Sterling Hayden and Yvonne De Carlo headline Shotgun, one of those modest, rock-solid western yarns that Hollywood used to churn out by the dozen back in the 1950s. Like so many of these wonderful, low- to mid-budget 50s westerns, it features a simple, cleanly told story with just enough adult themes and moral complexity to keep things interesting without compromising pacing or action, put together by a team of seasoned professionals who knew how to deliver a good time at the movies. This is the sort of film that seems tailor-made for a satisfying Saturday afternoon viewing.
Hayden stars as Clay Hardin, at one time headed down the wrong path, but brought back to the straight-and-narrow some years earlier by his mentor, Mark Fletcher (Lane Chandler). Now both men are U.S. marshals for a tiny, unnamed Arizona town.
One night, Ben Thompson and his gang ride in. Thompson is out for revenge on Hardin and Fletcher, the two men who put him in prison for 6 years. Against Hardin's wishes, Fletcher goes to handle Thompson on his own, hoping to settle things without a fight, and is ambushed and killed for his trouble, blown away by Thompson's shotgun. Hardin manages to kill one of the gang but the rest escape. Determined to avenge his friend, Hardin turns his back on his ambitious fiance Aletha (Angela Greene) and the cushy government job awaiting him to track Thompson down. Before he leaves town, he grabs his own shotgun, planning to give Thompson a taste of his own medicine.
Thompson has plans to sell some rifles to Delgadito, a renegade Apache chief. He has a falling out with Bentley (Robert J. Wilke), and has some of Delgadito's men stake him out in the desert, the hot sun drying out the rawhide straps and pulling him ever closer to a nearby rattlesnake. They also tie up Abby (De Carlo), a woman with a past who has joined up with Bentley on the promise of an escort to California and a fresh start.
Hardin happens along just in time, but refuses to free Bentley until he tells him where Thompson is headed.
Abby doesn't think much of Hardin at first, and even helps Bentley try to escape when the trio take a rest stop at a riverbank. Bentley tries to kill Hardin but ends up floating face down in the river. Hardin and Abby soon come to the aid of Reb Carlton (Zachary Scott), a talkative bounty killer whose surface charm masks a ruthless, mercenary nature. Carlton is after Thompson and his men, too, and insists on riding along.
Abby is a tough customer and finds Hardin hard to figure out, a hardened, no-nonsense man who isn't easy to warm to.
After some time on the trail, Abby soon finds herself softening towards Hardin over the leering dandy Carlton, especially once she finds out more about his background and what Fletcher meant to him.
Eventually, the trail leads to Delgadito's camp, and the Apache chief, admiring bravery, forces Hardin and Thompson to settle things with a shotgun duel, each man circling the other on horseback, one shell apiece...
Shotgun is nicely directed by veteran Lesley Selander. By the mid 50s, Selander had scores of “B” westerns under his belt, featuring the likes of Buck Jones, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, not to mention over a dozen swift and exciting Hopalong Cassidy films from the 30s and 40s. Judging from this film, Selander and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks seem to favor framing the cast in lots of landscape shots, often with some kind of foliage in the foreground - prickly pear cactus, brush, etc. The director keeps Shotgun moving right along at a nice clip, with plenty of action, and makes the most of the striking locations around Red Rock Crossing, Sedona.
Sterling Hayden makes for a convincing cowboy, big and believably tough, and seems comfortable with all the horse riding, fisticuffs and gunplay. He brings a refreshingly crusty, hard edge to his laconic character. The handsome, 6' 2” Hayden made a number of westerns throughout his career (notably Johnny Guitar, The Last Command and Terror in a Texas Town), but is most famous for his roles in two Stanley Kubrick pictures, The Killing (1956) and as Brig. Gen. Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), as well as a memorable turn as the corrupt police captain Al Pacino shoots in the face, in one of the best scenes in The Godfather (1972).
Yvonne De Carlo, most famous for her role as Lily Munster in the 60s sitcom The Munsters, rose to prominence co-starring in a number of program westerns, swashbucklers and crime films; her more notable roles include such well-regarded films as Brute Force (1947), Criss Cross (1949), and of course alongside Charlton Heston as Moses' wife Sephora in The Ten Comandments (1956). She's a fiery beauty in the Maureen O'Hara mode, and gives an engaging performance here, despite being stuck with a very unflattering hairstyle.
Zachary Scott makes the most of his screen time as the morally ambiguous bounty hunter. Scott enjoyed high profile roles in dramas such as Mildred Pierce and Jean Renoir's The Southerner (both 1945) and the Luis Bunuel film The Young One (1960), but seems to have been trapped in the colorful third lead spot for most of his career. I'm less familiar with Guy Prescott, but he's good as the grim, murderous Thompson, and experienced heavy Robert J. Wilke (so memorably dispatched by James Coburn in the knife/gun duel early in The Magnificent Seven) is on hand as well.
One of the most interesting things about Shotgun is that its script was co-written (along with Clarke Reynolds) by none other than Rory Calhoun, a noted western star in his own right (his TV western series The Texan is well worth seeking out). I have no idea how much Calhoun contributed to the final script, but it's a pretty decent effort and provides just enough meat on the bones, character-wise, for the three leads to chew on. It's a fine western and yet another lesser-known treat from what many consider the genre's "golden age" - the 1950s.
DVD Note: Shotgun is included in the 2-disc Darn Good Westerns Volume 2 DVD set. It shares disc space with Four Fast Guns and Deputy Marshal. The transfer is OK; colors are a little faded, the picture is a tad soft, and with each optical fade, there's a second or so where the color is off before it pops back to normal. In general though, it looks fair enough and the set overall is excellent value for money, as it also includes Massacre, Three Desperate Men and Outlaw Women.
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