Review: Gunsmoke (1953)

This better-than-average western features Audie Murphy in his youthful prime. At only 5 foot 5 inches tall, Murphy may not have had the screen presence of a Hollywood leading man, but the fact that he was one of the most highly-decorated soldiers of World War II lends heaps of credibility to his star power and believability. Here he gets to play a character that's heroic but also has some of the qualities of a scoundrel--think Han Solo back when Han shot first. Murphy plays Reb Kittredge, a mercenary who served as a hired gun during the Johnson County War. His reputation precedes him when he finds himself the patsy in the middle of a land scheme (it's more interesting than it sounds) involving a ranch, some cattle, and a whole bunch of people that want to see him hung out to dry. Kittredge has a core of nobility, but he's not against settling disputes with his pistol. Case in point, the climax of the film features a melee with a surprisingly-high body count as Murphy sits atop a perch and picks off assailers with his rifle. If you know his real-life war record, the scene has added context and punch.

This is Murphy's second (of three) films with co-star Susan Cabot (The Wasp Woman) between The Duel at Silver Creek and Ride Clear of Diablo. It's also the second film from Nathan Juran, a journeyman director who would spend the next 20 years helming a host of cult classics that include Highway Dragnet, The Deadly Mantis, The Brain from Planet Arous, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and Jack the Giant Killer, to name just a few. 

Gunsmoke (no relation to the long-running television and radio series) is adapted from the 1951 novel Roughshod, written by Norman A. Fox, who would have three more of his novels turned into films. As is almost always the case with modestly-budgeted studio pictures--this one comes from Universal International-- the economy of storytelling on display is impressive. Because these films were made with tight budgets and schedules, every line of dialogue and every second of screen time is in service of the whole. Characters introduced in the first act play a critical role in the last. A few lines of exposition substitute for lengthy narrative diversions. It's a welcome departure from the 2-hour-plus bloat that consumes so much of our modern cinema and which often leaves many plot elements dangling hopelessly. Though it's most certainly a programmer, Gunsmoke works.

Gunsmoke is included in ViaVision's Audie Murphy, Man of the West Collection III.


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