Should anyone be suffering symptoms of withdrawal as the “Seen on DVD” column gears down from weekly to monthly, let me share the latest accretions to my own spotty collection. I don’t purchase DVDs often or with a plan, but the going-out-of-business sale a few months back at the Sam Goody in Fashion Valley seemed an unmissable opportunity to complement my long-standing copies of Tombstone and Hour of the Gun with fresh ones of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Warlock (not the 1991 horror show, the 1959 Western), four versions of the Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday legend.
The major contribution of Gunfight... to the lore is, above all else, to render these strange bedfellows, Earp and Holliday, as two facets of a single personality, the superego and the id, the “Preacher” (as Holliday kiddingly nicknames him) and the sinner, the one who, his “wild” youth notwithstanding, strives to walk upright but is sorely tempted by circumstance to stoop, and the one who, for all his wallowing, nurses an eternal spark, a flickering memory, of decency, the one who could yet fall and the one who could yet, at least on occasion, rise, each of them presenting the other a magic mirror to what might have been. (Hour of the Gun, a virtual sequel made ten years later by the same director, John Sturges, emphasizes the breakdown of law and the erosion of Earp’s principles, reducing Holliday to a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do voice of conscience. Tombstone, positing the warmest rapport between Earp and Holliday, emphasizes mainly the internal momentum of the feud and the escalating cost.) Hardly less noteworthy, in the on-again-off-again relationship of Holliday and Big-Nose Kate, is a depiction of mutual masochism that would have been unthinkable as a central subject in the Hollywood of the day, 1957, but was remarkably smuggled in as a lurid sideshow in what passes for good clean family entertainment. It can shock even today.
Solid (albeit stuffy) though Burt Lancaster is as Earp, Kirk Douglas unfailingly upstages him as the bedevilled consumptive. (Flamboyant and funny as was Val Kilmer’s Holliday in Tombstone, Kurt Russell’s Earp was more than a match. James Garner’s Earp in Hour of the Gun, by contrast, has a wide edge over Jason Robards, and in my view a slight edge over all other Earps.) Near the end, to cap off the continual upstaging, Douglas delivers one of, for me, the most thrilling lines in all of movies. “I’ll take care of Ringo.” The climactic gunfight is now winding down, five members of the Clanton gang lie dead, two Earp brothers incapacitated, and Holliday, snaking toward his prey in a kind of sideways crouch, has just taken a blind-side slug from the wet-behind-the-ears Billy Clanton (Dennis Hopper), who promptly hightails it on foot toward Main Street, with, in turn, a slug of Earp’s in his belly. But Holliday’s focus is elsewhere, the redoubtable Ringo (John Ireland), the professional gunslinger who had stolen Kate off him, laughed in his face, and then thrown her back again, unwanted, used up. “I’ll take care of Ringo.” (And you, Wyatt, can go chase that gut-shot pup down Main Street.)
In my mind’s ear I may have remembered the line as spoken with the actor’s much-parodied growling sob, punching up the word Ringo, though in truth he speaks it with great restraint, a matter-of-fact mutter, swallowing the last word as if he can barely stand to say it aloud. What punctuates the line for dramatic effect is the immediate pick-up of Dimitri Tiomkin’s scurrying music, having maintained total silence during the foregoing gunplay, and then, after Holliday plays peekaboo through a team of skittish horses, the final punctuation: the extra bullet (four altogether), and the extra beat to savor his handiwork, when Ringo has been well and truly taken care of. No director nowadays would choose to shoot this solely in long shot and medium long shot, disdaining the closeup, and no leading actor nowadays would sit still for it, Douglas’s head and shoulders framed inside a chipped-out aperture in an adobe wall, a faux closeup, in nearly precise ratio to the VistaVision screen, a smallish picture within the picture. Portrait of a killer. The laconic last parting in the Alhambra Saloon approaches excruciation. Without Holliday (“I need you, Doc”), Earp would have been lost. Without Earp, Holliday will be. They both know it. And make all the fun you want of the Frankie Laine vocal interludes (“Boot Hill, Boot Hill,/ So cold, so still”), the accompanying transitional shots of riders on the trail of destiny are portentous in the very best sense. If I could now have back every hour I’ve spent watching this movie in my lifetime, usually in bits and pieces on TCM and AMC, I’d have been able to read War and Peace. Nonetheless I found another two hours to watch it again.
Warlock treats the same legend under pseudonyms, the fictitious title town taking the place of Tombstone. This version, from a book by Oakley Hall, directed by Edward Dmytryk, has its own lengthy list of distinctions. For starters, it offers straight off a novel twist on the classical showdown (the first of five classical showdowns, all of them in some way novel), with the local lawman turning tail at the last instant and running for his life. There and thereafter, the movie institutionalizes the concept of the “backshooter,” a wild card at a fair-and-square showdown, in essence a strategically placed sniper. (Curiously, John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance fits perfectly the description of a backshooter.) Too, it conceives a whole fanciful lifestyle of the nomadic lawman-for-hire, a town marshal “on acceptance,” supplementing his meager marshalling fee as a faro dealer, travelling the countryside with equipment wagon and entourage, an Earpish peace officer allied with a Hollidaying gambler, peddling law and order along with risk and hazard, equal partners in the operation, in equally dandified duds. And it introduces a new character in the story, a conscience-stricken defector from the outlaw gang, representing man’s self-reforming, self-policing potential. Hence, “Civilization is stalking Warlock.”