12/22/06

511 Gunslinger

(1956, Western, color)

If looks could kill, you’d be so almost dead.

Rating: ***1/2

In a nutshell:

The Marshall’s widow takes up her slain husband’s star to bring his killers to justice.

Summary:

Sheriff Rose in a pensive moment.Dutiful wife Rose Hood (Beverly Garland) takes breakfast to her husband, who’s the Marshall of a small town in the old west. A hired thug blasts him in the back with a shotgun and tries to escape with his partner. Rose grabs a rifle and kills one of them while they ride away.

Later, the five or six other people who live in town gather on Boot Hill to bury him. While the mayor delivers a long irrelevant eulogy about his glory days as a Confederate officer, the surviving thug shows up to pay his respects. Rose throws dirt in his eyes and shoots him down with the deputy’s gun. In the ensuing discussion, she insists that the mayor swear her in as the new Marshall until the replacement can arrive, so that she can find the killer’s employers and bring them to justice. The mayor is reluctant, but his wife pushes him into agreeing so that she can check her beef roast before it burns.

On the way back, Rose exchanges terse words with the local shady saloon owner, the slinky Erica Page. Erica keeps her saloon open all night, in defiance of local statute. That night, Rose shows up at the saloon wearing pants and a gun. She puts out the lights with some fancy shooting and rolls around on the floor with Erica, clawing and pulling hair, before the place finally closes.

Rose and her deputy work hard for the next few weeks, putting the fear of the law into all the local criminals while Erica stews and plots her revenge. It turns out she’s been hiring thugs and killers to bully, murder, and steal, helping her buy acreage from the local landowners. She stands to make an enormous profit if the railroad comes through. Rose’s enthusiastic law enforcement interferes with her plans, so she sends her pint-sized bartender out to hire the most vicious killer he can find. He comes back with Cain Muro.

Cain is one of those tortured men with a decent soul and a black hat. He wanders through town for a week, alternating his dalliances between the Rose and Erica, committing secret crimes for his boss, while saving the lady Marshall from a ham-handed murder attempt by bumbling strippers. He’s been hired to kill Rose, eventually, but he really wants to kill the mayor, due to some convoluted backstory that takes place in the Civil War. Rose and her deputy have to work hard to keep the frightened mayor safe from Cain, but she’s so sweet on him that she refuses to arrest him, even when confronted with the truth about his intentions by the jealous and disaffected pint-sized bartender.

The Pony Express arrives with the letter announcing the route of the new railroad. Erica and Cain steal the letter and shoot the Express rider. The letter announces that the railroad route will not go through their town, making Erica’s ill-gotten land worthless. They ride back into town for a killing spree that leaves the mayor, his wife, and the deputy dead. Rose has ridden out to find Cain and Erica, but finds the dead Express rider instead. She returns to town and walks directly into a trap, but faced with killing Rose, Cain turns and fires on Erica instead. Rose chases Cain out of town and they confess their undying love while firing round after round over each other’s heads. Rose finally plays possum until Cain stands up to see if she’s dead. She kills him, discards her star, and directs the recently arrived replacement Marshall to his new office on her way out of town.

Introduction:

Why does Servo's coffin look like it's half drum?Joel, Crow, and Gypsy have installed a pump on Servo and replaced his head with a balloon so that they can play the old Milton Bradley game, Kaboom. For every question correctly answered, they pump up Servo’s head a little more. Tom describes it as “a harsh, jarring, comfortless experience.” Gypsy has things to do; she suggests they cut to the chase by pumping Servo’s head until it explodes. Joel starts pumping.

Host Segment One:

Tom’s head is huge, but has not yet popped. Down in Deep 13, Dr. Forrester has written the Scanner Planner, like the horror movies of the same name where Scanners scan people’s brains until their heads explode. Joel has invented a number of wiffle items, including the wiffle hat, wiffle drinking glass, and wiffle cheese (i.e. Swiss cheese). Dr. Forrester holds Frank down and begins to scan him, popping a light bulb and Servo’s balloon head in the process.

Host Segment Two:

Joel and the Bots lie in caskets and muse about their own funerals. Joel wants to die with dignity, and have a variety of ethnic foods . Quoth Tom, “Dignity, shmignity, I want elephants—lots of them.” Crow wants to be mummified and placed next to Stalin.

Host Segment Three:

Tom wants a sandwich and a Snapple for lunch, so he sends a letter to Joel about it by way of the Gypsy Express. Crow mounts Gypsy and rides her around the desk to Joel, who is standing right next to Tom. Joel can’t read Tom’s writing and writes a reply against Tom’s back. Halfway back around the desk, Gypsy throws Crow.

Host Segment Four:

Joel and the ‘Bots discuss how the characters are able to just pop out of any building in town, regardless of the building they went into beforehand. Crow postulates that the town is just a series of false fronts. Tom rejects this theory and demonstrates quantum linear super-position, or his ability to alter time and space by appearing anywhere at will, or even reversing time to make Crow’s sandwich whole again.

Host Segment Five:

Joel and the ‘Bots compare the 1870s with the 1970s and conclude that Roger Corman (the auteur of today’s film) can make anything seem dismal. They read some deep-fried letters. Down in Deep 13, Dr. Forrester has finally scanned Frank’s head clean off. He asks Joel to remind him to bolt a new one on later. He scans us all into the closing credits.

Stinger:

Rose orders the murderous strippers out of town. One of them asks, “What about our clothes?”

Thoughts:

Sheriff Rose addresses the strippers' concerns about clothing.In this film, auteur Roger Corman seems to fall victim to Hamlet Syndrome: a feeling that the only way to achieve pathos is to kill off as many characters as possible. In reality, I think killing so many characters takes away from a film more than it adds; Shakespeare only pulled it off by preceding the bloodshed with an astonishing display of linguistic and philosophical gymnastics. This didn’t deter Corman. By the time the movie ends, so many major characters have died that he has to give dialog to his only extra, just so Rose will have someone to talk to.

Limited sets, awkward dialog, and a cast in the single digits are all hallmarks of a Corman film. Decent acting from most of the cast helps to an extent—Beverly Garland, Allison Hayes (as Erica), and John Ireland (as Cain) all turn in much better performances than your average Corman flick deserves. If the scenes leading up to it hadn’t been so ridiculous, Cain and Rose’s conversation while trying to kill one another at the end might have actually had an emotional impact. If you want to see a similar story done well, try Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

This episode has some of my favorite host segments in the run of the show. I always enjoy myself when Joel and the ‘Bots take ordinary topics to ridiculous extremes, but the funeral discussion in segment two is my absolute favorite example of this. The ‘Bots have a hilarious interpretation of death. The Gypsy Express is simple but funny, and the quantum linear super-position demonstration is an excellent example of Tom making a good idea better by taking it too far. The “making people’s heads explode” theme at the beginning and the end is consistent and funny, even if you’ve never had the misfortune to watch a Scanners film. Why are the letters deep-fried? Who knows? I liked it anyway.

The film segments are not as quotable as some episodes they’ve done, but they’re still well above average. When Cain expounds, “The good die first,” Tom adds, “Most of us are morally ambiguous, which explains our random dying patterns.” When the pint-sized bartender gives an ineffectually threatening look, Crow says, “If looks could kill, you’d be so almost dead.” After every character with a name is dead except Rose, Crow points out, “Now she’s the sheriff of herself.” The film segments are above average, and the host segments are some of the funniest you will see in the run of the show.