Monday 20 January 2020

Gunfight at Comanche Creek (1963)

Director: Frank McDonald
Writer: Edward Bernds
Stars: Audie Murphy, Ben Cooper, Colleen Miller, De Forest Kelley and Jan Merlin

Index: 2020 Centennials.

One of the problems of only reviewing new material, as I do with music, is that the pivotal gamechanging moments often fail to be obvious at the time. An album might be original enough to spark a whole new genre, but at the time of release it more likely feels a little awkward, if not outright stupid. Why would someone do that? Only in hindsight does it start to seem like a grand idea. One of the benefits of mostly reviewing old material, as I do with film, is that moments like these tend to be easily identified in one picture and the reason I mention this is because Gunfight at Comanche Creek feels like one of these that, for a variety of reasons, simply failed to become the spark it could. It was an Allied Pictures release, a remake of an earlier film of theirs, 1957’s Last of the Badmen, and it’s a bizarre hybrid of two completely separate genres that someone clearly thought ought to merge to become something new. As the title suggests, it’s a western, but it’s also very much a detective story in police procedural form, with the usual narration.

And this feels more than a little weird. It opens roughly as we might expect for a western, with a static shot of a western town full of men in Stetsons and women in long dressses, horses being ridden down Main Street and credits unfolding in the usual American woodcut font style, all accompanied by an orchestral score with a hint of romance and a couple of danger. It looks very nice, shot in anamorphic widescreen with bright DeLuxe colour and, as those credits wrap up, night falls. But then the music stops so that we’re able to listen to a deep voice hurling out details. “Sunrise. June 5th, 1875. 5am. Comanche Creek, Colorado.” We might wonder why this is spoken rather than thrown up onto the screen in the same western font, but many will realise right off the bat that these are just the facts, ma’am. If not, we’ll grasp it soon enough: “A man named Peters came out of the Comanche Creek Cafe. He carried two breakfasts, one for a prisoner, another for the deputy on duty in the jail.” Why do we care?

Well, the crime that’s about to happen isn’t the one that we might expect and how it unfolds sets the stage for the whole picture to come. You see, the prisoner, Jack Mason, is not being rescued by his gang. In fact, he doesn’t know Amos Troop and the others who break him loose, killing the deputy to ensure continued anonymity, and he had no expectation of being rescued at all, let alone put to work in Troop’s gang. It turns out to be the first part to a Machiavellian but shockingly simple scheme. With the deputy dead, the bounty on Mason’s head promptly doubles. After they steal the payroll over in Harmony with Mason the only face recognisable by witnesses, it springs up to $3,500. And that’s high enough for Troop to shoot him dead in cold blood and hire someone to collect the reward money. It does seem a little far fetched, but there’s solid logic to it. Hey, dude, you owe us! We broke you out of jail. Here, go do this job for us. And, should you refuse, then we might just shoot you dead right now and turn you in for your current reward.

Westerns tend to be simple stories at heart but, even with this frontier setting, the tone is all detail. We’re supposed to admire this scheme and then watch the good guys take it down. And, when we temporarily hop over to Wichita, KS to discover that Mason was no crook but an undercover investigator called Jack Springer, working for the National Detective Agency, we realise who the good guys are going to be. Go get Gifford, they say, and we’re all set for Audie Murphy vs. DeForest Kelley, an unusual pair to face off but a welcome one that gives a little opportunity to each actor. I enjoyed how we meet Murphy, because Bob Gifford is happily enjoying his last couple of days of leave with someone else’s redhead, in the lovely form of Laurie Mitchell, five years after playing the Queen of Outer Space, when Buck bursts in for a fistfight. Gifford’s colleagues, who didn’t know where he was, promptly locate him after he punches this big lug through Tina Neville’s upstairs window. Never mind leave; “They killed Jack Springer” gets him right back in.
Murphy and Kelley, of course, are best known for other things today but that was only true for one of them at the time. Murphy is a real American hero, a sharecropper’s son who left school in the fifth grade to pick cotton to support his family, his father gone and his mother dead. He falsified documentation to be able to enlist at sixteen after Pearl Harbor and he finished the Second World War with every military combat award for valour that the U.S. Army has to give, along with a few more from other countries. His Medal of Honor was awarded for an action at Colmar Pocket in France in January 1945: as a nineteen year old lieutenant, he held back an entire company of Nazi soldiers for an hour, single-handedly, using the machine gun on a burning M10 tank destroyer, and then, while wounded and out of ammo, successfully led a counterattack against them. As the most highly decorated American soldier in the war, it was no surprise when Hollywood promptly snapped him up. He even played himself in 1955’s To Hell and Back.

Kelley, on the other hand, wouldn’t become famous for another three years, when he landed the role of Dr. Leonard McCoy, better known as Bones, on Star Trek. He was the oldest member of the core cast, just over a month older than James Doohan, who played Scotty; he would have been a hundred years old today, 20th January. Born Jackson DeForest Kelley in Toccoa, GA, son of a Baptist minister, his middle name was an homage to Lee De Forest, the “Father of Radio”, whose Audion vacuum tube became in 1906 the first practical amplification device, so making many technologies we take for granted possible. As we’re so used to his gruff voice today, it’s hard to imagine that he was a talented young singer but his solo performances at his father’s church are what led him to appear on radio, his first taste of the entertainment industry. He didn’t start acting until a trip to Long Beach after his war service, during which he was assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit.
His debut came in 1947 in a Paramount crime drama called Fear in the Night, second billed behind Paul Kelly, with a space inserted into DeForest, as it would be so often in his career; he’s credited as De Forest Kelley here, sixteen years later. He proved versatile in his early years, playing in musicals, dramas, war movies, whatever came along. He didn’t manage to find his way into a big screen western for almost a decade, following up an appearance in 1956’s Tension at Table Rock with a prominent role as Morgan Earp in the Burt Lancaster/Kirk Douglas version of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral a year later. He’d already visited that story on television, in a 1955 episode of You are There, playing Ike Clanton. He’d return to it again, of course, on a 1968 episode of Star Trek, playing a third character, Tom McLaury. His career on the small screen also started in 1947, on an episode of Public Prosecutor, but westerns came along sooner there, with his first of three appearances on The Lone Ranger in 1949.

He liked westerns, enjoying being able to act outside, and he built a name for himself in the genre, often playing bad guys, as here. He made guest appearances on most of the great television westerns, including Gunsmoke, The Rough Riders, Rawhide, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Tales of Wells Fargo, Have Gun—Will Travel, Laramie, The Virginian, Bonanza... the list goes on and on. By the time he made this film, most of his big screen credits were in westerns too, this film following on from a memorable role as Curley Burne in Warlock, and these roles continued up until he signed on for Star Trek, his last films before that being in Apache Uprising and Waco. After Star Trek, of course, everyone knew him as a space doctor and he just wasn’t going to be able to play western henchmen again. His only non-Star Trek film after that was the infamous Night of the Lepus, alongside a bevy of giant rabbits. His western work was recognised with a Golden Boot award in 1999, alongside Kirk Douglas, James Garner and R. G. Armstrong, though it was sadly posthumous.
I enjoyed him in Gunfight at Comanche Creek, because he’s a believable villain without having to be the villain. As was the case in Doc Savage novels every month and, no doubt, most other pulp fiction, Amos Troop is the face of the gang, the one leading the way and giving the orders; however, he reports up to a big boss, an unseen and unknown mastermind somewhere in Comanche Creek. The mystery, of course, surrounds who that might be but, given that we only really meet a couple of people there, the shortlist is really short. It’s either Abbie Stevens, who owns the local saloon, the Stevens House, and up to whom Bob Gifford schmoozes on his first day in town, confusingly using his real name as his criminal pseudonym; or it’s Marshal Dan Shearer, who quickly arrests him, as he checks up on all the twenty dollar gold certificates Gifford is spending like water and discovers that they were recently stolen from a train in Joplin, MO by Judd Tanner, a man whose wanted poster looks uncannily like “Bob Gifford”.

So to the setup. Troop promptly breaks Tanner out of jail and proceeds as usual. There’s some agreeable tension as Tanner’s bounty rises, because Troop could shoot him dead for it at any time. Gifford, as Tanner, has a few things on his side, though. One is that he knows that bullet will be coming at some point, so he can look out for it. Another is that he has a sidekick in town, another detective called Nielsen, who’s his watchdog. That tension is both aided and hampered by the narration, which continues unabated, the deep and resonant voice of Reed Hadley punctuating it with detail. It’s a trustworthy voice, Hadley not only being the star of TV’s Racket Squad and having played both Zorro and Red Ryder, but also once holding a Top Secret security clearance because nuclear weapon training films featured his voice too. Some critics have derided his presence here, as it’s either redundant or irrelevant. We always know what’s going on just by watching the screen. “Nielsen sent a coded telegram to a dummy address in Wichita.” And?
While the technique makes this theatrically released widescreen feature feel like it’s also a pitch for a new television western show that unfolds like a police procedural—after all, the names wouldn’t have to be changed to protect the innocent when the crimes are a hundred years old—it doesn’t add any tension to proceedings. The situation does and writer Edward Bernds, who had also written and directed such genre classics as The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters, Reform School Girl and Return of the Fly, does a little to capitalise on that by adding some tough situations, albeit in hamfisted style. Foreshadowing the near future, there’s even a scene that clearly plays out like a two Captain Kirks scenario. Troop receives a message that there’s a spy in his gang but, by the time it gets to him, he has broken a second crook out of jail and can’t be sure which one it is. Is it Judd Tanner or is it Reno Waller? He has a couple of ideas how to figure it out and they’re both effective and suitably callous.

For me, the tension primarily comes out of the script being a race between Gifford both identifying the mastermind and finding the necessary proof to take him down so the film can end with “the files of the National Detective Agency are closed on one more case” and Troop shooting him dead. The growing bounty on Tanner’s head is a ticking time-bomb and we don’t even have the knowledge that it’ll go off at zero. Will Troop kill him at $2,500? How about $3,000? You know he wants to do it now. How high will he go? The rest of the tension comes from little character moments produced by DeForest Kelley. He may not be the big boss, but he’s the boss we see and he has to enforce his leadership here and there to remain the dominant force at the Circle W Ranch. When things don’t go his way, there are rumblings in the ranks but he’s always going to stay the man in charge because he’s cunning and ruthless. He enjoys killing people and he can put down dissenters with well chosen looks and words.
Of course, we end up with a gunfight in the main street of Comanche Creek, because the title wasn’t ever likely to be lying to us, but it’s an awkward scene that highlights how hard it is to combine the western and detective genres satisfactorily. Sure, we can wrap a western up with a gunfight. That’s tradition. But it’s because the gun was the great leveller in the west. The bad guy tended to be an obvious bad guy and, even if he had the whole town in his pocket, it only took one well-placed bullet from the right gun to take him down. That doesn’t work as well in detective stories, where we’re OK with the private dick using his fists when needed, just so long as he also uses his wits and intelligence to unmask the bad guy before taking him in. We need mystery in a detective story and it’s a key requirement for justice to be served, which usually means an arrest and a trial rather than a bullet. This has to be both and the script tries to shoehorn everything in but never quite manages it to anyone’s satisfaction. It’s an interesting but flawed experiment.

It certainly qualifies, however, as an interesting movie from the career of my centenarian, DeForest Kelley. He’s billed fourth, after not only Audie Murphy, but also Ben Cooper, playing Carter, a gang member who wants to leave the life and whisk away the host’s daughter with him, and Colleen Miller, who does well as Miss Abbie even though it’s a role with hardly any screen time. Whatever his billing, he does get to play the bad guy and do it with both relish and not too much relish and, knowing him as a gruff good guy, it’s fantastic to see him as a gruff bad guy. There’s no way that a pan and scan TV edit would cut him out of this movie, as happened with Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo. Sadly, of course, this was close to the end of his western film career because Star Trek would soon change everything. It made his career and made him world famous. However, it also ended his career in anything except Star Trek, making it a mixed blessing indeed. His last six films, his last regular TV show and his last credited TV appearance were all Star Trek.

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