Invitation to a Gunfighter Review
Invitation to a Gunfighter takes place in a small town hit by the effects of the recently ended Civil War. Indeed, its population consists solely of “old folks, Mexicans and cripples”; a town full of outsiders where the women outweigh the men. There misfortune has aided only one man, a superbly sideburned Pat Hingle, who uses his status as preacher and his utter hated of the populace to govern them to his will. His bile is equalled only by that of George Segal, whose been of fighting for the Confederates in revenge for his father’s death (the town is strictly Union), and that of Yul Brynner, a hired gun with a French name and New Orleans birthplace who is being paid by Hingle to assassinate Segal for his perceived rebellion.
It’s an intriguing set-up, one that mixes the familiar tropes of the Western - solider returning home to find it irrevocably changed; stranger in a small town; even a dispute over land - with more political concerns in its addressing of the post-Civil War landscape, including some lip service paid towards both slavery and racism. Yet Richard Wilson, serving as both director and co-writer (with his wife Elizabeth), is never able to live up to the promise of his opening 25 minutes or so. That said, the root of the problem can be witnessed in the opening scene. We see Segal on foot, carrying his only belongings over his shoulder and looking utterly exhausted and dishevelled in his wartime garb. Passing him by on a stagecoach is Brynner, who is not only travelling in style but is also literally surrounded by his belongings, impeccably dressed and even gives a brief athletic demonstration. Both are undoubtedly interesting figures, but Segal seems more so given his past both with the small town and the war. However, Wilson largely pushes him to one side, often adopting him as a mere plot device rather than as a fully fledged character. Instead, Brynner becomes the main focus, but this can’t help but seem a little misguided.
The fault doesn’t lie with Brynner himself but rather his treatment. When he arrives in the town he is seen as an alien. We don’t learn of his name or even hear him speak for almost a third of the film’s duration prompting comparisons with the Clint Eastwood characters in both A Fistful of Dollars and High Plains Drifter (there’s a gothic dimension in Brynner’s dextrous performance at the harpsichord), and perhaps with Robert Mitchum’s last-ditch lawman in Wilson’s first Western, and directorial debut, Man With the Gun. Indeed, the treatment also pre-figures his iconic use in the seventies sci-fi flicks Westworld and The Ultimate Warrior, yet the film requires that he have an edge of humanity to him. By keeping his alien status constant throughout the picture, Wilson essentially ruins any drama. The key scene in which he can no longer control his disgust at the town and so sets about destroying it single-handedly is rendered worthless as we never gain any true sense of his character. Moreover, it is through his relationship with Janice Rule that any insight into Brynner communicated, yet she too is fatally underwritten.
Anyone who has seen Wilson’s later effort Al Capone, perhaps his best known work, will also be aware that as a director he lacks discipline. That film boasted a number of admirable qualities, but they were constantly obscured by the sheer idiosyncrasy of Rod Steiger’s lead performance (and as such the film rested largely on his shoulders, meaning that any reaction was no so much to the film itself but rather his take on the character). Invitation to a Gunfighter lacks as strong a presence, though Hingle gives it a fair shot, but there remains this lack of focus. The major characteristic is that of an overall flatness, so much so that Wilson seems overtly reliant on David Raskin’s score for a sense of drama on more than one occasion. There are nods in the direction of romance and humour but never with much conviction. Indeed, outside of its failed promise, Invitation to a Gunfighter is most memorable for one or two tiny incidental moments (a wonderful cameo from Dal Jenkins particularly sticks in the mind) and little else. Its various nods into some interesting directions (however half-hearted) may make the film worthwhile for Western scholars, but everyone else would be best advised to avoid - and drop the rating for the film to a 4/10.
Another of MGM’s back catalogue releases, Invitation to a Gunfighter’s DVD treatment is never better than lacklustre. The complete absence of extras is equalled by the poor quality of the print. Presented non-anamorphically at a ratio of 1.66:1, the picture is more often than not grainy (the credit sequence is especially poor) resulting in some highly visible artefacting, and when it isn't suffers from being too soft. It is ultimately bearable, but still disheartening. The soundtrack has less to contend with in providing the original mono (split over the front two channels), and as such neither truly impresses not particularly disappoints.