“Death of a Gunfighter”

I’ve always enjoyed watching a good western. 1969’s “Death of a Gunfighter” is one of my favorites. It stars Richard Widmark, Lena Horne, Carroll O’ Connor, and a host of talented character actors, including Victor French, Darlene Carr, Dub Taylor, Jacqueline Scott, and John Saxon. The story focuses on the town of Cottonwood Springs, at the turn of the 20th century. Frank Patch has been marshall for 20 years. After years of running things his way, including killing the bad guys when need be, the town leaders want him out. It’s time to modernize the town, to enter the current day. Patch is an embarrassment, a relic of the past.  To me, that is all a smokescreen. Frank is bold, strong, and non-apologetic. They fear him. They fear what he knows, all of the dirty little secrets in town. He enjoys being in charge, and is not about to simply give the job up. When a drunken Luke Mills corners him one night, he shoots him in self defense. This is the final straw. He later dies, and the wrath of the people is upon him.

There are only two people in Patch’s corner. One is Dan, an orphaned young man who looks up to him. The two share a father/son type relationship. Patch’s other supporter is Claire Quintana, his longtime mistress. She runs the local whorehouse and saloon. Both Claire and Dan are very loyal to Frank. In the midst of his tough exterior, you can tell he cares for each of them in return.

Patch’s former deputy, Lou Trinidad, returns to town at the request of the leaders. They want him arrested for the death of Luke Mills. Frank’s temper gets the best of him. He hits him, then bodily throws him out of his office. However, Lou still pleads with him to leave town. He says no.

One of the most spiteful, yet comical characters in the film is Lester Locke, owner of the Alamo Saloon. He and his cronies want Patch out badly, although Lester is not above hypocritically grinning to his face, pretending to respect him. He stands around watching all of the action unfold, enjoying every minute of it. Lester has some of the best lines of dialogue. Carroll O’ Connor, who would become a household name in two years, shines in the movie. I tremendously enjoy watching him. When I bought his autobiography several years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see he specifically mentioned this movie.

As the pressure continues to mount upon Frank, he decides to marry Claire, who happily accepts. This scene is my favorite in the movie. It is very sweet. With Dan and the object of his affection, Hilda as witnesses, the two marry- kiss and all. The casting of Lena Horne as Widmark’s girlfriend, then wife was shocking for the late ’60s. The two have excellent chemistry. They possess an ease with one another on screen, and reportedly were fond of one another behind the scenes. One reviewer called them a better couple than Olivia Hussey and her “Romeo and Juliet” co-star Leonard Whiting.

Following the wedding, Patch is brutally gunned down in cold blood, shot numerous times by various townspeople in the middle of the street. As the people gather afterwards, Claire kneels by his side. She later leaves town by train, with Frank’s body. “Sweet Apple Wine”, sung by Lena Horne, hauntingly plays in the background. Including a song by her was reportedly Widmark’s idea. I’ve started to wonder what happened to both Claire and Dan after Frank’s death.

Filmed in mid 1968 and released the following year, “Death of a Gunfighter” would be Richard Widmark’s last role as leading man.. and he’s superb at it. Patch is warned again and again to resign, to leave town. He’s threatened, but he refuses to back down. He does not buckle in the face of opposition, then death. He remains steadfast and on his feet. He goes out fighting to the end, standing up to everyone in town. However, there is also a vulnerability to Patch, which makes the character all the more appealing. When Luke’s wife Laurie tells him she hates him for killing her husband, he looks wounded. Lying in his office, the door gradually opens. He looks a bit scared as he wonders who it is. It’s Dan. He maintains a gentle nature with Claire.

 It’s my personal opinion that due to the interracial aspect, the film has never received the credit it deserves. It was overlooked and virtually hidden. For years, I never saw it on TV or cable. I had a suspicion for some reason it would finally start to appear after the two leads passed away, which occured two years apart. It is now shown regularly on the Encore Westerns channel.

I watched it earlier for about the 20th time. I look forward to seeing it again.

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~ by kmnnz on September 14, 2012.

2 Responses to ““Death of a Gunfighter””

  1. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this great film.

    • Thanks so much, Ann! I enjoyed reading your thoughts as well.

      I had never noticed that automobile after Patch had been shot until you pointed it out! 🙂

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