Monday, March 23, 2015

Another Look: THE FASTEST GUN ALIVE (1956 Western, starring Glenn Ford)

Here is an often overlooked Western that foregoes the wild, wide open spaces and much of the action to be found in most “oaters”. That is perhaps why it does tend to get overlooked and is seldom included on lists of Best or Favorite Western films.
Nevertheless, it is quite a good feature. It’s heavy on atmosphere and drama, features very little in the way of humor (except in an early barn dance sequence that includes a prolonged and awkwardly out-of-place dance number by Russ Tamblyn, showing up here in between appearances in bigger, splashier movies like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and West Side Story), and boasts several fine performances by a number of veteran actors.

The plot is centered around quiet, unassuming store clerk George Temple (Glenn Ford) who, along with his wife Dora (Jeanne Crain), has been running the general store in Cross Creek for the past four years. What no one else knows is that George has a tortured past. His father was a notorious gunfighter turned lawman who taught George how to handle a gun until the kid became faster and better at it than his teacher. But when his father was killed from ambush, George discovered that, no matter how good he was with a gun, he lacked the fortitude to use one against another man, not even the killer of his father. His guilt over this has kept him running ever since, spurred on by periodically displaying his gun prowess to others only to have to move on immediately afterward for fear of the fast guns that will inevitably come flocking to test him.

When frustration causes George to once more reveal his secret to the stunned citizens of Cross Creek, the inevitable then must follow: Word will spread, fast guns will start showing up, the quiet little town will be disrupted and threatened, and George will have to start facing the challenges … or again slink away.
This time, the townsfolk convince him to stay. They do so by promising --- actually swearing to it in church --- to keep his secret. Almost immediately, however, that promise is broken in an unexpected way and exactly as (in a rather wild coincidence that stretches credibility mighty thin) a notorious, nearly psychotic gunfighter named Vin Harold happens to be passing through. Naturally, Harold insists on a showdown to see who is fastest. He threatens to literally burn down the town if his challenge is not met.
I can’t say too much more without spoiling what is a surprising, wholly satisfying ending with a nifty twist.  

In addition to Ford, Crain, and Crawford, the cast contains a whole host of recognizable character actors including such stalwarts as Noah Berry Jr., John Dehner, Leif Erickson, Paul Birch, Dub Taylor, Virginia Gregg, and John Doucette. Ford is typically low key which is especially effective here, Crain looks a little too beautiful for a small town storekeeper’s wife but does a nice underplayed acting job, Erickson and Gregg are solid, and Dehner damn near steals the whole picture as one of Vinnie Harold’s cronies. Noah Berry, who almost always does a fine job, is disappointingly flat here. And Academy Award-winning Crawford (no, not for this film) over-acts to the point of practically making his character more comic than menacing.

The Fastest Gun Alive was directed and co-written by Russell Rouse. His co-author for the screenplay was Frank D. Gilroy who originally did a version of the story as a teleplay.
Worth checking out as a slightly offbeat, though still reasonably traditional, Western.


Anonymous said...

The premise has some similarity to "The Gunfighter" (1950), as well as another Glenn Ford Western, "The Last Challenge" (1967). The "Gunfighter" premise and the ending from "Fastest Gun Alive" were borrowed for a Gunsmoke episode starring Steve Forrest in the 1070's.

Jeanne Crain looked too glamorous for her part, but that's common in Westerns.

Tom Johnson said...

I remember it fondly. Crawford was odd for the part, but you're right there are some stand-out cast members, Glenn Ford is always good. Virginia Gregg, perhaps better known for her radio, as was John Dehner (Paladin). I wouldn't mind watching this one again.