Partly due to his longevity, partly as the result of a self-styled eccentricity, and partly because of his intriguingly varied body of work, late in life De Toth was feted by various film organizations such as the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. Except perhaps for Crime Wave (1954), a superb noir, none of De Toth's films, mainly Westerns and thrillers, are outstanding, though most are interesting and distinctive. The Stranger Wore a Gun is unquestionably odd, but not at all good.
The familiar story casts Scott (who also produced the film) as Jeff Travis, a spy working on behalf of William Clarke Quantrill's band of Confederate Army Raiders, whose real-life acts of what would now be considered terrorism climaxed with an attack on pro-Unionists in Lawrence Kansas, where some 180 men and boys were brutally murdered and much of the town set afire. Up to then gullible Jeff had looked up to Quantrill, but his comparatively innocent association with the massacre brands Jeff a criminal long after the war has ended.
At the suggestion of gambler/sometime-lover Josie (Claire Trevor), Jeff makes his way to Prescott, Arizona Territory. There he falls in with a fellow ex-raider, knife-wielding Jules Mourett (George Macready) and his henchmen Dan (Lee Marvin) and Bull (Ernest Borgnine), who up to now have been singularly unsuccessful in their efforts to rob the local stage. Jeff wants to get in on the gold carefully hidden with each shipment, but turns against Jules and his men after they murder the folksy stagecoach driver. Meanwhile, Josie arrives in town but her carefully-planned romance with Jeff is threatened by local girl Shelby Conroy (Joan Weldon), and Jules' plotting is complicated by the appearance of another pair of villains, Mexican Degas (Alfonso Bedoya) and hulking brute Shorty (Joseph Vitale).
Where De Toth had shown considerable restraint and taste with the 3-D effects in House of Wax, for The Stranger Wore a Gun the director cuts loose with the kind of in-your-face action one associates with the most exploitive depthies. Everything from torches to gun barrels are thrust ad nauseum into the camera lens, and in a fight scene with Scott, Ernest Borgnine (and his unconvincing double) gets to throw most of the contents of an entire room at the camera. In what was obviously a cost-cutting measure, some of the second unit action footage, scenes of galloping horses and racing stagecoaches, was shot flat and then projected onto a process screen with plaster rocks, tree branches and other brush placed in front of the projected image to create a weird pseudo-3-D image. (Some of these props are clearly on a rotating drum.) These shots might have momentarily fooled viewers watching the film in 3-D, but seen "flat" they only look strange. Very strange.
The film otherwise is standard B-movie fare, with Scott's Jeff unusually naive in choosing business partners, and his motives never entirely clear. His scenes with second-billed Claire Trevor are above average partly because the actress (her career revitalized somewhat after her Oscar-winning performance in Key Largo) rises above the material. The performances are variable, however, suggesting perhaps that De Toth wasn't much of an actors' director. (He reportedly replaced William Castle, who shot no footage.) For instance Joan Weldon, who was fine the following year in Them!, is quite bad here in the ingenue role. Alfonso Bedoya, creepily menacing as the smiling "Gold Hat" in John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), had reportedly developed a drinking problem around this time, and scenes where his character is supposed to be lit up look mighty genuine. Perversely, Bedoya has more dialogue in this film than probably the rest of his movie appearances combined, but between his slurred speech and thick accent many of his lines are hilariously unintelligible. Even one-word replies like "Sure" come out "Shuru-l-l-ea."
Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, both at the beginning of their long careers, like Trevor rise above routine parts, and each enjoys a little scene with Scott that show off their talent and screen charisma. Marvin's duel with Scott puts to good use the former's poker-faced cockiness, while Borgnine is very good in a scene where Scott's Jeff plays off Bull's greed.
Video & Audio
Though filmed in 3-D, The Stranger Wore a Gun is presented in standard 2-D only, a shame though hardly surprising. The presentation is full frame, and because of the 3-D probably was originally shown in many theaters that way. However, DP Lester White's framing clearly reveals that this was intended for widescreen cropping, probably 1.85:1 or so. There are acres of headroom above the actors, and the oddly-framed titles are another indication of this. Reformatted for widescreen TVs shots are more compositionally balanced, though De Toth's blocking and choice of angles is frequently peculiar. (According to R.M. Hayes' 3-D Movies, it was released in 1.85:1 Vistascope, with interlocked magnetic stereophonic sound.) The image overall is disappointing, with much speckling throughout and the Technicolor looking rather tepid, a contrast to Universal/MCA's resplendent DVD Western releases dating from this same era. The mono sound here is adequate; optional English and Japanese subtitles are included. There are no Extra Features.
The Stranger Wore a Gun is a muddled mess made palatable by Scott's likeable hero, a strong supporting cast, and the novelty of 3-D at its most nakedly exploitive. Completists of Andre De Toth and 3-D cinema will want to seek this out, but more for more general genre fans this is strictly a rental.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.