Shoot Out represents the final western to be directed by Henry Hathaway. A man who had given us a wide variety of successful oaters including Rawhide, Nevada Smith and True Grit among many films of all genres, notably a fine run of Noir titles like Kiss of Death and Niagara. I suspect the goal here for Henry and Producer Hal Wallis was to recapture the success of True Grit which can easily draw comparisons as the plot moves along.
“You tell him I’m coming. Just tell him!”
Taking up the lead role is the stoic Gregory Peck who upon being released from a seven year stretch in prison for a failed bank robbery is just itching to start a shoot out with his ex-partner who shot him in the back and left him for dead during the heist, James Gregory. Gregory has become a man of means and on a low budget production scale is apparently a well to do land baron far removed from his bank robber days. His role harkens back to another Hathaway title that saw the authoritative Gregory take up villain duties opposite the Duke in Sons of Katie Elder Gregory knows Peck will be gunning for him and sends in Robert F. Lyons, John Davis Chandler and Pepe Serna to monitor Peck’s progress in hunting him down. He also gives Lyons strict instructions not to kill Peck. Something Lyons would like nothing better to do.
Robert F. Lyons turns out to be the principle villain of the film and seems to have immersed himself in western characters portrayed by James Best. Without a doubt if you know the actor Best and his western appearances, then surely Lyons will conjure up Best’s image in your mind’s eye. Peck soon arrives at the town where the bank robbery took place and runs into Jeff Corey acting as the saloon keeper. Not exactly best pals, they have a history and Corey is willing to sell Peck information on where he can find Gregory. It’s in the saloon that Peck will first encounter the trio sent by Gregory to keep watch and it isn’t exactly a friendly introduction as Peck’s elder statesman puts the hyper Lyons in his place with a slap and stern warning.
“She only told me he was a good looking bastard.”
This hilarious line comes from the seven year old Dawn Lyn whose appearance divides the film into two stories that don’t quite sit well with me. Peck is awaiting a woman from his past and $200 to arrive on the morning train and instead finds that the conductor, Paul Fix has delivered to him the little girl and his bank role. The child’s Mother and what we assume to be Peck’s old flame died on the journey and left him in charge of the child. A child that could be Peck’s own, hence the comment from the strong willed child when Peck enquires about her father. So like Duke’s Rooster Cogburn, Peck is going to have to play protector to a young lady on the ride to vengeance.
Peck will tangle more than once on the trail with Lyons and company as Lyons continually ups the violence having left Corey for dead and has brutally kidnapped a saloon girl for his own amusement. The Lyons/Gregory half of the plot proves to be vicious and as close to the violence of the seventies westerns like Chato’s Land and Ulzana’s Raid as Peck’s career would allow. Tame by comparison but an angry Peck on screen can be quite harrowing. On the other side of the coin, Peck comes on strong with his Atticus Finch persona in his scenes with the little girl who he at first tries to saddle in a good home only to realize he’ll have to father her himself. This is really the heart of the film giving it a Little House on the Prairie feel which after watching the film for the first time I almost wish was the focal point as opposed to the revenge motive. It seemed more honest and fun on camera.