Thursday, October 2, 2008


Director Alfred L. Werker's frontier drama "At Gunpoint" (**** out of ****), with Fred MacMurray, Dorothy Malone, and Walter Brennan, qualifies as one of the best post "High Noon" horse operas. Just as Gary Cooper had to defend himself against three ruthless gunmen in "High Noon" (1952), Fred MacMurray incurs the wrath of an entire outlaw gang for killing their bandit leader. In both films, the hero must stand alone because his friends had abandoned him. Although this western appears blandly routine, "At Gunpoint" emerges as a sturdy, realistic western with a first-rate cast and an imaginative storyline with a surprise ending. Compared with traditional westerns where the gun-toting hero is a lawman or an outlaw, the "At Gunpoint" hero looks definitely non-traditional. Rarely do we see storekeepers elevated to a status of heroic prominence from the obscurity of the periphery where such characters are confined.

"At Gunpoint" opens with the five-member Dennis gang riding into the sleepy little town of Plainview, Texas, where they rob the bank. During the robbery, an overzealous bank teller tries to thwart them and they gun him down. As they are riding out of town, the bank robbers kill elderly Marshal MacKay (Harry Shannon of "The Tall Men") before he can get off a single shot. Amid all the gunfire, storekeeper Jack Wright (Fred MacMurray of "The Texas Rangers") retrieves MacKay's six-gun and miraculously nails gang chieftain Alvin Dennis (John Pickard of "Black Horse Canyon")with a single shot. Another courageous citizen George Henderson (Frank Ferguson of "Rancho Notorious") knocks Dennis out of the saddle with a couple of extra shots. The remainder of the gang has to high tail it rather than get caught in a crossfire. Not only does the Dennis gang lose their leader, but also Alvin Dennis was carrying the bag with the bank's loot in it when Wright and Henderson plugged him. Naturally, everybody in Plainview is proud of Wright's sharp shooting and both Wright and Henderson get their faces on the front page of the local newspaper. When Alvin's hot-blooded brother Bob (Skip Homeier of "Tomorrow The World") learns the identities of the two men who shot and killed his Alvin, he vows vengeance.

Meanwhile, Plainview holds a celebration at the saloon to honor their heroes. In one of the film's best lines, Wright jokes about the circumstances of his shooting: "You're looking at the man who shot the notorious Alvin Dennis from a distance of half a mile... with a slingshot." Initially, the townsfolk want Jack Wright to follow in Marshal MacKay's footsteps as their next lawman, but he refuses because he owns and operates the only general store in town, so they persuade family man George Henderson to accept the badge. On the way out of town after the celebration, George runs into Bob and his fellow gang members and they gun him down in cold blood.

After Henderson's murder, the townspeople live in fear that the Dennis gang will return and kill Jack Wright. They are so afraid of this prospect that they don't want to be around Jack any more than they must so they stop shopping at this store and they forbid their children from playing with his son. Things calm down for a couple of weeks while a Federal marshal (Harry Lauter of "Three Outlaws") arrives in Plainview to write a report about the bank robbery and to see that Jack received his reward money for killing Alvin Dennis. Despite the repeated requests of the town fathers for the Federal marshal to stick around, the lawman dismisses their anxiety and suggests that the Dennis gang has probably left the state. After all, he points out that posses are scouring the countryside for them. Late one evening, Bob Dennis rides into town, knocks insistently at the door to Jack Wright's store and shoots the man who comes to the door. Unfortunately, the man who answered the door was Jack Wright's brother-in-law Wally (James O'Hara of "Death of a Gunfighter") and Jack's wife Martha (Dorothy Malone of "Basic Instinct") is traumatized because she realized that the gunman thought that Wally was Jack.

What sets "At Gunpoint" apart from most westerns is its sense of realism. Nothing happens here that couldn't happen in real life. Jack Wright knows that he made a lucky shot, despite the congratulations that he receives from his fellow citizens who insist that he is a crack shot. In the end, when the Dennis gang comes after Jack and he has a gun in hand, every bullet that he fires misses them. Jack was an everyday person before the shooting and he is still the same after the shooting. Most films would have made him a crack shot with no practice after he shot the outlaw. The cowardly town citizens who begin to shun him after they realize that the gang is waiting for the opportune time to shoot him resemble the pusillanimous citizens in "High Noon" who refuse to help their lawman that requests their help after the three gunmen begin to stalk him. The ending in "At Gunpoint," however, differs considerably from "High Noon" and that is one of the film's saving graces. The Fred MacMurray character never considers himself an accurate shot, but he realizes that he cannot run from the Dennis gang. The suspense and tension that Werker generates in this modest but top-notch western between the time that Henderson is shot and the gang returns is a tribute to his talent as a director.

No comments: