Gordon “Wild Bill” Elliott was a popular Western movie star from the late Thirties through the early Fifties, but he never had the big following that some Western stars did. That’s a shame, because he was a decent actor and made some excellent films that straddle the line between B-movies and A-movies. One of the best is HELLFIRE.
The basic set-up of this movie had whiskers (and I’m not talking about Gabby Hayes) even when it was made in 1949: a gambler, played by Elliott, takes over the identity of a preacher when the preacher is killed by a bullet meant for him. Elliott’s character tries to reform and even sets out to build the church that the dead preacher intended to. But things don’t go as planned, so the gambler-turned-preacher becomes a bounty hunter as well in order to finance the church. Marie Windsor is the lovely local who isn’t exactly what she seems, and Forrest Tucker plays a U.S. Marshal who clashes with Elliott. The supporting cast is a veritable who’s who of Western character actors: Jim Davis, Paul Fix, Grant Withers, Denver Pyle, Harry Woods, Trevor Bardette . . . in other words, everybody but Ward Bond, Roy Barcroft, and Hank Worden.
What lifts HELLFIRE above the average (along with the excellent cast) is the script by brothers and veteran Hollywood writers Dorrell and Stuart McGowan. The characters have some real depth to them, and not everybody turns out to be the sort of person you expect them to. This is a well-written, well-acted film that always has a hardboiled edge despite subject matter that you’d think would steer it toward the sentimental. And it has some great fight scenes in it, too. Elliott was known for his signature line, “I’m a peaceable man”, which he would usually utter just before he beat the crap out of some bad guy who richly deserved it.
Wild Bill made a lot of B-Westerns and a fine serial, VALLEY OF VANISHING MEN (which, by the way, has some really bizarre humor to recommend it), but if you want to catch him at the top of his game and watch a fine Western, give HELLFIRE a try if you can find a copy. It’s certainly worth watching.
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