The more and more I get to know Jacques Tourneur the more it seems that he was content in making films on his terms no matter the budget or restrictions. His ambitions were not to win awards or garner acclaim yet he was a master craftsman painting in shadows, intrigue, and vibrant strokes.
Known in his early days for his lucrative partnership with producer Val Lewton on low budget horror movies that still stand the test of time as inspired works, the high watermark of his career is indubitably the noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947). By the 1950s he had settled into making westerns, swashbucklers, crime pictures, and pretty much anything else handed him.
The striking realization is that he never really moved up the Hollywood totem pole which makes me suspect it was partially by choice. He was content with a certain stratosphere of production and when you watch a picture like Wichita you can understand why.
It takes many of the mythical staples of The West and insets them within the contemporary Hollywood framework that generated a lore of its own.The lineage that gave us a plethora of television classics like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Cheyenne, Bat Masterson, Wanted Dead or Alive, The Big Valley, Wagon Train, Sugarfoot, Have Gun Will Travel, and countless others that I either failed to mention or don’t know.
The tradition runs rich and deep. Where people address a hero like Wyatt Earp by his full name and there’s some sort of knowing comprehension. Where good and evil are unquestionable entities that we recognize outright. Where a final showdown is all but inevitable as is the town’s prettiest girl falling for our hero.
Wichita is such a picture and yet by some method of ingenuity and delight in his craft Tourneur makes it into something worth remembering. Part of that must be attributed to a script by Daniel B. Ullman which manages to have time for a big reversal and some social commentary in what otherwise could have been droll entertainment.
Meanwhile, though Joel McCrea might look a little decrepit and over the hill for such a role especially opposite a beaming Vera Miles, there’s still that same amiability and honesty that he was good for. James Stewart would look much the same opposite Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But like that picture, the themes add a depth of character to the western making it a transcendent medium since it’s as American a genre as they come and it provides the perfect breeding grounds for allegorical tales.
Because before we meet our hero we meet a group of cowboys who are driving their cattle toward the rapidly growing destination of Wichita, Kansas. With the railroad turning it into a pitstop, the city shows no signs of slowing down and turning into a ghost town. Instead it aspires to be the next big Mecca in the Midwest bringing all sorts of people — the Babylon on the Arkansas River without the hanging gardens.
One such traveler rides as a solitary figure toward the cattlemen in one of the film’s most canonical shots and they oblige by offering him a meal. However, two of their band are mighty eager to swipe their visitor’s saddlebags when he beds down for the night.
What follows is a preview of coming attractions and even as Earp (McCrea) goes on ahead to Wichita we know intuitively that there will be another confrontation. In the meantime, he rides into town under the banner reading: “Anything Goes in Wichita” and local floozies waving giddily as they pass in covered wagons.
As best as I can describe it the town is alive. Positively bustling with activity and it makes everything in the frame more interesting with this ever dynamic ambiance playing out in the background. I’d like to think that is what Tourneur is able to offer the material.
While we bide our time we watch Earp looking around for something to invest his talents in. He befriends the towns newsmakers a stodgy old veteran (Wallace Ford) and his ambitious understudy Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen).
Earp also ends up thwarting a bank raid raising the eyebrows of the local big whigs for his prowess with a six-shooter. Sam McCoy (Walter Coy) the man responsible for bringing the railroad to Wichita offers him the job of Marshall which Earp gently refuses on multiple occasions.
Twice already we have seen him use his gun but he embodies the archetype, an agile marksman who is hesitant to use his firearms and only under extreme provocation. But the final trigger comes when the cowboys from before roll into town with a hearty welcome. However, when their merrymaking devolves into belligerent hooliganism that leaves a young boy as collateral damage, Earp is finally ready to pick up the badge.
It ends up being a battle between the business-minded community members with political clout and a man whose number one priority is public safety. Others like Doc Black (a wily Edgar Buchannan) and even McCoy are willing to make concessions for what is termed progress but Earp once he’s taken his post is a hardliner.
He won’t budge an inch which is an admirable trait even as it doesn’t buy him many supporters. But sometimes that’s what the great men do and it is what few men seem willing to do now. Conceding their popularity for the greater good. However, I can hardly criticize any man for such a stance unless I convict myself too. As McCrea asserts it’s, “Not a question of who’s right but what’s right.” That’s the bottom line and he sticks to it.
In the final shot of Wichita as husband and wife ride off in their carriage together the image is all too familiar evoking for me High Noon (1952) one of the first westerns that truly moved me on a human level. This picture did much of the same though on a lesser more inconsequential scale. It caused me to place a magnifying glass to issues that we still see the U.S. confronted with right at this very moment.
“If men aren’t carrying guns they cannot shoot each other.” This common sense comes straight from the film and yet you can easily see how it becomes clouded with personal ambitions and polarizing politics. There’s no denying that. Sometimes it takes a personal tragedy to shock us into some form of action. The question remains what is the greater good? I feel like it comes into clearer focus when you get hit where you’re the most vulnerable.
“Serving God and serving the law are two different things.” ~ Bat Masterson
“To do either one, takes a dedicated man.” ~ Arthur Whiteside