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Have Gun Will Travel: Season Four, Vol. 2

(US DVD: 6 Jul 2010)

We previously reviewed the first half of Season Four of this classic western. This new set of the season’s final 19 episodes, originally airing from January to June 1961, present a great show in its confident stride.


Richard Boone plays the man called Paladin. When not on the job, he’s a mild-mannered dandy esconsced in a luxurious San Francisco hotel, where he sharpens his skills in fencing, chess, and skirt-chasing, now then exchanging repartee with the mildly flirtatious Hey Girl (Lisa Lu). Then, usually in mid-flirt, some trouble in a one-dog town comes to his attention.


He sallies forth, dressed in black, to wander the plains dealing rough justice with two fists and two shooting-irons. One gun is on his hip and the other is a tiny thing tucked behind his belt buckle. After the problem has been obliterated, Paladin drops a quote by La Fontaine or Pindar and heads for home.


The first two episodes deal with legacies of the Civil War. The first is utterly bleak while the second is more sentimental, albeit still with a tragic ending. “Shadow of a Man” focuses on a southerner (Kent Smith) treated as an outcast because of his rumored association with John Wilkes Booth. His wife (Dianne Foster), who summoned Paladin, knows nothing about all this and gradually finds herself attracted to the gunslinger. What lifts this simmering scenario above the mundane is a concept of cross-purposes almost out of the Twilight Zone.


Everyone is being manipulated by a sinister elfin man who materializes at every point in the story. The actor is Walter Burke, a man typecast in magical, mischievous roles in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (as a leprechaun), Lost in Space (the Toymaker), Bewitched (the Great Zeno), Batman (the Penguin’s aide), plus multiple episodes of The Outer Limits and Thriller. His impish character here isn’t some fantastic creature, but his role manages to be as metaphorical as it is literal. He’s a living plot-device representing the human need to stir things up.


“Long Way Home” has Paladin forming a bond with his quarry, a former slave. The actor is Ivan Dixon (Hogan’s Heroes), who starred with the above-mentioned Burke in a notable Twilight Zone about a boxer and a boy’s “big tall wish”. The developments here are convenient, shameless and far-fetched in their attempt to lionize the man as a victim of injustice, and this tells us how the show made a point of positioning itself in relation to contemporary issues. The western was conscious of racial unrest and chose not to avoid the realities of the day in an escape to the past but to trace those realities to the past.


That episode’s reference to the bounty’s daughter finds a parallel in the superb “Fatal Flaw”, an existential playlet set entirely at a snowbound cabin. Paladin and a local marshal (Allyn Joslyn) with “enough guts to string on a tree” host a tall, dapper, satanic hombre (Royal Dano) who’s ready to philosophize them to death about the nature of the world. He wagers on the corruption of one or other of the little band, and he turns out to have a secret. This is a dark little scenario in which the marshal concludes that no matter what happens, the villain has proved his point and the forces of order have lost.


A twist softens this blow with an ironic cushion, but the blow is still there. This and the equally harsh “Shadow of a Man” are both scripted by Jack Laird, whose touch seem especially elegiac. All three mentioned so far are directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, who handles the lion’s share of episodes.


“Taxgatherer”, while mostly light-hearted in its tale of Paladin as a tax collector, demonstrates how the show could mix tones as the comedy becomes increasingly grim. He crosses one varmint (Harry Carey Jr.) who doesn’t seem overly upset when Paladin shoots his stepson out of a tree. Instead he makes a remark about how an ungrateful child is sharper than a serpent’s tooth. “That’s in the Bible,” he says, and Paladin has to inform him it’s Shakespeare. This is one of three episodes directed by Boone.


He also directs “Fandango”, and uses a swooping camera to invigorate a standard scene of everyone in town scuttling indoors when a party rides into town. His staging of the inevitable shootout is almost abstract, with the camera inside a building as the challenger remains framed outside in the street. The ending of this tale of juvenile justice, written by Harry Julian Fink, is surprisingly ambiguous. Paladin questions people who put themselves above the law, but he often does the same to emphasize the value of making a judgment over accepting a role. He becomes his own wild card.


Virtually every episode must end with a shoot-out or there’s no point, but a few are surprising for their variation or avoidance of this formula. There’s an occasional comic change of pace, like a show directed by Ida Lupino about a mousy bank clerk (John Fiedler) who stole a bar of gold and wants to return it (an idea recycled in an episode of Honey West and perhaps used many other times). In the majority of episodes, Paladin either inserts himself into a job he’s read about in the papers or rushes to the aid of a damsel, or else he’s hired by the upright businessmen of a town (who can afford his services) to deal with a problem they’ve created. Paladin brings not peace but a sword, and after enough corpses have littered the landscape, you get no sense that any good people are left to pick things up.


That’s part of the show’s bitter vision, as in the Gene Roddenberry-scripted “El Paso Stage”, in which sadistic marshal Buddy Ebsen (never so mean) kills the heroic young man who believes in law and also polishes off his corrupt father, who hired Paladin in the first place. Quite a few shows question the nature of law and power, with Paladin often feeling that he’s had a bellyful of justice. In “The Last Judgment”, he’s appointed defense counsel in a kangaroo court by the local justice of the peace (Harold J. Stone), another of the series’ many smooth tyrants. The suspense lies in the duel of wits as each side intimidates the jury of local barflies, and Paladin employs an arsenal of “prevarication, procrastination and chicanery”. In Paladin’s west, the powerful are always corrupt, sadistic and unscrupulous, if sometimes charming and erudite.


The show’s flirtations with allegory become heady in the quasi-fantastic “Everyman”, written by Richard Adams (not the author of Watership Down) and directed by Byron Paul. A fortune-teller (June Vincent) turns over the tarot cards and tells Paladin that the drowned sailor may save him from Death. Soon he arrives at an outskirt of hell ruled by the oddly named Danceman (Barry Kelley), who arbitrarily declares his intention to kill all gunmen. (Lots of folks on this show have Dickensian—nay, Shakespearean names.)


Citizens appreciate the peaceful life and can’t say Danceman is wrong not to allow guns, although he has an unsettling effect on them. When he comes for Paladin with a scythe, the image of Death is superimposed on him in a startling aesthetic gesture while a drunk with anchor tattoos comes to Paladin’s aid. This is an episode that seems to exist more in the corridors of existentialism than another eternal clapboard town that’s always the same town.


“Brother’s Keeper”, directed by McLaglen from a script by Jay Simms, is especially surprising. There’s a disorienting sequence from the perspective of a bleary, apparently dying Paladin, and the rest of the show has the resurrected hero haunting a town to find out who robbed him and left him to die. Both concept and upshot are unusual. Simms wrote for several TV shows, especially westerns, but his claim to fame lies in two infamous horrors of 1959, The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster, and then two significantly better items in 1962, Panic in Year Zero and Creation of the Humanoids.


By contrast, “Bear Bait” is quite predictable, yet with a score of robust, tuneful americana by Jerome Moross, an Oscar nominee for The Big Country. The whole opening sequence is an extended bit of nothing to showcase the theme that will be featured throughout. Many episodes use stock cues and don’t even have a music credit, but some go the extra dusty mile.


The season finale, “Soledad Crossing”, is another remarkable existential playlet in an almost literal limbo.  Scripted by Don Ingalls, it features a handful of well-sketched characters camped by a bridge they are forbidden to cross. The town over yonder is worried about a possible outbreak of diptheria, so the merry crew is effectively quarantined in the great outdoors, playing out their personal tensions betwixt and between. The party includes Paladin’s Bible-quoting homidical maniac (Edward Faulkner) and his putative hangman, Phineas Gaunt (Walker Edmiston). They all have an appointment with destiny, but will there be an unscheduled change in the program?


As the executioner clutches his noose like a fetish, Paladin declares, “Mr. Gaunt, it’s there in all of us—the will to live, the will to die, the will to kill. If that’s the sickness that’s troubling you, it’s in all of us.” The moment is utterly gratuitous, not to mention slightly redundant, and yet totally appropriate for what the show is really doing. Paladin may be a knight without armour, but his foes are still Death and the Devil. The conventions of the western are useful only as a framework for meditations on mortality and our struggles against it, and at its best, the show tugs back the curtain of convention far enough to reveal the cold depths of space.


Other notable actors, sometimes as different roles in different episodes, include Mike Kellin, Norma Crane (as Calamity Jane, unfortunately a minor outing), William Talman, Roy Barcroft, Andrew Prine, Karl Swenson, David White, Scott Marlowe, Eduard Franz, Kenneth Tobey, Ed Nelson, Betsy Jones-Moreland, George Kennedy, Frank Ferguson, Jean Engstrom, Pippa Scott, Werner Klemperor, and Ken Curtis. Hal Needham is a regular stuntman who gets killed early and often. Additional writers are Shimon Wincelberg, Robert E. Thompson, Jack Curtis, Albert Aley, Albert Ruben, and Peggy & Lou Shaw, with one script from producer Frank R. Pierson. The remaining directors are Gerald Mayer, Robert Butler and Buzz Kulik.

Rating:

Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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