Sunday, August 7, 2022

#2,796. More Dead Than Alive (1969) - Clint Walker Westerns Triple Feature


Vincent Price, whose name has become synonymous with the horror genre, plays a key supporting role in the 1969 western More Dead Than Alive. I’ll be honest… Price was the reason I wanted to see this one, but in the end, More Dead Than Alive had a lot more going for it than the performance of it’s second-billed star.

After serving 18 years for murder, infamous gunslinger “Killer” Cain (Clint Walker) is released from prison. A changed man, Cain vows to never pick up a gun again, but when he has a hard time finding honest work, he breaks that promise and teams up with Dan Ruffalo (Price), the proprietor of a traveling wild west show. As expected, Cain’s reputation draws audiences wherever they go, a fact that doesn’t sit well with Billy (Paul Hampton), a young sharpshooter who had been the star of Ruffalo’s show.

While Cain is hoping to make enough money to settle down with pretty artist Monica Alton (Anne Francis), Billy is out to prove to the world he’s better than Cain, even if it means challenging the aging gunman to a showdown.

Walker is perfectly cast as Cain, whose memories of his past deeds haunt him daily, while Price is equally strong as the smart businessman who knows how to make a fast buck. The big surprise - for me anyway - was Paul Hampton as Billy, the young upstart who goes from admiring Cain to despising him.

Believing at the outset that Cain is a legend of the old west, Billy grows disillusioned when Cain nonchalantly explains that most of his exploits, and indeed those of many of the west’s most notorious gunmen, were exaggerated at best, with little or no fact to back them up. What’s more, Billy is a much better shot than Cain. At one point, Cain, picking up a gun for the first time in years, struggles to hit the tree branch he’s using for target practice, whereas Billy draws and doesn’t miss with a single shot.

Cain may be the favorite among the crowds, but Billy believes he’s the real star of Ruffalo’s show, and his resentment grows stronger with each passing day. Hampton brilliantly conveys both the wide-eyed hero worship and the increasing frustration that make this character so engaging.

Those looking for an action-packed western will ultimately be disappointed; aside from the opening scene, which features an attempted prison break, More Dead Than Alive is mostly a character study, and like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Big Jake, a 1971 western starring John Wayne, this 1969 film tells the story of a changing west, when law books and commerce replaced lawlessness and open ranges.

Yet unlike Wayne’s Jake or Holden’s Pike, Cain welcomes these changes with open arms. Having shot and killed a dozen men, he harbors no fond memories of his past, which sometimes has a way of catching up with him. Whereas most men long for their glory days, Cain is happy they have passed him by, and wants nothing more than spend his last years with the woman he loves.

Because we only know the “new” Cain, after his wild days, we the audience are on his side, and it’s thanks to Walker’s heartfelt portrayal, with an assist by screenwriter George Schenck, that we care as much as we do for a gunslinger who personally sent twelve people to their graves.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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