MAVERICK Mondays: Number 16
MAVERICK: "Duel at Sundown" (1959 Warner Brothers/ABC-TV) Starring James Garner as Bret Maverick, Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick, Edgar Buchanan as Jed Christianson, Abby Dalton as Carrie Christianson, Clint Eastwood as Red Hardigan, Dan Sheridan as Doctor Baxter, Myrna Fahey as Susie, James Griffith as John Wesley Hardin. Directed by Arthur Lubin. Teleplay by Richard Collins; Story by Howard Browne.
On route to a high stakes poker game in Leadville, Bret Maverick detours to Sundown to visit his old friend Jed Christianson. A wealthy rancher and widower who is recovering from a leg injury, Jed has a bigger concern than his temporary disability. Jed's daughter Carrie is dating gunslinger Hardigan, a man the elder Christianson disapproves of. Maverick only plans to be in town a few days, but Jed wants Bret to extend his stay--and in the process, show Carrie "what a real man is like".
To sweeten the pot for Bret, Jed first bankrolls Maverick in the local game, then resorts to a bet on a (rigged) game of Maverick Solitaire to keep his friend around a bit longer. After Hardigan senses competition from the stranger in town, he tries bullying Bret, eventually starting a fistfight that the traveling poker player wins decisively. Both end up with bandaged hands, but Red challenges the Bret to a decisive gunfight once that shootin' hand is healed.
One of the series' most legendary episodes, Duel at Sundown has a number of similarities to the earlier Holiday at Hollow Rock (also written by Browne). In both, Bret visits a wealthy, trusted older friend and finds himself in the middle of a romantic triangle involving his friend's daughter and an unworthy suitor who is only after her for her father's money. But said boyfriend is the sheriff and has father's full courtin' approval in the former segment, while Sundown's Jed Christianson wants to break up his daughter's relationship with Red, a "bully and a coward".
Ironically, Maverick and Hardigan are both ne'er-do-wells on the surface: Bret even notes that financially they're "starting out even" when Carrie (who's on to her father's scheme) gives her suspected (and incorrect) reason why her intended lacks parental approval. Maverick talks cowardly, but (reluctantly) steps up when the chips are down; Hardigan does exactly the reverse. Red's no dummy, but poker player Bret's skill at reading people (Hardigan tells us he "never plays cards") is his big edge. Bret knows he'll be shot or sucker punched when Red menaces him at the table a second time, so he throws the first punch while still seated at the table and uses the element of surprise to disarm Hardigan while his adversary is still stunned.
Mr. Christianson is a bit of a rascal, but he's also a straight shooter, admitting that he wouldn't be disappointed to have Maverick for a son-in-law. It's easy to see why the rancher and Bret get along so well--unlike the freeloading, truly greedy (and unfaithful) Hardigan, Maverick makes his own way. Though Bret sheepishly admits that it sometimes "frightens him" what he'll do for money, it's most notable what he won't do: marry for it. Contrary to his implication to Carrie that "breathing" is the only thing he puts ahead of money, it's pretty clear that freedom outranks it as well--and is probably ahead of breathing itself, truth be told. Duel at Sundown has as many character-defining lines as any MAVERICK teleplay--it's a shame that it was Collins' only contribution to the series.
|Dan Sheridan and Edgar Buchanan|
Bret's friends in Sundown have almost as happy an ending as his friends in Hollow Rock (Carrie doesn't have her Mr. Right yet), but our traveling poker player is far from altruistic in either circumstance; his closing remark to Jed implies that the subterfuge was motivated at least in part by that final $1,000 sweetener. And unlike Sunny Acres, the Mavericks aren't exactly leaving Sundown a better place than they found it. The unintended consequence of their titular performance? It brings a very angry John Wesley Hardin to Sundown in their wake.
HOW'D THEY DO AT POKER?
Bret wins $180 at the game in town, splitting it 50/50 with backer Jed, and we see him win at least $20 more just prior to his fistfight with Hardigan. Bart doesn't have time to grab a seat, settling for splitting Bret's $1,000 bankroll boost from his bet with Jed.
WISDOM FROM PAPPY?
A long-winded but series-defining pearl. "When I was six years old, my Pappy took my brother and me into a saloon. They were playin' Red Dog, Chuck-a-Luck, and Wheel of Chance. Son, he said, this is what's called gambling. Stay away from it. Games like this, you don't stand a chance. As long as you live, stick to poker."
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Thanks to a very strong supporting cast highlighted by the participation of a young Clint Eastwood, Duel at Sundown ranks with Gun-Shy and Shady Deal at Sunny Acres among the best known and loved MAVERICK installments. Deservedly so, though I'd place it slightly behind those almost flawless creations--all things equal, I'd say it's a tossup whether I'd choose Duel ahead of the aforementioned (and highly underrated) Holiday at Hollow Rock. Duel at Sundown still comes highly recommended: chock full of witty dialogue and boasting perhaps the series' greatest "tag" ever. An extra half star for the only Eastwood/Garner collaboration prior to the 2000 feature SPACE COWBOYS. (**** out of four)
MAVERICK currently airs Monday through Friday at 1 PM Central/2 PM Eastern without commercial interruption on Encore Westerns, and every Sunday night at 10 PM Central/11 PM Eastern on COZI TV.