This may not pass muster with traditional Western devotees (i.e, readers of Cowboys & Indians) but arguably one of the most influential westerns ever made is Johnny Concho (’56), a stagey, all-but-forgotten little film that Frank Sinatra starred in and co-produced. For this modest black-and-white enterprise was the first morally revisionist western in which a big star played an ethically challenged lead character — i.e., a cowardly bad guy.
The conventional line is that Marlon Brando‘s One-Eyed Jacks was the first western in which a major star played a gunslinging outlaw that the audience was invited to identify or sympathize with — a revenge-driven bank robber looking to even the score with an ex-partner (Karl Malden‘s “Dad” Longworth) who ran away and left Brando’s “Rio” to be arrested and sent to prison.
This opened the door, many have noted, to Paul Newman‘s rakishly charming but reprehensible Hud Bannon in Martin Ritt‘s Hud two years later, and then the Spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone (beginning with ’64’s A Fistful of Dollars) and particularly Clint Eastwood‘s “Man With No Name.”
But before One-Eyed Jacks audiences were presented with at least three morally flawed western leads portrayed by name-brand actors. First out of the gate was Sinatra’s’s arrogant younger brother of a notorious gunslinger in Concho. This was followed in ’57 by Glenn Ford‘s Ben Wade, a charmingly sociopathic gang-leader and thief, in Delmer Daves‘ 3:10 to Yuma. And then Paul Newman‘s Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn‘s The Left-Handed Gun (’58).
So sequentially speaking the bottom line is that Concho — created by producer-star Sinatra, director Don McGuire and screenwriter David P. Harmon — pretty much launched the whole morally ambiguous anti-hero oater thing. On top of which Sinatra’s performance is actually among his best and William Conrad‘s snarling, cold-eyed villain is one for the annals, but this decent but (if memory serves) not-that-great black-and-white western has pretty much sunk beneath the waves.
I know that opportunities to see it are rare. The only DVD you can buy on Amazon is from Italy, and it’s not clear if it’s dubbed or subtitled or what. It apparently plays on TCM now and then. A suspicious-looking outfit called DVDsentertainmentonline is offering a DVD but I don’t trust it.
Given that Sinatra believed sufficiently in Concho to produce (or co-produce), you’d think that Alex Gibney would at least mention it in his recently aired HBO documentary on Sinatra…but he didn’t.
Incidentally: McGuire wrote Meet Danny Wilson, adapted Bad Day at Black Rock and wrote an early draft of Tootsie that won him a “story by” credit.