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Tuesday, December 23, 2014


(NOTE: This review originally appeared online at in 2007.)

WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE, SEASON THREE picks up right where volume two left off, giving us the 26 episodes that comprise the final season of this irresistibly entertaining Western series which ran from 1958-1961.

But unlike, for example, STAR TREK:THE ORIGINAL SERIES, which was running on fumes during its third and final season, WANTED ended only because Steve McQueen left to pursue a film career. Thus, the series finished stronger than ever with a season of episodes featuring better scripts, sharper dialogue, and roughly twice the amount of gunsmoke and flying lead. Even Rudy Schrager's original music is better this time around.

A distinctive new opening sequence begins with darkness punctuated by three gun flashes. As the title appears, McQueen's "Josh Randall" character steps into the light and holsters his gun with a steely-eyed glare.

As usual, Josh Randall is a decent, laidback sort who only shoots when it's absolutely necessary--he'd rather bring 'em in alive than dead. But if he's pushed too far, he lets the Mare's Leg, the sawed-off Winchester '92 that he carries in a clip holster, settle things in a definitive way. Josh doesn't tolerate rude behavior from bad guys ("You put down that blade or I'm gonna start blowin' off fingers") but will go out of his way to avoid violence whenever possible. Which, fortunately for us, is often impossible.

One episode in particular ("Journey for Josh") finds him falling in love with a female prisoner (Debra Paget's sister, the extremely hot Lisa Gaye) during their trek to another town. Something happens to her along the way which raises Josh's ire like never before, and, in an uncharacteristic moment of rage, he shoots the offending bad guy full of holes. The gunshot sound effects are turned up really loud in this series, too, lending more consequence to each shot fired. (Verna Fields, who handled most of the third season sound effects, went on to edit Steven Spielberg's blockbuster hit JAWS.)

Even more so than before, several of the stories break away from the usual bounty hunter formula in which Randall is either tracking someone down or bringing him in for trial. More and more, in fact, he finds himself being hired for all sorts of things, from keeping a prospective bridegroom on the wagon until his wedding day ("The Cure") to helping a young widow retain custody of her son while her domineering mother-in-law uses her wealth and political connections to take him away from her ("One Mother Too Many").

In a particularly exotic episode ("The Long Search"), he helps a Japanese mail-order bride locate her reluctant husband-to-be and not only finds himself participating in an elegant ancient tea ceremony in the middle of nowhere but also runs into an ill-tempered samurai intent on turning him into sushi.

Such a broad premise allows writers such as TV veterans Ed Adamson and Norman Katkov to come up with a wide variety of engaging stories, some of them intensely dramatic, which easily sustain interest throughout. Each 26-minute mini-Western is superbly rendered with movie-quality black and white cinematography by talented directors including Richard Donner (SUPERMAN, THE OMEN) and Murray Golden (ST:TOS' "Requiem for Methuselah").

There are even several comedy episodes which give Steve McQueen a chance to exploit his playful side. I actually LOL'd a few times at "Baa-Baa", the story of a distraught couple who hire Josh to find their beloved pet sheep, Baa-Baa. When news of his latest assignment gets around, Josh becomes a laughingstock at the local saloon and almost gets hanged by a couple of sheep-hating cattlemen for his trouble. It got to the point where I was laughing every time a character said the name "Baa-Baa." The final shot of Josh being chased across the prairie by a smitten Baa-Baa is just plain nutty.

As always, every time Josh Randall rides to a different town for which an indoor set is used, it's the same town that served as "North Fork" on another Four Star production, THE RIFLEMAN. It's fun to see how all the signs and certain bits of scenery are switched around in an effort to make it look different each time. In season two, you can spot a sign for North Fork's Doc Burridge, and in this collection Lucas McCain's favorite blacksmith Nels Svenson appears long enough to get murdered by some escaped outlaws. Even the interior and exterior sets for Lucas McCain's ranch are reused here and there, notably in "The Long Search."

The guest cast continues to offer a wealth of interesting character actors in addition to past and future stars. These include a young James Coburn (McQueen's co-star in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE), Paul Burke, Harold J. Stone, Tom Drake, RIFLEMAN regular Bill Quinn, Olan Soule', Don Gordon, director Mark Rydell (ON GOLDEN POND, THE COWBOYS), Cloris Leachman, J. Pat O'Malley, Frank Albertson, Richard Anderson, Gloria Talbot, Warren Oates, Howard Morris, Noah Beery, Richard Farnsworth, and an insanely-young Mary Tyler Moore.

Jeanette Nolan is unrecognizable in an incredible performance as a spooky Mexican witch woman in (what else?) "Witch Woman", while "The Choice" is a special treat for old-time horror fans as it offers an aging Dick Foran (THE MUMMY'S HAND, THE MUMMY'S TOMB) as an over-the-hill bounty hunter whose concerned wife hires Josh to make sure that her husband survives his final hunt for a desperate outlaw.

But it's the series star, Steve McQueen, who makes this show so much fun to watch. He's ever so cool, but not in a detached way. His Josh Randall character is warm, caring, funny, fallible--in other words, human. He loves money, but he values honesty and friendship even more. His love life consists mainly of brief encounters with the various dancehall girls he's gotten to know over the years, which are usually played for laughs. But when the situation gets dangerous, you can always depend on him to say something cool and go into action.

Add this to all the other elements that make WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE one of the best Western series of all time, in addition to seven featurettes, and you've got a 4-disc DVD collection that provides a wagonload of pure entertainment. As Josh Randall would say: "Let's go!"

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