One of the last films directed by the great action specialist Spencer Gordon Bennet, The Bounty Killer can also be seen as a capsule history of the western, and of the men and women who appeared in them, neatly rolled up into one film, just about the time the western faded from mass popularity. Dan Duryea stars as tenderfoot Willie Duggan, just off the train from Vermont, who rapidly discovers that without a gun, he can’t protect himself in the old West. In his first scrape with a local bully, Duggan is bailed out by Johnny Liam (Rod Cameron), a hired gun who shoots down a man in cold blood who has been threatening Duggan for supposedly moving in on someone else’s love interest. But Duggan rapidly becomes just as vicious as Liam himself, and soon, with the aid of a sawed off shotgun of his own design, builds up a lucrative business as a bounty hunter who shoots first, and doesn’t even bother to ask questions.
What makes the film of interest is not only the all-star cast of western veterans, including Buster Crabbe, Richard Arlen, Fuzzy Knight, Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Steele, Frank Lackteen, Eddie Quillan, I. Stanford Jolley and others, but also the fact that it includes a cameo by the very first western cowboy hero, Broncho Billy Anderson, as “the man in the cantina,” and thus pays tribute to the history of the genre, as well as celebrating the work-a-day actors who worked so steadily in the genre from the 1930s onwards, as dependable leads, second leads, or sidekicks. In addition, the film is astonishingly brutal for the period; the corpses pile up with alarming regularity, and the film’s message – that polite society depends upon people like Duggan becomes to do its dirty work, even as it ostracizes him – is as true today, if not truer, than when the film was first released.
Duryea, who made his name in film noir in the 1940s, arguably gives one of his best performances in the film – convincingly wet behind the ears as the film opens, becoming harder and more brutal as the film unreels, until by the end he’s little more than a drunken killing machine, living by the law of the gun and nothing else. But, of course, there’s a problem with all of this; you can’t see the film in its proper format. Shot in Techniscope – a widescreen process – and Technicolor, there is a legal US VHS tape of the film from long ago, cut down to pan and scan, and just recently a British PAL DVD of the film was released, but, as I found out to my dismay, it simply uses the same pan and scan master as the US VHS release from more thna twenty years ago, chopping off the sides of the frame to reduce the film to standard Academy ratio.
Needless to say, this pretty much wrecks the film, and though there are several YouTube videos of the film available, all are so poor I simply can’t recommend them, nor will I link to them. You can find them if you look around. The British DVD release is your best bet, if you own an all region DVD player — and again, if you don’t by now, why not? – but as I mentioned, by chopping off nearly one-half of the frame (slightly less than a third on the left and right), you’re really not seeing the film. That’s a pity, since The Bounty Killer is a sharp, taut, well acted and deeply allegorical film, which deserves greater attention – just as it paid attention to the history of the the western itself.
As critic Hal Erickson wrote of the film, “Dan Duryea plays a Western bounty hunter, expert in his job, but ill at ease with his conscience. He is shunned by the ‘good’ townsfolk until they need him to track down and kill a criminal; the gratitude doesn’t last long, and it’s back to outcast status for Duryea. At one juncture, the embittered bounty hunter delivers a condemnation against the ‘hypocrites’ who hire him — but nonetheless takes one more job. Ultimately, Duryea meets his end at the hands of a younger man (Peter Duryea, Dan’s son), who becomes a bounty hunter himself, starting the cycle all over again. Produced very economically by B-Western specialist Alex Gordon, The Bounty Killer is distinguished by Dan Duryea’s superb performance and by the presence in the supporting cast of several cowboy film veterans — including Hollywood’s very first Westerner, Billy Anderson.”