One of his finest roles comes in the sometimes-shown on TCM but criminally-unavailable on DVD-- and a must-burn for Howard Hawksians--THE BIG SKY (1952, above), a poetic, ramshackle film about fur traders who love, laugh, drink, sing, swap tall tales, and occasionally shoot bad guys up in the Pacific Northwest. Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin are the handsomer leads, but it's Hunnicutt who makes it all work with his casual narration.
Cinema blogger par excellence Ed Howard notes that the central performances of Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin (in the juvenile understudy role Ricky Martin would play in RIO BRAVO) are only so-so (and weren't Hawks' first choices). But that the supporting characters are awesome:
Hunnicutt is especially great in the Walter Brennan-type old coot role. Zeb's outrageous tall tales and deadpan humor — reminiscent of the Squint character from Frank King's great newspaper comic strip Gasoline Alley — are consistently funny, especially his anecdote about sewing a friend's severed ear on backwards, so that whenever he heard something thereafter, he always turned in the wrong direction. (Only the Cinema 3/27/09)
Hunnicutt was actually nominated for best supporting actor Oscar for SKY, but he didn't win. In the meantime, he did a lot of western TV shows. But it's three movies in particular which I'll focus on, because they're all classics, and two aren't on DVD and that makes me mighty ornery. The second I'll mention is on DVD, another Hawks' pic, EL DORADO (1966, above). Hunnicutt here is often overlooked when it comes to talking about EL DORADO, and that's probably because John Wayne, Robert Mitchum AND a young James Caan co-star. Ain't much room left on the marquee, 'specially if you add Ed Asner.
But while Mitchum, Wayne and Caan hog the spotlight, Hunnicutt hangs back and steals the show--again by barely entering into it til round halfway down the clock. He's 'Bull,' the deputy of drunken sheriff Mitchum, and he blows on his trusty bugle when he runs into danger down the street on his watch. As in THE BIG SKY, he's the kind of feller who seems too authentic to actually bother to act; he just brings a wit dry and sharp enough to split a hair'n and a deadpan delivery method too smart to be a southern drawl, but too slow to be much else. His is the voice of a man who's spent time enough alone in the wilderness or amongst Native Americans to find himself, and has nothin' much left to prove 'sept he's lived a fair and colorful life and has a jug full of semi-true tales to tell for it.
For speculation on why the Lusty Men ain't on DVD, dig my 2008 piece o' passionate masculine brilliance, Lusty Men and Cockfighter.