THE RIFLEMAN (GUEST STARRING DENNIS HOPPER)

June 1, 2010

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Fifty episodes of THE RIFLEMAN (1958 – 1963) are available for viewing on Hulu, and it’s a phenomenally rich show for auteurists (and everyone else). Sam Peckinpah was the lead writer (and directed two episodes), while Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy) directed a large chunk of the rest. It’s a dynamically shot program, with agile use of push-ins and close-ups, and a strong use of depth-of-field, all swiftly illustrating Peckinpah’s surprisingly violent universe. And then there are the actors, which along with Chuck Connors’ granite-faced realist includes R.G. Armstrong, Warren Oates, and a baby-faced Dennis Hopper in the pilot episode, “The Sharpshooter.”

I learned of Hopper’s passing soon after viewing his tender, soft-spoken performance as the titular marksman Vernon Tippert, and it’s as fine a tribute to his talents as any (for a complete overview, check out Matt Zoller Seitz’s great video montage up at Moving Image Source).  Hopper was only 22, but he was already a television veteran, having done guest spots on “Cheyenne” and “Zane Grey Theater” (along with theatrical bit parts in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant). Tippert is a sad-eyed youth, driven from town to town to hustle shooting contests by his grizzled, greed-addled uncle Wes. The Rifleman, Lucas McCain (Connors), and his son Mark (Johnny Crawford), arrive in the town of North Fork after the (never explained) death of his wife. Lucas is there to compete in a Turkey Shoot in order to raise money to buy a ranch, and Vernon is there to win money for his uncle and the town’s mob boss (Leif Erickson) who is rigging the contest to win his bets. McCain tanks the event to avoid the violence aimed at Mark, but he runs the gang out of town with his rapid-fire rifle by the end.

Tippert is unfailingly polite, almost courtly in his manner, especially when dealing with the McCains, who have achieved a level of familial stability alien to him. He meekly walks into the dining room, hands clasped in front, before accepting an invitation to eat lunch with Mark.  Hopper speaks lowly, tentatively, and keeps his eyes locked down at the table, even though Mark hasn’t hit adolescence. He moves like a wounded pup. Then they trade stories of loss – Mark mentions the death of his mother, Vernon tells him he never had one. He starts to lock eyes, and after Mark asks him, “Does it bother you that you never had a ma or pa?”, he replies, “I reckon.” Then he turns his head down and traces a figure on the table with his finger. He continues, “sometimes it bothers me considerable.” He jolts back up in his seat when the waitress appears, out of his reverie, and jump-starts the narrative. It’s a bracingly raw scene that rides entirely on Hopper’s cagey vulnerability.  Because while Crawford is an appealing presence, he does little more than read his lines on cue with an ingratiating smile.

The whole episode is startling, from its cynicism regarding state institutions (the Sheriff (R.G. Armstrong) is little more than a pawn) all the way to its frank discussions of death and loneliness. While “The Sharpshooter” came from Peckinpah’s script, a whole host of collaborations occurred to get it to the screen. The production company Levy-Gardner-Laven had a title for a TV show, but no script. After cycling through some bad teleplays, Jules Levy invited Peckinpah to their Culver City studios for a meeting. According to Peckinpah biographer David Weddle (If They Move…Kill Him is my main source), Sam said he had a script laying around to match their concept, and brought in “The Sharpshooter.” In his original script, McCain is childless, and it ends with him intentionally losing the contest because of the gang’s threats, and leaving town in shame. Arnold Laven, who directed the episode, recalled:

That was the end of the story…the cynicism and the reality placed against the romantic image of the West. We loved the writing, but the ending, you just couldn’t get that sponsored in 1958. I don’t know if you could get it sponsored today, to tell you the truth – a guy who doesn’t have the courage of the West – to stand up for what is right.

Laven suggested adding the child, which would give Lucas an acceptable reason for bowing to the pressure of the gang. Peckinpah incorporated this, and then added the heroic shootout which would set the pattern for the series: McCain continually derides the use of violence, but is forced into using it at the end of almost every episode. The reluctant warrior bit has worked since the age of Cincinnatus, and Peckinpah and co. wring every variation out of the material.

Peckinpah’s touch becomes even more evident in his directorial debut on the show, “The Marshal”, which features an embryonic version of his stock company. The episode includes R.G. Armstrong, Warren Oates, and James Drury, who would all later appear in his feature debut, Ride the High Country. The episode concerns the character of Micah Torrance (Paul Fix), a former peace officer turned alcoholic. His addictions are contrasted to the Sheltin Brothers (Drury and Oates), two probable psychopaths who are out to kill Torrance for shooting them years before. The Sheltins are pure id, hollerin’ and screamin’ and tearin’ up the local bar (twice). They are two sides of dissolution, implosion and explosion. Laven advised Peckinpah on his early directorial work, and he remembered:

Sam’s Rifleman shows had an inherent underlying violence. There was something unreal when the Rifleman would shoot three guys, there was a pattern it stayed within. But Sam made it much more deadly, much more real.  It was a little unsettling…

Peckinpah comes up with some great lines that surround the bloodshed. Torrance pines for a drink: “I’ve got a case of the whips and jingles.” The Sheltins are asked to sign the hotel log: “We ain’t spellin’ men.” In a similar strategy to John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo, McClain treats Torrance with tough love, working him hard on the farm and refusing to show him pity. Eventually he comes around, and, like Dean Martin, returns to join the law. Fix would go on to play Marshal Torrance for the rest of the series.

There is so much more material here I haven’t had time to explore, including Joseph H. Lewis’ contribution, which early on seems to be the most visually complex. And then there’s producer-director Arnold Laven’s anonymous craft, which he also brought to shows like Hill Street Blues and The A-Team. Laven passed away just last year (read The Guardian obit here), and his career seems to scream out for re-evaluation, or any evaluation at all.

I’ll leave you with the opening credit sequence, which in its purity and abstraction, is the best ever, in my opinion. Chuck Connors’ eyebrows speak multitudes. Watch here.

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