THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

SHOOT OUT (Universal, 1971)

DIRECTOR: Henry Hathaway; 
PRODUCER: Hal Wallis;  WRITERS: screenplay by Marguerite Roberts based on Will James novel, Lone Cowboy; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Earl Rath

CAST: Gregory Peck, Patricia Quinn, Robert F. Lyons, Susan Tyrrell, Jeff Corey, James Gregory, Rita Gam, Dawn Lynn, Pepe Serna, John Davis Chandler, Paul Fix, Arthur Hunnicutt, Willis Bouchey, Lane Bradford, Nicolas Beauvy

It must have seemed like a good idea to producer Hal Wallis:

The Producer

1). hire Marguerite Roberts to write a screenplay that featured a manhunt by a grizzled gun hand with a young girl in tow;

The Writer

2). base the screenplay on a well-known novel;

The well-known novel

3). put veteran director Henry Hathaway in charge of the film;

The Veteran Director


4). cast one of Hollywood's legendary actors in the lead role.

The legendary actor with young girl in tow

What could go wrong?  After all, this formula had struck pay dirt just a couple years earlier when the Wallis-Hathaway-Roberts collaboration produced TRUE GRIT.

But it did go wrong and the TRUE GRIT connection was one of the main problems.  If there had been no TRUE GRIT, perhaps SHOOT OUT would have been better accepted by the critics and the public.  Or maybe if more time had elapsed between the two films, the latter might have been better received.  But any viewer who watched TRUE GRIT, which was released just two short years earlier, was bound to see both the similarities and the comparative shortcomings of SHOOT OUT.

SHOOT OUT FIRES A LOT OF OLD, DAMP POWDER -- headline for review by Tony Mastroianni, Cleveland Press

That pretty well sums up the reason for the film's failure to receive positive critical reviews or to attract the movie-going public.

Phil Hardy summed up the film in his book, The Western:

"A weak revenge Western, this is made weaker by Hathaway's amiable, leisurely direction and the far too frequent nods in the direction of TRUE GRIT....Peck is far too 'nice' a person for a revenge film and Hathaway too stagey a director to animate him."

Mastroianni writes in the review mentioned above:

"The movie is a reflection of the growing trend to make villains overly psychotic by having them laugh hysterically with every new piece of sadism...."

He is referring to the antics of psychopaths who take delight in shooting a poor old man in a wheelchair or shooting cups off the head of a little girl.  In TRUE GRIT we got Robert Duvall as the head honcho bad guy, but here it is, unfortunately, Robert F. Lyons, and his performance is abysmal.  It is hard to fathom why an experienced and talented director such as Hathaway would tolerate such an over-the-top lousy performance.

But the most scathing review comes from my man Brian Garfield in Western Films: A Complete Guide:

"Gorgeous landscape photography..., a quietly superior if unoriginal score and a few players in good small roles -- Hunnicutt as a bluff rancher, Fix as a railroad conductor and especially Corey as a crippled irascible barkeep -- are the only virtues of this dud....Peck, who looks tired and embarrassed, is miscast."

Garfield also declares it to be a third rate film, but I wouldn't go quite that far. Second rate, yeah, but not third rate.

Sam Foley (Gregory) learns that Clay Lomax (Peck) has been released from prison after serving seven years.  It seems that Lomax has a grudge against Foley and for a good reason.  The two robbed a bank, but Foley shot Lomax in the back so that he could abscond with all the loot.  Unfortunately for Foley, Lomax didn't die, but he did go to prison.  Now he is sure to come after his old partner.

Foley hires Bobby Jay Jones ( Lyons) and his two cohorts, Skeeter (Chandler) and Pepe (Serna), to track Lomax.  For some reason that is not satisfactorily explained, Foley orders Bobby Jay not to kill Lomax but to warn him when Lomax heads his way.

Lomax travels to Weed City where the robbery and the shooting occurred.  He goes to the train station where he expects to meet Teresa Ortega, a friend who has been holding his savings during his time in prison.  Teresa isn't on the train, but her seven year old daughter Decky (Lynn) is.  The conductor (Fix) explains that an ill Teresa had died during the trip.  Lomax does the math and though he will not admit it, he realizes that chances are that Decky is his daughter. Reluctantly, Lomax agrees to take her with him and the conductor then gives him his money.

TROOPER (Jeff Corey): "Say I told you where you could find Sam.  What would you do?"

CLAY LOMAX (Gregory Peck): "Pay you and kill him."

Even though Lomax has to travel with Decky in his care, he still plans to track down Foley and kill him.  He has learned that Foley is in a town called Gun Hill and the two head there with Foley's hired hands shadowing them.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Bobby Jay has forced a prostitute named Alma (Tyrrell) to accompany them.

BOBBY JAY (Robert F. Lyons): "Hey, you told me you could cook!

ALMA (Susan Tyrrell): "You point a gun at me and I'll tell you I could fly and do walkin' on water and turnin' sticks into snakes."

Along the way, there are confrontations with Bobby Jay and his henchmen and both Skeeter and Pepe are killed, not by Lomax, but by Bobby Jay, one accidentally and the other intentionally.  And a widow, Juliana Farrell (Quinn, in an unconvincing performance), who owns a small ranch and who is lonely to the point of drinking herself to sleep each night, offers Lomax and Decky a life on the ranch with her and her small son Dutch (Beauvy). 

Lomax does finally make it to Foley's home, but his quest for vengeance has been thwarted.  Bobby Jay again.  After a disagreement, he had shot Foley and was busily stuffing his pockets with money when Lomax arrives.

So, the final shoot out is not between Lomax and Foley, but between Lomax and Bobby Jay.  You know who won.

The final shoot out (That is an apple on top of Bobby Jay's head.  Don't ask.)

Lomax rides back to the widow's ranch where I'm sure everything turned out just fine.  

A final word:

It is true as Brian Garfield wrote that veteran character actors Paul Fix and Arthur Hunnicutt were excellent in their brief roles and so was Jeff Corey, who had a larger role, but was nevertheless killed off early in the film -- by Bobby Jay, of course.  But the best performance by any of the principals in the film was turned in by little Miss Dawn Lynn, who retired from show business at age fifteen.  If everyone, especially Bobby Jay, had done as well, this would have been a much better film.