Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Shoot Out (1971)

Two years after Henry Hathaway made True Grit (and at the age of 73), he directed this western with Gregory Peck. It’s a handsome film shot in New Mexico and the Sierras of California, with a notable score by Dave Grusin.

Peck manages to plausibly play an ex-con bent on revenge and a man whose fatherly instincts emerge when he’s put in charge of a six-year-old girl. The role is a reprise of Atticus Finch, but with six-guns and a prison record. Somewhat implausibly, the screenplay claims to be based on Will James’ fictional autobiography, Lone Cowboy.

Plot.  Peck is released from prison after serving a seven-year sentence for bank robbery. While leaving the scene of the crime, his partner shot him in the back, and Peck refused to name him at the time of his trial. Now he plans to find the man and even the score between them.

Expecting some money from a former lover in Kansas City, he is surprised when the train delivers instead a small motherless girl (Dawn Lyn). After trying unsuccessfully to get someone to take her off his hands, he takes her along with him on his mission of revenge. Doing the math, he (and we) suspect that the girl is really his daughter. She is feisty and mouthy and adorable most of the time, though sometimes you wish someone would tell her to shut up, and Peck eventually does.

Dawn Lyn and Gregory Peck
The pair of them are being followed by three punks in the hire of the man Peck intends to kill (James Gregory). Led by a young tough (Robert F. Lyons), they have with them a saloon girl (Rita Gam), whose shrill complaints would put cracks in plaster. Together they are like a street gang as imagined in West Side Story.

The crisis in the film comes as the gang invades the home of a widow and her young son, who have given Peck and the girl shelter on a rainy night. The gang’s wanton violation of the sanctity of hearth and home produces a scene that gets creepy with dread, especially as Lyons takes to shooting pieces of fine china off the head of the girl. After long minutes of scary suspense, Peck finally gets the upper hand. What’s left for him is the final meeting with Gregory and the settling of yet another score with Lyons.

Four stars. This is an above-average western, made when the golden age of the Hollywood western was about over. Peck brings an ease to his character that is evident from the first scene as he makes clear to the prison warden that he has not been rehabilitated by his term behind bars. He still has plenty of fight in him.

The supporting cast includes the excellent Jeff Corey, who plays a saloon owner in a wheelchair. Lyons, on the other hand, plays a sadistic villain who is as much punk as psychopath, and you can weary of his unrelenting mockery and malice. Here are all of them in an early scene:

Despite its GP rating, this is a movie meant for adults. There’s some coarse language. Even the little girl swears. For the time, the sexuality is fairly frank, as two of the gang make a three-way with Gam’s saloon girl, and we get a glimpse of frontal nudity. Their raucous carryon interferes with the post-coital mood of Peck and another woman in the next room.

Shoot Out is currently available online and streamable at netflix. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, hop on over to Todd Mason’s blog.

Image credits:
Peck and Lyn, themoviescene.co.uk

Coming up: Max Brand, Red Hawk's Trail (1925)


  1. I generally liked Peck pretty well as a western actor.

  2. I like Gregory Peck alot but in this western he is too kind and sensitive to really effectively play the revenge role. After 7 years in prison he would have been meaner and really pissed off. Kind of hard to believe he would drag around a little girl also.

    1. I dunno, all that made the film interesting for me. I thought Peck managed the stretch of plausibility pretty well. The likelihood that the girl is his daughter makes him feel responsible for her in a way that some other man wouldn't.

  3. Peck is so likable in any role. Was that the little girl on MY THREE SONS?

  4. Yep, Patti --Dawn would go on to play Dodie, but would revisit the west in several episodes of Gunsmoke. I've never seen this picture, but Ron's description puts it ahead of its time.

  5. Ron, I wonder if Gregory Peck was the only major actor of his era who acted in an equal number of western and war films, and quite successfully too. I can't think of any one else who did. Peck was good in both types of films.

    1. Quite a few Hollywood actors played in both westerns and war films. John Wayne, for example. As for "equal," I couldn't say.

  6. How about Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Randolph Scott, Robert Taylor. There are more.

  7. Add Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Dana Andrews. I don't think this observation works.