On this day, 8 May, in 1969, the revisionist western Death of a Gunfighter was released. It’s a good film but that’s not why we’re talking about it today.
During the production, director Robert Totten and star Richard Widmark didn’t get along. With half the film in the can, Widmark demanded that producter Richard Lyons replace Totten.
I’ve never heard the specifics of the story. In fact, it isn’t even clear if Totten was replaced or resigned. And it isn’t clear what the problem was. But it isn’t hard to see how the conflict could arise.
Totten had been toiling most of his career as a television director and Death of a Gunfighter was his first chance to direct a well-budgeted feature film. And there’s every indication that he was using his considerable talent to its fullest extent on the film.
Meanwhile, Widmark was a star on the downside of his career. I can well see why he young and ambitious director annoying.
Regardless of what happened, Totten was replaced by the great Don Siegel. It is probably due to this that the film is uneven. But at the end, Widmark wanted Siegel’s name on the film. Siegel felt it would be wrong to do so. (He might also have been unimpressed with the final film.) And Totten certainly didn’t want his name on the film.
So the Director’s Guild of America decided to overturn their long-running policy of not allowing pseudonyms for directors. They allowed the producers to credit the “director” Allen Smithee.
This name will be well-familiar with this name, or as it is more usually spelled: Alan Smithee. This became the go-to name to use when a director wanted their name removed from a film.
This took off so fast that Death of a Gunfighter was not the first feature film to be directed by this “director.” That honor goes to Fade In (1968), which managed to be released a year earlier.
There was also a 25-minute film, The Indiscreet Mrs Jarvis, that was released in 1955 that is credited to Alan Smithee. So this was clearly a name that was floating around for a while.