Lee Marvin’s first credited feature. He plays a charismatic but brutish gambler serving up saloon atmosphere and convenient exposition.
The plot concerns a marauding band of claim jumpers. They ambush small-time prospectors, make them sign over their claims at gunpoint, then murder them and disappear the bodies.
Early on, they ambush a father-son duo, killing the father but not the son. The son, played by star Audie Murphy, gives pursuit, but loses the trail after the jumpers shoot his horse out from under him.
Cut to Silver City, where Marshall “Lightning” Tyrone prepares a posse to confront the claim jumpers. He tries to get local villain Johnny Sombrero to join, but Sombrero—who looks and sounds Mexican by way of Harlem—declines.
The posse rousts the claim jumpers, but the Marshall takes a bullet to the shoulder which paralyzes his shooting finger. He convalesces at an Army outpost.
There he meets southern belle Opal Lacey, who The Marshall falls for and takes to calling Brown Eyes.
But when Brown Eyes murders a wounded prisoner who could identify the claim jumpers, we learn she’s the sister of the gang’s leader.
Meanwhile, back in Silver City, the Marshall’s deputy gets a bullet in the back. When the Marshall returns, he goes looking for information and finds Brown Eyes, who implicates a stranger in town, the Silver Kid.
The Kid is, of course, Audie Murphy, who’s now decked out in a black leather jacket and sporting a pair of gleaming six shooters. The Marshall finds him in the saloon, where he’s playing poker and winning. Lee Marvin’s character doesn’t like that, and after the Kid takes a big pot, he draws. The Kid draws faster and, because he’s a good guy, shoots the gun out of Marvin’s hand.
The Marshall questions the Kid and, confident he’s innocent, makes him a deputy. If this seems an improbable turn of events, buckle up—this script proves a bumpy ride.
There’s also Dusty, a young woman sweet on the Marshall, though the Marshall’s oblivious to her feelings and treats her like a kid sister. Murphy susses out the situation, but still pursues Dusty because, the script.
Lest the title confuse you, the titular duel isn’t the film’s climax, nor is it with the big bad. It’s between the Marshall and Johnny Sombrero. After the duel, Murphy enters with the news that Dusty has taken it on herself to execute a prisoner swap with the claim jumpers. Why? Again, the script.
This sets up the real finale, a big shootout that sees the Marshall, Murphy, and their posse walk into a blatant trap that should have slaughtered them, yet somehow triumph. How? You guessed it: the script.
Worse still, the script disappears Murphy for much of the first act, then regulates him to supporting status when he reappears. Despite receiving third billing, Stephen McNally proves the lead as Marshall Tyrone. The script introduces him as a discerning, middle-aged lawman only to have him behave like a petulant love-sick teenager in the second act. McNally tries, but can’t distract from the forced plotting. Compounding matters, he and Faith Domergue—who plays Brown Eyes—have no chemistry.
Believe it or not, co-screenwriter Gerald Drayson Adams also co-wrote director Don Seigal’s prior film, The Big Steal, which featured a tight script peppered with snappy dialog. What happened here?
More than once, this reminded me of a better produced version of John Wayne’s early poverty-row westerns. The bigger budget affords a longer running time, larger cast and better sets and costumes, but the script feels just as rushed, and the cast chemistry as hit-or-miss. At least those poverty-row productions were shorter and featured better stunts.