Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
1958 was the year for Westerns on television. Every night of the week had at least one half-hour sagebrush saga - Wyatt Earp, Tombstone Territory, Colt .45, Have Gun Will Travel. The big hourlong programs were Wagon Train and Maverick, and I believe Rawhide was just starting.
Wanted: Dead or Alive followed the generic lone gunman format, centering on a traveling hero who drifted into a new situation each week, solved problems by gunning down some people, and moved on. It was known for three things: A higher than average violence quotient, the slick weapon carried by the hero, and an impressive young cowboy star, Steve McQueen. The show was a hit, and the only thing that kept it from being a phenomenon for Four Star productions was the surfeit of competition. I literally remember my father turning the dial between the three networks several times in one evening and landing in the middle of a gunfight confrontation with every click.
Four Star productions first tried out Steve McQueen's bounty hunter character in a series called Trackdown starring Robert Culp. McQueen had already done a number of TV western roles as well as the successful feature film The Blob, exposure that made him a good choice for Josh Randall, bounty hunter. Wherever Josh goes, it seems that there are wanted posters for men with extraordinary bounties offered; and the tiniest one-horse towns have marshals that routinely disburse bounty payments of a thousand to 1500 dollars. Josh collects bounties and battles other less scrupulous head-hunting bounty men, many of whom are crooks; if the demographics in this show were taken as gospel, every fourth citizen in the wild west would have been a bounty hunter.
The big gimmick in Wanted: Dead or Alive was Josh Randall's customized firearm, which appears to be a .30-.30 Winchester saddle gun with a short stock and barrel, fitted with a trick leather holster that swivels for fast action. The DVD box copy calls it a shotgun, but the caliber is even mentioned in some of the dialogue in the first show. The extra cartridges on Josh's belt would seem to be much too big to load into the rifle - maybe he's carrying anti-aircraft ammo, for extra-special emergencies. The featurette says the rifle was manufactured in 1892 ... which makes severals shows placing Josh as a Civil War veteran seem rather confused. The gun is also given a name: Mare's Leg.
Several popular TV westerns were based around trick weapons; Four Star followed up with The Rifleman, which did this series one better: Chuck Connors' saddle gun was closer to storebought, but he fired it on the fly with a really eye-catching quick lever action, somehow keeping the rifle aimed and level.
Josh's gun gets dropped, kicked and thrown about but always is ready for a sure shot, and in a typical Wanted: Dead or Alive there are an average 2.5 killings per half hour, usually right at the start and then near the end. The typical Gunsmoke might only have the one showdown at the end of a twenty-minute drama, but Wanted: Dead or Alive usually starts with a couple of cold-blooded murders and definitely ends with Josh plugging somebody.
The shows are fairly well-written. Josh has to relate to various local types as he collects his bounties. There are the usual suspicious types, always confusing the noble Randall with the bad guys, but the 'good' townspeople aren't portrayed as necessarily saintly. In the general run of TV westerns, Josh Randall isn't exactly Lone Ranger material, although he frequently donates a big chunk of his earnings to the innocent people he meets. He makes friends, but isn't inspiring people to put on parties and parades for him either. It doesn't suit his Cool Loner character.
McQueen is excellent at polishing Josh'es classy one-dimensional surface. He behaves rather than acts and is already the McQueen persona we know from his later films; the gee-whiz stuff from The Blob is gone entirely. Physically, he is utterly cool. Everyone watched these shows to see how the different cowboy stars handled their guns, and McQueen's style was distinct. He fired from simple crouches and did convincing fast-draws with the oversized weapon. A clever bit of stunt acting comes along every four or five minutes, like clockwork.
Almost every show has an interesting costar or a recognizable featured player or two; it's nice to see likes of Gloria Talbot, Michael Landon or Alan Hale Jr. show up to do a spin. We also see Nick Adams, Everett Sloane, George Macready and Warren Oates. Repeating twice in the first season is the young James Coburn, once in a nice episode with Ralph Meeker called Reunion for Revenge. In the early 50s Coburn was a modest acting student at Los Angeles Community College with Robert Vaughn, who got into TV and movies more quickly. Coburn first career take off came the next year when he landed a role in the superior Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Ranown classic Ride Lonesome.
New Line's Wanted: Dead or Alive Season One boxed set comes in a card and plastic sleeve with four double sided discs in shallow trays. The transfer quality is fine but all of the shows are time compressed - the action all has that slightly sped-up look that many viewers may not mind. Speed-altered video always starts Savant's neurons buzzing.
There are some good extras. Disc one has a text essay on the genesis of the show, and an featurette on McQueen and the show that matches the quality of stuff seen on the Westerns cable TV channel: Okay but not great. The featurette credits are in French, over a French title card for the series. That indicates that the transfers for the whole boxed set may have been done first for French television, which would account for the PAl 25 fps speed-up.
There are also still galleries (many of which are frame-grabs), McQueen text bios and filmographies, and two more featurettes on the show, as well as a 6 part docu on McQueen's career called Life in the Fast Lane. There are also 3 shows repeated in colorized format, which look pretty terrible.
The music score's main theme is said to have been composed by Max Steiner.
The Martin Poster, Fatal Memory, The Bounty, Dead End, Passing of Shawnee Bill, The Giveaway Gun, Ransom for a Nun, Miracle at Pot Hole, The Fourth Headstone, Til Death Do Us Part, The Favor, Ricochet, Sheriff of Red Rock, Die by the Gun, Rawhide Breed, Eight Cent Reward, Drop to Drink, Rope Law, Six-Up to Bannach, The Spur, Reunion for Revenge, Competition, Call Your Shot, Secret Ballot, The Corner, The Eager Man, The Legend, Railroaded, Double Fee, The Kovack Affair, Bounty for a Bride, Crossroads, Angels of Vengeance, The Littlest Client, The Conquerors, Amos Carter.