Hard as it is to imagine today, during the 1959-60 television season there were 26 Western series airing in prime time, and that's not counting reruns of shows like Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers, in constant syndication during those days. Wanted: Dead or Alive, in its second season, aired on CBS Saturday nights at 9:30, an hour before Have Gun, Will Travel and Gunsmoke, while Bonanza and The Deputy aired just prior to and immediately after it on NBC. This glut of TV Westerns resulted in many short-lived series all but forgotten today, but the often fine writing on Gunsmoke in its early years, and the black sheep style of Have Gun, Will Travel still have its fans.
Although Steve McQueen remains one of the iconic movie stars of the 1960s, his TV show was curiously MIA when I was growing up in Detroit, and as big a fan as I was of his work in movies like The Great Escape and Bullitt, I didn't have a chance to sample it in reruns. I also avoided the show's Season One DVD release, partly because it was expensive, but also because distributor Lions Gate sourced French PAL masters for that release, resulting in what was reported to be an extremely noticeable speed-up effect.
Wanted: Dead or Alive: Season Two is being handled by BCI Eclipse, in an arrangement licensed by the France-based Studio Canal via New Line Home Entertainment. (All three company logos unfold at a snail's pace when you put the disc in.) I don't have the first season set for comparison purposes, but I noticed no speed-up or glaring PAL-sourced imaging problems. Though not as razor sharp as CBS/Paramount releases of the same vintage (Gunsmoke, Perry Mason), it's nothing like the appalling transfers of, say, Have Gun Will Travel or Combat. More on this below.
As for the show, I was expecting something no better than serviceable filler, a series that showed off McQueen's movie star potential but saddled with routine teleplays designed to burn up 30 minutes of air time and little more. Instead, Wanted: Dead or Alive is a real find for first-time viewers (like this reviewer). Likewise expecting a weekly bounty hunt, with McQueen's Josh Randall tracking down stereotype Western bad guys and bringing them in for the reward money, the show instead exhibits an impressively wide range of stories with interesting characters and a varying tone, effortlessly moving between light, humanistic comedy and cynical drama.
No doubt McQueen brought the role (and his screen persona generally) elements from his own unhappy early life in a broken home and reform schools, as a drifter and onetime street gang member. (The season opener, "The Montana Kid," probably unintentionally parallels some of McQueen's early years in its grifter kid character, played by The Invisible Boy's Richard Eyer.) Josh is a loner, too, and like McQueen intensely driven to succeed. Oftentimes episodes revolve around Josh's determination to get back money stolen from him, or to find an outlaw who somehow slipped through his fingers. As McQueen would establish in his future movie roles, he's quietly intense: outwardly calm but ready for action, ready to pounce with unforgiving violence symbolized by his character's trademark weapon: a sawed-off Winchester rifle, known in the trade as a "Mare's Leg." The show's opening titles spell things out, with Josh staring blankly directly into the camera lens, peering over the "A" and "N" in the main title lettering. He's like a stray dog that'll look at you with detachment, but which'll take your arm off if you get too close.
And yet, there was also always something intangibly likeable and alluring about Steve McQueen, something on full display in every episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive. He was the epitome of cool, yes, but there's something else about his manner here and elsewhere that's so intensely engaging and which no one's yet quite been able to pinpoint. Maybe it was, as McQueen himself suggested, a hint of an innately good man lurking behind those "shaggy brown eyes."*
Of course the show's writing was a big reason for Wanted: Dead or Alive's success. I was watching one episode, "The Healing Woman," and thought to myself, "Wow. This is a great character-driven piece that plays like a well-written Twilight Zone" - only to discover that the show was written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, two of Zone's busiest scribes. Another early show, "Estralita," written by Ray Buffum, is awfully cynical by '50s network standards, with Josh rescuing a man (Charles Aidman) about to be lynched perhaps only because Josh's is after the bounty on his head - only to have the man's girlfriend shoot him in cold blood because she wants the reward money, too. Another strong show, "The Empty Cell," penned by D.D. and Mary M. Beauchamp, exemplifies the show's morally ambiguous core, not just in terms of McQueen's Josh, but practically everyone in sight. In that episode Josh delivers a prisoner to a waiting sheriff (Star Trek's DeForest Kelley), only to return the next day to find the prisoner gone and the real sheriff (Lon Chaney, Jr.) claiming to know nothing about it. He's hostile toward Josh and related to the missing man, so his bullying actions suggest he may have been responsible for the prisoner's escape - or is he?
Guest stars include: Virginia Gregg, James Westerfield, Royal Dano, Virginia Christine, Mona Freeman, Robert Wilke, Lee Van Cleef, King Donovan, R.G. Armstrong, Vaughn Taylor, Everett Sloane, John Dehner, Dabbs Greer, Jeanne Cooper, Jay Silverheels, Laurie Mitchell, William Schallert, Dyan Cannon, Harry Townes, Fay Spain, Wayne Rogers, Warren Oates, Martin Landau, Ned Glass, Arthur Franz, Sean McClory, Douglas Fowley, John Carradine, Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, Richard Crane, Susan Oliver, Mara Corday, John Anderson, Brad Dexter, Claude Akins, Beverly Garland, and many others.
Video & Audio
Wanted: Dead or Alive presents all 32 second season episodes over four single-sided discs, with eight shows per disc. Good film elements were sourced, though the transfer is just a tad on the soft side. Episodes are in their original black and white and run 25-and-a-half minutes, so they don't appear to be time-compressed or speed-up from PAL, though the Studio Canal logo that's used most certainly is PAL-sourced. Most episodes retain the original "Four Star Production" tag. The English Dolby Digital mono is strong; a French audio track is included.
Accompanying the discs are handy episode summaries on the slim cases which also note air dates, director and writers, as well as guest stars. The Women of Wanted: Dead or Alive runs 11 minutes and isn't much more than a collection of Year Two clips with some narration discussing the role of women on the show.
Wanted: Dead or Alive is a treat for TV Western fans and Steve McQueen admirers. His star-making role and screen presence, combined with the show's strong writing, keep it highly watchable to this day. Recommended.
* Despite his anti-establishment image, McQueen himself was in fact quite conservative. When I worked at the Warner Bros. Archives, I came across a still photographer's contact sheets from Bullitt, with McQueen on location in San Francisco looking extremely unhappy being swarmed by hippie admirers.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.