How could a glut of Western television shows in the ‘50s possibly induct another one without the entire operation shuddering and falling to pieces? Who could have possibly wanted to see another gun being drawn, another horse galloped furiously to another climax, another wanted criminal caught? When it came to “Wanted: Dead or Alive”, the easiest answer is not to make it like another Western. Sure there are ranches, grizzled types at the bar, and the dusty settings we’re familiarized to death with, but this one was different. Still is. Especially with Steve McQueen in the lead role, as bounty hunter Josh Randall, a lot of possibility lined its track. First off, Randall was an atypical Western character. Far from the law-abiding and sometimes in-charge-of-the-law people of “The Rifleman” and “Gunsmoke”, “Wanted: Dead or Alive”, Josh Randall was outside of the law.
The locations may have seemed sweeping just by the nature of the towns and the signposts, but it was just a matter of using one after another location in California, each one attempting to represent the barren West, its rocky peaks, enough to give off the Western scent that so many viewers were familiar with week after week. But Josh Randall was more ideal than what had been used before. Randall took the money like any bounty hunter would. He needed to get around. There were some differences with him. First, even when it came to a nun being taken hostage in the episode, “Ransom for a Nun”, no religious implications crossed his mind. He wasn’t that kind of man. Blowing off the Mother Superior of that church, he sat down and continued his poker game before the fade-out to the opening credits, which featured his “mare’s leg”, a sawed-off Winchester of impressive nature, the other cast member that remained with him as long as his horse. Randall wasn’t a bastard for doing something like that. And when he begrudgingly decides to go retrieve the captured Sister Grace, he makes a deal with the Sheriff. If sworn in as deputy, of which he wanted no money, he would transport Lon Kitter to Arizona, the criminal wanted by his compadres in exchange for the nun. Even when warned that if he thinks of turning Kitter lose for that nun’s life, there will be a Wanted poster out on him too.
Knowing Randall, he does right on all counts, doesn’t want it known. In the pilot, “The Martin Poster”, he is handed quite a wad of cash for his services in bringing back the Martin brothers (Michael Landon and Nick Adams), takes one or two bills out of it and hands the rest back, requesting that the rest be put into the account of the dead U.S. Marshal’s wife, but doesn’t want anyone to know about it. When questioned about this, he simply says, “The kind of friends who have to know, I don’t want.” One reason is for his image to be upheld, though most recognize the gun before looking at Randall’s face. Secondly, he seems like a man who just wants to travel, just wants to do what’s right without too much bother.
And bit by bit, like any other TV series featuring a singular character who starts off the pilot by doing his job, his background is revealed bit by bit, not always episode by episode as there are always some pressing matters, such as guest star James Coburn in two episodes of this season, “Reunion for Revenge” and “The Kovack Affair”, a mighty presence in a show that included others such as Mary Tyler Moore, Dyan Cannon, John Carradine, Lee Van Cleef, Martin Landau, and even Mark Rydell, an actor first and a director/producer later. Most importantly, McQueen remained a strong presence throughout all of it and as Josh Randall traveled through the West, so did McQueen towards his illustrious career. It’s fortunate that this show was so good not only for that reason, but for today as it still holds up after all these years. This is indeed a rarity outside of the norm that contains such beloveds as “I Love Lucy”, “The Honeymooners”, and others. It’s different and it’s here.
Also here are some extra features, some flashy and slick, some more concentrated on the show itself. Colorized episodes of “The Martin Poster”, “The Favor”, and “Six-Up to Bannach” are included while standard on-screen text introductions for each one deride the process of colorization. Funny. I only wish corporate suits back then had thought the same way. There is an astute three-part narrated analysis of the show, usually only reserved for on-camera educated talking heads, but it’s ably discussed and well-researched. That’s due to the French counterpart of this release, StudioCanal, a great force besides the obvious ones in getting this show to DVD. It also wouldn’t be a DVD set like this without a few photo galleries and McQueen is front and center in those. This set also has a fight of sorts between text and camera. Throughout it all is a three-part written McQueen biography, which at times explains very little to the point where the six-part “Life in the Fast Lane” documentary (obviously cut from its original length when aired on Fox Movie Channel or wherever else it did) fills in some of the blanks. Subsequently, the biography does the same for the documentary. “Life in the Fast Lane” is rife with archival clips of McQueen, including an industrial film he made, and some home movies. But in between words from Chad McQueen and Neile Adams, it’s too slickly produced, right down to the breathless male narrator who’s too into all this Hollywood stuff. In short, the toast of an industry that craves that kind of attention.
As long as the next two seasons come out some day, and not just on the whim of another McQueen box set (if Warner Bros. has enough material for one), that’s good enough for me. That’s as it should be.