"Wanted: Dead or Alive" is a prime example of a TV series that has cemented its place in history for reasons other than its overall quality. As its first season demonstrates, it's a can be a formulaic affair, and compared to other western series' of its time, in fact compared to a series of similar theme, "Have Gun, Will Travel," it's quite lackluster. However, while there is no argument Richard Boone was great as Paladin in that series, he was no Steve McQueen, and viewers tuning into "Wanted: Dead or Alive" got the treat of seeing a star in the making.
In 1958, Steve McQueen was a decade away from the iconic role of Lt. Frank Bullitt, and another two years before upstaging Yul Brynner in "The Magnificent Seven," and "Wanted: Dead or Alive" is a document to a star in the making. McQueen makes a tremendous impression from the opening scene of the premiere, as fearless bounty hunter, Josh Randall. The series wastes no time in showing viewers Randall is a man of action, as he takes on two armed outlaws, because it's the right thing to do. He isn't shy about breaking the hand of a trigger-happy lawmen, quick to avenge the slaying of the town marshal, and won't hear his integrity questioned by anyone. He may be a man who makes a living hunting human prey, but he's a straight shooter when the dust finally settles.
The plot of the pilot episode is one of a few variations Randall is thrown into as the season progresses. In an early episode, Randall attempts to put up a tough front when asked by the mother superior at a convent to rescue a younger nun for nothing in return. Even though this is only a 25-minute episode series, the writers know how to stretch out the payoff, even if for only a few minutes longer, but in the end we know Randall is going to do the right thing.
The delay to the action-oriented denouement can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes you get a story where the supporting characters of the week can be interesting (check out the mid season episode that borrows a bit from "The Ox-Bow Incident"), other times, you'll find yourself wishing Randall just pulled out his Mare's Leg 10 minutes early whether it be due to grating performances or just too much thin dialogue.
The formulaic nature of the show is arguably its weakest point. While it's fun to get a new story each episode and many of the themes show up in even the best western films, the show does fall into the groove of rehashing various elements, such as the missing relative or rival, less noble bounty hunter. It's not that formula is bad, modern viewers need to look no further than "House" to see that a formula show can be successful, but what "Wanted: Dead or Alive" lacks that "House" holds in great quantity, are multiple characters and long running plot lines.
Since Randall encounters new people each week, a case could be made for similar plot skeletons being justifiable; it's entirely plausible, more than one town could have the same type of shady character, and it's even more likely that viewers in 1958 weren't tuning their sets to watch Steve McQueen solve society's issues, but rather kick some butt, and in the action department, "Wanted: Dead or Alive" delivers the goods.
I find it worth mentioning, that this isn't my first encounter with the series. A few years ago, I had viewed some later season episodes, and found them fun diversions and seeing the beginning of the series showed me how far McQueen came into his own. In hindsight, the show is best digested in smaller bites and then its shortcomings in the story department might not be as apparent. Personally, as I neared the end of this hefty sized season, I found myself almost overloaded. Then again, perhaps coming off a diet of often criminally complex shows like LOST, it is easy to not appreciate a more simple, but still admirable fun.
Average storytelling aside, as stated previously, the selling point here is McQueen. While he doesn't command the screen with the gravitas he did later on, McQueen's take on Randall is the beginnings of vintage McQueen. The cool, confident delivery of dialogue is in full force, despite the sometimes-clunky nature of it in the first place. Most importantly, McQueen doesn't try to emulate other actors of his time; he sets out to carve his own place in Hollywood and on more than one occasion does the wiseacre McQueen persona shine through. When viewed against his role in "The Blob" which came out the same year, McQueen shows great promise as a man's man here; had he played in anyway similar to his role in that film, "Wanted: Dead or Alive" would have been K.I.A from the opening scene. Interestingly enough, McQueen would deliver his final performance as a bounty hunter, this time set in present times as Papa Thorson in "The Hunter."
Last but not least, it would be criminal if I forgot (and I nearly did) to give credit to Mare's Leg, the large caliber, sawed-off rifle Randal carries in a hip holster (very much like the one Harrison Ford strapped on in the Star Wars films). McQueen was by no means a large man, coming around 5'9". Compared to contemporary western actors of his day, such as the 6'3" Gary Cooper or monstrous, 6'7" James Arness, McQueen was not an imposing physical presence. Luckily, he was graced with a very iconic weapon that dwarfed all challengers throughout the series and continues to pop up from time to time in modern productions today, including the space-western "Firefly" and the zombie-comedy "Zombieland." When Randall drew Mare's Leg for action, the audience knew the bad guy was toast; years later an equally iconic .44 Magnum would elicit the same response from audiences.
The 1.33:1 transfer is watchable, but not without a good share of defects. First and foremost are the color levels; the show is filmed in black and white, but unfortunately here, black levels are never quite as intense or solid as expected. Additionally, there is some unsurprising print damage, as well as some light compression artifacts.
The English mono soundtrack also shares some signs of its age. The overall tone is a bit on the tinny side and there were occasional instances of some distortion at the higher levels. However, by and large, dialogue is always clear, even if the quality of the sound effects suffer from a less than stellar presentation.
"Wanted: Dead or Alive" isn't groundbreaking television and likely to wear thin on the nerves of casual western fans. Its formulaic nature becomes very evident early on in the season and it is only through the strengths of McQueen that it is remembered today. If you love McQueen though, this set is an easy must buy, despite the less than impressive technical presentation. If you decide to give Randall's exploits a try, my advice is to pace yourself, as the series is likely better enjoyed in smaller bites, than one large buffet viewing session. Recommended.