Classic Movies

From the DVR: Gun the Man Down (1956)


“The only crime of which a person must be ashamed and for which there must be retribution is a double-cross.” – Danny Peary, in a Cult Movies 2 essay on Rowland Brown’s Blood Money (1933)

Matt Rankin (Robert J. Wilke) is masterminding a bank heist in a pre-credits sequence of the underrated 1956 western Gun the Man Down.  His partners are Ralph Farley (Don Megowan) and Remington “Rem” Anderson (James Arness)—and though it’s all supposed to go smooth as silk, the robbery results in the wounding of Rem as the trio make their getaway.  Rankin explains to Rem’s gal Janice (Angie Dickinson) that if they take him with them the injured Rem will just slow them down…so he goes with Plan B: they’ll leave Rem at the hideout, where he’s certain to be picked up by the posse on their trail.

Don Megowan, Angie Dickinson, and obert J. Wilke tend to a wounded James Arness in Gun the Man Down (1956).

The posse does not disappoint; they find Rem hiding under the porch of the hideout shack (nice try, Rem) and quickly haul him off to the calaboose.  Rem is interrogated, but he remains mum: he’s not going to rat on his confederates, and as such he winds up doing a year-long stretch for robbery.  (!@#$% activist judges…)  Released from prison, Remington has a little score to settle with Rankin and Farley…and heads off in the direction of where they were last seen, courtesy of some information from his gunslinger pal Billy Deal (Michael Emmet).

Gun the Man Down was originally going to be this week’s “B-Western Wednesdays” entry…but after watching it on MGM HD the other night, I got the impression it might not qualify.  Not that it’s not a low-budget western (this puppy was shot in nine days)—the cast is relatively small, and the set (much of this movie was filmed at the famed Jack Ingram Ranch in Woodland Hills, CA) looks like…well, pretty much a set.  The pedigree of this film doesn’t suggest “B,” however; it was sired in the stables of Batjac Productions—the independent studio founded by John Wayne to release many of his movies; the same year Gun was released, the company also put out Good Bye, My Lady and Seven Men From Now.  (So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, since The Duke’s B-picture days were pretty much behind him at this point.)

James Arness must ultimately have a showdown with a gunfighter (and good friend) hired to kill him, played by Michael Emmet.

The cast may be small, still it’s quite an impressive one: James Arness was just starting to make a name for himself on the small screen as the lawman who kept Dodge City in check every week on Gunsmoke (hence the prominent mention of his boob tube role in the advertising).  Big Jim is pretty good in this film, playing Rem Anderson a lot like Matt Dillon…only with a bit of tarnish on the badge.  The opening titles credit Angie Dickinson’s appearance as “And introducing Angie Dickinson” …which is a bit of a misnomer, since Ang had already racked up a few film and TV credits—no introduction was necessary.  Dickinson is solid as Arness’ girlfriend…though personally if she had run out on me like she did Remington I don’t think I would have quite as forgiving.

The Man with the Perpetual Sneer, Robert Wilke, is at his delightfully nasty best as the rat bastid who decides to desert Arness (and then starts to sweat when he learns Jim’s coming for him), and I enjoyed Michael Emmet’s sympathetic turn as the gunman who takes $5,000 in Judas gold to rid Wilke of his Remington problem.  The movie is nearly stolen by character veteran Emile Meyer as a laconic sheriff who’s perfectly content to let Wilke and Arness work out their differences…and then cart the survivor off to the hoosegow.  Harry Carey, Jr. also does nice work as Meyer’s deputy; the scene where Sheriff Emile suggests that Harry go out and do a little fishing when he senses trouble coming from Arness’ direction is nicely done (he’s concerned he’ll lose his deputy in the shootout between Arness and Emmet).

I’ve been calling character great Wilke (here with Dickinson) “The Man with the Perpetual Sneer” for so long that whenever my Mom spots him in a movie or TV show she just calls him “Sneer.”

Gun the Man Down was the first feature film to be directed by Andrew V. McLaglen (son of Victor); McLaglen not only enjoyed a long career helming episodes of TV westerns (chiefly Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel), but he also rode herd on a number of John Wayne westerns, notably McLintock! (1963), Chisum (1970), and Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973).  Future director Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff!) penned the screenplay (from a story by Sam Freedle), and if Gun has any weaknesses it’s that it ends a little too conventionally—a letdown from the man who made his mark working on those classic Ranown westerns like The Tall T (1957) and Ride Lonesome (1959).

Gun the Man Down was released to DVD in 2007, but it has since resurfaced on DVD and made its debut on Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films (released last month, as a matter of fact).  I was really taken aback by this one, because my first impression was that it was going to be a humdrum affair…but a great cast in front of the camera and first-rate workmanship behind makes it a worthwhile watch.

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