Invitation to a Gunfighter plays like a version of High Plains Drifter in which most of the characters still have a chance at finding some sort of redemption. The plot details are similar: a group of cowardly townsfolk bring in a professional assassin to take out a killer. High Plains Drifter depicts all of these people are nasty wretches who deserve each other. Invitation to a Gunfighter regards almost all of them with some degree of sympathy: the townsfolk, the gunfighter and the target are all just misguided souls attempting to find some degree of moral clarity.
The gunfighter is the wonderfully-named Jules Gaspard d'Estaing (Yul Brynner, The King and I). It's a long name, but easy to remember thanks to a scene in which Brynner teachers the townsfolk how to pronounce it. “Jules... soft j, silent s... Gaspard – silent d... d'Estaing... just a touch of dipthong.” The role makes terrific use of Brynner's steely screen presence. In early scenes, he simmers silently in the background, and you can see the wheels in his head spinning as he attempts to get a read on the town. When he speaks, he does so with such eloquent authority that everyone in his presence feels obliged to listen.
The film's other key figure is Matt Weaver (George Segal, California Split), a former Confederate soldier who returns to his Union-supporting New Mexico hometown and discovers he is no longer welcome. The town banker (Pat Hingle, Batman) has sold Matt's home, Matt's old flame Ruth (Janice Rule, The Swimmer) has married another man (a one-armed Union veteran played by Clifford David, The Exorcist III) and some of the townsfolk are eager to gun Matt down. Matt eventually kills a man in self-defense, but no one witnesses the event and the townsfolk are quickly convinced that it was a cold-blooded murder. No one is brave enough to go after Matt (who's pretty good with a gun), so Jules is hired to handle the task.
While the set-up promises a tense, violent showdown, the bulk of Invitation to a Gunfighter is surprisingly quiet and philosophical. There are a lot of lengthy, low-key conversations between Jules, Ruth and Matt that force all three characters to question their own motivations. Does Ruth really still love Matt despite the fact that she's married to another man? Did Matt actually have a reason for joining the confederacy, or was he just rebelling without a cause? Does Jules actually have some measure of empathy beneath his stern exterior? The answers aren't terribly profound, but they are honest and thoughtful.
Director Richard Wilson directs with a minimum of technical flair (most of the time, the film looks like an episode of a '60s western TV show), but he gets nuanced, memorable performances from most of his actors. Brynner is sensational, but Janice Rule is just as compelling as the conflicted Ruth. She has such an intriguing mixture of sadness, fear and fascination in her eyes when she looks at the assorted men in her life, and the balance seems to shift ever so slightly from person to person. Pat Hingle is terrifically slimy as the film's one entirely repulsive character, and George Segal brings a nice blend of guilt and misguided anger to his role.
The film frequently demonstrates a willingness to tackle thorny subject matter. Slavery and racism are addressed rather bluntly in the film, particularly in a scene in which Jules reveals a painful secret from his past. The film argues that if we treat other people with a lack of humanity, we shouldn't be surprised when they respond in a way that seems inhuman. These issues are granted a surprising level of complexity given the era in which the film was made. Matt, for example, is one of the few people in the town who treats the local Mexicans with respect... but Matt is also the only person in town who has fought for the cause of slavery. Matt may have joined the Confederacy for personal reasons that had nothing to do with slavery, but that doesn't change the moral ramifications of his decision. The film doesn't let anyone off the hook for their actions, but eventually concludes that any person who demonstrates a willingness to change deserves a chance to make things right. Vengeance has its place, but it's ultimately less beneficial than forgiveness. The big shootout scene inevitably arrives, of course, but by that point it feels like an afterthought – a obligatory effort to ensure that no one asks for a refund.
Invitation to a Gunfighter didn't make much of an impression when it was released in theatres (it flopped at the box office, recouping barely half of its $3 million budget), but its thoughtful tone permits it to stand out in a once-crowded genre. It's hardly a classic, but it has strong performances, a rich score (particularly that pensive harpsichord theme), relatively progressive ideas and a handful of standout dialogue scenes. It's worth a look.
Invitation to a Gunfighter
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Year: 1964