Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (Blu-ray Review)24 Mar, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Stars Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet.
Wyatt/Doc, Burt/Kirk, VistaVision/Technicolor, Frankie Laine/Dimitri Tiomkin – and up to a point, this is all mighty irresistible within the limitations of a Western that aims to be commercially splashy above all else. Which, with an exception here and there, pretty well defined what Corral producer Hal Wallis’s career at Paramount was like if you take away for his keenly noir-ish Barbara Stanwyck vehicles.
According to the AFI Catalog for the 1950s, Lancaster made overtures to Wallis after William Holden passed on the title role in Christmas-1956’s The Rainmaker — actively wanting the latter and then agreeing to do 1957’s Corral in what turned out to be boom-boom fashion as a way of wrapping up a contract with the producer extending back to the late ’40s. As it turned out, his co-star ended up being Kirk Douglas, who had previously only worked with him in the Wallis-produced I Walk Alone (1948), a well-regarded toughie that has never gotten a home release. The two actors, though, soon made up for lost time in subsequent years and even ended up doing a song-and-dance number on an Oscarcast, just in case you mistake what the Academy serves up these days as anything akin to showmanship.
Though the subordinate casting here probably won’t mean as much if you didn’t grow up in the Western-laden ’50s, I can’t believe the treasure trove here even beyond the front-liners: John Ireland, Lyle Bettger, Ted de Corsia, Frank Faylen, a very young Dennis Hopper (about six months post-Giant), DeForest Kelley, Whit Bissell, Kenneth Tobey, Martin Milner, Olive Carey and Jack Elam. Bettger in particular — he was the first movie bad guy I ever saw “get it” when his open convertible got tiddledy-winked by the circus train in The Greatest Show on Earth — sets off tasty recognition. Except for his odd good-guy role in TV’s “The Court of Last Resort” roughly around the time of this movie, his mere presence on screen means that malevolence is on the way, pronto.
Working from a not very factual script by Leon Uris from that period between his bestselling novels Battle Cry and Exodus, John Sturges was the director here, and — depending on how strongly you feel about The Magnificent Seven — I’ve always been struck by how whoppingly superior Bad Day at Black Rock and The Great Escape are to his other movies, which isn’t to say that several of them don’t have at least something going for them. Black Rock has a lot more feeling for outdoors physicality than this typically set-bound Wallis entertainment does — though, in fairness, a lot of Corral is set in the town’s most elegant saloon and the minimalist hotel rooms where Doc Holliday/Douglas and his mistress (Jo Van Fleet) shack up in a perverse orgy of co-dependency in which it’s a tossup as to whether TB or booze will get Holliday first. The final shoot-out, though, is nicely staged, with several in that rich supporting cast getting plugged.
As Wyatt, Lancaster doesn’t have a whole lot to do beyond looking stalwart, and though his romance with clotheshorse lady gambler Rhonda Fleming is set up something like the John Wayne-Angie Dickinson relationship in Rio Bravo, it’s not even minimally realized. Infinitely more interesting are the Douglas-Van Fleet dynamics — she wearing some colorful duds herself in that period when she was playing characters of every age (here in a film sandwiched chronologically between East of Eden and Wild River, Van Fleet is playing someone close to what was her real age). This is definitely high-octane Kirk (about $8 a gallon, I’d say) — and if he isn’t deliciously over the top just by himself, the script calls on him to cough rabidly into a pestilence-packed handkerchief on frequent occasion. Douglas, of course, finds his pop-vocal correlative in the frequent soundtrack voiceovers by Frankie Laine — who, after being passed over for High Noon by Tex Ritter (though Laine ended up having the bigger hit recording) was able to make up for it. I think there was a federal statute in the ’50s that a Western producer had to show cause if he didn’t hire Laine, and for Blowing Wild, Strange Lady in Town, 3:10 to Yuma and Bullwhip, to name four before the Blazing Saddles reprise, producers did. This is one of my favorite Tiomkin scores, and Laine recorded it as a Columbia single at the time and in a fresh version for his great Hell Bent for Leather LP.
There doesn’t appear to have been any remastering or polishing of the image here — but VistaVision was VistaVision, so the imagery here is as intense as Laine’s singing and Douglas’s hacking. Corral was a major hit in the summer of ’57 (held over at one of my downtown movie palaces) and then re-issued sometime in the early-mid ’60s with 1959’s Douglas-Sturges Western Last Train From Gun Hill, which VistaVision also made look like a trillion. I’d like to see Warner give that one a whirl as well, now that they’ve cracked a welcome distribution deal with Paramount.