Death of a Gunfighter was originally directed by Robert Totten, who directed the original The Quick and the Dead, as well as plenty of TV like Gunsmoke and Mystery In Dracula’s Castle. Despite a year of work, he couldn’t get along with star Richard Widmark and lost that battle, getting replaced by Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry and John Wayne’s last movie, The Shootist).
Siegel had been the original choice to direct, but was overworked, according to the Chicago Tribune. However, in Siegel’s memoirs, he wrote that Widmark pushed from day one to get Totten kicked off the film and replaced by the unwilling Siegel. Finally, three and a half weeks into making the movie, Widmark got Universal boss Lew Wasserman to personally get involved.
When Siegel looked at Totten’s footage, he thought it was great and even made sure his own footage matched. In fact, he didn’t reshoot a single scene, only finishing off the film’s opening and closing sequences, as well as some pick-up shots. In the end, he didn’t think he had done enough work to take directing credit.
However, Totten wanted nothing to do with the film. Siegel didn’t want his name on the film, which upset Widmark even more. Finally, an agreement was made with the Directors Guild of America for the pseudonym Alan Smithee to be used.
In fact, this was the first Alan Smithee-directed film.
Here’s where it gets weird: critics loved the film and the new director. The New York Times claimed that it had sharp direction and that Smithee “has an adroit facility for scanning faces and extracting sharp background detail.” Roger Ebert said that it was “an extraordinary western by director Allen Smithee, a name I’m not familiar with, allows his story to unfold naturally.” I wonder if Ebert was aware what was going on and was having fun with his review. I’d like to think so.
Based on Death of a Gunfighter by Lewis B. Patten, this movie feels like Hollywood realizing that some of the better Westerns were coming from other countries, mostly Italy, at this point. Marshall Frank Patch (Widmark) is an Old West-style lawman in Cottonwood Springs, Texas, a town determined to be modern and, as such, conveniently forget its numerous sins and just whitewash the past.
“What would happen,” the mayor says, “if an Eastern businessman came to town and saw old Patch there, wearing that shirt he probably hasn’t washed in a week?”
Patch shoots a drunk in self-defense, which the town leaders use as a way to get him out. Knowing that the town is about to murder him with their own gunfighters — he knows too much — the old lawman settles his affairs, including marrying brothel owner Claire Quintana (Lena Horne), an interracial relationship that is a fact of life, something bold for 1969.
This is a film rich with character actors that I love — Carroll O’Connor, Royal Dano, John Saxon — and a town unlike many other Westerns, one made up of all races, a place where a lone car causes worry, where the trains must get ever closer, where the past — and Patch — must die to move progress ever forward, no matter what.