Glenn Ford is The Fastest Gun Alive… even if he’s doing everything he can not to be. After hanging up his holster for the quiet life, his own need to prove himself draws him into a fight he may not walk away from in Russell Rouse’s classic Western. Warner Archive Collection does a terrificjob delivering a magnificent Blu-ray release with a gorgeous A/V presentation, but unfortunately slim on bonus features. Highly Recommended
Long before the age of capes and superheroes fighting each other, the Western was Hollywood’s go-to genre hitmaker. A-pictures, low-budget B-pictures, cheap D-level pictures, the Western was a stalwart genre because it could showcase incredible actors at the peak of their careers standing tall as one-man (or one-woman) armies. The good were good, the bad were pure evil with very little gray area in between. Black and white, full color, comedy, drama, action, adventure, musical, one genre could host it all. Many classic actors claim the mantel of being an iconic Western actor, but Glenn Ford is a true icon of the genre.
As someone who grew up in a Clint Eastwood home that would only get to enjoy the occasional John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, or Randolph Scott film, I didn’t see many (if any) Glenn Ford westerns. I didn’t discover his films until I first saw 3:10 to Yuma as a teenager. Before that, Glenn Ford was little more than Jonathan Kent to me. Seeing him in that role made me take a gradual years-long dive into his catalog. One of my favorite discoveries is The Fastest Gun Alive from director Russell Rouse (The Thief) working from a script he co-wrote with Frank Gilroy based on his short story.
On the surface of the thing, The Fastest Gun Alive strikes up a few similarities with Henry King’s 1950 classic The Gunfighter starring Gregory Peck. In this film, we find simple and mild-mannered storekeeper George Temple (Superman’s Earth Dad) making a life with his pregnant wife Dorra (a very not pregnant Jeanne Crain) in a small town. George has a tough history with guns and the notches on the handle to prove it - only no one else in town knows about it. When the bombastically lethal exploits of Vinnie Harold (Broderick Crawford) claiming to be the fastest gun alive reach town, the violent life George thought he put away for good comes calling, fully loaded, and ready for blood.
While Gregory Pecks’ gunfighter Jimmy Ringo is tired of the life of a legendary killer with every young buck out to test him, Glenn Ford’s George Temple is a man who can’t look away if he tried. Ford usually played the nice guy, the wise older guy, the friend with the sage advice. Occasionally like he did with 3:10 to Yuma he could get a little dirty playing a bad guy. In The Fastest Gun Alive it’s almost as if Ford is playing a drug addict. He’s told his wife he’s done with the gun. He told her he destroyed it and it's gone forever, but every day he sneaks out far into the plains to practice. He can’t let it go. Not only is keeping his skills sharp a problem but so is his need to prove himself to anyone that questions him. Sometimes it’s as easy as shooting two silver dollars out of the air. With Harold on the warpath, it’ll be for keeps and the build-up to that moment is dynamite even if it seems like the film is working overtime to prolong the inevitable. There are some pretty slick plot twists and character reveals in these moments that make the shoe leather worth the time, but impatient audiences may be frustrated by the wait. And even then the final shootout may not be what some genre fans hope for or expect to see - but I loved it!
The interplay between Crain and Ford is flawless. Keeping with the notion this film is as much a gunslinging Western as it is about a man facing addiction, these are the most heartwrenching moments of the film. She’s heard the promises before and she’s at the end of her rope. With a child on the way she’s making the tough choices and when faced with his options Ford still can’t put the gun away. And just like George, Howard can't let the addiction go. Even when Howard and his gang have the town bottled up waiting for George to emerge, a posse is not far behind and he can't step away. As his gang drifts out of town willing to settle for their lives instead of the loot, Crawford's Howard proves to be a terrific mirror character for Ford's George Temple.
As a whole I wouldn’t quite put this in the pile of the “Greatest Westerns Ever Made” but it’s a damn good one nonetheless. Russell Rouse’s production certainly isn’t flashy, it’s not distracted by grand vistas. Instead, the film is focused on the characters and their respective worlds. George’s world is inside, tight, and confined to the walled-in spaces. The only time we really ever see him outside in a wide shot is when his gun is strapped at the hip. Again, completing that mirror image, most of the time we see Howard he’s out in the open and on the run until he comes into town to prove himself, and then those walls start to tighten and the camera gets closer and closer. One man is free by the gun, the other is entombed by it. It’s these little flavors that make The Fastest Gun Alive work so well and worth discovering if you’ve never seen it.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Fasted Gun Alive draws down on its first Blu-ray release from The Warner Archive Collection. Pressed on a Region Free BD-50 disc (although it barely uses half that disc space) the disc is housed in a standard sturdy case. The disc loads to a basic static image main menu with simple navigation options.
Reportedly sourced from a new 4K scan, The Fastest Gun Alive rides in with an often stunning 1.85:1 1080p transfer. The black-and-white cinematography from George Folsey (who also shot the vivid and beautiful Forbidden Planet) is gorgeous stuff. Again, like the film, the visuals aren’t always flashy but the use of light and shadow for various characters in different situations is impressive. Details are immaculate letting you appreciate the scenic locations as much as the production design and costuming. The film grain is natural and fine without any serious issues. Grayscale is sharp and clear with bright clean whites, deep inky blacks, and lovely shadow gradience in between. I didn’t notice any kind of serious damage to distract.
On the audio side, the film picks up a strong DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track. Overall this is a great mix but it does have a bit of persistent hiss that never really goes away, and when some cast members draw out their long “s” words it can pick up some sibilance noise. Nothing terrible or horribly distracting, but at times some of those music swells from Andre Previn’s lush score can get a little shrill - especially the woodwind stingers for big dramatic beats. Other than some slight age-related knocks, the track allows for easy-to-hear dialog and levels are spot on. Gunfire has the required cinematic impact indicative of the genre.
Sadly meaningful bonus features are essentially nonexistent here outside of the trailer. That said, there are two pretty solid Tom and Jerry shorts so if you want to get into a classical theater-going mindset, you can enjoy a pair of cartoons before the main feature.
How much ammunition Fastest Gun Alive has loaded up will probably depend on the kind of Western fan you are. I’ll admit a lot of my praise for this film comes from when I first saw it, but after several viewings over the years, it’s always been a great flick to reconnect with. If you’re getting into the nitty-gritty thematics of the picture, Peck’s The Gunfighter is the better of the two, but don’t count out Glenn Ford’s impressive work here. The man who fears what he’s capable of but is called to do what he does best can be some riveting drama and Russell Rouse delivers a hell of a good film. With an exceptional transfer and solid audio, this is the best I’ve seen for The Fastest Gun Alive. I wish bonus features could have been a bit more plentiful and specific to the film, but given the A/V and how much I admire the film itself, I’ll gladly take this Blu-ray as is. Highly Recommended