Walter Doniger | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style | Rankings

Cheyenne: The Bounty Killers | The Law Man | The Trap | Land Beyond the Law

Bat Masterson: Double Showdown | Cheyenne Club | River Boat | Promised Land | The Inner Circle

Maverick: The Jail at Junction Flats

The Virginian: The Sins of the Fathers

Feature films: House of Women | Safe at Home!

Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors) | Television Western Articles

Walter Doniger

Walter Doniger is an American film and mainly, television director.

Walter Doniger: Subjects

Some common features of Walter Doniger's work: Children: Social Commentary: Locales: Locales and Events: Geography:

Walter Doniger: Structure and Story Telling

Story Structure: Actors:

Walter Doniger: Visual Style

Imagery: Architecture: Depth Staging: Camera Movement: Appearance and Character:


Here are ratings for various films directed by Walter Doniger. Everything at least **1/2 is recommended.

Feature films:

Cheyenne: Bat Masterson: Maverick: Men into Space: The Virginian:

Cheyenne: The Bounty Killers

Protests and Non-Violence

The most unusual features of The Bounty Killers (1956) are the scenes of street protest. These are against a lawman who is considered abusive in doing his job. Such street protests run through Doniger's work. They mark a notable instance of left-wing public revolt.

Working Class

The accused man is a carpenter. He is not dressed as a cowboy, or in clothes that seem at all "Western". Instead, he is dressed in plain working class clothes that could be worn in any era. He looks strongly working class.

Links to Silver Lode

The Bounty Killers resembles Silver Lode (1954), directed by Allan Dwan. In both films: There are differences between the two films, in the back-story of the prisoner; and in later developments of the plot.

Camera Movement

There is a fairly elaborate camera movement, in the shot that ends with the hero and the bounty hunter first entering the Sheriff's office. It moves with the men down the street, to the Sheriff's door. Then, after a pause, it unexpectedly turns, and gives us a long view of the street. It shows the townspeople beginning to congregate at the end of the street. It then turns back, showing us the Sheriff's door again. The revelation of the townspeople gathering seems ominous. It is emphasized by the way the camera movement reveals this information.

Soon a camera movement will follow the Sheriff slowly across the street to the carpenter's shop.

Short Story to Film

The Bounty Killers (1956) is based on a short story by the well-known Western writer Steve Frazee. Frazee's tale "The Bounty Killers" (1955) is reprinted in The Best Western Stories of Steve Frazee (1989).

In many ways, The Bounty Killers is a faithful version of the short story. It has two principal differences, both relating to politics:

The protagonist in the short story becomes series hero Cheyenne in the film. Cheyenne already has a noble code of life in the TV series. He doesn't undergo the moral development of the short story's hero, moving from a rigid fascistic viewpoint to humane, less macho values.

The hero of the short story is working for the bounty hunter, because he initially admires the hunter's "strength". By contrast, in the film Cheyenne goes to work for the hunter, when the hunter saves his life from outlaws. Cheyenne feels gratitude to the hunter. But he doesn't really have an admiration for the hunter's values, or for a concept like "strength" which the hunter might represent.

Public Service

An odd difference between story and film: the accused man in the story is a cobbler, specializing in the making of Western boots. His profession has been changed to carpenter in the film. Perhaps this was to make his job more timeless and less "Western" in association.

Most importantly, the change to carpenter enables a key accomplishment: this man has built the town's church and school, for free. This relates to the Doniger theme of public service. Doniger will soon look at the future space program in the remarkable series Men into Space. The space program can also be seen as a massive example of public service.

Cheyenne: The Law Man

The Law Man (1956) is the most conventional, and least interesting, of Walter Doniger's four episodes of Cheyenne. It is pleasant enough, but its material seems familiar.

Almost a Criminal Empire

The set-up is close to the Doniger theme of a criminal empire, although the town is far from fully run by the crooks: A major character has left being a law man, and turned into a businessman to make money. Greed is also his motivation for turning crooked. This is perhaps one of Doniger's negative comments on the wealthy.

A Child

The young boy learns moral lessons: also a Doniger theme. Learning that admitting you are wrong, is part of growing up and becoming a man, seems like a notable idea.


There is a pillared region in the saloon where the heroine sings.

Outdoors, the town is full of pillared sidewalks, porches and porticos.

Cheyenne: The Trap

The Trap (1956) is another story, in which ordinary people have to defy corrupt law. Instead of a single bad lawman, as in The Bounty Killers, The Trap has a whole town and prison full of corrupt officials. Does this make it better? I'm not so sure.

In many ways, The Trap is just another lurid prison melodrama. Doniger started his career, with a series of prison films for theaters. Still, if one is going to make a prison melodrama, the filmmakers should have the skill to make it lurid and dramatic - and Doniger certainly know how.

The title illustration, showing leg irons over a prisoner's cowboy boots, is striking.


The opening shows Cheyenne looking at signs of town businesses. They are all owned by the same family. There is a critique here of monopoly capitalism. Americans used to be deeply concerned by concentrations of wealth. Unfortunately, today's rotten Libertarianism has encouraged wealth to flow into the hands of a few powerful, and usually anti-social billionaires.

Soon we will see massively corrupt government in this town.

All the crooked government officials are played by conspicuously older, middle-aged men.

Pillars and Cages

Inside the mine, there are barred cages in which the guards sit. This separates them from the prisoners. It gives the guards an ominous aspect. These are some of Doninger's barred cages, with tall vertical bars.

Some of the buildings at the prison mine have pillared porches. These are seen in the shots, but don't play too conspicuous or prominent a role.

Depth Staging

The opening has the camera moving away from a city limits sign. The town is now seen in the distant background. Soon, Cheyenne rides from the front of this shot, to the town deep in the background.

A shot framed by the dark mineshaft entrance, shows the ground outside the mine, with the house far in the background.

The two women talk outside, while between them, a little way back, are prisoners with a cart. This depth is not extreme. But the contrast between the women and the prisoners seen between them is striking.

Bob Hover

Bob Hover, one of the actors, is better known as a bodybuilder and model for physical culture magazines of the era. Hover does fine in his small role here. But he had a bigger and better role in another Cheyenne episode, Big Ghost Basin (1957). This was directed not by Doniger, but by Joseph Kane.

Duded-Up Gunfighter

Most of the men in the prison are in nondescript clothes, both prisoners and guards. By contrast, Rhodes Reason's gunfighter is duded up to the max. He makes a striking contrast. He seems to have an unfair advantage, in his appearance.

Cheyenne: Land Beyond the Law

Land Beyond the Law (1957) is about one of those hidden valleys run as havens for crooks. This is a common Western subject. As in The Trap, the film concentrates on the empire's ruling elite, their nasty power struggles, and their bizarre romantic entanglements with each other.

Like many such hidden valleys of crime, this one has a secret entrance. In keeping with Doniger traditions, this one is an underground mine tunnel.


The crime empire is lead by a quasi-soldier, the Major. The Major is obsessed with militarism.

The Major's phony military pretensions echo and contrast with a real Cavalry officer we have just seen in conference with Cheyenne. The Cavalry officer is briskly confident, and seems utterly "for real". His business-like normal approach contrast with the Major's airs. The Cavalry officer has a straightforward map of the hidden valley; the Major has a terrain contour map on a table, with toy soldier figurines representing troops. It is much more elaborate that the real Cavalry officer's map - and much more boyish with the toy soldiers, and less serious looking.

Links to Dark Command

Perhaps the filmmakers have been watching Dark Command (1939), directed by Raoul Walsh. Both films deal with sinister militias; in both the leader started out life as a schoolteacher; in both the leader has a lavish house, in which he puts his stolen booty on display in a pointed parody of bourgeois conspicuous consumption.

The villain in Dark Command is a Southerner, modeled on the vicious William Quantrill. The villain in Land Beyond the Law is a northerner, proud of being part of Sherman's March to the Sea.

Joe Epic

Villain Joe Epic (played by James Griffith) is an unusual character. The film makes him as openly gay as the censor and mores would allow in 1957. Epic is in love with chief villain the Major, and has a jealous hatred of the Major's wife.

Epic is duded up in one of the most bizarre costumes in Western films. Western bad guys frequently wore black, so Joe Epic's all-black costume is within that tradition. But it is also full of kinky features, including a front leather panel.

The Opening

Cheyenne is ridden into town at the film's start, under arrest by a Sheriff's posse. Cheyenne's hands are tied: one of many Doniger heroes who gets tied up. Soon, we are at that favorite, and related, Doniger locale, a jail.

Like other Doniger heroes, Cheyenne turns the table on the jailer, locking him and his men into his own cell.


The photographer is in an unusually staged sequence. We see a long take focussing exclusively on him. Cheyenne is not shown: he is purely an off-screen voice. The photographer comically tries to coax the hero the hero to smile; the the hero keeps sternly refusing.

When Cheyenne enters the Major's house, a long take camera movement shot ensues. This is sometimes combined with depth staging, with characters in the background of the screen.

Bat Masterson: Double Showdown

Double Showdown (1958) is the pilot episode of the Bat Masterson television series.

Duded-Up Gunfighter

Much is made of Bat Masterson's elaborate costume, including a scene of his boots being shined and a discussion of the origin of his cane. This relates to the fancy and often strange costumes for gunfighters that run through Doniger. Bat is often seen polishing his cane, in a symbolic way.


The villain is going to have Bat cheated or perhaps killed, during the poker meet in his saloon. Bat instead has the poker match held in the street, with numerous townspeople assembled to witness, to keep it honest and safe.

The assembled townspeople are an example of the mass non-violent assemblies in Doniger's films.

Multi-Path Story

Double Showdown is most notable for its highly unusual finale. (SPOILERS) It violates story telling norms in two ways: I have no idea who came up with this finale. It could be the work of series regulars Frank Pittman & Andy White, who created the story for the episode. But one also notes that at roughly the same time, Doniger is doing unusual things with the narrative structure of his Maverick episode The Jail at Junction Flats. It is likely that a pilot like Double Showdown was filmed earlier than a regular series episode like The Jail at Junction Flats, however.

Although the first finale is a card game, it takes place in an outdoor street. This is a Doniger approach: staging events in large outdoor areas.

Depth Staging

Doniger shoots through the stagecoach. This is depth staging, and through a booth-like region.

People are frequently shown in the background, glimpsed through a gap between two characters in the foreground:

The departure of the stagecoach from town has people seen in the distance between it on the left and buildings on the right. The depth of field is great, showing buildings in the far distance.


Many of the town buildings have covered porticos with pillars.

There are numerous curtained alcoves in the casino. These can seem a bit like the cages or pillars in other Doniger interiors.

Still Life

Shots of cards on a table, often include Bat's cane held straight up on the table. These form pleasant geometric patterns. They form a "still life": objects on a table nicely arranged.

The shots of smashed glasses in the wrecked saloon, also perhaps qualify as still lifes. However, they are in full motion, not "still".

Bat Masterson: Cheyenne Club

Cheyenne Club (1958) is an amusing story about problems at an elite Western club. It has a nice mystery subplot, about card cheating at the club.

(SPOILERS) It is most noteworthy for its finale, which can be read as a political commentary, in favor of non-violent social protest. This scene is unexpectedly moving.

The finale underscores that both women and working class men are taking part in the protest. It is against a dictatorial rich man.

Bat Masterson: River Boat

River Boat (1959) deals with a gang that hijacks and loots a river steam ship. The gang is organized as one of Doniger's criminal empires. And after they take over the boat, it becomes one of Doniger's isolated criminal-run worlds.

Once again, there is a colorful but sinister lead crook, here known as The King.

One of the crooks is uniformed as a ship's officer. This is an example of the highly dressed-up gunslingers that run through Doniger's work.

The opening sequences at quite interesting, showing the gang's activities on ship. But River Boat becomes less absorbing after this.

Bat Masterson: Promised Land

Promised Land (1959) deals with another one of Walter Doniger's criminal empires, once again in an isolated location. But here there is a benevolent, comic twist: many of the residents are reformed criminals, trying to go straight. They want to run their town on honest lines. As in Land Beyond the Law, there are elements of parody of bourgeois life.

Promised Land has a sly, comic quality. It is fun to think about what such a town might be like.

The gunslingers all dressed up like undertakers are also entertaining. They look as if they hare having fun with their impersonation. Their fancy top hats are phallic symbols. Their Western ties also have a dressy swagger.

The bank has a teller cage inside, which looks like an actual jail. It is compared in the dialogue to a jail cell, at the end of the show, so the similarity is deliberate. It is one of several Walter Doniger interiors with a cell or cage inside.

Bat Masterson: The Inner Circle

Women Trying to Get the Vote: Positive Social Movements

The Inner Circle (1959) is still unusual, both for its feminist and social class themes. This is a fascinating look at the Woman's Suffrage movement (women trying to get the right to vote). It is told in a sly, comic style, like other of Doniger's works of the era: he amuses, rather than preaches, as he tells politically pointed stories.

The suffragists have a stand, where they collect signatures in the street. This seems related to the street protests in other Doniger films.

Villain: John Scott Powers

The suave, comic, but deadly English villain John Scott Powers (played by Philip Baird), recalls Dandy Jim Buckley in The Jail at Junction Flats. Both are sophisticated, tricky Englishmen.

Powers is dressed to the nines. Like some of Doniger's gunfighters, his clothes are both very fancy and distinctly odd. While a rich man, and not a gunfighter, his frequent use of a gun links him to Doniger's gunfighters. Iconographically, he can seem like one of Doniger's "gunfighters dressed up in fancy, bizarre and perverse clothes".

Villains: A Critique of the Rich

The villain is a member of a whole elite criminal conspiracy. This recalls a bit the criminal empires in The Trap and Land Beyond the Law. However, these people do not run a separate small empire somewhere. They instead are the elite capitalists of Wyoming. All of these groups have prominent, and corrupt, female members.

The Killer: Doniger Subjects

The subplot about the low-life killer hired to assassinate Bat Masterson, is packed with Doniger subjects:

Visual Style

Much of the action takes place in the streets. These scenes show Doniger's skill with staging events in streets, often featuring large numbers of people.

Some of the shots show depth staging, with actions seen in the far background of deep focus shots. Both the Inner Circle members with their rival stand, and the crowd of drunken low-lifes, are both often seen in the background of shots.

Doniger shoots through the booth, with action in the background seen through pillars of the booth. Shooting through pillars of architecture is a Doniger technique.

Maverick: The Jail at Junction Flats

The Jail at Junction Flats (1958) is the sole episode of the Maverick television series directed by Walter Doniger.

Narrative Structure: The Opening Spoof

The Jail at Junction Flats does inventive things with narrative structure. The robbery near the start is narrated as a rollicking adventure, out of an old Western dime novel. It shows comic - and non-naturalistic - events. It is framed by pictures from a (fictitious) dime novel.

It has old fashioned piano music as an accompaniment, suggesting that the audience take the events as some sort of non-realistic Old West Show. The music is a burlesque of the typical piano accompaniment of silent film melodramas.

The giant actor Dan Blocker, soon to gain fame as Hoss on Bonanza, has an old-fashioned mustache, and behaves in strikingly non-realistic ways. His jerky arm movements recall speeded-up silent films. Blocker had previously appeared in Doniger's Land Beyond the Law.

Locking Up

The title jail is formidably guarded. It recalls in a comic way the prison empire in The Trap.

The Jail at Junction Flats caused controversy in its time, with its finale. There are sly hints that perhaps Maverick is enjoying himself. SPOILER. The Jail at Junction Flats opens with a sheriff elaborately hog-tied with ropes; it ends with Maverick similarly hog-tied.

This was the last full-scale appearance for the continuing character Dandy Jim Buckley, although he has a small-but-good later role in Shady Deal at Sunny Acres (Leslie H. Martinson, 1958). Perhaps the controversy the show caused with viewers scared the producers from continuing the character.

The Virginian: The Sins of the Fathers

The Sins of the Fathers (1970) is the sole episode of The Virginian television series directed by Walter Doniger.

The Opening

It starts out entertainingly, with the Virginian getting tied up, a Doniger tradition. But soon it veers off into eerie menace. The rest of the show is not good - but it does have weird moments.

The opening resembles The Bounty Killers, with a stranger saving the series hero's life. Although this stranger initially looks like a Good Guy, the series hero(es) soon begins to wonder if he really might be a Bad Guy. Despite these misgivings, the heroes feel obligated to support the stranger.

Robert Lipton - and the Counter Culture

Guest star Robert Lipton plays the mysterious-hero-or-villain. SPOILER. The show ends with a bizarre gunfight between the 26-year old Lipton and the 62-year old series star John McIntire. To make matters more extreme, John McIntire is in traditional cowboy garb, looking like every film and TV cowboy of the previous twenty years, while Lipton's cowboy clothes are all Mod. So is his long hair style. It looks like a duel between generations, or Old School and Counter Culture America. Admittedly, The Virginian included other Youth Culture characters: good guy regular Tim Matheson played in a flowered cowboy shirt that looks straight out of the Summer of Love. Still, the contrast between pretty boy Lipton and aging icon McIntire seems full of allegorical undercurrents. It also looks like an Old Hollywood versus New Hollywood duel.

Gunfighters like Lipton's character, who are spectacularly-but-strangely-dressed, are a Doniger tradition.

Robert Lipton had a better, and more normal, role in the TV version of Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing (1973).


The bucket of water near the end reminded me oddly of the water barrel at the end of L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962). Who knows if I'm just imagining things. But the finale of The Sins of the Fathers does have a vaguely avant-garde feel.

The final gunfight takes place in front of Shiloh ranch. Doniger likes such "large, complex outdoor areas, full of buildings and landscape features". Doniger's staging utilizes the long, steep slope descending from the ranch house. The area recalls the prison yard in front of the ranch house in The Trap.

House of Women

Genre: Women in Prison Films

House of Women (1962) is a film about women in prison.

Women's prison movies are among the most low-brow of all film genres. Some are mainly "exploitation films", designed to flaunt lurid behavior and trashy scenes. Such material is not absent from House of Women.

However, House of Women is much more like a normal movie, than are many "women in prison" films. It is more sympathetic to its women prisoners, depicting them as "normal" people. Several of the convicts are shown as intelligent and sensible. The convicts seem more like a bunch of regular people you might find working in an office, and less like the lurid caricatures of prison flicks.

Non-Violent Protest

The second half of House of Women shows bad governance of the prison from its corrupt warden, and revolt by the prisoners.

A key scene shows the prisoners protesting policies non-violently. While this protest eventually escalates into an actual revolt, including threats of violence, the scene itself is one of peaceful protest. It correlates with other episodes of non-violent protest and political action in Walter Doniger films.

Jack Boyle's only book, Boston Blackie (1919), deals with a sympathetic thief. In a tale in this collection, "Boston Blackie's Mary" (1917), Blackie is in prison, leading a fight against a monstrous warden. Blackie leads a prison strike which he strives to keep non-violent. House of Women has something of this same tradition.

Safe at Home!

Safe at Home! (1962) is a children's movie about baseball, and one of the few feature films Doniger directed for theaters.

Safe at Home! has a delightful trailer, showing actor William Frawley chewing out New York Yankee baseball stars Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, who play themselves in the movie. Frawley is showing these two baseball immortals how to hit a ball! It is quite funny.

Links to Little Fugitive

Safe at Home! recalls an independent film made for children, Little Fugitive (Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, Ray Ashley, 1953):

The Baseball Camp

The baseball stadium and camp is a large scale, self-enclosed world. In this it resembles some of the isolated criminal empires that run through Doniger's Westerns. It is also full of men, most of them in uniform, who are more macho and tough than most people outside. However, the baseball training camp is full of honest people, unlike the criminal empires. The baseball camp is an entirely male place, unlike the criminal empires, which tend to have a woman involved.

The kid hero has to try to sneak into both the heavily guarded stadium and hotel. This recalls the well-guarded jail of The Jail at Junction Flats.


Safe at Home! lacks any truly experimental story telling procedures. But it does have two brief fantasy sequences, showing the kid's imaginings on screen.