Death of a Gunfighter (1969)
Secrets and Lies on Widmark's Patch
You're a bad liar. If you want to succeed in this world, you got to learn to be a good liar - Marshal Frank Patch
Times have changed in Cottonwood Springs, once a town full of bad elements but now a prospering place with a train line, electricity and even a motor vehicle, all of which is thanks to Marshal Frank Patch (Richard Widmark) who over the years has rid the town of those bad elements even if it means killing men. But Patch is now a thorn in the side of the town's business men especially Ivan Stanek (Morgan Woodward) who wants to attract new business but can't with Patch walking around gun in hand and shooting those who step out of line. The trouble for Stanek and the other business men is that not only are they too chicken to deal with Patch themselves but Patch has many secrets on a variety of town's folk.
There are gunfights, there's a fearless Marshal and there are dodgy business men but whilst those are elements which would normally combine to create a cliche western they combine to be something different in "Death of a Gunfighter". That something different is a story of the changing west, a town moving forward having cleaned up its act but stuck with an old fashioned Marshal who rules by the gun, by fear and by the secrets he knows about the business men who want rid of him. There is also another difference to "Death of a Gunfighter" because this is a western from the late 60s and as such standard, boring camera angles are dropped in fabour of fresh angles and creative shots thanks to directors Don Siegel and Robert Totten.
It has to be said that when you start watching "Death of a Gunfighter" the landscape of the town is quite a surprise or at least a surprise when you're used to a western town being small and dirty. Here we get a picture of a town at the turn of a century which is changing, there is the train line and the mayor drives around in an early car, there are also street lights and several businesses some of which have electricity. It immediately makes you pay attention because this is a very different western landscape than most westerns inhabit.
Now on face value "Death of a Gunfighter" comes across like a tale of an old stuck in his way Marshal trying to resist change. We watch as he still rides his horse around at night whilst doing his rounds as the rest of the town almost goes on about their business oblivious of existence. But it develops into more than just this simple tale as following Marshal Patch shooting someone dead in self defence you have the town's power men, the business owners trying to come up with a way to get rid of him. And what is not such a shock is that when they discover that they are not going to oust him legally are willing to kill him to get their way.
All of this makes "Death of a Gunfighter" seem quite ordinary and familiar with the tale of the Marshal having to deal with those who dislike him. But it adds some mystery into the mix because Marshall Patch appears to know everyone's secrets and as such there are those who are fearful that he might start revealing everyone's dirty little secrets. On one level this is quite good as it adds a bit of mystery and you want to know what Patch has on the various people who want him gone. But sadly when one of the mysteries is revealed it ends up surprisingly contrived and over the top. The same can be said of a mysterious romantic sub plot as well as a more obvious one which sees Patch finally tell local Madam Claire Quintana how he really feels about her.
As for the acting well whilst there are some nice performances from Lena Horne, John Saxon, Carroll O'Connor and Morgan Woodward who really is the epitome of an evil businessman "Death of a Gunfighter" is Richard Widmark's movie and delivers another impressive performance. What makes Widmark's performance as Frank Patch so good is in the small detail such as the way his back slightly hunches as he tiredly walks across the street, it makes Patch believable as an old Marshal who is tiring of the fight. But then you also have the quiet confidence as his knowledge of everyone makes him pretty sure that no one dares try to sack him. All of this and more makes Patch an interesting character and one which you want to see win out what would now be seen as corporate greed.
What this all boils down to is that "Death of a Gunfighter" is an interesting western and one which explores different ideas than you find in a typical western. The combination of the changing face of the West with an old style Marshal who thanks to the secrets he keeps has a hold over various business men makes for an interesting movie. It may seem almost cliche with various moments of action but then wows you with the spectacular "High Noon" style ending which really is the one thing you will remember from this movie, well that and another solid performance from Richard Widmark.
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