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Ed Hackett, the ne'er-do-well son of cattle rancher Lee Hackett (Van Heflin), was just the kind of role that Tab Hunter wanted at his home studio of Warner Brothers in 1958. But had Warners been making Gunman's Walk (1958), it probably would have cast Hunter as the more sensitive son, Davy (James Darren), who was more in keeping with Hunter's screen image at the time. So when Columbia came calling to cast Hunter as Ed, Hunter leapt at the chance. "My approach," he later wrote, "was to play Ed like a tightly wound watch spring, a self-righteous young hothead who flares up when people don't accept that he's right about everything... This was going to be a whole new Tab Hunter up on the big screen."
Gunman's Walk is a western essentially about masculinity and one-upmanship, civilization vs. the open country. The tough rancher Lee Hackett brought law and order to the territory years earlier primarily with his gun, and he has had trouble adjusting to modern ways and established law. Ed has developed in the same mold, with his pride and arrogance driving him to try and outdo his father. Davy, meanwhile, is more interested in romancing the half-French, half-Sioux Clee Chouard (Kathryn Grant) than in playing with guns. Frank Nugent's screenplay is tension-filled and multidimensional, successfully blending western action, family tragedy, mixed-race romance and even courtroom drama.
As directed by Phil Karlson and shot by Charles "Buddy" Lawton, Jr., Gunman's Walk is also a beautiful and strikingly composed Cinemascope Western in Technicolor. It was filmed in the area between Tucson and the Mexican border, at four large cattle ranches. Though he was never even nominated for any major awards, Lawton was a top cameraman who shot many other good westerns in this period, working with directors like John Ford, Delmer Daves and Budd Boetticher.
In the film's production notes, Lawton is quoted as describing actress Kathryn Grant as "a dream to photograph.... She has a beautifully constructed face for the screen. The planes of her face are almost perfect and need practically no makeup correction. She has a pert little nose which gives almost no trouble at all. And you'd be surprised at how a nose can complicate a job like mine."
Kathryn Grant, born Olive Kathryn Grandstaff, was at her personal and professional peak around this time. She had recently starred in The Brothers Rico (1957), also directed by Phil Karlson, and Operation Mad Ball (1957), opposite Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs, and her next film after Gunman's Walk would be The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), a fan favorite. Furthermore, about two months before production started on Gunman's Walk, Grant married Bing Crosby. They had three children and were married until Bing's death twenty years later.
In his memoir Tab Hunter Confidential, written with Eddie Muller, Hunter recounted that working on Gunman's Walk with Van Heflin was incredibly thrilling and instructive: "Van was the ultimate actor. He completely disappeared into character, and everything he did was totally believable. I was surprised when he explained that his theatrical training was in the Delsarte system, a virtually forgotten discipline of gestures and movements created by the Parisian acting and singing teacher Francois Delsarte in the mid-nineteenth century."
For the final shootout scene between father and son - Hunter called it "the most powerful and emotional scene I'd had to that point in my career" - the younger actor asked for extra rehearsal time to ensure that his work would be up to snuff. "[Van] was so committed to the play, to everyone being good," Hunter recalled, "he'd have taken as long as I wanted to get it right. Believe me, not all actors are like that."
Hunter described Phil Karlson, a director known then and remembered today for his tough, gritty way with action, as focused on characterization: "Phil was always open and receptive to discussion with actors, on or off set, always on the lookout for the telltale bit of business that defined a character efficiently... [He] quickly picked up on my worst habit as an actor: my tendency to try too hard, to give too much. He set a tone that brought my baseline down a notch, then shot scenes in such a way that Ed's pent-up fury was palpable without my having to push it too far. His easygoing manner and quiet confidence kept not just me, but the whole cast and crew, loose, comfortable, and completely engaged."
Audiences liked Gunman's Walk, and reviewers compared it to High Noon (1952) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957) as another excellent "adult" western. They also appreciated Tab Hunter's change of pace. A Los Angeles Times article of the time mused, "Heflin and Hunter generate so much emotional power that the buildup becomes a terrific thing. Long before papa, we fairly itch to get our hands on sonny boy. I don't know what his squealing fans will think of the kid here, but his detractors will be able to hiss him as never before -- and legitimately. He sings, too."
Karlson screened a rough cut of Gunman's Walk for studio boss Harry Cohn in early 1958. Karlson later claimed that Cohn cried at the ending -- and then called Karlson a great director and promised him the top scripts the studio had to offer. Two weeks later Cohn died.
Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Director: Phil Karlson
Screenplay: Frank Nugent (screenplay); Ric Hardman (story)
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: George Duning
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Cast: Van Heflin (Lee Hackett), Tab Hunter (Ed Hackett), Kathryn Grant (Clee Chouard), James Darren (Davy Hackett), Mickey Shaughnessy (Deputy Sheriff Will Motely), Robert F. Simon (Sheriff Harry Brill), Edward Platt (Purcell Avery), Ray Teal (Jensen Sieverts), Paul Birch (Bob Selkirk), Michael Granger (Curly).
by Jeremy Arnold