Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Gunfight (1971)

          Mostly squandering a terrific premise and a unique combination of leading actors, the offbeat Western A Gunfight is worth investigating for fans of the genre and the stars, though nearly all who watch the film will end up disappointed. The movie feels like a great episode of some vintage gunslinger-themed TV show, unnecessarily stretched to feature length. Still, where else can viewers see country-music legend Johnny Cash and he-man movie icon Kirk Douglas square off against each other? Directed by the skilled Lamont Johnson, A Gunfight begins with imagery so familiar that it’s a Western cliché—the mysterious stranger rolling into town, arousing the suspicions of everyone he encounters. In this case, the stranger is onetime gunfighter Abe Cross (Cash). Despite presenting himself as a peaceable man who just wants to cash in the meager findings from his failed career as a gold prospector, Abe excites the imagination of townsfolk who are itching for the thrill of gunplay. Meanwhile, fellow ex-gunfighter Will Tenneray (Douglas) enjoys a humble existence as a permanent resident in the very same town, sharing humble lodgings with his wife, Nora (jane Alexander), and their son. Essentially a walking-and-talking tourist attraction, Will spins tale tales of his past exploits in a local bar, encouraging patrons to drink up and incur hefty tabs.
          Captivated by the notion of two famous fighters occupying the same place at the same time, townsfolk pester Abe and Will with questions of when they’ll battle each other. At first, neither man has any interest in a duel, but then Abe jokingly suggests staging a fight and selling tickets. The idea lodges itself in Will’s mind, so, eventually, Abe’s need for cash and Will’s need to reassert his manhood cause the idea to become a real plan. Understandably, this causes friction with Nora and with Abe’s newfound girlfriend, a prostitute named Jenny (Karen Black).
          Writer Harold Jack Bloom adds several unexpected wrinkles to the basic premise, displaying how bloodlust, entrepreneurship, and pathos converge in the spectacle of two men facing each other as a form of public spectacle. Alas, Bloom doesn’t conjure an entire feature’s worth of material, so the script stalls repeatedly, and Bloom’s character development is mediocre at best. The movie also suffers for the inclusion of an obtuse and underwhelming final sequence. That said, a convergence of disparate acting styles produces many vivid scenes along the way. Cash is easy and natural, bringing his signature “Man in Black” persona to the screen smoothly. Douglas does well playing the de facto villain of the piece, since his character is a little too eager to court death, and his macho energy serves the piece well. Alexander is marvelously real as always, elevating her scenes to the level of genuine drama, whereas Black is the weak link, though she’s not onscreen enough to inflict much damage. A Gunfight also benefits from the participation of Keith Carradine (whose billing suggests this movie is his debut, although he had appeared a few months earlier in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller), Dana Elcar, and Raf Vallone.

A Gunfight: FUNKY

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