Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Westerns and the overall filmmaking process. Click here to listen.
Week 152: The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953)
Watching this collaboration between Randolph Scott and director Andre De Toth was a puzzling experience. I spent most of the runtime trying to figure out why it doesn’t work near as well as Man in the Saddle, the duo’s masterful Western I watched a couple weeks ago.
I write a lot about how essential a strong script is to a successful film but what specifically are the differences between these two movies, which on the surface share many similarities? The most prominent contrast is the strength of the villains. Man in the Saddle features not one or two but three sinister forces Scott must face. Each poses a considerable threat to he and his gallery of protagonist friends. The Stranger Wore a Gun opens with the promise of great “heavies” as he meet the characters played by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. Sadly, as the film continues, these two are sidelined and most of the screen time is taken up by George Macready and Alfonso Bodeya. As two competing crime lords, Macready is sadly flat and Bodeya is just plain silly. The latter served as the stereotypical Mexican comic relief in Man in the Saddle. The idea of casting him instead as a villain is a remarkable idea, you might even say “progressive”, but unfortunately he just plays the comic relief again in a slightly different context. His character is trivialized and therefore poses no threat to either Scott or Macready. All of this adds up to a Western with very little suspense. Howard Hawks once said, “There’s only action if there’s danger,” and therefore, I’d argue that this film might be filled with plenty of action sequence but it features no action.
The Western might be the genre most reliant on the strength of its villains. In Film Noir, the true enemy is usually the hero himself, letting his desires lead to his own destruction. In horror, the “bad guy” is more of an abstract concept and sometimes in shifts into being the films’ protagonist. When I think about many of the Western genre’s best, their success is contingent on the villain. Look at Richard Boone’s roles in The Tall T and Hombre. Or turn to the newer classic Tombstone: what would Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer’s roles be worth without great opposing forces like Powers Boothe, Stephen Lang, and Michael Biehn? I’d argue that all great Westerns must have a good villain or the film falls out of balance.
All that said, I still enjoyed aspects of The Stranger Wore a Gun, mostly some of the patterns I was able to detect in De Toth’s work. He loves to play with darkness more than any Western filmmaker I’ve come across. His characters tend to turn off or even shoot out the lights when a fight begins. I am curious if this trend continues throughout his other work. We’ll see.
Watched on Tubi.