Release Date(s)1956 (July 25, 2023)
Studio(s)MGM/Loews, Inc. (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
The Fastest Gun Alive (1956) is a good if peculiarly eccentric Western. Adapted from a March 30, 1954 episode of The United States Steel Hour called The Last Notch, written by Frank D. Gilroy, the original TV version starred Jeff Morrow, Louisa Horton, and Richard Jaeckel in roles played in the film version by Glenn Ford, Jeanne Crain, and Broderick Crawford. Gilroy and the film’s director, Russell Rouse, expanded the TV script to feature length.
The movie is eccentric for a variety of reasons. Although Gilroy wrote Westerns for film and television after this, The Fastest Gun Alive seems to have been his first stab at the Western genre, and appears to have had only a passing familiarity with its iconography and tropes, resulting in a script both ambitious and simplistic and even thoroughly unreal all at once. Likewise, the acting is all over the place. Broderick Crawford is unpardonably hammy in some scenes, quite good in others. Glenn Ford is overindulged with his tendency to hem and haw with uncertainty his way through scenes, he (and he alone) spending most of the film with beads of nervous sweat across his brow.
The quirkiness, at times amateurish and/or cartoonishness in both the performances and in the dialogue, make sense when one considers director Rouse’s career. He occasionally did good work when partnered with Clarence Greene, most famously the screenplay for D.O.A. (1949). On his own, however, Rouse seemed to lack good sense or taste as either a writer or a director; his most famous (and notorious) credit as director and co-writer (with Harlan Ellison) is The Oscar (1966), one of the most deliriously terrible movies ever made. The Fastest Gun Alive is mostly good, but a lot of what makes The Oscar so entertainingly awful is present here as well.
Outlaw Vinnie Harold (Crawford), obsessed with proving he’s the “fastest gun alive,” challenges reputed fast-draw Clint Fallon (Walter Coy), whom Harold easily guns down. After robbing a bank, Harold and his two subordinates, Dink Wells (Noah Beery Jr.) and Taylor Swope (John Dehner), decide to hightail it to the peaceful, remote town of Cross Creek, to steal fresh horses and stay one step ahead of the posse after them.
In Cross Creek, word of Harold’s fast draw precedes him and becomes the talk of the town. But the constant retelling of Fallon’s murder irritates mild-mannered storekeeper George Temple (Ford), who neither drinks nor wears a gun, though we see him secretly practice firing one. The other townsfolk treat Temple as “less than a man” because of his meek ways, and because he sells dresses and candy instead of working the land and engaged in manly pursuits. This adds tension between Temple and his (clearly newly-) pregnant wife, Dora (Crain, with anachronistically 1950s hair and makeup), pertaining to Temple keeping some dark secret from his neighbors. He finally snaps when demanding customer Rose Tibbs (Virginia Gregg) and her bratty kid send him over the edge.
Temple storms across the street to the saloon for a shot of whisky (his first drink in four years) and, once again subjected to more gossip about the shooting from garrulous McGovern (J.M. Kerrigan) and others, declares they know nothing of guns and proceeds to lecture them about the realities of gunfights. They think he’s nuts until Temple demonstrates his skill by having two silver dollars tossed into the air, Temple hitting them both with two shots. Everyone is gobsmacked.
When Harold rides into town and eventually learns of Temple’s skill, Harold demands a face-off. Temple, under pressure from Dora, refuses. Harold, however, threatens to burn down the entire town unless they square off, putting Temple in an unenviable position.
The script plays like Gilroy’s and Rouse’s familiarity with the Western genre was limited to pulp Western novels and comic books. Stories about fast-draw gunfighters were rare in adult Westerns, Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950) being the major exception. No reason is given for Harold’s obsessive need to become “the fastest gun alive” (How could he, with a name like “Vinnie?”), and Temple’s strange aversion to guns and gunfighting isn’t fully explained until the film is almost over.
Yet, the picture comes to life in the strangely fascinating scene where Temple shows up at the saloon, castigating his neighbors for their ignorance, them thinking he’s off his rocker, and then Temple proving himself with his fast and deadly-accurate draw. Another sort-of good scene is set at the local church, where Temple announces that he’s leaving town because would-be fast guns will start showing up to challenge him, prompting the good people of Cross Creek to, one-by-one, swear before God they’ll keep his identity a secret.
This is an unusual, maybe unique idea in a Western, though undermined by the comically amateurish way Rouse stages it, with various characters standing up and making little speeches. I don’t know but suspect Mel Brooks saw The Fastest Gun Alive and used this scene as the basis for a very similar one in his Western parody, Blazing Saddles (1974). Like the townsfolk in Brooks’s film, the people of Cross Creek are a fickle bunch with a mob mentality. Within minutes they condemn Temple, rush to “swear before God” an oath to protect him, then moments later angrily blame him for their troubles. And some of the dialogue is as bad as The Oscar: as one angry townsman (John Doucette) argues, “This just ain’t time for ideals!”
Though in black-and-white, The Fastest Gun Alive was not a cheap production, made for $1.8 million. Rouse occasionally exhibits odd directorial choices, apparent from the opening scene, with Harold and his two men riding through Red Rock Canyon, a popular location north of Los Angeles for Westerns and science fiction movies. The photography (by George Folsey) is fine, including an elaborate aerial shot—that lasts all of 2 ½ seconds. Why did Rouse go to all that expense for such a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot?
More good and bad: in this grimly serious Western, a lighthearted MGM-style musical number! Why not? In an early hoedown scene, Russ Tamblyn, otherwise playing a minor character, one of Cross Creek’s citizens, does a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers-type acrobatic solo, dancing around the barn like Douglas Fairbanks and, impressively, balanced on the blades of shovels. (It must have been rather dangerous to stage.) Tamblyn’s great in this sequence, but what’s it doing in a movie like this? And why, in this sequence, does the barn have a plywood floor? Wouldn’t manure pose a problem?
In the 1950s especially, Glenn Ford typically played ordinary, not very articulate working men drawn into stressful circumstances, a persona in which he excelled and virtually owned, characters somewhat like those played by James Stewart during this same time, but without Stewart’s pent-up, volatile temper. In The Fastest Gun Alive, director Rouse didn’t rein in Ford’s excesses, nor does he modulate Broderick Crawford, who croaks like a crybaby cartoon villain in some scenes. Similarly, the characters played by Noah Beery Jr. and John Dehner are curiously inconsistent. Dehner plays some scenes like he’s rather dim-witted, the seemingly wiser Beery noting that, at the last bank robbery, Dehner’s outlaw pointlessly stole three sacks of pennies. Yet, in other scenes, Dehner is clearly the brighter of the two, as if they forgot (or Rouse encouraged them) to switch characterizations mid-stream.
Still, for all its clumsiness, The Fastest Gun Alive fascinates for the ways it all but stumbles into interesting concepts and little character vignettes unusual for the genre.
Culled from a 4K scan of the original negative, Warner Archive presents the film in 1.85:1 widescreen, the black-and-white image impressively sharp throughout The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono), with extra features in Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (mono), is fine for what it is and supported by optional English subtitles.
Extras are light. Included is a trailer (3:00) presented full-frame 1.37:1 and obviously from a standard-def source. Better are two CinemaScope Tom & Jerry cartoons in high-def: Blue Cat Blues (6:47) and Down Beat Bear (6:26). From the Hanna-Barbera era, they’re okay, nothing great.
The Fastest Gun Alive is nothing if not offbeat. Overall, it’s pretty good, but it’s definitely... odd.
- Stuart Galbraith IV