' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Fastest Gun Alive (1956)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Fastest Gun Alive (1956)

Set in the frontier town of Cross Creek, “The Fastest Gun Alive” exists in a universe where Big Whiskey of “Unforgiven” must at least appear on the map. Russell’s Rouse film arrived in 1956, right on the cusp of the revisionist western boom in the 1960’s, even though directors like Anthony Mann were already exploring a more cynical tone in the genre so long predicated on John Wayne’s (pseudo) heroic baritone. Yet 1956 would have also meant that “The Fastest Gun Alive” was still hanging an Aw Shucks, Gee Whiz air freshener from its cinematic rearview mirror, a mirror in which Roy Rogers remained visible. That leaves “The Fastest Gun Alive” to negotiate a fairly tricky high wire.


The film opens with its principal bad guy, Vinnie Harold (Broderick Crawford), riding into town with his pair of requisite yes-men seeking to find and shoot the man who fancies himself the fastest gun in the west. That’s it. That’s the whole reason. Vinnie has sworn no blood oath. The man hasn’t killed his father or his brother or his nephew or his cousin or his former roommate. He just supposedly pulls his pistol from his holster faster than Vinnie and Vinnie’s “gotta know.” This right away signals a different sort of western. Oh, Vinnie and his yes-men rob banks, sure, but that’s tangential. Yes, the Sheriff tasked with finding Vinnie and his yes-men post-robbery declares that Vinnie killed his brother, but that’s even more tangential. This is the film implementing common western movie scenarios in order to deliberately disregard them. This isn’t about anything other than who’s the fastest gun alive.

It takes almost thirty minutes of screen time before we are officially told that George Kelby (Glenn Ford) is, in fact, the fastest gun alive. Yet even if the film takes that long to make this pronouncement out loud, we know. And we know just like one of George’s fellow townfolk in a remote outpost out there on the frontier seems to know, saying that something doesn’t seem quite right about George. And something doesn’t seem quite right because Glenn Ford plays him as not quite right. Oh, he’s a nice enough fellow as evinced by the ride he gives to the young’n aboard his wagon right near the film’s start, but there’s still something not quite right. Townfolk comment about there’s something not quite right. George speaks in low-wattage mumbles. When pressed, even a little, just a teensy-weensy bit, he’ll put his hands in his pockets and stammer and look at the ground. His brow is constantly coated with sweat. Something’s gnawing at him and Ford lets us see it, plainly, until one day it erupts. Well, it doesn’t quite erupt. There may be a final reel showdown but when it comes, it’s lightning quick, and almost beside the point.

“The Fastest Gun Alive” expresses impressive cynicism for the notion of the noble outlaw, and for the ways in which a life-taker could be seen as a peacemaker. At the same time, it wants to let its hero live happily ever after, and so it negotiates both these ideas with a little bit of pine box trickery. It buries the myth and it lets the man live, a bitter brew with a sweetly sentimental aftertaste.

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