At the turn of the 20th century, the mayor and the business community of Cottonwood Springs, Texas are determined to bring their small town into the modern era. The Mayor (Larry Gates) has even purchased one of those newfangled automobiles that have been taking the country by storm. However, the marshal of Cottonwood Spings, Frank Patch (Richard Widmark), is considered to be an embarrassing relic of the past. Patch has served as marshal for 20 years but now, his old west style of justice is seen as being detrimental to the town’s development. When Patch shoots a drunk in self-defense, the town leaders use it as an excuse to demand Patch’s resignation. When Patch refuses to quit and points out that he knows all of the secrets of what everyone did before they became respectable, the business community responds by bringing in their own gunfighters to kill the old marshal.
Death of a Gunfighter is historically significant because it was the very first film to ever be credited to Allen Smithee. The movie was actually started by TV director Robert Totten and, after Widmark demanded that Totten be fired, completed by the legendary Don Siegel. Since Totten worked for 25 days on the film while Siegel was only on set for 9, Siegel refused to take credit for the film. When Widmark protested against Totten receiving credit, the Director’s Guild of America compromised by allowing the film to be credited to the fictitious Allen Smithee.
In the years after the release of Death of a Gunfighter, the Allen (or, more often, Alan) Smithee name would be used for films on which the director felt that he had not been allowed to exercise creative control over the final product. The Smithee credit became associated with bad films like The O.J. Simpson Story and Let’s Get Harry which makes it ironic that Death of a Gunfighter is not bad at all. It’s an elegiac and intelligent film about the death of the old west and the coming of the modern era. It also features not only one of Richard Widmark’s best performances but an interracial love story between the marshal and a brothel madame played by Lena Horne. The supporting cast is full of familiar western actors, with Royal Dano, Harry Carey, Jr., Larry Gates, Dub Taylor, and Kent Smith all making an impression. Even the great John Saxon has a small role. Though it may be best known for its “director,” Death of a Gunfighter is a film that will be enjoyed by any good western fan.