I’ve met a lot of men in my time. A woman they forget, a mine busting with gold, even the faces of their own children. But I’ve never met a man who forgot a grave he dug.
The Last of the Fast Guns (1958) is set mostly in Mexico, and as a result it belongs to a smallish group of westerns that transplant their heroes south of the border. Generally, these films involve men searching for something or someone. In this case, the hunt is ostensibly for a man, but the reality is that the hero is on an altogether different quest – as he chases after shadows and memories he’s actually trying to pin down a kind of inner peace, looking to come to terms with his own demons and violent nature as the country changes around him.
The opening is stark, brutal and a little shocking in its cold abruptness. The first image we see is a cemetery with a freshly dug grave, and a man quietly riding away from it. At first glance, this scene has an almost supernatural quality, as though the rider has just risen from the earth before mounting up and moving off. However, the truth is that Brad Ellison (Jock Mahoney) has been making preparations, quite literally doing the spade work before heading off to find an occupant for that new grave. He enters the neighboring town and calmly guns down an unnamed man in a brief duel. Right away we know the type of character we’re dealing with, a man of few words with a dangerous reputation that can make him a fortune but is also something of a curse. No sooner has he removed a threat than he’s presented with a proposition: head over the border and track down a man named Forbes. The reason is Forbes’ brother is a wealthy man in poor health and wants to find him to avoid his estate passing on to a treacherous partner. The thing is men like Ellison don’t get hired unless there’s a high risk factor, and the disappearance of two previous messengers is testament to that. Forbes is an elusive figure, someone who’s spoken of in hushed, almost reverential and awed tones, and his shadowy, spectral presence hangs over the picture. Ellison’s mission brings him into contact with four people: Michael O’Reilly (Lorne Greene), his daughter Maria (Linda Cristal), his foreman Miles Lang (Gilbert Roland) and an old padre (Eduard Franz). These four, in different ways, have a powerful effect on Ellison, shaping his destiny as they help and hinder his efforts to catch up with the mysterious Forbes.
The Last of the Fast Guns is a very interesting piece of work from director George Sherman. It’s one of those late 50s westerns that is very much in the classical mold, but also looks forward to and anticipates some of the trends that would surface in the following decade. The dialogue is terse and economical, rapped out with the kind of staccato rhythm that wouldn’t seem out of place in a film noir, and loaded with existential undertones. The hero is much more of an anti-heroic figure than one typically associates with the 50s – the black clad, mercenary Mahoney recalling Burt Lancaster’s grinning rogue form Aldrich’s Vera Cruz, but not quite achieving the amorality that would characterize the bounty killers peopling many 60s westerns. In a sense the link here is not so much with the approaching spaghetti westerns as the regretful nihilism of Peckinpah. That aspect was reinforced for me by an early scene which sees Ellison stopping off at a type of outlaw refuge when he’s just entered Mexico. This is a lovely interlude as he sits around with James Younger and Johnny Ringo, reminiscing about the past and lamenting the passing of Jesse James and Billy the Kid. For all that, The Last of the Fast Guns is at heart a classic 50s production, concerning itself with notions of rebirth and redemption. And that brings me back to that haunting opening. Ellison can in fact be seen as something of a resurrected soul, a man striving to leave death behind him, to achieve or earn his place among the living. Perhaps it’s telling too that, like in The Wonderful Country, the implication is that this can only be realized in Mexico.
Former stuntman Jock Mahoney is probably best known for playing Tarzan, but he made a number of good westerns from the mid to late 50s. I guess it’s fair to say he wasn’t the most expressive actor around but he did have a lot of physical presence and was a good fit in westerns. His laconic style works very well here where he’s taking on the role of a tough gunman and killer. In complete contrast – even down to the predominantly white costume – Gilbert Roland is typically swaggering and arrogant. Roland cuts a much more ambiguous figure, leaving the viewer guessing for long periods of time just whose side he’s really on. Together, Mahoney and Roland balance each other out and their friendship/rivalry is one of the most attractive parts of the film. The casting also has a strong television connection: Lorne Greene being forever associated with Bonanza and Linda Cristal evoking memories of The High Chaparral for me at least. Personally, I don’t feel Ms Cristal had a huge amount of screen chemistry with Mahoney, although there is just about enough there for her role as his spiritual savior to work.
As far as I’m aware there are only two DVD editions of The Last of the Fast Guns available at present, from France and Spain. I have the Spanish release from Llamentol (currently on sale at a fairly good price here) which presents the movie in anamorphic scope and clearly comes from a strong source print. As is usual with this company’s releases, there are no extra features on the disc and subtitles can be removed via the main menu. I reckon a lot of George Sherman’s work is underrated and there’s a rich selection of material waiting to be mined for those unfamiliar with him. The Last of the Fast Guns is a good example of Sherman’s deceptively relaxed filmmaking style. The movie is a visual treat, runs for a lean 80 minutes and has a lot more depth than you might expect. Recommended.