Aubrey Schenck might not immediately ring a bell. A longtime producer in Hollywood, Schenck was at the helm of some very good B-movies and some very bad B-movies. The common denominator? Good or bad, they were usually pretty entertaining. Here's one of his western ventures, 1969's More Dead Than Alive, a familiar story with a twist and a good cast.
Having served 18 years in a territorial prison in Arizona, a man named Cain (Clint Walker) has put his past behind him and has earned parole. Not bad considering his past life as a gunfighter piled up 12 kills to his name. Earning that early release though, Cain wants nothing more than to put that violent, blood-riddled life behind him. Can he though? He can't find a steady job, has no money to his name, and as he quickly finds out, his name still means something to a whole lot of people. Some are just curious to meet him while others are more interested in testing his long since lost prowess with a pistol. Taking somewhat desperate measures, Cain takes a job with a wild west shooting show run by an opportunistic businessman and carnival barker, Dan Ruffalo (Vincent Price). His reputation precedes him, even if his shooting ability isn't what it used to be. There may be a bigger issue with the show's previous main attraction, a young gunfighter named Billy (Paul Hampton) who doesn't like his attention stolen away from him.
From producer Schenck and director Robert Sparr, 'Dead' is definitely a somewhat budget-constricted B-movie, clearly filmed on some back lots in California. The cast is small(ish) with a few big names and some unfamiliar faces filling out the rest of the roles. Nothing that qualifies as a deal-breaker yet, right? Correct! I like cheap, easily digestible westerns like that...most of the time. So while this one has potential, it derails slowly but surely, really coming off the tracks in the last act. In the end, I felt like I was getting one movie and instead got one that couldn't quite make up its mind about what it was trying to accomplish.
This is a western that has some fun with the myth of the gunfighter. From 1950's The Gunfighter to 1976's The Shootist, a whole sub-genre of westerns is devoted to demythologizing of the wild west gunfighter. Often romanticized, the profession of sorts was far from it. You were the fastest gun around...until you weren't. There was a price for fame, for gaining that reputation, and often it was a bullet in your back. That's Clint Walker's Cain (no first name), a reformed hired gun and killer with 12 dead bodies to his name. Those years in jail did him good, cleaned him up and got his mind right to the point all he wants to do is settle down and start up a ranch of his own, if he can get some money to do so. Familiar territory? Yep, seen over and over again in westerns as a safe, fallback option for a story. So....
Yeah, not new ground, but when 'Dead' works, it is because of star Clint Walker. A western standby after his TV run as Cheyenne ended in 1962, Walker is always a welcome sight when I see him in a cast listing. His heroes -- even relative anti-heroes like here -- are stout and resolute, ready to stand by their guns no matter what gets thrown at them. In just about every role I've seen him, Walker is natural, likable and obviously quite the imposing physical presence at 6-foot-6 with a stature that looks like he could take on a grizzly bear...and win. He injects some energy into Cain, a gunfighter who wants to move on. You're rooting for him, a man who's made his mistakes and wants to leave them in the past.
So Walker is good, and Vincent Price steals the show as only Vincent Price can, but...that's about it with worthwhile characters. Hampton overacts so laughably bad that his Billy character develops like a spoof. Billy Valence is extremely talented with a gun but has never faced anyone down, just inanimate targets. When he begins to crumble, the emotional scenes are cringe-worthy. Anne Francis is okay as Monica Ralston, but her character seems out of place. She's a free-spirit, a painter and artist who travels and paints...in the wild west. Seems more appropriate for a hippie movie of the late 1960s, not a hard-hitting western, and their slowly developing love interest never worked with a general lack of chemistry. Mike Henry has a small but fun part as a notorious bandit with a grudge against Cain, and also look for Craig Littler, Clarke Gordon, Beverly Powers and William Woodson in other small supporting parts.
Taking it all in though, there's something missing. The bloody, harsh opening jailbreak scene is a gem, getting my hopes up in a big way. The music is pretty horrendous, horrifyingly out of place in dramatic scenes to the point it plays like a spoof. Oh, and of course there's a moody, overdone ballad of a theme song. Mostly though, it can't pick a path and stick with it. The story and characters bounce all over, seemingly getting somewhere but never in a direct fashion. Hampton is really, really rough with a character with potential but is completely hammed up and trying too hard. As good as Walker and Price are, 'Dead' is undone by those flaws. The ending should come as more of a surprise, but it doesn't and because the tone has been all over from left field to the end zone (yes, I understand), the end falls flat. Just too bad.
More Dead Than Alive (1969): **/****