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Showdown at Boot Hill
Savant Blu-ray Review

Showdown at Boot Hill
Olive Films
1958 / B&W / 2:35 RegalScope / 72 min. / Street Date June 18, 2013 / 29.95
Starring Charles Bronson, Robert Hutton, John Carradine, Carole Mathews, Fintan Meyler, Paul Maxey, Thomas Browne Henry, William Stevens, Martin Smith, George Douglas, Michael Mason, George Pembroke, Argentina Brunetti, Ed Wright, Jose Gonzales Gonzales.
John M. Nickolaus Jr.
Film Editor Frank Sullivan
Original Music Albert Harris
Written by Louis Vittes
Produced by Harold E. Knox
Directed by Gene Fowler Jr.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

With my interest in Charles Bronson prodded by the recent Blu-ray release of one of his best films Hard Times, I was motivated to pop this early Bronson western into the player as soon as it came in the door. It was a rewarding experience. By 1958 Charles Bronson had a good career going, but would find real movie stardom elusive until his big breakthrough in Europe about ten years later. Showdown at Boot Hill may be his first starring credit, in a low budget western that's nevertheless put together with some care and thought.

The generic screenplay gives Bronson a good tryout to test his big-screen starring possibilities. He shines when asked to portray a cool-headed bounty hunter of few words, essentially the Man With No Name character that later shot Clint Eastwood to stellar heights. But Showdown also gives Bronson a sensitive side with introspective, psychological speeches. These play a bit awkward side, mostly because there's nothing like them in his later films. We can see the actor watching a screening of this show in a typically hypercritical mood, and swearing never to repeat the experience. For us Bronson fans, it's fascinating. He doesn't dishonor himself in the least.

Louis Vittes' original screenplay balances on a peculiar problem faced by bounty hunter / Deputy U.S. Marshall Luke Welsh (Charles Bronson). He comes into a town and locates a killer named Maynor with a big price on his head (George Douglas). When Maynor resists arrest by drawing his gun, he blasts him down. All Welsh wants is a certificate of death from the town judge (Paul Maxey) and he'll be on his way to collect his bounty in St. Louis. But the townspeople were Maynor's friends. They conspire to refuse to identify the dead man, to the point of ripping a page out of the hotel blotter. Welsh has a photographer take a picture of the corpse to send back for a formal I.D., but somebody shoots the glass plate, and the photographer's camera. Barber Doc Webber (John Carradine) offers friendly advice, but most everyone in town is against Welsh: Maynor's friend Sloane (Robert Hutton), dance hall proprietress Jill Crane (Carole Mathews), her gambler-lover Les Patton (Michael Mason) and the Mayor (Thomas Browne Henry). The only person with whom Welsh really connects is waitress Sally Crane (Fintan Meyler), Jill's estranged daughter. Sally tries to woo Luke away from his guns, to seek a better life. But too many people would rather see Luke Welsh shot full of holes.

Showdown at Boot Hill is a minor western with some definite grace notes. This was a big Salad Days year for Mr. Bronson; he was a frequent sight on TV (and even had his own show for a season) and was soon to play Machine Gun Kelly for Roger Corman. Helping out greatly is the direction of Gene Fowler Jr.. With his solid background in editing (Hangmen Also Die!; The Woman in the Window; It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World), Fowler lays out a shooting scheme that makes excellent use of a crane and a camera dolly on Fox's familiar western street set, the one with two streets that climb a hill. The movie never looks cheap, as many of the interiors are done on this street set as well, shooting through the windows to see wagons passing, etc.. Fowler doesn't do anything fancy for the film's few scenes of violence, however. One quick-draw is enhanced by skip framing, which doesn't really work. Fowler also does a lot of optical repositioning work in post, blowing up or zooming into shots to find new compositions. He knows not to go too far with this, so the granularity doesn't get out of hand. Fowler edited several of Sam Fuller's B&W movies from this time using the same technique, often rather distractingly.

Vittes' script lets Bronson be the tough guy, but many talky scenes see him blabbing away about the nature of his work, his growing affection for the local looker Sally, and ... his relative short stature. Frankly, we'd not notice this unless it was pointed out; it was no problem to find talented actresses Bronson's size or shorter, like Susan Cabot. The best 'sensitive' scene sees Mexican-American storekeeper Mrs. Bonaventura (Argentina Brunetti) spontaneously give Luke a gift for Sally, just to encourage young romance. Bronson is silent with his back to us. He pauses for a second, and starts to walk out. Then he pauses again at the door, and gives Mrs. Bonaventura a heartfelt Thank You. It makes a big effect -- ANY hint of warmth from Bronson is a cause for emotion.  1

Don't expect a heavy action western. Something happens in each reel or so, but none of the gunplay is particularly memorable and the ending is downright pacifistic, a no-no at a time when every western disagreement was resolved with hot lead, pilgrim. The entire supporting cast gets an opportunity to be front and center, with Carradine and Carole Mathews coming out on top. Robert Hutton (hey, he did work in the years before The Slime People) is rather colorless. Les Patton is a quick-draw artist eager to blast Luke. He proves Sally's contention that guns are only a source of misery by accidentally shooting his girlfriend with a shotgun. Loitering cowpokes William Stevens and Martin Smith serve as a cut-rate Greek Chorus, delivering exposition on how the town feels about its unwelcome visitor.

The screenplay starts with a great moment. Luke arrives at a livery stable decorated with an effigy of a hanged man over its doorway. When the owner tries to offer an explanation, Luke tells him to skip it! But the whole movie would appear to stumble over a major miscalculation. Luke Welsh is identified (and self-identified) as both a bounty hunter and a Deputy U.S. Marshall. In his official capacity, it would seem illogical that anybody would oppose him or question his right to claim the capture/kill of Maynor, especially not the town Sheriff. And what's this about the Sheriff lacking the authority to arrest someone wanted in another town or territory -- what are wanted posters for, if not that? The only thing that would clarify the situation would be if the script set up a situation like that in John Sturges' Hour of the Gun, where lawmen and outlaws alike are badged and deputized by conflicting legal jurisdictions, and all carry legally issued warrants for their enemies. Thus it's difficult to tell if Wyatt Earp is enforcing the law, or pursuing private vengeance.

In other words, Showdown at Boot Hill doesn't say if Luke Welsh is a Federal Deputy who happens to be paid per capita on the fugitives he brings back dead or alive, or if he's a scurvy bounty hunter who picked up a technical badge of duty somewhere along the line. He seems to behave more like the latter. The movie presents its hero with a technical Catch-22, but without the political baggage. We're left somewhere in the middle, enjoying Charles Bronson's tough guy morphing into Mr. Softie. He even keeps a rendezvous with his sweetheart under the Old Tree on the Hill. Like I say, this is a good minor western for fans of Charles Bronson.

Olive Films' Blu-ray of Showdown at Boot Hill is an excellent widescreen HD transfer of this picture, neatly photographed in "Regalscope", which was essentially a dodge to avoid paying rental to Bausch & Lomb. Actually, the entire Regal Films outfit was a slick arrangement by which Fox produced a line of "B" product while dodging climbing overhead costs. See Savant's review of Regal Films' She-Devil for more discussion of this (owed to the research of author Tom Weaver). The good news, of course, is that many of us have never been able to see this show in its original widescreen aspect ratio, which allows us to appreciate Gene Fowler Jr.'s fine direction. It's too bad that Fowler's very well made I Was a Teenage Werewolf is at present nowhere to be found.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Showdown at Boot Hill Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: none
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 24, 2013


1. Yep, I had a momentary, non-heroic encounter of my own with Mr. Bronson on the Westwood parking lot where I worked in 1971 or '72, as a student. He arrived in a green station wagon with two or three little kids. I turned to take his dollar as he walked forward and of course immediately recognized him. All I said was "Good afternoon Mr. Bronson" in a completely un-pushy way. He shot me a look like he wanted to kill me. As I was 5' 9" I was half a head taller than him, but he could have killed me with one punch, no sweat. Bronson honestly looked like he was mad at the world. He and the kids walked off to get ice cream. Knowing nothing about the actor personally, I was expecting him to apologize or something when he got back. It wasn't odd to see personalities in Westwood and most were gracious when recognized, even by me. It wasn't until years later that I heard Charles Bronson described by interviews for the extras on The Magnificent Seven as an anti-social grump and inscrutable hothead. Probably a great dad and good to his close friends, but what a volatile personality!

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

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