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May 25, 2015

Invitation to a Gunfighter


Richard Wilson - 1964
KL Classics BD Region A

In the early Sixties, Stanley Kramer produced, but did not direct, three movies. As with the films that he directed, these films were noted for their "messages" from the well-intentioned Kramer. The three films, Pressure Point, A Child is Waiting and Invitation to a Gunfighter are all more idiosyncratic that Kramer's films, with the first two known for the clashes between the producer and the directors who wanted to be more than simply hired hands. I'm unaware of any conflict Richard Wilson may have had with Kramer, and it may well be that as a more experienced filmmaker, Wilson was given more control than was allowed the younger Hubert Cornfeld and John Cassavetes.

Taking place in a small town in New Mexico following the Civil War, a professional gunman is hired to kill the town's lone Confederate soldier, Matt Weaver, by the town boss, Sam Brewster. What follows is a peeling of several layers, of the corruption in a town that has the Mexican citizens living in their own section, with most everyone motivated by their own perceived needs. The hired gun, with the exotic name of Jules Gaspard d'Estaing, hangs around town long enough to force several people that have their own reasons for wanting Weaver to be dead or alive to confront truths about themselves. It's not a Western insofar as fitting the usual genre requirements, most of the film takes place in town, and the only real action takes place during the final ten minutes.

What makes Invitation to a Gunfighter interesting is how some of the layers complicate what appears on the surface to be a set-up for a B-Western. Weaver's main reason for fighting on behalf of the Confederacy was an act of rebellion against Brewster. The Civil War here is discussed only in terms of slavery. Weaver is shown to be the least prejudiced person, with established friendship with the Mexican community. D'Estaing, as exotic looking as his name, reveals himself to be the son of a slave owner and a slave. The idealism of the Civil War is a sham used to exploit others. Not exactly a Greek chorus, but there is a trio of former Union soldiers, one blind, and one with missing his lower leg, that have nothing else going for them other that to observe what's going in town. They are the among the ones who actually fought in the war, and have nothing else except each other. For this trio, the drama of the town's leading citizens is comic fodder.

Of course Yul Brynner proved he could rock a black cowboy hat in The Magnificent Seven. This was Brynner's second Western, but not a box office success. George Segal was building up his resume at the time he was cast as Matt Weaver. There are several terrific character actors including Pat Hingle as boss Sam Brewster, Bert Freed, Clifton James, Strother Martin, and William Hickey as a blind Union vet. Brad Dexter from The Magnificent Seven appears briefly, unrecognizable behind a beard.

Richard Wilson is best known for his association with Orson Welles. Of the handful of films he directed, Al Capone might be considered the best. Pay or Die, about the early years of Italian organized crime in New York City, is reputed to have been influential for Martin Scorsese. For those who have not seen Invitation to a Gunfighter, the other high point is the score by David Raksin, the last of three films he did with Wilson. Raksin's score was included in an album from Westerns produced by United Artists, and was described as "a psychological score in that its often chamber-sized forces seem to evoke the characters' emotional anguish."

invitation to a gunfighter poster.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 25, 2015 09:06 AM