, Jake Hayes (Jonathan Haze, later the lead in the original Little Shop of Horrors), who even though he’s supposed to be Erica’s boy-toy as well as her assistant (at least until Cane displaces him from the former) is portrayed as a screaming queen — but Corman makes much less of him than a more imaginative director might have, and the characters move about so quickly and appear so dramatically in different locations that it’s obvious the actors were just sneaking around the false fronts of the outdoor “building” sets and moving about from building to building far faster than they could have if the “buildings” had been three-dimensional.

Roger Corman made some surprisingly good movies for American International — he also made a lot of dreck, too, but there are films in his AIP oeuvre like Sorority Girl that are far better than they have a right to be given their origins in low-budget exploitation. Alas, Gunslinger isn’t one of the good ones, even though the concept and Beverly Garland’s marvelous performance could have been the spine of a good movie instead of an occasionally quirky but mostly dull one even the MST3K interjections couldn’t brighten up much!