Welcome to our new series where we look back at every feature “made” by the most prolific directors in history Alan Smithee. Each week we will go back from his feature debut and see why dear Alan was credited as the director and then a nice review of the film.
For those unaware Alan (or Allen) Smithee is the pseudonym when a director has his name removed from a film for a variety of reasons and the replacement director has not filmed enough of the film to constitute as the director. This pseudonym was created by the Directors Guild of America, as a director’s name must be credited. Alan has directed a grand total of 40 films, tv episodes and music videos. We are as mentioned only focusing on the features of his filmography. The first of his features was the Death of a Gunfighter (1969)
Why is Alan Smithee credited?
The original director Robert Totten was a television director hired by the star Richard Widmark. During production of the film Totten and Widmark clashed continually. To the point that Totten had quite enough after a year of working with Widmark and left the production. He was then replaced by Don Siegel, though because Totten had work for so long on the film, Siegel refused to have his name credited in respect for the work carried out previous. As this was the first time Alan Smithee had directed or had his name listed, a wide variety of critics were duped by his inclusion. Including the late great Roger Ebert.
Death of a Gunfighter
Marshal Frank Patch (Richard Widmark) took over the town of Cottonwood Springs when it was at it’s worst ad run riot with trouble. He has rid the town of said trouble and has found himself in the position of being too good at his job. To the point that the business men of the town are fed up with him for continually shooting troublemakers dead in the street. For a prosperous town he is bringing a bad reputation of death to it. They need to sort out their issue…
Interestingly for Death of a Gunfighter doesn’t start in the usual Wild West world that we are used to and we are in fact at the end of the era. There is electricity, a buzzing multinational town. This is not just a movie with the standard Western characters we have deeper more meaningful characters and the step away from the cliché works immensely. To the point that it is surprising that it never happened earlier.
Frank is the old guard of the Western era and his style of lawmaking is well past its sell by date. The founders want to keep moving the town forward. Yet all possible business opportunities are thrown away as soon as they see our good Marshall strike someone down in the street. The founders and businessmen want to forget their frontier past, but with Frank still in charge and nigh on unsackable. They believe they have to resort to killing him. Even that concept is better in this modern glance, usually there would not be nearly the same detail to the plot as we get here. The older group would just want to kill him to make money. They do, but they skew it in the way of wanting to keep progressing the town to be what they think it should be.
This allows for all of the characters to have more fleshed out and the film is seriously enhanced because of it. Widmark of course dominates the film and although I have not seen many of his films. He is very strong here and is the better here than in previous films than what I have seen him in. This could be due to how much say he had in the production (the reason why Totten left) he seems to have dominated and had his say in everything. To his credit this works a well, so maybe he was right?
This is a film about ending eras, from moving on. The townspeople know they need to do so to get with the major towns and cities. Frank himself knows he is the last of a dying breed. But he is stubborn enough not to want to go other than in battle. Marshall Patch is a well-constructed character with an arc that has you sympathise for him. Yet as we progress we realise. Maybe there is a point to their thought process for Patch just cannot stop himself from doing what he has always done. It is a telling detail to him that he is the romanticised version of what the Wild West has always been. Lone gunmen solve their issues by shootout, to men like him it is the only way to get by. His time must come to an end, rather he likes it or not.
The original director Totten and Siegel chose some amazingly creative angles for Death of a Gunfighter. We do not see the standard shots and we have the chance to see a Western in a more modern style. It is creative and fresh and importantly very welcome. This is visually a very appealing film in comparison to a lot of others released before it.
Death of a Gunfighter is a telling look at a simpler traumatic time in America when the Wild Wests time was up. It was just a matter of how those last gunfighters were aiming to go out. An interesting if brutal flick.
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