Obviously, perceptions of a lot of things change and evolve over time, and characters in movies are no exception. To modern viewers, it comes as no surprise to see a lead who makes a living pursuing criminals for the simple reason that it pays well. That attitude comes, of course, from familiarity with the concept, but it may also say something about the way opinions of certain occupations have shifted. The Bounty Hunter (1954) has a title which is pretty much self-explanatory. All told, it’s a fairly routine western, but one of its most interesting aspects is how it underlines the way audience expectations and judgements have altered in the half century since it was made. If this were a 2012 production viewers would simply take the lead’s profession at face value, not requiring justification of his choice in order to build up his heroism, whereas that wasn’t the case back in 1954. At that time, and especially in westerns, the idea of the anti-hero hadn’t been so firmly established; leads had to earn the sympathy of the audience, and doing an honorable job (as opposed to a merely profitable one) was one of the criteria.
Jim Kipp (Randolph Scott) is the bounty hunter of the title, with a fearsome reputation as a tracker and killer of men. Our first glimpse of him comes as he picks his way through the barren landscape, seeking out water for himself and his mount. This opening scene deftly establishes both the nature of the man and the risks his line of work entails. As Kipp prepares to drink, a figure lurking in the rocks takes aim and fires on him. Kipp’s lightning reflexes, his rapid outflanking and merciless disposal of the would-be assassin, all shot without dialogue, make it clear that we’re looking at a hardened professional killer. There are countless westerns of the classic era which feature such tough individuals hunting wanted men. The crucial difference though is that characters of that type usually had some personal motivation; those they pursued had wronged or injured them in some way and what they were generally seeking was revenge. Kipp is a different breed: in conversation with the sheriff, who’s partially in awe and partially contemptuous of him, Kipp makes no bones about the fact he does his job for money. This is a refreshingly honest admission but it’s also one that sits a little uneasily, and the various characters we’re introduced to throughout the movie react with a mixture of fear and suspicion to the presence of this ambiguous figure in their midst – although there is a dryly humorous moment when the only man sorry to see him leaving town is revealed to be the undertaker. While the plot of The Bounty Hunter does highlight the morally dubious actions of men like Kipp, the story is mainly concerned with a mystery. Kipp’s talents have earned him a strong reputation, strong enough to attract the interest of Pinkerton agents. When the famed detective agency draws a blank in its attempts to bring a gang of train robbers to justice, it turns to Kipp. He reluctantly (although there’s ample reward promised if he succeeds) agrees to set out in search of the criminals. The trail leads to the boom town of Twin Forks, where it seems likely the fugitives stopped off. The structure of the movie now resembles that of a classic detective story (although the disquiet among the townsfolk caused by Kipp’s presence also seems to foreshadow the anxiety generated by a similarly unwelcome visitor in No Name on the Bullet) as the hero tries to determine which of the many recent arrivals might fit the bill. There are plenty of red herrings, and a romantic subplot that’s blended fairly seamlessly into the tale, to keep the viewer guessing as the film rattles along towards a pretty satisfying conclusion.
Andre de Toth made a half a dozen westerns with Randolph Scott, starting in 1951 with Man in the Saddle and culminating with The Bounty Hunter. Generally, these are modest, B-grade movies that eschew pretension and aim to entertain first and foremost. The film does take a look at the frowned upon profession of bounty hunting and, as I said earlier, that’s probably what’s most noteworthy about it. Unlike later representations, particularly the Leone-inspired spaghetti westerns, there is a concession made to traditional genre expectations. As the story progresses, it’s revealed that Kipp does have a personal reason for choosing his career, although it’s not directly related to his investigation in Twin Forks. At this point, the western was still at the stage where complexity of characterization and motivation was acceptable, but an essentially amoral lead was still beyond the pale. As the credits roll, we see that Kipp has abandoned his solitary existence on the fringes of society and the law, and opted instead for convention and respectability. These days, de Toth is probably best known for shooting House of Wax in 3-D, and this movie was also produced with that format in mind. Even though I understand the film was never shown any other way than flat, there are a number of instances of shots that were clearly composed for 3-D projection: a rifle barrel pointed directly into the lens, champagne corks popped in our faces, and a hat which is shot off and then sails almost languidly in our direction. This is all gimmicky stuff that actually only distracts, and that’s one of my main gripes with 3-D in general. It’s also worth noting that the script for The Bounty Hunter was written by Winston Miller, who penned Ford’s My Darling Clementine nearly a decade earlier. Now I’m not going to try anything so foolish as comparing the two films, but it is worth mentioning that The Bounty Hunter features a couple of moments which certainly bring Ford’s great work to mind: there’s the scene of the community gathering at the church, and even more marked is the image of Kipp reclining on the boardwalk in the style of Henry Fonda.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Randolph Scott give a poor performance in a western, even when the material he had to work with was nothing special, and he’s the best thing in The Bounty Hunter. It’s been discussed before on this site how Scott was gradually building and working towards the complex and often bitter characterizations he perfected in his later films. The role of Jim Kipp was another step along that road; there’s the kind of easy charm that was never far from the surface, but there’s a darker side too. Kipp is a man who’s living very much in the shadow of a wounded past, and Scott always had a wonderful way of delivering dialogue, modulating that distinctive drawl in such a way that half expressed feelings are easily understood. A very young Dolores Dorn was cast as his romantic interest, and she is quite capable in the role. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, she is overshadowed by Marie Windsor in another of her typically eye-catching parts. Windsor had a kind of knowing allure, an earthy attractiveness that’s hard to define yet mightily effective. There’s a strong supporting cast too, with Ernest Borgnine, Harry Antrim, Howard Petrie and Dub Taylor all turning in fine performances.
As far as I know, the only DVD release of The Bounty Hunter at present is the Spanish edition from Warner/Impulso. The film is presented in Academy ratio (1.33:1) but I’m not sure if that’s how it ought to be seen – IMDB suggests 1.75:1 for what it’s worth. The transfer is so-so, there is a bit of brief roughness visible in the opening few minutes – which also feature some sloppy editing – but it settles down after that. The film was shot using the WarnerColor process and it looks faded in places – in fact, there’s a definite greenish cast to the image most of the time. Despite that, there’s no serious damage to the print. The menu claims the English soundtrack comes with Spanish subtitles, but they don’t display as long as the subtitle option on the player is disabled. Anyway, the movie is a fast paced and entertaining programmer with pleasing performances and direction. The mystery elements of the plot are handled well and hold the interest – the fact that we get an early portrayal of a bounty hunter is an added bonus. I won’t claim this is a great western, and I don’t imagine it was ever envisioned as such, but it is a good example of the mid-50s variety.