Sun 24 Jun 2012
“The Fourth Victim.” An installment of Gunsmoke: Season 20, Episode 8. First broadcast: 4 November 1974. James Arness (Matt), Ken Curtis (Festus), Milburn Stone (Doc), Buck Taylor (Newly), Leonard Stone, Ben Bates, Alex Sharp, Al Wyatt Sr., Frank Janson, Biff McGuire, Lloyd Perryman, Victor Killian, Woody Chambliss, Howard Culver, Paul Sorensen, Ted Jordan. Writer: Jim Byrnes. Director: Bernard McEveety.
Genuine whodunits set in the Old West are certainly rare, which makes this episode of Gunsmoke from its final season slightly more interesting.
A serial killer (seen only in silhouette and shadow) equipped with a .30-caliber rifle and a silencer is stalking Dodge City, murdering at will, sniper-style. Since there seems to be no obvious connection of the victims with one another, his motive is completely opaque.
Marshall Matt Dillon must turn detective to find the connection, which he does — and yet, technically speaking, he really doesn’t — halfway through the show, prompting him to think Doc Adams will be the next victim.
Using a willing Doc as bait, Dillon sets a trap, which is only partially successful, resulting in a severely damaged chair in Doc’s office and a wounded and therefore doubly dangerous sniper — who courteously sends Matt a note swearing revenge on him for interfering in his plans and calling him out for a midnight showdown — alone.
Feeling he has no better choice, Dillon appears on the deserted streets of Dodge, unaware that Doc and Festus have a surprise in store — but now fully aware of who the sniper really is ….
Since the plot centers on a woman, it’s interesting that there are no speaking parts for them in this episode. (By this time, Amanda Blake [Miss Kitty] had left the show after an argument with the producer.)
Unusually for this series, the episode takes place entirely on indoor sound stages.
Ben Bates makes an appearance in the same scene with James Arness, which is of interest since he was Arness’s stunt double throughout the run of the Gunsmoke series.
The mystery and suspense level of “The Fourth Victim” is gratifyingly high, although experienced mystery aficionados should be able to figure it out early on. If only the writer had surreptitiously introduced the final clue sooner, say in the first act, Matt’s solution near the end wouldn’t have had that rabbit-from-a-hat feel to it.
As it is, however, “The Fourth Victim” is still worth a view. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube here.