The Bounty Hunter

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.


42 thoughts on “The Bounty Hunter

  1. You bring up some interesting points about our changing times. I had never really thought about how acceptable being a bounty hunter has become. This sounds like a decent western, and I always love Randolph Scott. Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks. A decent western is a fair description of this one. It’s well enough made but the whole idea of the bounty hunter and how others view him is what adds interest and it does give you pause when you consider that such characters have now become so common that they can even be the leads in a comedy!

  2. The one time I saw it–some years ago–it was perhaps least of the de Toth/Scott Westerns for me, but your piece reminded me I should give it another chance and encouraged me to try to get to it soon (probably won’t buy the DVD but it plays on the Western Channel from time to time or I could go rent it). With dim memory I can’t make any special comment but was interested to hear it had been intended to be seen in 3D. I share your feelings about 3D generally (though not of all 3D movies) and of de Toth Westerns I have gotten back to was most disappointed by THE STRANGER WORE A GUN when I finally saw it projected in 3D–that one is an official 3D movie though I saw it flat as a kid and since then. It has all the usual faults of throwing things at the audience, and seriously marred it, and there is probably too much of the well-staged action I once enjoyed at the expense of meaningful dramatic development.

    The first de Toth/Scott MAN IN THE SADDLE is excellent and my favorite of a mostly solid though not outstanding group of movies, but hasten to add that de Toth did make some Westerns I love, especially the first and last, RAMROD and DAY OF THE OUTLAW, perhaps surpassed only by PITFALL of all his movies.

    Your comments made me think of Anthony Mann’s two 50s Westerns with a bounty hunter as the hero. In THE NAKED SPUR James Stewart plays a character who has been and is at heart a rancher and sensed to have some buried decency, and of course motivation for his seeking bounty on Robert Ryan turns out to be powerfully dramatic, but it’s even more true in that movie what you say of this one–the whole movie is built on the idea that if he pursues this to its end it will mean complete moral and spiritual collapse for him. In that movie, one really cares deeply how this turns out and the ways the other four characters reflect his inner conflict also help take it to another level. In THE TIN STAR, Henry Fonda plays a professional bounty hunter–he too is badly regarded by most of the other characters but the young sheriff needs his guidance, he is again strongly motivated in choosing bounty hunting, wins sympathy fairly easily because of the relationships he forms, and is redeemed and leaves bounty hunting behind at the end. I believe these films confirm what you say about purposefully going out to kill for money in 50s Westerns, and personally I think something is lost when this view of it is lost and it’s just accepted in later Westerns. After all, even in revenge Westerns of the period, whether the hero attains revenge of turns his back on it, the killing of another human being for any reason is never seen as something to celebrate, and the hero especially must bear the spiritual scar of doing so.

    • Hi Blake. I can’t help but feel that 3-D remains mostly a gimmick. Unless it actually enhances the quality of a film, i.e. makes a movie better than the flat version, I can’t see the process as much more than a marketing device.

      I think it’s fair to describe the westerns that Scott and de Toth made together as solid if unremarkable affairs. Both of them certainly did better work independently of each other. Still, I can’t say I regard any of their collaborations as poor movies.

      The two Anthony Mann films you cite are clearly superior efforts to this one. The analysis of the trade of the bounty hunter is stronger and the characters are more finely drawn and interesting. It seems we’re in agreement on the way the portrayal of such men has changed. I can’t imagine that any movie made nowadays would feature a bounty hunter suffering a crisis of conscience as a result of his way of life, nor would the characters around him regard him in the negative way we see in these 50s productions.

    • Cheers. I hope I haven’t oversold it though. Randolph Scott is probably my favourite western star, and can do little wrong in my eyes. I really should print that as a disclaimer at the top of any reviews I write of his movies. 🙂

  3. Terrific review Colin – I feel the name of your blog makes it quite clear how you feel about Mr Scott! I’m just sorry I haven’t got a copy of this one somewhere on my shelves.

  4. An interesting point about the potential gimmicky nature of 3D, Colin….I agree and feel that we are currently going thru a similar period of 3D craze. Sure, the technology has improved but the idea of shooting a story to showcase the 3D effect seems, in my opinion, to make the story and acting subservient to crass commercialism. It only takes a quick scan of film titles these days to see some very weak “blockbuster” movies all promising the 3D experience. What is that Nirvana line? “I wish I was like you….easily amused….” 😉

    I would add that there are some historical antecedents to the Western bounty hunter on film. Tom Horn (1860-1903) was a real hired gun known for his tracking ability and he had both legal and extra-legal connections to whatever pursuit in which he was engaged. His abilities and story provide, if not an exact template for the bounty hunter on film, then at least a composite of characteristics to draw upon.

    Take care,

    • Hi Chad. The current fad for 3-D, even going so far as to retro-fit movies, really seems to me to be driven purely by marketing instincts (higher ticket prices etc.) rather than any consideration of the artistic worth of the process.

      I’m certainly aware of Tom Horn, but I’ve never done any research into the question of whether or not the bounty hunter was a common figure on the frontier. Watching spaghetti westerns would give the impression that the place was positively crawling with them.

      • Thanks for the reply, Colin. Given Tarantino’s great fandom toward the Italian Westerns, perhaps it’s no surprise that one of the lead characters in Django Unchained is a bounty hunter played Christoph Waltz.

        It may also be the further influence of the strangeness/off-beat nature of many of the non-Leone Westerns that led Tarantino to frame Waltz’s bounty hunter as a dentist.


        • That’s a fair enough assumption Chad. The bounty hunter has come to be regarded as something of a stock character in spaghetti westerns. I guess that’s understandable in that it fits in with the cynicism that’s part and parcel of the spaghetti world. It’s also a role that facilitates the sociopolitical point many of the spaghetti westerns were making – greed, capital and self-interest taking precedence over honour.

  5. Another terrific review, Colin! I haven’t caught up with THE BOUNTY HUNTER yet, but it totally sounds up my street. I really enjoy these meat-and-potatoes, tight little B westerns Randolph Scott made with De Toth and others before the more famous Boetticher pictures. Interesting points raised about how 50s audiences weren’t quite ready for the morally murky, mercenary antiheroes to come…makes one wonder what they would have made of Eastwood’s Man with No Name if he had hit the screen 10 years earlier.

    Scott is an actor who has really grown in my estimation over the past several years, as more of his films have hit DVD (and if you think about it, a pretty impressive amount of them have been released) and I’ve had a chance to study his work as a more discerning adult. He used to seem a bit dry and wooden to me, but now I can clearly see that he was a very capable actor and even when less was required of him, as in some of these earlier films, he is never less than authentic in his performances, and he always seems to have the trace of the Southern gentleman about him, a decorum and poise that underlines his capable toughness. In his own unassuming and laconic way, he’s the epitome of the 50s movie cowboy.

    • Thanks Jeff. I love these lesser westerns myself, there’s a refreshing quality about their simplicity and directness. As for your point about the Eastwood/Leone character being dropped into this time period, it wouldn’t have worked because the groundwork wasn’t yet in place. I alluded to this issue some time back when I wrote a piece on Rio Conchos,where I tried to get across the point that the Hollywood western was gradually working its way towards a position that was soon to be overshadowed by the emergence of the spaghetti western.

      I’ve always been a fan of Scott since I saw him on countless Saturday afternoons on TV when I was a kid. In a sense, both he and Joel McCrea are more representative of the classic 50s cowboy than some of their more famous counterparts. I guess a lot of these medium grade 50s westerns were traditionally regarded as filler material and their critical standing has suffered somewhat as a result. They may not be cinematic greats but there are a lot of positive points in their favour. I think the lack of appreciation has in turn led to the stars of these movies being undervalued too. If you can set that aside, or look beyond it, there are some fine performances to enjoy.

  6. I’m guessing that you likely have seen it, Colin, but I’m working my way through Rage at Dawn (1955), which stars Scott and dramatizes the story of the Reno Brothers gang in the immediate post-Civil War years. I am about 3/4 of the way through it now and I like how Scott did not appear right away in the film….there is quite a bit of time given to the Reno Brothers at the start of the picture.

    Not sure if you have already written about it – a quick scan of your films didn’t show a review – but I definitely would be curious to get your take on the film at some point.

    Take care,

    • Hi Chad. Just found your comment, so I guess you’ve seen the movie all the way through by now. I think you’ll agree it’s got a very powerful and memorable ending – quite surprising in its own way. And the cast is excellent.

      Rage at Dawn isn’t a movie I’ve ever seen much written about. That may be partly as a result of some very weak transfers of the film that circulate. However, the Roan Group DVD is pretty good – anamorphic widescreen – and easily the best version released. It’s out of print now but there are still copies to be had here.

      Thanks for reminding me of this one and suggesting it for an article. I’ll cue it up for the future.

  7. Hi Colin…yes, I finished the film and can say that the ending is definitely powerful….and not to give it away to those who haven’t seen it….but the conclusion becomes doubly powerful when the viewer realizes that it is actually based on historical events.

    There was some interesting camera work in the film….a moment early on when the director gives us a first-person view of riding in a wagon with the Reno Brothers into town on a planned heist….and another toward the end when the camera rides ahead of a train on the tracks and shoots backward toward it.

    I had a few minor technical issues with the film. I could swear I saw a boom mike get lifted from one scene and in another shot there seem to be too many wires in the background of a farm to just be the telegraph, ha.

    Those glitches aside, I found it a very solid and interesting treatment of the historical Reno outlaw gang.


    • I thought that ending would impress you.
      I cant say I remember noticing the technical issues you mention, but it is quite a while since I saw the film so I may just have forgotten them. Did you watch the movie full screen or wide? If it was full frame, open matte I guess, then that might account for the matter of noticing a boom in shot.

      Tim Whelan didn’t direct a huge number of films, but I do remember seeing Nightmare with Brian Donlevy and Diana Barrymore. I think I caught it on TV maybe 30 years ago and I’d love to see it again.

  8. Thanks for the reply, Colin. Actually, I was able to watch the entire film on YouTube and thus I’m guessing the format thru that program is full-frame. The boom mike appears at 54:10 when the Reno gang drafts Scott to go with them on a robbery.

    As the film is set in 1866, the abundance of wires that can be seen in the background at 1:10:14 might be historically accurate but it seems, at least to me initially, quite a lot for a telegraph line behind the farm house and looks more like the telephone lines of the 1950s (i.e. when the film was shot).

    Again, minor glitches aside, the acting is very strong and the cast was, as you say, excellent.


    • Just had a look at the Roan disc to see if I could spot what you’re referring to. The time codes don’t match up, but I guess the bit with the mike boom occurs in this scene? If so, I can’t spot anything.
      I did see what you meant about the wires though around here.

  9. Wow, great work to find those spots so quickly, Colin! 🙂

    Yes, the “mike boom moment” does happen at the first scene you refer/link to – it raised up just as the conversation between the Reno gang and Scott began. If you wish to take the time, at 54:10 of this YouTube link you will see what looks like a mike boom to me:

    I guess some things can slip thru the edit process, right? 🙂


    • Yes, I see what you mean. That looks very much like a side effect of the open matte transfer – the area in question is masked off when it’s shown wide and nothing untoward intrudes into the frame.

  10. Hi Colin,

    Really enjoyed your post and the ensuing discussion. I recorded this fairly recently from Encore Westerns Channel and hope to check it out before too long. I’ll also be lending it to my father who is a big fan of Westerns and Randolph Scott. Thanks for making us more aware of this title!

    Best wishes,

    • Thanks Laura. Glad to hear you have a copy of this, and I hope you enjoy watching it. And thanks too for highlighting my piece on your site.
      I’m especially pleased I featured it now as the news is just coming through about the sad passing of Ernest Borgnine.

  11. 3-D is a weird thing. One one hand, I love it. It can be truly amazing, when used properly — like, say, House Of Wax. But I find it hard to really get lost in a 3-D film, since I’m always aware of the fact that I’m watching a movie. I check out the depth in each shot, wait for them to throw something at me, or wonder if I’ll end up with a headache.

    Another good write-up, Colin. You hit all the points that seem to matter with this picture, the main one being that this is one of those pictures that completely rests on the capable shoulders of Randolph Scott. However, I seem to like this one better than most folks — I can’t help but love anything that would pair Scott with Marie Windsor.

    From what I’ve come to understand about 3-D and widescreen stuff, this would’ve been shot for 1.75 or 1.85 projection — as Hondo was. I’ve seen this transfer, and it’s a little murky-looking. I wonder if the material is the reason Warner Archive hasn’t gotten around to this one yet.

    Not that it matters, but I remember reading somewhere that this picture was ready to go in 3-D, and that the flat prints were all labeled LEFT (meaning the dual negatives were prepared).

    • Hi Toby, your comments about the 3-D process are spot on as far as I’m concerned. Like pretty much any gimmick, the awareness of its presence never lets you forget you’re watching a movie, you end up always being just that step removed. I wonder what led to the 3-D projection being ditched for this film though.

      The print used for the Spanish disc is indeed murky, not bad exactly but there’s no pop to it. I imagine you’re right about the condition of the print being the reason the movie has yet to surface in the Warner Archive.

      By the way, I still can’t leave any comments on your site. I write something, hit post, and it’s gone! Most odd. I popped over there today to leave a few words on your very nice tribute to Ernest Borgnine and again it swallowed up my comment.

  12. An excellent review. I have long gone back and forth on my feelings about De Toth but this is one of his better films I think. My favourite of his 1950s Westerns is “Day of the Outlaw” which is a very mean film indeed, regardless of the ending. Any plans to review that one?

    • Thanks very much Mike. Generally, I like de Toth’s work and hope to feature some more of his westerns and noirs in the future. I do plan to get round to Day of the Outlaw, but such a chilly movie really ought to be tackled later in the year when the temperatures drop and the evenings draw in. I reckon most people would rate it as his best western of the 50s, with Burl Ives and Robert Ryan on top form and Jack Lambert in a typically nasty part.

  13. Hi Colin,

    just got round to watching this film for the first time and really enjoyed it. I know what you mean about the various gimmicky 3-D shots (face towels thrown and hats shot off towards the camera etc), though I also enjoyed some of the the more in-depth compositions it generates, makes you realise how often lower-budget western privileged staging in a theatrical, 2-D style with camera moving laterally along the 180 degree line and rarely across it. I think you are spot-on in pointing to the unusual way it generates some moral ambiguity over the role of the bounty hunter as a profession – as its Scott we are of course on his side, but it is an interesting shading to his character, a bit like the role he played 10 years earlier in Curtiz’ VIRGINIA CITY perhaps. The ending vitiates it slightly, but it is a fun little coda – and it’s great that Marie Windsor gets a decent role too. Really enjoyed this one, thanks for pointing it out, as always.


    • Hi Sergio. Good to hear you got to see it, and even better that you enjoyed it too.
      That’s an interesting point you make about the compositions in low budget westerns, and one I hadn’t actually thought about before. I’ll try to bear hat in mind in future.

      Scott tended to be seen as the clean cut type, but there are a number of earlier roles where he played, as you say, characters with different shades to them too. Western Union is one that springs to mind, if you’re familiar with it.

      • Haven’t seen WESTERN UNION in yonks but I know what you mean. In a way it is fascinating to chart a soer of ex post facto trajectory to his career that culminates with RIDING THE HIGH COUNTRY, especially as he is so good in that one. Outside of the RANOWN cycle, the few roles like the one in SEVENTH CAVALRY, which again seem to put him in an equivocal light, certainly spring to mind. One wishes he played a few more slippery characters really as e could play very cool but charming when required, though not necessarily in Westerns …

        • Yes, this has come up in conversation before with others. You can definitely see a progression or path in Scott’s career, especially through the 50s, that comes to full fruition in the Ranown films and Ride the High Country.

          7th Cavalry probably isn’t quite as good as it should be, considering the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera, but I like it all the same. Since we’re talking here about Scott’s shadier roles, I just remembered The Spoilers where he played opposite Wayne and Dietrich – an enjoyable movie.

          I think it boils down to the fact that Scott had a lot of natural charm. And that’s a characteristic that lends itself to noble and not so noble parts quite easily.

  14. Thanks for your review of BOUNTY HUNTER. I like it a lot.
    Love how the townsfolk react to Scott – some leaving town quickly!
    And quite a gripping ending in the street when the post bag is opened !
    I’ve loved Scott’s 50s westerns for such a long time, it’s great to see the praise they get now.

    • I was delighted how much response this piece generated. I think genre fans have always appreciated Scott’s 50 westerns, but the increasing availability of titles on DVD have made it a lot easier to see some of his lesser known stuff, and maybe given his reputation a renewed and well-deserved boost.

  15. It was ok, but nothing I would revisit for awhile. Scott, as you say never seem to give a bad performance. An interesting write-up my good man.

    • While it’s not at the top of Scott’s western work it’s still above average, in my opinion. The story and theme hold the attention and the star himself was never less than good value at this point in his career.

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