Out of jail after an eight year sentence Clay Lomax (Gregory Peck) goes looking for former partner Sam Foley (James Gregory) who betrayed him in a bank robbery gone wrong. Knowing Clay is out for revenge the now wealthy and resourceful Foley hires a trio of gunmen led by cocky young punk Bobby Jay Jones (Robert F. Lyons) to shadow his every move. Things get even more complicated when Clay, waiting for some money from an ex-lover, receives instead notice of her death along with a bedraggled, stroppy but vulnerable eight year old girl named Decky (Dawn Lyn) who just might be his daughter.
Producer Hal B. Wallis reunited the creative team behind his award-winning True Grit (1969), director Henry Hathaway and screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, for this rather more routine western. While amiable enough there really is not a whole lot to Shoot Out. Plotted strictly by the numbers it makes a strange attempt to merge an otherwise wholesome, almost Disney-esque story about Gregory Peck's gruff, vengeance-driven outlaw slowly softening while learning to care for Dawn Lyn's adorable urchin with scenes of jarring sadism and brutality. Most of the latter centre on a wildly over-acting Robert F. Lyons. His violent antics range from murdering a man in wheelchair to menacing children (most notably in the genuinely tense and unnerving 'William Tell'-inspired stand-off that takes up most of the climax) and heaping endless abuse on luckless tag-along prostitute Alma (Susan Tyrell). In an almost throwaway role Tyrell, an accomplished character actress, yokes no small amount of pathos and sympathy even though her bleak subplot proves downright depressing.
Yet somehow for all its missteps and pacing problems Shoot Out proves strangely watchable. Ideal lazy Sunday afternoon viewing though certainly no classic. At the time critics charged Peck with being miscast and also found Lyn's lovelorn orphan act sickly sweet. While it is hard to disagree that Peck's innate gentlemanly demeanour leaves him looking ill at ease in a role better suited to a Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum in retrospect the brickbats levelled at both him and his co-star seem unfair. In truth the heartwarming dynamic between the seasoned Hollywood hero and beguiling child star is not only well-played but the chief reason the film stays afloat. By this point Gregory Peck's acting career was in something of a slump. While his work behind the scenes as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences helped usher in the more challenging cinema of the Seventies, as a movie star he was struggling to find his place within it. A struggle that continued through to his next western, the even more eccentric Billy Two Hats (1974), until his big comeback with The Omen (1976). Nevertheless, miscast or not, Peck imbues the role of Clay Lomax with his customary steely-eyed authority.
Towards the third act the casual and circuitous plot touches on a moment of intimacy between Clay and a widow (Patricia Quinn) running a guest house on the frontier with her young son (Nicholas Beauvy). Although touching and again well acted this development both begins and ends so abruptly the viewer barely has time to wrestle with its emotional impact. Similarly the plot makes a curious decision to avoid having Clay confront his nemesis Sam Foley for almost the entire run-time. That said fans will likely relish scenes wherein gruff Clay Lomax melts away to reveal Gregory Peck, paragon of liberal Hollywood decency, towering over assorted no-good punk outlaws to deliver a most satisfying comeuppance.