Nov 7, 2007

A Gunfight (1971)


Ex-gunslinger Will Tenneray (Kirk Douglas) has settled down in the town of Baja Rio, making a living as a conversation piece in the saloon, as a (forgive the pun) draw to get cowboys out to buy more drinks. Along comes gunfighter Abe Cross (Johnny Cash), and in their congenial banter, each man knows that despite their attempts at domesticity, they're still gunfighters at heart, and while neither man bears any ill will or grudge against the other, they mutually agree to have a "winner take all" gun duel to the death, in a bullfighting ring.

This very good, underrated western is evocative of such other pictures of the decade like The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid or The Shootist, which examine the theme of "gunfighter as a museum piece". The gunslinger is considered a novelty act, and at times, incongruous in a changing world. But in this enjoyable capitalist satire, the two gunmen take advantage of their archetypal roles by putting on a grand spectacle (fittingly in an arena where a human can now be slaughtered with the same kind of ironic entertainment value as the killing of an animal), and stand to profit from this humility. But this movie is also an elegiac fable, as each man realizes that at heart they're meant to live and die by the gun, despite the consternation of their women (honey-haired Karen Black is the hooker with a heart of gold who chinks Cross' armour; Jane Alexander has an early role as Tenneray's wife).

Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash are well-matched-- Kirk's gregarious character is balanced by Cash's more introspective persona. In this rare acting role, the singer appears sometimes awkward in front of the camera, yet it is hard to tell if it is due to his lack of experience as an actor, or if he's really in character as the introverted Cross. Director Lamont Johnson, a veteran of television, excelled on the big screen with such character-driven movies as The Last American Hero or Cattle Annie and Little Britches (someone please put this on DVD), or the interesting thriller The Groundstar Conspiracy. Yet the mind-blowing finale of this sleeper is perhaps the most cinematic he ever got, with slow motion, zooms and dissolves to compliment the trippy double ending, offering alternative conclusions if one or the other survived, but showing why the ending must be so. It is a fitting end for such a thought-provoking movie.

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