Thursday, July 22, 2010


The title of “Four Fast Guns” (*** out of ****) refers to the hero’s expertise with a six-shooter as well as the three pistoleros hired to kill him. “Hell Bound” director William J. Hole Jr.’s western melodrama “Four Fast Guns” qualifies as a low-budget but above-average ‘town tamer’ sagebrusher with a good cast, compelling characters, and several surprises. This black and white, 72-minute oater reminded me of the Wayne Morris B-western “Two Guns and A Badge.” In “Two Guns and A Badge,” Morris is appointed as the deputy marshal of a lawless town. In reality, he isn’t the man that the townspeople were supposed to have as deputy marshal. Similarly, “Four Fast Guns” protagonist Tom Sabin (James Craig of “Drums in the Deep South”) has been run out of Kansas by the hired gunman, Haggerty, who was paid to clean up the territory. The obnoxious ‘town tamer’ encounters Sabin along the trail. Haggerty warns Sabin to steer clear of Purgatory where his next job is. Sabin ignores him so Haggerty goads Sabin into a gunfight. Indeed, Haggerty gets the first shot and wings Sabin’s right arm between the shoulder and the bicep and then demands that Sabin show him the palm of his hand. Presumably, Haggerty intends to put a bullet through Sabin’s hand and end his days as a gunfighter. Haggerty has his own gun drawn when Sabin surprises him and drops him with one shot.

Sabin rides into the town of Purgatory. Inscribed on an archway that welcomes visitors are the words: Purgatory: When you ride into Purgatory, “Say goodbye to God.” The citizens have never laid eyes on Haggerty. When Sabin shows up, they ask him if he is the ‘town tamer?’ Like the Wayne Morris hero in “Two Guns and a Badge,” Sabin tells them that the ‘town tamer’ Haggerty sent him to Purgatory all the way from Kansas. At first, Sabin isn’t altogether certain that he wants to maintain this masquerade. They citizens offer him $500 for the job. When somebody suggests that Sabin may be afraid, Sabin accepts the job. The townspeople want to see the owner of The Babylon Saloon, Hoag (Paul Richards of “The St. Valentine's Day Massacre”), run out of town since he controls all of the killing, rustling and gambling in the area. Sabin and the citizens strike a compromise. They will try him out and pay him after he cleans up Purgatory. When they want to know who to send the $500 to, Sabin gives them the Santa Fe address of the widow of Jay Cassavedas. Later, when Sabin prowls around the marshal’s office, he spots a wanted poster of himself on the wall. He is wanted for the killing of Jay Cassavedas.

Hoag indulges himself in a hobby of importing works of art as well as minions of evil. The first work of art is a small replica of Venus De Milo. Ironically, Hoag is an invalid confined to a wheelchair. He spends his time playing the piano in his bar. Later, Hoag’s pretty wife, Mary Hoag (Martha Vickers of “The Big Sleep”), explains that they were on the stagecoach for Wichita to get hitched when the vehicle wrecked and broke her husband’s back. Nevertheless, Hoag is a power neither to be taken lightly nor ignored. Hoag is as cold-blooded as they come, and he antes up a thousand dollars to see Sabin lying dead in the dust. Hoag sends one of his henchmen, Grady, over to kill the sheriff after their first meeting, but Sabin kills Grady. As each gunslinger botches the job, Hoag increases his offer, until the third gunslinger, Johnny Naco, arrives and takes the three grand to kill Sabin. Hoag never really ventures beyond the premises of the Babylon and he emphasizes his sophistication when he quotes a poem to Sabin when the 'town tamer' visits him in his office. Cleverly, the scenarists have Hoag quoting a passage from the Robert Herrick poem "To Virgins, to Make Much of Time": "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may/Old Time is still a-flying;/And this same flower that smiles today,/Tomorrow will be dying."

No sooner has Sabin arrived in Purgatory than Hoag dispatches a gunman to kill him. Sabin is in the marshal’s office when his would-be assassin enters and tries to kill him. Predictably, Sabin survives this fracas, but the twists are what distinguish this western. He has to contend with three gunslingers before he cleans up Purgatory and rides away to Tombstone. Along the way, Sabin makes a rather good friend of the alcoholic living in the abandoned marshal’s office, Dipper (Edgar Buchanan of “Texas”), who wears a small cup around his neck with which he uses to drink his whiskey. Despite his drinking, Dipper is a lot smarter than most people take him. Essentially, Dipper serves as the quasi-narrator of sort. Although he isn’t seen until later in the action, Dipper provides narration at the outset. “This man came along the trail one Sunday morning back in ’73 talking it slow and easy keeping his open and his gun hand ready. Came from nowhere I guess. Anyhow, he never said from where and we never asked. He was going to stop off in Purgatory, make his stand, like he lived alone. This is number one. He called himself Sabin.” The number one in the narration refers to the first of the “Four Fast Guns.”

Dipper becomes Sabin’s greatest ally. Not only does Dipper serve as the film’s narrator, but also he is chief source of comic relief. Hoag’s wife is another interesting character. She stands by her husband, but her sentiments toward Sabin change over time. Ultimately, she grows attached to Sabin, but she refuses to end her marriage to Hoag. The second time that Sabin visits the Babylon, Hoag tries to convince him to leave town. He shows him three letters that he intends to send to three gunslingers that he will pay to kill Sabin. Hoag suggests Sabin tear up the letters, but Sabin refuses to violate a federal law pertaining to the sanctity of the U.S. mail. Ironically, Sabin winds up mailing Hoag’s letters, letters to men who will come to kill him. The three gunslingers are worthy of note, particularly the Brett Halsey character.

The first of them is a Mexican named Quijano. Quijano (Richard Martin of “Bombardier”) catches his girlfriend in the bath tub and asks her to translate Hoag’s letter. Quijano rides to Purgatory. Along the way, he asks for directions and the settlers warn him to ride clear of Iron Town. Marshal Becker of Iron Town is pretty quick with a pistol. Quijano shoots the lawman on the trail, but he loses his lucky charm, a necklace with a cross. Later, Mary tries to bride Quijano out of killing Sabin, but he refuses her offer. He had been whipped into submission like a dog by a ‘town tamer’ and hates them. Quijano slaps leather with Sabin in the Babylon and Sabin blows a hole in the Mexican. After he drops Quijano, Sabin gets a lecture from Mary Hoag. “You’ll be destroyed by a man without a gun. A man you can’t shoot because he can’t stand up to you in the only kind of fight you understand—a gunfight.” Actually, “A Day of Fury” scenarist James Edmiston and “When the Clock Strikes” scribe Dallas Gaultois provide a lot of foreshadowing in Mary’s speech because “Four Fast Guns” concerns honor. Sabin’s sense of honor compelled him to take up the townspeople on their offer. Similarly, a sense of honor prevents him from simply shooting Hoag while the villain plays his piano.

The second of the three is the laconic Farmer Brown (Blu Wright of "Squad Car")and he has cultivated a reputation for being a fast draw and an accurate shot. He proves his accuracy when he blows a coin out of a stable boy's hand. The Farmer never carried a gun until he was shot in the face. Now, he totes one and he has the personality of an ogre. He tries to shoot Sabin from under table as they are playing poker. Sabin outsmarts him. He pulls out his revolver and cocks it as soon as he sits down so the weapon is on his thigh within easy reach. Since the outcome to this duel is such a foregone conclusion, director William J. Hole Jr., doesn’t even show us how it happened. This strategy occurred in an earlier scene when Grady the gunslinger entered the jail, while Hole keeps the viewer outside with the camera. The gunfire is audible and then the gunslinger stumbles outside and falls dead on the street.

The third of the three, Johnny Naco (Brett Halsey of "Roy Colt and Winchester Jack"), trails the Farmer into Purgatory. Johnny is dressed like a classic villain from Stetson to boots in black. He is a ladies man and has the utmost confidence in his ability to out draw everybody else. Mary tries to distract him initially from his showdown with Sabin in the saloon. Naco clears the bar and waits for Sabin to enter. The tension mounts as Sabin walks into the bar. The director shows close-up shots of their opposing faces. They appear to know each other. One of the major surprises in “Four Fast Guns” occurs at this point and everything afterward clashes with the typical ‘town tamer’ western. Finally, as the tension melts between them but nobody shucks iron. Sabin turns and walks out of the Babylon. This is the last thing that you expect out of this western with eighteen minutes left to go. The townspeople are surprised and the one who constantly derides Sabin makes a wisecrack, while Naco hands Hoag back his $3-thousand. "I'll kill the man, but it's going to be a little more difficult than I figured." When Hoag demands to know why Naco didn't draw on Sabin, Naco tells him that Sabin is his brother! Naco also informs Mary that Sabin and he are brothers. They relocate to the church that hasn't been used because Purgatory has no preacher. Earlier, a woman told the townspeople taking up a collection for the 'town tamer' that she thought they needed a minister instead of a gunslinger. In the church, Naco explains that Sabin and he had trouble with a man called Cassavedas. Naco shot Cassavedas, but Sabin took responsibility for what Naco had done.

“Ambush at Cimarron Pass” lenser John M. Nickolaus Jr.’s black & white, widescreen cinematography is an asset. Nickolaus shoots this low-budget western as if it were a big-budget opus. He set-ups his cameras in the best possible positions and his pictorial composition is virtually flawless. For example, the Farmer Brown scene in the Babylon opens with a medium long shot of the legs of the gamblers under the table. Using the frame of the chair that Sabin will occupy, Nickolaus shows us Farmer Brown's lap with his gun on his thigh. You can tell that the Production Code censors had mellowed by 1960 because we get a glimpse of a Mexican girl's buttock and Dipper goes to sleep with a picture of a scantily-clad woman on the wall. The Code may have objected to Dipper's picture on the basis that it implies that the old drunk will have a 'wet dream.' The performances are good. James Craig is appropriately tight-lipped and honor-bound. He doesn’t look very appealing without his usual mustache. Martha Vickers, who plays Hoag’s wife, is very good. She might have become a well-known actress if she had stuck to playing bad girl roles in the late 1940s. Good movies contain surprises which usually enliven the narrative. The surprise ending caps this corker. “Four Fast Guns” never wears out its welcome.