Thursday, March 6, 2008

A Calendar of Hollidays: John Sturges in Tombstone, Part 1

The Suicidal Drunk. Kirk Douglas, Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957).

You could have your eyes closed at the start of this movie and know it was made in the 50's, thanks to the hoofbeat-driven Frankie Laine title song, which reappears almost every time there's an outdoor shot. Since most of this movie takes place in bars and hotel rooms (and if you look closely, it's the same bar and hotel room, only redecorated), the song doesn't become too annoying, which is like saying that sometimes nagging tooth pain doesn't lead to a root canal.

I've never done the actual math, but Gunfight feels as if it's 60/40 on the Holliday/Earp scale. Whatever it started out to be, it's much more interested in Doc than Wyatt, not the least because Kirk Douglas is much more interesting than the unusually low-key stick-up-his-butt Burt Lancaster. You stare at him and think "Wait--this is the same guy who did Crimson Pirate? NFW." I mean, when you think of all the other film sets which bear his gigantic teeth marks, you have to wonder if Lancaster was bored, drugged or just picking up a paycheck, because that's how he comes across. Douglas might as well be in the movie by himself.

The game is solitaire.

Lancaster may be as stiff as a stiff, but Douglas is a volcano waiting to erupt. He spends most of the movie with a deck of cards in his hand instead of a gun (memorable moment: on the road to Tombstone, Lancaster asks "Where's your kit?" and Douglas reaches into his jacket to pull out a poker deck), but he doesn't need a gun. His self-lacerating scenes with Jo Van Fleet as Kate Fisher look like warm-ups for his Van Gogh; you half expect him to cut off his ear and throw it in a shot glass. This is the relationship that's at the heart of the film, not Holliday's with Earp; and while there's a parallel relationship between Earp and a female gambler called Laura Denbow (played with red hair by Rhonda Fleming), it feels like a sublimation of what the movie should have been about: the romantic triangle of Doc, Kate and Wyatt.

I could be in Arles! But no--you wanted to go to Tombstone!!!

Historically, the movie gets some things right--Doc's a dentist, he's from Georgia--and some things wrong--Wyatt's been chasing Clanton from before the movie starts; one of his kid brothers is killed before the Corral fight. There's also a subplot where Earp tries to save young Billy Clanton, played by young Dennis Hopper (who celebrated his 19th birthday on the set). But because Lancaster has that big old stick up his butt, you don't really care, and you can't blame Billy for siding with his own family against Earp (and his family). Any more than you can blame yourself for thinking that the movie is a collection of subplots that never really combine, like ingredients for a cake that results in a pan full of soupy crap after you take it out of the oven.

Visually the movie is, well, odd. Since most of the film takes place in saloons and hotel rooms, the elongated VistaVision screen shows you acres of furniture and walls instead of landscape and mountains. It does work in one sequence though. Going by the theory that certain shots in a film are there solely to illustrate the theme, there's a giant close-up of Douglas' clenched fists over a gun he's refusing to pick up when he's being goaded by John Ireland's Ringo. There's an entire movie you could spin out of this shot; but because OK Corral is all moons and no planet, it's not this movie.

Only in Hollywood: gunfighters who refuse to fight.

Oh and by the way: OK? It stands for Old Kinderhook.

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