THE CLASSIC WESTERN IN TWILIGHT II: SHOWDOWN
Like Henry Hathaway’s SHOOT OUT, which I discussed on Ed’s blog earlier, SHOWDOWN (1973) came out as the classic high tide era of the American Western (1940s to the mid-1970s) was nearing its end. George Seaton directed (he’d been writing movies since the 1930s, and directing since the ‘40s), Theodore Taylor delivered a thoughtful script, and Rock Hudson and Dean Martin starred. Giving two old-timers shared billing above the title was common in the twilight decline of the classic Western. Today’s filmmakers use the same tactic to lure aging action-movie fans to see Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the same picture.
Billy (Dino) and Chuck (Rock) are lifelong buddies, ranching partners, and rivals for the town’s pretty boardinghouse cook, Kate (Susan Clark). Kate weds Chuck, and Billy decides to move on. This is all backstory, told in dialogue and flashbacks --maybe a nod to the flashbacks in the popular post-classic Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.
Billy joins a trio of train robbers and becomes one of the inside men on a heist, posing as a lawman escorting a “prisoner” to jail. BANDOLERO!, a twilight Western from 1968, featured a similar trick when James Stewart poses as a hangman to bust his brother, another role played by Dean Martin, out of jail.
When his partners shortchange Billy after a heist and the guns come out, he kills one of them and escapes with the money. Chuck catches him and says he can promise clemency if Billy returns the loot and reveals the names of his partners. But the town’s spiteful prosecutor rescinds the deal while Chuck is out of town, and Billy breaks jail with the money. Chuck follows, as do the former partners who want the loot.
Like SHOOT OUT, the movie takes time to round out its characters, maybe more time than today’s younger filmgoers are likely to accept. The sheriff’s hardscrabble ranch looks authentic, not a prettied-up Hollywood set, and Dino, Rock, and the future Mrs. Alex Karras all turn in good performances. The real, non-CGI outdoor locations are eye-catching, and if you look fast, you’ll spot Ed Begley Jr. in a small part as a stable hand.
Unfortunately, either the producers were unwilling to budget extensive time for Hudson and Martin for a full location shoot, or the two stars had tight schedules (both were starring in TV shows around this time). When Chuck tracks Billy in the mountains in the final scenes of the movie, they’re photographed mostly from a distance or from behind. After awhile, it becomes evident that the two men on the screen are Dino’s and Rock’s stand-ins, and not the two stars themselves, whose voices are simply dubbed on the soundtrack. This is a lapse in an old-fashioned production that otherwise does most things right.