We look back at an authentic 1969 western with a tumultuous backstory.
Editor's Note: C&I is celebrating the golden westerns of 1969, a year that changed the game for the beloved film genre. Check the Entertainment tab each day to see a different film recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for the upcoming November/December 2019 print edition, which prominently features one of the 25 greatest films of 1969 on its cover.
When Death of a Gunfighter hit theaters in 1969, critics were generous in their praise of leading man Richard Widmark’s compelling performance, first-time filmmaker Allan Smithee’s self-assured direction, and the film’s overall quality as a fresh take on genre conventions.
Indeed, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times enthusiastically — and, yes, accurately — described the Universal Pictures release as “quite an extraordinary western. It’s one of those rare attempts … to populate the West with real people living in real historical time. Most westerns could take place anywhere, anytime, if the clichés hold out. But in this one we're given a loving portrait of a western town in transition.”
Ebert continued: “Director Alan Smithee, a name I’m not familiar with, allows his story to unfold naturally. He never preaches, and he never lingers on the obvious. His characters do what they have to do.” Howard Thompson of The New York Times agreed, noting that Death of a Gunfighter had been “sharply directed by Alan Smithee … Using the color camera graphically, Mr. Smithee has an adroit facility for scanning faces and extracting sharp background.”
There was just one problem, one crucial piece of information withheld from Ebert, Thompson and most other reviewers before they offered their initial appraisals in 1969: Alan Smithee didn’t exist.
The name actually was a pseudonym invented by the Directors Guild of America when both Robert Totten, a TV veteran (Gunsmoke, The Legend of Jesse James) who was fired as director after reportedly clashing with Widmark, and Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), a veteran filmmaker who was hired to complete the production after Totten’s departure, declined to be billed as the director of record. Over the next three decades, the DGA allowed similar use of the infamous alias on several occasions when directors wanted to escape blame, or express disapproval, after losing control of their movies.
But don’t misunderstand: Despite what you might infer from the off-screen conflict, Death of a Gunfighter is nothing to be ashamed about. The movie, as many critics duly noted back in 1969, is an exceptionally fine western, focused on the steadily mounting animosity between imagine-conscious townspeople eager to embrace 20th-century changes and Marshal Frank Patch (Widmark), an old-school, straight-shooting lawman who may have outstayed his welcome and outlived his usefulness. Among the familiar faces in the strong supporting cast: Lena Horne, Morgan Woodward, John Saxon, Dub Taylor and, two years before his career-defining breakthrough as Archie Bunker on TV’s All in the Family, Carroll O’Connor.