Sunday, June 15, 2014

Shotgun (1955)

Former outlaw and now Deputy Marshal Clay Hardin (Sterling Hayden) is bound to leave his job for the – cosy, it seems – position of Indian Commissioner and marry his fiancée. That is, until his mentor and best friend Marshal Fletcher (Lane Chandler) is gunned down with a shotgun by outlaw Ben Thompson (Guy Prescott).

Now, he’s leaving behind his fiancée and probably his career to ride out into the Arizona territories for vengeance, though, given the last scene between him and her, not marrying is definitely better for everyone involved. Clay’s hunt for Thompson is dangerous indeed, for the man doesn’t just have a few stupid men willing to attempt to kill Clay for him but is also delivering weapons to the renegade/freedom fighting Apache war chief Delgadito (Paul Marion), who does feel obliged to give Thompson a hand from time to time, even though he does have his doubts about his business partner. Revolutionary needs must.

On his hunt, Clay falls in with former saloon girl Abby (Yvonne De Carlo), out for a better life in California, and sleazy bounty hunter Reb Carlton (Zachary Scott), out to find backs with a bounty on them to shoot, which will complicate things further on but also might promise a better future for at least some of the people involved, if they are willing to take the steps necessary.

By the time he made Shotgun, director Lesley Selander was already a veteran with an insane number of B-Westerns on his résumé (and with quite a bit of TV work on shows like Lassie and Laramie in the future). The handful of them I’ve seen are decent and workmanlike in their approach, though given the sheer number of films he made, and the quality of the film at hand, I might just have been plain unlucky with them and dozens of gems might still be hiding in his filmography.

As it stands, Shotgun at first looks like quite the straightforward film, with a 50s asshole protagonist, a woman who just needs the right man to slap her around and will die virtuously for him because women with a past aren’t allowed happiness in Hollywood, and a bunch of Evil Injuns™. In short, a thing with the potential to rivet and become exciting by virtue of its sheer unpleasantness – a lot like a Mike Hammer novel, if you’re looking at a different genre for a minute.

But then interesting things begin to happen: Clay turns out to be a much more complicated character than he at first appears to be, a man whose gruffness hides doubts and actual human feelings, with a past he isn’t proud of yet can’t escape fully no matter how much he tries. At that point, the film also starts showing its hand of not agreeing with all of the frontier hardness its characters demonstrate yet showing it nonetheless because anything else would be dishonest; there’s also the suggestion that some of this hardness really is just that – a demonstration and defensive shell made to keep danger – of the physical as well as of the emotional kind – away.

More surprising still, Abby is actually allowed to live and ride off into what might just be a happy end with Clay (if you for one minute assume these two people can provide a happy ending to each other, or at least a happy life), the attraction between her and Clay having turned something much more human than your usual 50s romance on the way, into that of two people who learn they have quite similar backgrounds and begin actually understanding each other from there. There’s also the more practical point that, while she’s never going to win this week’s Strong Female Character prize (because they have to be flawless ass-kickers without feelings, yet also at the same time role models to satisfy some I sometimes suspect), Abby does have quite a bit of agency and isn’t treated like a child by the film. Why, Selander (or perhaps rather Clarke Reynolds’s and Rory Calhoun’s script?) even suggests that in case of a large scale Apache attack on your camp, you’ll want to give the woman a gun too, without even making a point of it.

Another surprise element is the short yet effective characterisation of Delgadito, which falls neither in the trap of the Noble Savage nor in that of the Bloodthirsty Savage, and shows more sympathy with his situation and position than you’d expect of a random B-Western. As the film shows him, Delgadito is an intelligent man who clearly knows that he’s going to be crushed by our old enemy, the Wheels of History, and that he’s damned if he does and damned if he don’t.

This, and even a bit more, Selander provides in a highly economical way, while also demonstrating a mastership of the kind of scenes a film of its genre and time just needs to have, realized in a nearly off-handed way that makes tight, complicated scenes look easy. Given all this, I’d not be too surprised if Shotgun were actually Selander’s best film; it’s difficult to imagine how he still could have improved on the model.

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