Wichita (1955)

Genres - Action, Western  |   Release Date - Jul 3, 1955 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 81 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

Jacques Tourneur directed a handful of westerns, and all of them seem to stand out in the memory, despite competition from bigger-budgeted, higher profile entries by acknowledged specialists in the same genre (and sometimes on the same subject). Wichita has a beguiling simplicity to its script and the motivations of its characters that sets it apart from the more self-consciously complex psychological westerns then in vogue. It's a straightforward (and highly sanitized) re-telling of Wyatt Earp's first major stint as a lawman, in Wichita, Kansas. Joel McCrea's Earp is a far simpler (and more moral) man than the real article, and less introspective and self-consciously intense than Burt Lancaster's Wyatt Earp, as portrayed in John Sturges's Gunfight At The OK Corral, made a couple of years later -- but he's also got a rigidity of personality and purpose that, when brought to the surface, costs him and those around him dearly. On a purely plot and tactile level, Tourneur's movie is filled with sudden, startling, almost irrational outbursts of violence that kill distinctly innocent by-standers, and provide the motivation for Earp, the reluctant lawman, to finally promise death to those responsible, whether it comes from his gun or the end of a rope. This script presents most of the supporting players around Earp, apart from the conscience-stricken mayor (Carl Benton Reid), as being motivated by pure greed, or just plain territoriality -- the cow hands that love to shoot up the town don't want to give up a "right" that they've always exercised, and the businessmen who profit from the cattle herds being shipped out of Wichita don't want to upset their balance sheets. Earp, by contrast, seems removed from the world that they occupy, almost as though he resides on a different plane of existence -- he is motivated by a vision of what life should be. Set against him is the soft-spoken, murderous Doc Black Edgar Buchanan, who can't seem to perceive any need or event more than three minutes past his current circumstances. And populating the background are Peter Graves and John Smith, as a surprising pair of seeming interlopers who show up midway through the picture. Overall, Wichita is not as fine a picture as Tourneur's Canyon Passage, made a decade earlier, but the director gets most out of the difficult combination of a relatively low budget and anamorphic lensing -- this was one of Allied Artists' earlier efforts in color and scope -- with a brace of fine performances by a programmer cast that rises to the occasion. The movie's anamorphic aspect ratio (about 2.45-to-1) can be enjoyed on the 2009-vintage Warner Archives DVD-R reissue, though a 2012 showing on TCM utilized a less-than-adequate pan-and-scan master that made the picture look more threadbare than it needed to.