Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Gun and the Pulpit (1974)

          Normally, the presence of actor Marjoe Gortner in a ’70s movie guarantees a bad time, because in his prime Gortner offered a toxic combination of smugness and vapidity. Accordingly, one reason why it’s so fascinating to watch the documentary Marjoe (1972), which explores the actor’s pre-Hollywood career as a flamboyant evangelist, is the opportunity to learn how the man gained such an oversized ego. Given this context, it’s tempting to surmise that Gortner is watchable in this made-for-TV Western because it represented his first opportunity to play a leading role. Whereas in subsequent projects he struts across the screen with the arrogance of a Hollywood veteran, in The Gun and the Pulpit Gortner puts forth the kind of unassuming effort one might expect from an eager newcomer. And even though he’s still quite weak as an actor, the underlying material is solid enough to survive an iffy leading performance. In fact, it’s easy to imagine how this piece might have been elevated by the presence of, say, James Garner, since The Gun and the Pulpit echoes the wiseass vibe of Garner’s old Maverick series. Even without a grade-A star, The Gun and the Pulpit goes down smoothly. The plot is brisk and pithy, there’s a pleasing mixture of drama and jokes, and the supporting cast is filled with reliable professionals. Plus, since it’s only 74 minutes long, The Gun and the Pulpit never has time to wear out its welcome.
          Gortner stars as Ernie Parsons, a silver-tongued crook who escapes a lynch mob and stumbles across a dead preacher. Helping himself to the man’s clothes and letters of introduction, Ernie rides into the small town where the preacher was expected, only to discover that the place is held under the thumb of tycoon Mr. Ross (David Huddleston). Yet Ernie couldn’t care less about danger, because he falls into lust with Sally Underwood (Pamela Sue Martin), the 18-year-old daughter of a citizen whom Mr. Ross’ thugs shot in the back. Quickly earning the respect of the locals by winning a shootout with two of Mr. Ross’ men—Ernie explains that he’s picked up his six-shooter skills during a lifetime of preaching in frontier towns—Ernie becomes the town’s new favorite son, though a showdown with Mr. Ross becomes inevitable. The setup works well, especially since screenwriter William Bowers (working from a novel by Jack Ehrlich) has a deft touch with one-liners. Additionally, director Daniel Petrie does a good job of weaving together different performance styles into an overall lighthearted tone. Supporting players include stalwarts Jeff Corey, Geoffrey Lewis, Estelle Parsons, and Slim Pickens. Meanwhile, Huddleston provides his signature urbane villainy, and Martin lends considerable sex appeal. All in all, The Gun and the Pulpit is a hearty helping of hokum.

The Gun and the Pulpit: FUNKY

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