One of these three new-to-DVD Westerns is a universally esteemed classic, well worth the price of the set. But in happy fact, the whole package delivers the goods: sturdy genre entertainment from the Western's peak decade, the 1950s; solid Fox studio craftsmanship in every department; and breathtakingly crisp restorations that make you feel you've been time-warped back to a loge seat in your Bijou of choice on opening day. Henry King's The Gunfighter (1950) is the crown jewel--the film that deserves the credit (often awarded to High Noon) for ushering in the "adult Western," the '50s subgenre that emphasized psychological intensity over action and spectacle. Gregory Peck (topping his acclaimed performance in King's WWII drama Twelve O'Clock High) is excellent as Jimmy Ringo, a notorious shootist grown middle-aged and mortally weary of having to defend his legend. His trail takes him to a frontier town where an old comrade (the great Millard Mitchell) now serves as marshal, and where Ringo's estranged wife and the son he has never seen also reside, under an assumed name. Over one night and one day, Ringo dares to dream of a normal life. But there are avengers not far behind, and other threats yet to be counted. Although hailed by critics, The Gunfighter lost money for Fox; studio head Darryl F. Zanuck blamed the soup-strainer mustache--a stroke of period realism--director King ordered Peck to grow for the role. Well, a little red ink is a small price to pay for a masterpiece. Incidentally, the impeccable black-and-white cinematography is by three-time Oscar-winner Arthur Miller, capping a career that reached back to The Perils of Pauline.
The 1951 Rawhide (no relation to the later TV series) is a trim, satisfying Henry Hathaway picture that blends the leathery trappings of the Western with the claustrophobic atmosphere and intensity of a noir suspense film. At a remote swing station for the transcontinental stagecoach, several no-goods aim to help themselves to a gold shipment. But the next coach isn't carrying gold, so the intruders hold the stationmasters (Tyrone Power and Edgar Buchanan) and some stranded passengers captive while they wait. Power and Susan Hayward handle the heroics without larger-than-life posturing; Dean Jagger, Hugh Marlowe, and George Tobias relish the rare opportunity to play villainous or ambiguous types; and Jack Elam is, well, Jack Elam, reliably oozing viciousness from every pore. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols knew the territory, having scripted John Ford's Stagecoach thirteen years earlier. Hathaway also directed Garden of Evil (1954), Fox's first Western in the new CinemaScope process. (Very wiiiiide CinemaScope--the DVD preserves the 2.55:1 format, which was later modified to 2.35:1.) The story involves several fortune-seeking Americanos accidentally thrown together in Mexico and enlisted to help rescue a fellow countryman injured at his remote gold mine. Much of the film unreels as a journey Western exploring tensions among the strangers, especially those inspired by dreaming of gold and the man's redheaded wife (Susan Hayward). The dialogue reaches for profundity and comes up short, but Richard Widmark as a self-designated "poet" and Gary Cooper as a retired lawman give satisfaction as they one-up each other. The movie's distinction lies in Hathaway's no-sweat adaptation to the widescreen format, the awe-inspiring Mexican settings--a deserted village, a valley of black sand, a mountain town buried under volcanic ash--and the only music score ever composed for a feature Western by Bernard Herrmann.