Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Wanted: Dead or Alive, (1958-1961)

In 1958, Steve McQueen emerged after some minor TV work to star in three seasons (94 episodes) of the CBS TV series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. There he developed the screen presence we came to expect of him in one dramatic role after another, from The Magnificent Seven (1960) to Junior Bonner (1972) and a final western, Tom Horn (1980). 

Readers here may remember that, among western actors, Randolph Scott is a favorite of mine, but Steve McQueen is a close second. It may be that the two of them have some things in common—not the least of which is a particular brand of coolness in their style. Physically they are obviously different. Scott is tall and lean and carries himself with what you could even call elegance. McQueen is shorter, with a compact build. When he walks, he strides.

Yet watch their faces, and you get that same impassiveness. Both are clearly thinking, but giving away nothing. What’s registering in the neurons up there is a kind of high-speed calculation that is more than one step head of everyone else in a scene.

Both actors portray a form of higher intelligence that may leave you a little chilled, and then surprise you with a softening warm and disarming smile, the mask abruptly drawn aside. Many western movie stars could do one or the other (Wayne’s easy and congenial smile warms me just about every time), but not both.

Virginia Gregg, Steve McQueen, 1959
What to look for. McQueen’s performance as Josh Randall, bounty hunter, was well suited to the small black-and-white, standard ratio screen. He fits nicely into the tight confines of the 30-minute TV episode, where stories are told at a rapid clip and suspense is punctuated with bursts of action.

The first episode of the series is economically told and the characters clearly drawn. You will see some familiar faces, including Michael Landon and Nick Adams as brother outlaws. There’s a gesture at realism in the opening scene (below) as the streets of a frontier town are swept with wind-driven dust. The soundtrack music is dramatic and almost martial as McQueen is introduced, the camera focusing on the shortened Winchester carbine he carries on his hip.

Later, in a more relaxed scene, McQueen finds the sister of the two brothers, gathering eggs from the nests of chickens in a barn. His shadow first appears on the wall behind her, and the scene that unfolds between them reveals a tenderness in McQueen’s character we have not seen until now.

After dispatching the two outlaws, who each attempt to kill him themselves, Randall reveals again the tender heart that beats in his chest. Collecting the reward money, he hands back a fistful of bills, to be given anonymously to the widow of the marshal who has died in the opening scene.

This would become Randalls trademark as a bounty hunter, confirming him as a caring and generous man, not simply someone able to kill in cold blood, which is how he would be portrayed today. The scene is a reminder of a less cynical time that believed lethal violence did not have an adverse effect on those who used it in the service of justice. Although you could argue, I guess, that Raylin Givens in the pretty cynical series Justified seems to be similarly untouched by it. (So I may have to take that back.)


Wanted: Dead or Alive is currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked movies and TV, click on over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Further reading/viewing:

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Jenny Shank, The Ringer


13 comments:

  1. Although I can't recall a single scene, I know my parents and I watched every episode.Gee, he looked so young. As did Michael Landon, the ole heart throb. And Johnny Yuma. It might be interesting to know who the directors were, also. Did these series have a variety of directors as series now seem to have, or was it one or two directors? If you know, Ron.

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    1. Directing credits for each episode can be found at imdb.com. Of the first 10, Thomas Carr directed 6 and Don McDougall directed 4. Over all 3 seasons. Carr directed 26 and McDougall 24. What I notice is that there a lot of different writers.

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  2. Have you ever written about Tom Horn? Except for The Great Escape, that is my favorite Steve McQueen movie. I love the offbeat feel of the script.

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    1. TOM HORN is a favorite of mine, as well. I thought I'd written about it here, but I can't turn up anything.

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  3. Ron, I feel the same way about Steve McQueen. I'd love to see this series.

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  4. As a ten year old in 1958 I wanted a sawed off rifle like Josh Randall's more than anything. Funny, don't remember if I ever got one, I'm sure they were out. I may have stuck to my matched pair of Lone Ranger cap guns. But I was really fast.

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    1. For a while there, the make and model of a TV western star's gun was almost as important as the man himself. You have to wonder how much of that was done with an eye on merchandising.

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  5. Nice post. Henry firearms now makes a replica of the gun from the show in both small and large caliber. Neat but expensive.

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  6. Many performances from that period of Westerns seem dated to me but not McQueen. He remains fresh as ever and its the one show I could watch on an endless loop. Thanks for spotlighting, Ron.

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  7. I liked this series quite a lot. I don't think I've seen all the episodes but probably have seen most.

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  8. I like the episodes I saw, but for some reason, I didn't care for McQueen.

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