Saturday, March 25, 2017

DVR Diary: GUN FEVER (1958)

Many actors want to direct, and a fair number get the chance. Not all can be a Charlie Chaplin or Cornel Wilde or Clint Eastwood; most probably worked so infrequently or unimpressively ever to be considered as an auteur. Consider Mark Stevens, who established himself as a performer in the 1940s and learned the trade behind the camera as a director of many episodes of Big Town, a series he starred in in the mid-1950s, and the 1954 noir Cry Vengeance.  For his third feature film, Stevens became a triple threat, co-writing Gun Fever as well as directing and starring as the vengeful hero. This B western reveals a grim, grimy sensibility somewhere between its "adult western" contemporaries and, at least on a visual level, the debunking revisionist westerns of a generation later. Gun Fever itself isn't revisionist; it's actually a little embarrassing in its treatment of Indians and Mexicans. But its low budget black-and-white imagery prove a virtue, and its most memorable scene probably is the long bar fight between co-hero Simon Waller (John Lupton) and Amigo, a Mexican bandit, across a realistically filthy floor. The fact that Amigo is played by Larry Storch of F-Troop fame is one of the embarrassing aspects of the picture. Storch plays the ruthless role as straight as he can but can't help sounding clownish with his none too convincing accent -- but at least he's out of the picture early. Amigo is an expendable minion of a monster of a villain, known only as Trench (former pro wrestler Aaron Saxon). Perpetually sweaty and dirty and often drunk, Trench unites Simon and co-hero Luke Ram (Stevens) in hatred. He killed Luke's father (and mother) and he is Simon's father, who had forced him into his gang until Simon finally gathered up the courage, after the latest massacre, to refuse the loot and quit. Both younger men want to kill this beast -- Saxon's nothing special as an actor but as a repulsive physical presence he suits this film perfectly -- and they're joined on the vengeance trail by a Christian Indian maid, the newly widowed Tanana (Jana Davi), married to another of Trench's former partners until Amigo kills the guy. On top of that, Trench stomps into her home, demands a meal, and pours coffee straight from the pot onto her forearm when she doesn't comply. In stoic tribal style she doesn't cry out but she's bound to carry a grudge. She's well spoken and mission educated but the rest of the film's Indians (led by Iron Eyes Cody) are a dismal lot, led on by Trench. The villain's leadership style is well summarized by the way he talks very slowly, with hand gestures that clearly mean nothing, to convey his instructions to Iron Eyes and his band. The momentarily skeptical Cody actually asks, "How do we know you don't speak with forked tongue." I hope that wasn't one of Mark Stevens' contributions to the script. As a director he doesn't contribute much visually that can't be credited instead to the film's grungy art direction, but he deserves some credit for putting together one of the more thuggish westerns of the genre's golden era.

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