When choosing to review the classic television show The Rifleman (Boxed Set Collection 3), I came with little knowledge and some anticipation. Though I was aware of director Sam Peckinpah's involvement (he was series creator and directed some episodes) and had vague memories of that iconic opening ("The Rifleman!" proclaims the announcer with the camera literally, positioned at the hip of a man blasting his rifle only to pan up to Chuck Connors' grizzled face looking directly at you) I had no idea the show was so... to put it bluntly, F-ing good.
I mean the opening alone--simple, but with the startling thunderclaps of Connors' rifle that present one of the coolest guys ever to grace or in many cases, assault the TV screen. And then, just the momentum of watching each episode. Of course, some shows are better than others, but there's an extra element of hardness to the series that feels different than other classic TV Westerns like Bonanza or The Big Valley (the two re-runs I watched as a kid--now I really wished I'd seen The Rifleman). Its not a surprise the show was popular, running from 1958-1963 on ABC. Men and boys must have eaten this stuff up.
The set up for the show is simple but abetted by complicated situations. Lucas McCain (Connors), a widower and expert rifleman (a Winchester) has settled in a North Fork, New Mexico in the late 1880's with his young son Mark (Johnny Crawford). Though essentially a peaceful man, Lucas will get involved when he see's wrongdoing--whether towards a woman in distress, an old man or a couple afflicted with yellow fever (a terrific episode of paranoia and self sacrifice). He's especially concerned for his son, a kid who absolutely idolizes his father (who wouldn't?) but without any Beaver Cleaver cuteness.
This season is marked by some stand-out episodes and stellar directors (the shoe's entire run boasted Peckinpah, Joseph H. Lewis, Richard Donner and Arthur Hiller to name but a few) terrific writing and impressive guest stars (guest stars for the show's five years include Dennis Hopper, Martin Landau, Vic Morrow, Sammy Davis Jr, Buddy Hackett and Warren Oates). "The Patsy" (directed by Lewis who helmed many Rifleman episodes and the auteur behind the seminal film nor Gun Crazy) features Lucas dealing with a group of outlaws hankering to take over the town (and kill Lucas). "Tension" has Lucas pitted against a family wondering how their bounty hunter son (played by Harry Dean Stanton!) died. And "The Babysitter," a weird funny/scary episode (directed by Peckinpah) finds Lucas and Mark caring for a saloon singer's son fathered by an insane religious freak with a whip. The show's resulting whip/gun standoff is effectively violent, creepy and poignant all at once. At that point, you really see the Peckinpah influence stamped on the show.
With 20 episodes in this set, there's much to enjoy and chew on here, and I was surprised by how often the series actually did make me ponder a few things. Like what a good father McCain is, manly and deadly, but not afraid of exhibiting wisdom and feeling. And Connors is such an intriguing choice for a caring father. The 6'5, blond former baseball player reads sometimes like a cross between Jack Palance and Rutger Hauer, his looks appearing more villainous than goody-goody. But that makes him all the more perfect--the kind of dad that can kick all other dad's asses but never be so petty as to instigate. Though anti-gun types may loathe the rifle's central role to show, they're missing just how responsible this guy is and the times he lived in. And sorry, watching Chuck Connors shoot is just goddman cool.
MPI Home Video presents The Rifleman in its original full frame (1:33:1) format. For a show this old, the transfer looks fine.
Again, for a show this seasoned, the sound, cleaned up is pretty crisp. And the rifle claps resound.
Sadly, no extras.
A classic for a reason, The Rifleman still plays fantastic after all these years. Though a series like Deadwood is obviously, edgier, there is something about The Rifleman that gives it an extra punch beyond the gun play so prevalent and adeptly displayed on the show.
Read more Kim Morgan at her blog Sunset Gun