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Tight Spot: Phil Karlson in the Fifties

Friday, June 26, 2009
8:30 p.m. Gunman’s Walk
Phil Karlson (U.S., 1958)

This tragedy of masculinity ties one family’s violent legacy to broader social histories of brutality and mistrust, the legacy of the West. Van Heflin plays a gunslinger turned rancher who arrived in the territory before the law did. While his younger son James Darren cares less for guns than for Kathryn Grant, a half-Indian girl, big brother Tab Hunter is dangerously determined to do his father’s mythic past one better. Karlson and scriptwriter Frank Nugent (The Searchers) establish an unrelenting atmosphere of tension and one-upmanship among the three protagonists, building to an inevitable but still shocking conclusion; Heflin delivers a moving performance as a man who doesn’t quite realize what he’s wrought until it’s too late. (Karlson later boasted that the film made Harry Cohn cry.) The widescreen cinematography beautifully visualizes the contrast between the confines of civilization and the golden open country, where wild horses and men roam in restless motion, their freedom tinged with desperation.

—Juliet Clark

• Written by Frank S. Nugent, based on a story by Ric Hardman. Photographed by Charles Lawton Jr. With Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, Kathryn Grant, James Darren. (97 mins, Color, ’Scope, 35mm, From Sony Pictures)