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"Dead for a Dollar" movie review by Dan Webster

I grew up during the golden era of the Western film. My parents took my brothers and me to see movies at whatever drive-in theater we could find, from Rhode Island to Texas, San Diego to the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

And for a time, our genre of choice was the Western. In those days, I was able to see even more on network television, usually in the afternoons when local stations – always hungry for material to broadcast – would show films starring the likes of Bob Steele, Johnny Mac Brown and Roy Rogers.

The great films came in the 1950s, when the tone of the genre changed from simple shoot-em-ups to more serious studies of the Western myth – most of which were typically male-oriented and, by today’s standards, both sexist and racist – or at least racially insensitive.

Along with classics such as “Shane,” “High Noon” and “The Searchers,” Westerns that received second billing – the so-called B-films – were also popular. And one of the most successful of the directors who produced a number of such films was a man named Budd Boetticher.

In his long career, which spanned the years 1942 to 1995, Boetticher worked in variety of genres. But he is arguably best known for having directed a series of Westerns he made with Randolph Scott bearing such titles as 1957’s “The Tall T,” 1958’s “Buchanan Rides Alone” and 1960’s “Comanche Station.”

Martin Scorsese, discussing “The Tall T,” praised the film’s “toughness, flintiness … and a spareness that made it unique.” And it’s those very qualities that the veteran filmmaker Walter Hill attempts to re-create in his film “Dead for a Dollar,” which is streaming on a number of services.

Hill, whose own career dates back to 1975, knows his way around Westerns. In addition to his study of the James Gang, 1980’s “The Long Riders,” he also directed 1993’s “Geronimo: An American Legend” and 1995’s “Wild Bill,” as well as episodes of the miniseries “Broken Trail” and “Deadwood.”

In “Dead for a Dollar,” which Hill wrote, directed and dedicated to Boetticher, he cast Christoph Waltz as the bounty hunter Max Borlund. Hired to find a woman named Rachel Kidd (played by Rachel Brosnahan), who he is told has been kidnapped, he sets off for Mexico. But the Buffalo Soldier who accompanies him named Sergeant Poe (played by Warren Burke) tells him the truth: Rachel left voluntarily with another Buffalo Soldier named Elijah Jones (played by Brandon Scott).

This doesn’t change his mission, because Max has a code he tries hard to live up to. But it does change his perspective because he doesn’t like being lied to. Besides, he has other worries. One is a gunslinger named Joe Cribbens (played by Willem Dafoe). Just released from prison, where Max had put him, Joe will soon be looking for payback. Too, Max has to deal with the Mexican gang leader, Tiberio Vargas (played by Benjamin Bratt), who not only runs things in his part of Mexico but who has cut a deal with Rachel’s sinister husband (played by Hamish Linklater).

True to something that Boetticher might have directed, all of Hill’s various plot strands lead to a final showdown – though with a few unexpected deaths occurring along the way.

The question that “Dead for a Dollar” ultimately poses is … why? It’s one thing to honor someone whose work you admire. It’s quite another to do so in a manner that tries to live up to tradition while shoehorning in 21st-century attitudes regarding race and sex. For that, you need to have the sensibilities of a Jeymes Samuel, whose 2021 film “The Harder They Fall” updated the genre with a far more contemporary touch.

Even more, Hill – for all his abilities – just isn’t able to pull off the same toughness, flintiness and spareness that Scorsese admires so much in Boetticher’s films.

“Dead for a Dollar,” then, is a curiosity and not much more than that. It might be more worthwhile to find a copy of, say, “The Tall T” – which, if you’re interested, happens to be available through a number of streaming services.