Saturday, June 8, 2013

Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964)

With the exception of his appearance in Cecil B. DeMille’s perennially popular The Ten Commandments and his Oscar winning role as the King of Siam in The King and I, the late Yul Brynner is probably best known as Chris, the leader of that westernized samurai outfit known as The Magnificent Seven. With his exotic appearance and almost royal manner, Brynner should have been an incongruous figure in a landscape of tumbleweeds and cowboys, but the actor with the clean-shaven head made himself very much at home in the genre. Of his films, six are westerns, and if you count Westworld (and why not count it?), the total comes to seven.

Of these films, 1964’s Invitation to a Gunfighter exploits the peculiar qualities Brynner brings to the western in ways that the others do not. He arrives in Pecos, dressed in black except for his white ruffled shirt, smoking long cigars, and attracting attention with his mysterious manner. No one knows who he is, but the stranger is not a mystery to himself. As he tells one cowpoke whose feathers he has ruffled, "I’m a man with a gun, and you’re drunk."

The clerk at the hotel where he registers can’t pronounce his name, but the stranger soon introduces himself to the entire town by writing his name on a chalkboard. He is Jules Gaspard D’Estaing and he’s a gunfighter from New Orleans. His arrival in Pecos wasn’t planned but it proves convenient as the town has recently hired a gunfighter to hunt down and kill Matt Weaver (George Segal), a disgruntled Reb whose farm was confiscated as "enemy property" and sold after the Civil War. Weaver has only recently gunned down the man who acquired his property, and even stolen his true love (Janice Rule). But the gunfighter they’ve hired is less than qualified. Only minutes after he arrives, he boards the stagecoach that brought him into town upon catching a glimpse of a gunfighter whose reputation is superior to his own. The exotic gunman volunteers to take over the job, deciding for himself the price that he’ll be paid without argument from the mayor (Pat Hingle). The gunfighter, a master poker player, a reader of poetry, and a musician, makes himself at home in the town despite the fact that he is never made to feel welcome. He establishes a relationship with Weaver’s true love (Janice Rule), but she distrusts his motivations. How did such a cultured, intelligent man end up in the dirty business of killing? The man has his reasons, and, when they are revealed midway through the film, you suddenly remember the first words that appeared on screen during the credits sequence: "A Stanley Kramer production."

Stanley Kramer: He produced High Noon a western that inspired the wrath of John Wayne who saw it as a Communist variation on traditional western themes. Kramer is the man behind such "socially conscious" films as The Defiant Ones, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, so there is no way that Invitation to a Gunfighter is going to end without delivering a message, probably about race. It’s an interesting twist, but it is also one of the few interesting things about this film, directed by Richard Wilson from a screenplay he wrote with Elizabeth Wilson who I’m assuming is his wife. The film drags too often to fully command one’s attention, and some of the supporting players are wasted. Janice Rule, who has all the intensity of Julie Harris but without the overly neurotic edge that robs Harris of her femininity, isn’t given much to do but look on in sadness at the corruption around her, and George Segal looks as out of place in a western as Brynner should but doesn’t. The music score would be forgettable if it wasn’t so annoying, and the direction lacks force.

Still, Invitation to a Gunfighter has merit. Brynner is perfectly cast as an outsider in the "dirtiest town on earth," and the twist in the plot that reveals his motivations is both novel and convincing. Pat Hingle, who always does well when called upon to play a figure of authority, corrupt or otherwise (he was the hanging judge in Hang ‘Em High and Commissioner Gordon in the Batman movies), adds weight to the proceedings, and there’s such western veterans as Strother Martin and Brad Dexter (the one member of The Magnificent Seven who did not go on to stardom) in the cast, as well. Most of the potential here doesn’t make it to the screen, but even unrealized potential is better than none at all, so Invitation to a Gunfighter gets a marginally passing grade.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© Copyright 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks


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