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With: Joel McCrea, Vera Miles, Lloyd Bridges, Wallace Ford, Edgar Buchanan, Peter Graves, Keith Larsen, Carl Benton Reid, John Smith, Walter Coy, Robert J. Wilke, Walter Sande, Jack Elam, Mae Clarke
Written by: Daniel B. Ullman
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 81
Date: 07/03/1955

Wichita (1955)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Peace and Wyatt

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Of Jacques Tourneur's entire output, his four horror pictures (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man and Night of the Demon) and his great film noir Out of the Past (1947) alone were enough to convince me that he was one of the Hollywood greats. And now this widescreen Western joins that list.

Joel McCrea plays Wyatt Earp in his early days. He arrives in the boomtown of Wichita, Kansas, hoping to start a business. Instead he finds a lawless place, filled with saloons and catering to raucous, drunken, violent cattlemen who breeze through town to sell their wares. After foiling a bank robbery, Earp is offered the job of marshal, which he refuses. But after a child is killed during a night of drunken brawling, he accepts.

His first task is to outlaw every gun in town except his own. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, this turns the town against him, as the lack of guns ironically has a direct affect on the town's capitalism. As with his other films, Tourneur makes spectacular use of the frame, always using staging his characters and using foregrounds and backgrounds for interesting effect (they're never simply dressing or talking heads).

McCrea's character seems to lack the depth of Henry Fonda's Earp in My Darling Clementine, though Tourneur's approach is deliberately off-kilter, as if this Earp had arrived from another planet. Indeed, the movie's entire presentation of good and evil is skewed; the cowboys seem perfectly nice when we first meet them, and Earp's brothers are first mistaken as hired killers.

Overall Wichita is a fascinating and masterful achievement. The picture won a Golden Globe for "Best Outdoor Drama" -- whatever that means.

Wichita is the third title I watched from the exciting new Warner Archive, which has finally released 150 of the more obscure Warner, MGM and RKO catalog titles to the public (with twenty more titles coming each month). Viewers can order DVDs for $20 each or download digital versions for $15. Wichita is a no-frills disc, with absolutely no subtitles, captions, audio options or extras. The digital transfer is far from seamless, with some mis-timed colors. But the image is sharp, and letterboxed at last, and it's great to have this classic available at all.

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