Death of a Gunfighter is best known as the first film “directed” by “Allen Smithee.” The real directors were Robert Totten and Don Siegel. Totten left the film and was followed on set by Siegel, a professional and relatively decent guy who didn’t feel like he had done enough work to deserve credit for the movie. Richard Widmark, who starred in the film, seems to have wanted Siegel to have the credit anyway, but given Siegel’s objections, the Directors Guild of America came up with the “Allen Smithee” workaround, which has since been used many times when a director wants his or her name off a film.
The film itself generally looks and feels like a TV movie–Totten was primarily a TV director, working on all those Western shows of the era. As far as plot goes, Death of a Gunfighter is basically High Noon, as were a lot of Westerns, but of course it’s not as good. There’s a bit of The Wild Bunch in there too, because it’s about an aging gunfighter who feels the modern age creeping in on him.
Cottonwood Springs is leaving the 19th century, and wants to get rid of old-school Marshal Frank Patch (Widmark). It’s a basic, simple Western—you know Marshal Patch will either triumph or get killed. Understandably, the film got lost in the shuffle when it came out in 1969, which was the year of the revisionist Western. You had The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit and, in the US, Once Upon a Time in the West. This little movie would have made a good bill at the time with A Time for Dying, which was Budd Boetticher’s last feature, but it couldn’t hold its own against films like those other four. There were still plenty of spaghetti Westerns coming out at that point as well, but this wasn’t one of those either. It was more of what’s known as a ”programmer.”
Death of a Gunfighter is absolutely fine, nothing great, but at almost 90 minutes on the dot, that’s good enough. Widmark is pretty good, as always. Given his history—his memorable debut was in Kiss of Death—Widmark always had something slightly sinister about him, resulting in a performance somewhat darker than what you would expect from, say, Gary Cooper. This adds a bit of depth to what is otherwise a movie with an underwritten script. Widmark had just worked with Siegel on Madigan, which would probably explain why Siegel was brought in last-minute to finish the shoot (he worked a grand total of nine days on the movie.)
The disc include a new audio commentary with screenwriter/novelist C. Courtney Joyner and film historian Henry Parke, a new featurette on the film’s production history with historian Neil Sinyard, an archival 10-minute film on the career of co-star Lena Horne, and a rare student short starring Widmark. The original theatrical trailer, image gallery, a collection of promo materials round off the extras, which are supplemented by a 40-page booklet featuring a new essay by Paul Duane, an archival interview with Horne, an extract from Siegel’s autobiography, an overview of contemporary critical responses and more.