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ANOTHER PUFF OF ‘GUNSMOKE’

Matt Dillon is back on dusty Main Street.

Actually, he spends more time in “the high country” than back in Dodge City in “Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge,” a two-hour CBS movie updating one of the most durable and famous TV series of all time. It airs at 8 tonight on Channels 2 and 8.

The characters are a bit rickety, but James Arness is still bigger than life as Matt, the former Dodge City marshal who is now an old bull of a trapper out in the woods, where he has somehow managed to get hold of a bottle of black hair dye.

Either that or he’s wearing one of his own pelts on his head.

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“I’m getting too old for this,” he says at one point tonight. Not true. If anyone in this movie isn’t too old, it’s Arness. He doesn’t stand--he plants himself like an oak, and there’s still fire in his eyes and smoke in his gun.

Now in his 60s, Arness still has one of the best mugs in the business, a big rock of a face with a lethal jaw that could impale a man. Best of all, he can still snap off a straight shot and a mean line.

“You don’t leave a man a lot, do ya, marshal?” groans an ornery cuss whom the former lawman has just disarmed and humiliated. “Mister,” Matt replies, “you don’t bring a whole lot with ya.”

It’s a tough day at the office, though. No sooner has Matt survived one crisis than another arises, and he winds up unconscious, adrift in a canoe with a knife wound in his back as bushwackers run off with his pelts.

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More trouble is on the way, for old foe Wil Mannon (Steve Forrest) has been released from Black Fork prison (“where they send the worst”) and is looking for Matt, bent on vengeance. But Jake Flagg (Earl Holliman) escapes from Black Fork to warn Matt, who by now is back in Dodge being nursed by, yes, Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake).

Well, what in tarnation?

Enough of the plot, which is appropriately trite and predictable anyway, with bounty hunters and a greenhorn army officer (Ken Olandt) in pursuit of Jake like hounds after a fox. That’s far less important than the characters.

Miss Kitty is still Miss Kitty (her false lashes alone could knock a man off his feet), with the same soft spot for Matt.

Newly, the blacksmith (Buck Taylor), is now the marshal, and the Long Branch saloon is still the Long Branch under the current ownership of tough old Hannah (Fran Ryan).

Doc Adams (Milburn Stone) is no longer around, of course, nor is Sam the bartender (Glenn Strange) or Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis). But they and others return in flashbacks that interact with a new story by Jim Byrnes. The movie was directed by Vincent McEveety, himself a veteran of this series, which ended its 20-year run on CBS in 1975.

The movie is violent, but this is old-style, neat-and-clean violence, recalling those earlier days when a man could get shot on TV without splattering.

While awaiting the inevitable showdown between Matt and the menacing Mannon, meanwhile, you can sit back like a raunchy old coot while enjoying the Canadian scenery and the classic Westernese.

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Mannon to Kitty: “I could walk over Dillon like a man walking over short grass.”

Ironically, Arness’ return in the “Gunsmoke” movie precedes the premiere of “Jake and the Fatman,” a series that stars William Conrad, who was radio’s Matt Dillon. And showing up Sunday as the star of ABC’s new “Buck James” series is Dennis Weaver, who got famous being the TV Matt’s first deputy, gimpy old Chester.

The TV Western was such a hot ticket at one time that the TV role of Dillon was first offered to no less than John Wayne, who rejected it, as the story goes, and recommended Arness.

Arness and the late Lorne Greene of “Bonanza” (which is also being reprised in a new movie) were epic Western figures in a TV age that may never be repeated. Contemporary audiences are probably too sophisticated to watch back-lot horse operas, and weekly location filming would be too expensive.

A single “Gunsmoke” movie won’t recapture this lost genre. But as Miss Kitty tells Matt tonight: “Welcome back, cowboy.”


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