Olive Films has been a real blessing for film buffs anxious to see interesting but sometimes obscure films. Showdown at Boot Hill (1958), a Western with Charles Bronson in one of his earliest leading roles, isn't even listed in the filmography section of his Wikipedia page, nor is there an entry for the film itself. It's also not listed in Leonard Maltin's normally thorough iPad app, though it does get a brief mention in his Classic Movie Guide.
Regal Films, the short-lived (1956-59) second-feature subsidiary of 20th Century-Fox, produced this modest but interesting psychological Western. It's not much better than a typical contemporary episode of TV's Gunsmoke, but it is a good showcase for Bronson, still ten years away from stardom in Europe, and another six or seven before he finally hit it big with American audiences.
Filmed in "RegalScope," the moniker created so as not to sully the more prestigious (and Fox-owned) CinemaScope brand, Olive's Showdown at Boot Hill marks the first time since the '50s this has been available in its original 2.35:1 widescreen, and though inconsistent, the image at times is dazzlingly good. (For reasons unclear, this Fox release is now part of the Paramount library.)
Charles Bronson is Luke Welch, a Deputy U.S. Marshal and bounty hunter who arrives in the town of Mound City to arrest fugitive killer Con Maynor (Thomas Browne Henry, Bronson's old acting coach at the Pasadena Playhouse). In a hotel restaurant, in the presence of waitress Sally (Fintan Meyler), cattleman Sloane (Robert Hutton) and many others, Maynor suddenly draws his gun and Luke guns down the fugitive.
At an inquest, Luke is absolved of any wrongdoing but, stubbornly, neither the judge (Paul Maxey) or will anyone else in town attest to Maynor's identity, all because he was a liked and respected citizen. Frustrated but undeterred, Luke has a picture taken of Maynor's corpse in his coffin by a local photographer (Norman Leavitt), but snipers shatter the plates and the one camera is destroyed.
Sloane, once helped financially by Maynor when the rancher was particularly desperate, sends for the deceased's brother, Charles (George Douglas). At the same time he goads prostitute Jill's (Carole Mathews) lover, Les Patton (Michael Mason), into killing Luke. Meanwhile, the lawman courts Sally, who remains a reluctant witness.
Though modest, Showdown at Boot Hill is pretty interesting in that Bronson's character is portrayed as a short man "[hiding his] loneliness behind a gun." It reminded me of the father of a girl I once dated while in high school, by which time I was already 6'2" tall. Shaking hands when we were introduced, this short man squeezed my hand with all the force of Moe Howard sadistically squeezing Curly's head in a vice grip, as if to prove his manhood. Similarly, Luke discovers shooting big, burly bad guys taunting him about his size offers no relief, and that there's no escaping derisive comments no matter where his travels might take him. (Hutton's character, for instance, refers to him as "a pint-sized marshal.")
Bronson himself was of average height for the time, reportedly 5'8 1/2", though small and compact compared to genre stars like John Wayne (6'4"), James Arness (6'7"), and Richard Boone (6'1"). Both Hutton and Carradine tower over him here. As if to compensate, Bronson was extremely fit and muscular even into his sixties. (At 54 he believably played a bare-knuckle boxer in Hard Times, a role probably no other major star, not even Clint Eastwood, could have pulled off so authentically.)
Though a long way from the psychological Westerns of Anthony Mann and James Stewart, Showdown at Boot Hill has nice touches. Luke has an interesting relationship with the town's barber-doctor-undertaker, Doc Weber (John Carradine, in a good performance*), who was once in love with Sally's mother, Jill, but could never bring himself to ask her to marry him because he was ashamed of his crippled leg. It was a decision he always regretted, especially after Jill was reduced to become the town prostitute.
For most of the decade, Bronson had major supporting parts in A-level movies, often Westerns, while guest starring in featured roles on various television series. Showdown at Boot Hill seems to have been Bronson's first leading role in a feature film, though Roger Corman's Machine-Gun Kelly was released the same month as this. Gang War, likewise directed by Gene Fowler, Jr., followed two months later and When Hell Broke Loose four months after that. Further, Bronson's short-lived television drama, Man with a Camera, debut that October. All of this was an obvious effort by Bronson and his agent to establish him as a leading man, but it didn't work. By 1959 he was back to supporting parts and guest shots on TV.
Frustrated, Bronson began making movies on the European continent, becoming a huge star there and in Asia following two excellent starring films, Once Upon a Time in the West and Farewell, Friend (Adieu l'ami, both 1968). He continued making ambitious, often excellent films in Europe, including Rider on the Rain, Violent City, Cold Sweat (all 1970), and The Mechanic (1972), but it wasn't until Death Wish (1974) that Bronson finally found mainstream stardom in his home country. There's never been a career trajectory like his, before or since.
Editor-turned-director Gene Fowler, whose credits include the good if unfortunately titled I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), tries to give the film a stately look belying its budget level with some handsomely composed tracking shots and an editing trick during the film's first gunfight anticipating what Peter Hunt later brought the 007 movies. There's also a grimmer tone that what could be found on TV at the time. After shooting Maynor, Luke warns, "You'd better have an inquest quick. He won't keep in this heat." And, later, told by the photographer that the replacement camera will take time: "Two weeks! That corpse wouldn't be socially presentable by that time."
Video & Audio
Like Olive's earlier release of She-Devil (1957), another RegalScope title, Showdown at Boot Hill has its bumps and scrapes but overall is an excellent 2.35:1 widescreen transfer that, at times, is gorgeously sharp with rich blacks and good contrast. The DTS-HD Master Audio, in its original mono, English only with no subtitle options, is also excellent. No Extra Features, sorry to say, owing to Olive's licensing agreement with Paramount.
For Bronson and Western fans, Showdown at Boot Hill is an offbeat, interesting little film, and Olive's excellent video transfer cinches the deal. Highly Recommended.
* For those keeping track, Carradine and Hutton also appeared in the hilarious Invisible Invaders about this same time.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.