CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
I recently watched “Gun the Man Down,” a 1956 B-western directed by Andrew V. McLaglen (it may even have been his debut film). Most commentators gave it a so-so review and that aroused my curiosity. I’m not much of a James Arness fan, and “Gunsmoke” was not one of the treasured TV westerns of my youth, but the script was by Burt Kennedy and the film was the debut of Angie Dickinson, so I thought to myself, how disappointing can it really be?
Sometimes your worse fears prove true and that “dog” turns out to be a real Great Dane, but “Gun the Man Down” is a good example of the pleasure to be gotten out watching genre films if you know what you’re looking for. What’s the plot? The oldie about the wounded bank-robber left for dead by his confederates who spends time in prison and comes out a vengeance-seeking man. Used before, it would be used since by everyone from Brando (in “One-Eyed Jacks”) to the Italians (“Death Rides a Horse,” etc., etc.). But at 78-minutes it doesn’t linger enough to become truly stale. Now I don’t know how Arness would have fared with “A Long Day’s Journey into Night,” but “Gun the Man Down” was this man’s meat. As in “The Thing from Another World,” the director made use of Arness’ imposing size to add a real hint of menace to the wronged outlaw’s vendetta. This is a guy who could convincingly beat the crap out of second-string baddie Don Megowan, no wee fellow himself, in a street brawl that ends with Arness pinning him beneath an overturned buggy.
The casting of “Gun the Man Down” was of special delight to me. First string baddie Matt Rankin was played by Robert J. Wilkie, one of the great faces of Fifties westerns. He was one of Frank Miller’s gang in “High Noon,” the gaudy hired gunman in “The Far Country” and the guy who learned that the pistol isn’t necessarily faster than the stick-knife in “The Magnificent Seven.” Here he got to take center stage as one of Burt Kennedy’s philosophizing bad men. Sure he left Arness for dead and wooed Arness’ woman into running off with him, but he’s no worse than anybody else. Why if he hadn’t turned cowpoke Arness into a bank-robber he might have spent his whole life slaving away for some rancher, instead he got the glamorous fast but short life of an outlaw! The woman in question was Angie Dickinson as a smart, defiant saloon-girl–a preview of sorts of her “Feathers” character in “Rio Bravo.” The law, keeping a wary eye on Arness’ unfolding plans, was played by Emile Meyer (the gravel-voiced Rufus Ryker of “Shane”) and Harry Carey, Jr. (a John Ford regular). Meyer played a crafty old fellow who doesn’t like violence while Carey was the eager-for-action young deputy who fails to see the wisdom of Meyer’s waiting game.
Another delight of genre-films is watching how bits and pieces of them reverberate through time in the films of other directors. I mentioned the spaghetti western “Death Rides a Horse” earlier. When Lee Van Cleef is freed from prison in that film, he learns that his double-crossing former partners used their loot to buy their way into respectable lives. In “Gun the Man Down,” Arness learns that Wilkie, rather than spending the stolen $40,000 foolishly, has used it to open a saloon. Now he’s a businessman. When he decides to hire notorious gunman Billy Deal (a baby-faced Michael Emmet) to kill Arness, the “negotiation” between buyer and seller finds an uncanny echo a decade later in the scene from Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” in which a marked-for-death farmer attempts to buy-off Lee Van Cleef’s killer.
In the end, “Gun the Man Down” is an entirely satisfying example of the Fifties B-western, giving TV hero James Arness a chance to do something a little bit different on the big screen. It’s not “The Searchers,” but then again, it doesn’t try to be.