FACE OF A FUGITIVE. Columbia, 1959. Fred MacMurray, Lin McCarthy, Dorothy Green, Alan Baxter and James Coburn. Screenplay by David T Chantler and Daniel B Ullman, based on the short story “Long Gone” by Peter Dawson (Zane Grey’s Western Magazine, March 1950). Directed by Paul Wendkos.

   In a decade supposedly marked by conformity, and in a genre supposedly bound up in cliché, I’m surprised sometimes by how many off-beat, idiosyncratic and just plain weird westerns came out of the 1950s: Terror in a Small Town, 40 Guns, A Day of Fury, Ride Lonesome…. I could go on and on, but then I’d be going on and on.

   Face of a Fugitive may not as bizarre as some of the others, but it’s sufficiently off-beat and well-made to stay in the memory. Or this memory, anyway.

   Face opens with Fred MacMurray as an affable outlaw being escorted to jail by a Deputy unequal to the task. In the first few minutes Fred overpowers him and is making his escape when his younger brother (Ron Hayes) shows up, kills the deputy, and is himself mortally wounded in the shoot-out.

   Now wanted for murder, Fred buries his brother by sewing him in a mail sack and dumping the body in a river. Then he insinuates himself into the closest town, passing as a traveling businessman, feigning acquaintance with the locals, and looking for some way to split the scene before Wanted Posters show up with his picture on them — in 24 hours.

   MacMurray is in fine form here. In the years before Disney and “My Three Sons” his persona was bluff and likeable bit not always trustworthy. Check him out in The Texas Rangers, Double Indemnity, The Apartment and others to see what I mean. Here he uses both sides of his acting face as the outlaw on the run masquerading as a respectable citizen, and he does it quite well, befriending the local barber, horse trader, store clerk, and sheriff, but always with an eye out for the main chance.

   Of course it’s not that simple. Nor is the Sheriff, whose deputies have the town bottled up pending the arrival of the posters. Always the smoothie, Fred wangles himself a job as a Deputy — only to find himself embroiled with the Sheriff in a range was against local cattle baron Alan Baxter, and his henchman James Coburn.

   The writers handle all this quite capably, setting up the situation, ratcheting up the tension, and pausing for some truly affecting moments when Fred sees them fish his brother’s body from the river and later watches him lowered into an unmarked grave. They also flesh out the minor characters, particularly Coburn: lithe and lethal, but essentially a cowboy, not a killer.

   Back in the day, director Paul Wendkos made a splashy debut with The Burglar (1957) then retreated into television and the Gidget movies, until finally overtaken by obscurity. Still early in his career here, he imparts a sense of pace and humanity to the proceedings, particularly in a slam-bang run-and-jump shoot-out in a ghost town, making the most of the settings and Coburn’s athleticism vs. Fred’s stoic efficiency. And he caps it all with a line (which should have been the final line) I will remember for some time.

   This is a film to enjoy—and come back to.