In 1969, the movie Death of a Gunfighter debuted starring Richard Widmark, Lena Horne, and Carroll O’Connor. The reviews were OK — IMDb gives it a viewer-powered 6.4 stars (out of ten) while Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 (out of 5). The New York Times made special mention of Gunfighter‘s director, noting that the film was “sharply directed by Allen Smithee who has an adroit facility for scanning faces and extracting sharp background detail.” Ebert also lavished praise on Smithee:
“Director Allen Smithee, a name I’m not familiar with, allows his story to unfold naturally. He never preaches, and he never lingers on the obvious. His characters do what they have to do. Patch gradually gets in deeper and deeper. There’s another killing. The county sheriff is called in. The town council finds its self-respect threatened by this man who will not bend. The film ends in an inevitable escalation of violence, and in a last sequence of scenes that develops with horrifying understatement.”
All of this is high praise for the director. Only one problem: Allen Smithee isn’t real.
During the making of Gunfighter, the actual director — Robert Totten — and lead actor Widmark came to creative differences. In the middle of the shoot, Widmark successfully stumped for Totten’s removal; he was replaced in the director’s chair by Don Siegel. Siegel did not want to take credit for directing the film, having worked on less than half of it and, in his eyes, being something of a yes-man to Widmark (who Siegel believed was the de facto director). Totten, for his part, refused to take credit for the film. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) agreed, and instead associated the film with a made-up director, “Al Smith” — a name quickly revised to “Allen Smithee” in order to avoid confusion with real people with that common name.
The DGA used the name (and more commonly, “Alan Smithee”) officially through 2000, in order to disassociate directors and films as need be. Credited with the disuse of the Smithee name goes to another movie, An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, in which the protagonist is a director named Alan Smithee. The rarely seen and poorly received movie managed to attract enough attention to the Smithee legend that the DGA decided the Smithee moniker had outlasted its value.