Law & Order: COWBOY Division

There are those who eagerly await the DVD release of the latest movie they just saw on the big screen a few months or maybe even weeks earlier, there are others who are just as anxious to discover older, sometimes forgotten, films that somehow managed to get their own upgrade for the home market. Too often these films get lost in the shuffle.

Such is the case with two older Westerns just dropped on Blu-ray which fans of the genre should definitely check out. Both films look better than ever, and they’re better than average for their type. Neither was a blockbuster, neither is on lists of Best Westerns, yet both have top stars at their peak, in surprisingly complex character studies.

Both were also written and directed by Richard Wilson, for many years Orson Welles’ chief assistant. Later a teacher of directing at the University of Southern California film school, Wilson was always effusive about the genius from whom he was fortunate enough to learn. 

Man with the Gun (1955) was actually the writer/director’s first movie. Starring Robert Mitchum (who also starred Night of the Hunter the same year), Wilson’s film has all the trappings of a conventional oater of the period, but the result is anything but typical.

Clint Tollinger (Mitchum) rides into town looking for Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling) and the whereabouts of their five-year-old daughter. Though her position is dutifully sanitized for the ’50s, Nelly is obviously the local madam, whose girls include an uncredited Angie Dickinson. Nelly won’t tell Clint what he wants to know, but his reputation as a “town-tamer” leads to his putting on a badge to clean up the lawless mess occasioned by a local land baron and his thugs.

A romantic subplot mirroring Clint and Nelly’s rocky relationship features Jeff Castle (John Lupton), a hotheaded young settler determined to fight on his own despite the protestations from his sweetheart Stella (Karen Sharpe), who just might be developing a thing of her own for the new tough guy in town. Regardless, Clint starts dealing with the scumbags in his own inimitable way.

His rules are his own, simple but deadly. Shape up, or be ready to draw. Clint is effective and ruthless, leading townspeople to question their decision to hire him. One of the film’s best sequences has Clint provoking a fight with Frenchie, the local saloon-keeper (Ted de Corsia), burning down the building, and nearly taking the rest of the town with it.

What sets the movie apart, though, is the complicated motives driving the man … um … with the gun. And Robert Mitchum is in top form, adding real nuance to his imposing physical presence. In addition to Sterling, supporting cast members are also quite effective, adding dimension to stereotypical roles. 

Man with the Gun was Mitchum’s first movie after his break with RKO Pictures, registering a significant shift to more complex roles in the actor’s future career.

Co-written by Richard Nelson with his wife Elizabeth, Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964) bears superficial similarities to the earlier film. However, the themes and conflicts are even more complex than in Man with the Gun, as is the title character played by Yul Brynner.

Returning home after the Civil War, former Reb Matt Weaver (George Segal) is disenfranchised by the Yankee townspeople, headed by corrupt mayor Sam Brewster (Pat Hingle). Taking matters and a gun into his own hands, Matt begins a one-man war of his own, prompting the cowardly citizens to hire a gunfighter of their own. Though the nattily dressed Jules Gaspard d’Estaing (Brynner) isn’t their first choice, he promptly wins the job on his own.

Jewel (as the unrefined citizens called him) is aloof and mysterious, but obviously deadly. His motives are decidedly his own, unrelated to the proffered cash. Jewel has his eye on Ruth Adams (Janice Rule), Matt’s ex-fiancée, now the wife of Crane Adams (Clifford Davis) who lost his arm in the war. In addition, the gunfighter seems quite angered by the plight of the town’s Mexican population, in effect, treated little better than the former slaves the Yankees fought to free.

Invitation to a Gunfighter is a minor classic waiting to be rediscovered.