Man with the Gun

” It doesn’t look nice for a town as small as Sheridan to have a graveyard as big as we’ve got.”

Man with the Gun (1955) is what I think of as a small production. Sure there’s a big name lead, a supporting cast full of classy and familiar faces, and also some fairly big hitters on the other side of the camera. Still, there no location work and the action is all confined to the studio backlot, which indicates a tight budget. So I call it a small production. Even so, as the quote above indicates, there’s a pretty high body count for such a brisk and spare film but the onscreen violence never appears gratuitous, something I always appreciate.

Sheridan City carries a grandiose name for a mean little backwater, a shabby-looking settlement clinging on to the periphery of civilization. The opening moments add mean-spiritedness to the general meanness when a horseman rides along the grim main street, a dog darting out to bark and yap alongside him. And then he simply shoots the animal dead, not for any particular reason – just because. This is Ed Pinchot (Leo Gordon) a troubleshooter for local bigwig Dade Holman. The latter has been tightening his grip on the town itself and land surrounding it, and notions of law, justice or just common decency have been getting correspondingly squeezed. Into this increasingly tense atmosphere comes another rider, a grey clad figure with a fearsome reputation. He’s Clint Tollinger (Robert Mitchum), a professional town tamer who happens to be passing through on an unrelated matter. His business is with Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling), the manager of a group of saloon entertainers, and Tollinger’s former love. This gunman’s services seem to be just what Sheridan City needs and the fact it ties neatly in with his personal affairs is a good enough excuse for him to stop a while.

The town tamer western is a variant that allows for plenty of rumination of the role of justice and the weaknesses of the legal system. These kinds of movies concern themselves with societies where the rule has law has broken down to the point where only the intervention of an outsider can restore a community’s faith in its own ability to endure. The outsider should always be one of those types who live by their wits and their ruthlessness, a man with a gun. The role of the outsider always appeared a good fit for Robert Mitchum, a man who, despite his star status, forever gave the impression of not really being an insider. There was that wry detachment about the man which made parts like this ideal, and he does look the real deal as he struts purposefully around and lays waste to the string of largely ineffectual semi-hard men the local land baron sends his way.

Still, a movie needs a stronger hook than that to grab and maintain our attention. Drama requires an emotional core if it’s to raise itself above the level of juvenile thrill-seeking. In Man with the Gun that comes courtesy of the subplot involving Jan Sterling and her previous relationship with Mitchum. Right from the beginning there is a strong sense of sadness and regret floating around these two grim and austere people; they circle one another cautiously and Sterling is the one who ensures contact is withheld and distance remains constant. I’m not going to go into the details back of it all as I think it amounts to a spoiler for those who haven’t seen the movie. What I will say though is it offers a layer of depth and when the big revelation comes it triggers the films main set piece, the huge conflagration Mitchum sets off to cauterize both his and the town’s wounds.

As I mentioned at the very beginning, this film has an enviable cast of familiar faces on show. Karen Sharpe gets a substantial role as a young girl both drawn to and vaguely repelled by Tollinger’s frank acknowledgement of the persuasive power of violence. It’s a nicely judged performance and benefits from not having to navigate the emotional heat inherent in Sterling’s part, allowing the viewer to sample a different, less charged perspective. There’s also good work from Emile Meyer, in sympathetic mode for a change, and from Henry Hull, who seemed to be channeling Walter Brennan as the cautious marshal. You can usually tell the quality of a movie by the caliber of its villains and anything that features a lineup with Ted de Corsia, Leo Gordon and Claude Akins positively demands one’s attention. I could go on listing names here but if I limit myself to saying that there’s an early appearance by Angie Dickinson well down the cast, the depth of talent involved ought to be apparent.

A word now for those behind the camera. Director Richard Wilson might have a comparatively brief list of credits as the man in charge but his work under and alongside Orson Welles is significant, and no man who spent that time around such a cinematic titan could come away the poorer. And what can one say about Lee Garmes? Here was a man whose experience stretched back to Hollywood’s pioneering days and who was responsible for shooting some of the most visually attractive and remarkable works committed to film – Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express being just one example.While Man with the Gun doesn’t have that kind of baroque richness there are flashes of Garmes’ flair, notably that set piece fire scene I referred to earlier. Finally, I’d like to make a brief comment on Alex North’s appropriately spare score and the fact that there’s a wonderfully melancholy quality to the tag he employs for Mitchum’s character.

For a time Man with the Gun was only available on DVD in an open-matte transfer. In truth, aspect ratio aside,  it wasn’t bad in terms of picture quality. Now there are DVDs and Blu-rays available in the US (Kino) and Europe (via Koch in Germany) so good quality presentations are relatively easy to access. I don’t suppose too many people will claim this is a great western but I quite like it, and a lot of that is down to the tone achieved by the accomplished playing of Mitchum and Sterling. Try it, if you get the opportunity.

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32 thoughts on “Man with the Gun

  1. Always good to have you riding the range, Colin!

    It IS a small production, doubtless, which I have always thought quite odd when you consider Mitchum’s star power at this point in the 1950s. Maybe he saw its undoubted power and drama and that is what attracted him. Maybe….he just wanted to make a good little western. Whatever, I think that was definitely the result.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought I should start the year off with a western, Jerry. Last year I only featured a handful overall and I don’t know how many I’ll cover in the coming 12 months – we’ll see, but there are so many others out there (Toby, Laura, Mike, Kristina etc) doing an excellent job on that score already.

      Yes, you would imagine Mitchum would have been aiming for bigger projects at the time – I don;t have the Lee Server bio to hand so can’t say, or remember, if any comment was offered on this point.
      Anyway, I think we can both agree here that “a good little western” is an apt description indeed.

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    • 😀
      Actually, I wondered about what message the film was pushing, and thought about commenting on that or putting it out there for discussion. It seems to be adopting a very hawkish line at first but I think that by the conclusion, the futility of violence is highlighted and the last line of the film, to me anyway, indicates Tollinger wants to make a break with his past ways.
      Ultimately, I decided not to go too deeply into it all here as such matters can prove divisive and that’s not a path I wish to pursue – there are any number of places on the net where we can find such conversations but I prefer to keep this place more focused on the, let’s say, more relaxing side of life. 🙂

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      • Truthfully I expected him to get killed a the end. But you’re right, he seemed to amend his hard ways. I was a bit surprised at the hard line character he portrayed in most of the film which made interesting in how they were going to wrap things up.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think it feeds into and is another example of the emphasis that crops up throughout westerns of the decade where protagonists do undergo a redemptive experience, where lessons (and especially those which relate to the use of violence or force) are learnt and the process of living and growing passes on to another stage.

          This aspect is what distinguished the westerns of the era from what would follow when the Euro or spaghetti form would drive things in an entirely different and much more nihilistic direction.

          In a 50s western it’s rare to see a lead character who displays no change or growth as the story develops and unfolds – the whole ethos of the genre at the time was defined by this common journey.

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  2. Happy 2019, Colin and you have started it with a typically polished analysis of a ‘small’ Western. Yet again, you show how small doesn’t necessarily mean poor in quality. So much to savour in your review, but I’ll just mention your acknowledgment of Claude Akins. He never disappoints when I’ve seen him and is a significant contributor to the success of many excellent Westerns, perhaps no more so than in ‘Comanche Station’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy New Year to you too!
      I agree that Akins was quite superb in Comanche Station, among the most memorable of those charming villains who acted as perfect foils to Scott in the Ranown films. It’s just a pity he doesn’t get more to do in this movie.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Well Invitation to a Gunfighter was also directed by Wilson so that makes sense to me.
      It’s been ages since I last saw that particular film, and I don’t recall taking much away from it – mind you, it was on the old MGM DVD, which I seem to remember wasn’t of the best quality and such things can affect our opinions/perceptions.

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    • Hmm, I can see, reading back on it, how that impression could be created. However, that wasn’t my intention and I don’t think there is much to compare in those two films beyond the basic setup of the stranger bringing justice to town, and that’s a well-worn trope in itself.
      This is a much more straightforward effort with none of the esoteric allusions of Eastwood’s later movie.

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  3. Great stuff Colin-I would say you have pretty much
    nailed this one,cannot argue with anything that you say.
    Nice that you avoided spoilers as anyone who has yet to
    see this film is certainly in for a treat.
    I hope your fine piece does get a few more folk to discover
    this film as I’m sure an article by Imogen Sara Smith from a
    decade ago would have done also.
    Thanks Walter,if you are out there for providing the link to
    Imogen’s essay ‘though I’ve now forgotten where in blogland
    that link was provided.
    Imogen writes so well,I first suspected that she and Margot
    must be the same person,but obviously they are not.
    Another low budget black & white United Artists Western with a
    superstar is JOHNNY CONCHO thus far unreleased on disc-perhaps
    something to do with Sinatra’s estate.
    JOHNNY CONCHO also had roles for Gordon and Akins.
    In the UK, MAN WITH THE GUN was titled “The Trouble Shooter”
    and played top half of the bill. The support feature was STOLEN TIME
    a very low budget British B headlined by faded star Richard Arlen-just
    thought I’d throw that in.
    Also thought I’d mention that MAN WITH THE GUN was written by
    N.B.Stone Jr. he of RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY.
    Don’t really get the HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER comparisons,they are
    totally different movies,coming from totally different perspectives and
    both hugely enjoyable on their own terms.

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    • John K, your welcome for the link to Imogen Sarah Smith’s good article PAST SUNSET: NOIR IN THE WEST published in 2009. Another good one is the 2008 article that she wrote about Robert Mitchum as actor and co-writer of THE LUSTY MEN(1952). https://brightlightsfilm.com/wp-content/cache/all/homeless-on-the-range-the-lusty-men-and-the-great-american-search/#.XC_jLVxKjIU

      Major spoiler alerts if anyone reads Imogen’s articles, if they haven’t already seen these movies. She is a good writer who gives food for thought.

      I remember viewing JOHNNY CONCHO(1956) in the early 1970’s on the DIALING FOR DOLLARS MOVIE on Channel 13 WHBQ-TV, Memphis, Tennessee. I don’t think I’ve seen it since the late ’70’s. I’m not a fan of Frank Sinatra in Westerns, but he was rather good in this one. William Conrad(especially) and Christopher were good badmen. Also, Robert Osterloh, a fine actor, was in JOHNNY CONCHO along with Leo Gordon and Claude Akins from the MAN WITH THE GUN.

      Getting back to MAN WITH THE GUN, I thought Jan Sterling, Karen Sharpe, Barbara Lawrence, and Maudie Prickett were good . Jan Sterling, as Nelly Bain, had some good “cut to the bone” lines aimed at Mitchum’s Clint Tollinger. Our friend Jerry Entract met and talked with Jan Sterling in the late 1970’s.

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  4. Colin, HAPPY NEW YEAR! Thank you for making your first write-up of 2019 a really good Western. MAN WITH THE GUN, is for me, a fun to watch atmospheric dark edged drama centered around town tamer Clint Tollinger(Robert Mitchum). The cast gives solid and reliable performances and with just enough touches that give the movie a cut above feeling. I don’t know where the town scenes were filmed, but if you notice, the street is uneven sort of hilly. Ed Pinchot(Leo Gordon) wears his pistol in a shoulder holster, as many did in the “Real West.” Jim Reedy(Claude Akins) wearing a large hat, in which to conceal a small caliber hideaway pistol. The young boys milling around idolizing Tollinger. These are just some of the touches that make for an interesting and watchable Western movie experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Walter, I enjoy all those little touches too and agree they do add a lot to the movie.
      I’ve not been able to ascertain exactly where the film was shot but that main street that figures throughout is familiar in that I know I’ve seen it featured in a number of other movies.

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  5. What I find interesting about this is how I enjoyed it far more as an adult then I did as a youngster years ago. I knew all the faces even then but it wasn’t a big scale western adventure. Rather low key and somewhat uninteresting at the time. I have the Kino edition and have enjoyed it a couple times now upon revisits.

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    • Yes, you’ve hit on what I think is an important point – the maturity of the film. I hadn’t seen the movie as a youngster but I can well imagine having a similar reaction to your own. That small scale intimacy and comparative lack of big set piece thrills is much easier to appreciate with a few years (or more!( under one’s belt. Also, the emotional conflicts of the leads won’t make a lot of sense or be something anyone could identify with without having done some living.

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  6. It’s odd but I loved MAN WITH THE GUN a a 9 year old,but darned
    if I can remember anything about the B flick STOLEN TIME.
    Us kids used to groan when those Brit B’s came up on the screen we
    wanted American films with the heroes we all loved.
    Nowadays I seek out those British B Films especially the ones with
    faded Hollywood actors Wayne Morris,Richard Arlen and others.
    You have to remember I saw MAN WITH THE GUN at my local Odeon
    on a huge single screen the impact was there especially as we did not have
    a TV at the time.
    Another double bill I fondly remember was THE GUN RUNNERS coupled
    with TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN I was blown away by them both,despite
    the micro budget on the Lewis picture.
    I also totally enjoyed the George Montgomery Western BLACK PATCH
    at the time but was far less impressed with a recent DVD viewing.
    I think the enormous size of the cinema screens in those days made all
    the difference,especially when we saw those films at major circuit cinemas
    as opposed to flea pits with generally,but not always, far smaller screens.
    Another star;arguably not up there with Mitchum and Sinatra at the time;
    Anthony Quinn, made a couple of very low budget black & white Westerns
    THE RIDE BACK and THE MAN FROM DEL RIO.
    Both,especially the latter are well worth checking out.

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  7. Welcome back riding the high country! I must admit I do miss your write-up on the westerns. Saw this as a small boy in the late 50s in a stand alone cinema as a weekend matinee and wasn’t excited about it. I still remember it was the first Robert Mitchum’s movie I saw in the cinema and have since been his ardent fan. Best regards.

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    • Thanks, Chris. I still feature westerns here, and will continue to do so. They still make up the greater number of pieces on the site, actually closing on 200 quite fast now.

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  8. “…closing on 200 quite fast now.”

    Yeah, a lot of good ones there too. Maybe 2019 will be the year that you close in on FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER which I’ve long been keen for you to see, as you know.

    Meantime, my memory of MAN WITH THE GUN is a little vague at this point, and your piece made me keen to see it again. I only remember that I liked it, and the Mitchum/Sterling relationship was the strongest part of it for me.

    Richard Wilson has other good films among the relatively small number he directed, especially AL CAPONE (interestingly taking a major plot element from RICHARD III) and PAY OR DIE. RAW WIND IN EDEN is at least an interesting offbeat melodrama perhaps. Though I don’t feel that INVITATION TO A GUNFIGHTER was a loss, it does to an extent go back to what he did better in MAN WITH THE GUN but let’s remember 1964 was a traumatic time for the genre in so many ways–within that transition to a post-classicism that many of us find so often troubled. By comparison, even a middle range 1955 Western like the earlier one had every reason to be the better work.

    In any event, though I haven’t thought about Wilson a lot except when watching those movies, he should probably be remembered as more than a Welles acolyte.

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    • Blake, I would like to get round to Four Guns to the Border but I’m afraid that’s not going to happen before the summer as I don’t and won’t have easy access to my copy before then.

      Re Wilson: I liked his work in this film but, purely from my own perspective, I can’t much on his other work simply because I haven’t seen a lot of it. I suspect that his relatively small filmography is part of the reason why he’s not spoken of more.

      Like

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