Vincent Price in More Dead Than Alive (1969)

This month would have been the 100th birthday of Vincent Price, and over the past three years there’s been a number or Price movies covered on the Lair both by myself and in Fran Goria’s feature For the Love of Price. Throughout his lengthy career, Price starred in all kind of films playing everything from the romantic lead to the dastardly villain. One role I always appreciate him in is that of the eccentric supporting character, and that is exactly the part he fills in today’s film, More Dead than Alive. With a title like that, and the fact that it stars Vincent Price, it would be easy to assume this film would be an entry into the zombie subgenre, but that couldn't be further from the truth. This 1969 film, released between Price’s Poe adaptations Witchfinder General and The Oblong Box, is one of only a few Westerns in which Vincent appeared. Much like his offbeat Sam Fuller Western, The Baron of Arizona, More Dead than Alive is a tale of the Wild West that doesn't neatly fit into the normal, standard genre format.

Clint Walker (TV’s Cheyenne) stars as Cain or more specifically “Killer” Cain. Amassing twelve notches on his gun by the time he was eighteen, Cain spent the next eighteen years in jail paying for his crimes. He became a model prisoner, and by the time he was released, the warden believed him to be fully rehabilitated. Unfortunately, there’s little opportunity for an infamous ex-con to get a job in the West, and he soon falls into the only job he knows, shooting. This time however, he’s not a gun for hire. Instead, he does trick shots in Dan Ruffalo’s Shooting Show. Still haunted by his past everywhere he travels, Cain can’t be with the woman he loves (Forbidden Planet’s Anne Francis), is hounded by his Shooting Show co-star Billy Valance (Paul Hampton), and constantly has to look over his shoulder knowing that the past is due to catch up with him when he least expects it.

More Dead than Alive starts off with a song that I can only infer is supposed to make the viewer equate the biblically named Cain’s struggle with that of Jesus. Try as I might to figure out how to balance out the story of a 12 time killer with a chill carpenter who did killer magic tricks, I came up empty handed. That’s not to say that More Dead than Alive doesn't have a lot of ambitious things going on under the hood. The redemptive tale is told not in a white hat/black hat kind of way, and Cain never seems flippant about his murderous past. In place if clear but heroes and villains, the film is chock full of people who have real reactions and emotions no matter if we’re talking deep regret (Cain), self centered avarice (Price’s Buffalo), or pained, misguided envy (Hampton’s young gunslinger Billy). The film itself looks like a standard studio Western of the late ’60s (save for some really spot on, modern looking editing looking throughout by John F. Scheyer), but the symbolic ideas it contains from the pen of Escape 2000 and Futureworld scribe George Schenck far outweigh it’s simple presentation.

I’m going to talk a bit in a moment about all the leads, but of course the reason we’re here today is because of the presence of Vincent Price. While the whole film is solid, whenever Price shows up as the huckster Dan Ruffelo, he adds a special larger than life flavor to the character. No matter is he is doing his carnival barker bit, scheming over how to make money, or telling the sniveling Billy Valance to keep in line, Price does what he does best. He makes the most of every single second of screen time and plays the part to the hilt. This is one of the million reasons that I love Mr. Price. If you looked at his role on paper, Ruffalo might seem like a thankless part that did little more than connect a few of arcs in the story. As Price plays him, Ruffalo becomes a pivotal person in Cain’s life. He is the catalyst to everything that comes from our repentant hero.

While Price steals away nearly all his scenes, it’s quite a struggle when he’s playing opposite star Clint Walker. Walker, who made his name as a TV cowboy, is an impressive figure standing at a barrel chested six foot six inches tall, and while he strikes a commanding presence, he also has the chops to carry the film o his broad shoulders. Emotional resonance is something that I doubt Mr. Walker thought too much about, his hardened, stoic performance as Cain is perfectly suited for a character filled with repressed guilt. Ann Francis appears as the love of Cain’s life, but she doesn’t show up in more than twenty minutes of the film’s total hour forty running time. Their romance is quite sweet, but I found her character, a single woman living on the frontier as a painter, to be the least genuine and interesting. While everyone from Cain to Billy to Ruffalo had turmoil and issues, Francis’ Monica Alton was the most well adjusted among them. The least adjusted on the other hand would be Paul Hampton’s Billy Valance. While I never thought Hampton was so young to be underage as the film implies, he definitely mined an immaturity of character that made him a despicable foil for Cain.

More Dead than Alive contains some big ideas, some inspired performances, and the one and only Vincent Price, but what it doesn’t contain is much happening. When Westerns get mixed up with philosophy in movies like Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse, Eastwood’s Pale Rider, or Jarmusch’s Dead Man, there’s a delicate balance that needs to be struck between waxing poetic and whacking bad guys. More Dead than Alive falls on the short side of the action spectrum. With only a handful of shootings, no sex, and very little violence, I’m still a bit puzzled as to how the film garnered an ‘R’ rating, but never the less; this is where the flick really falls apart. If it were not of the actors making their characters so watchable and interesting, I’m not sure I would have made it through the film. The only other thing holding More Dead than Alive back is the ending. I don’t want to say much more, but it contradicted so much of what I had just sat watching for almost two hours.

That brings up to the end of our first new Price review for the month. Look out of a few more, and don’t forget to look back into the archives for many, many more.

Bugg Rating

1 comment:

  1. Vincent Price is one of those guys I miss seeing in films. Among others, Jimmy Stewart and Roddy McDowall.


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