The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, January 12, 2015

Gun the Man Down

At the height of his popularity in the 1950s, John Wayne turned down an offer that ended up profiting for one person in particular. Wayne turned down the lead role for TV's Gunsmoke and instead recommended James Arness for the part. Wayne kept on being Wayne, and Gunsmoke...well, it aired for 20 seasons with over 600 episodes. Wayne and Arness became friends, Arness even starring in a flick from Wayne's production company (Batjac), a 1956 western, Gun the Man Down.

Following a botched bank robbery, Rem Anderson (Arness) is left behind by his fellow robbers, Rankin (Robert J. Wilkie) and Farley (Don Megowan), when he's wounded and can't keep up with a posse close behind. Anderson is able to hide, but it's only a matter of time before the posse picks up his trail and he's sentenced to a year in prison. Upon getting his parole, Rem has one goal in mind; revenge. He's not sure what became of Rankin and Farley, but he intends to find out. His trail leads him across the territory where finally he tracks them down in a town where they used the money from the bank robbery to open up a successful, raucous saloon. They're out in the open, but that presents a problem in itself. No one knows them as bank robbers, only saloon owners. How can Rem hope to exact his revenge with the chips stacked against him?

Starting in the early 1950s, Batjac Productions backed movies well into the 1970s, many of them starring the Duke, several others made with other stars. For the most part, they were fan friendly flicks, movies audiences would scoop up and enjoy. Not too surprisingly, the ones with Wayne were more successful than those without him, but of the ones I've seen, they've all been solid to good to really good. This 1956 western is a no frills western from director Andrew McLaglen and screenwriters Burt Kennedy and Sam Freedle. McLaglen and Kennedy were frequent collaborators with Wayne in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and you could see a younger Duke playing the Arness part. 'Gun' clocks in at just 76 minutes and features a small scale story with a small cast. It's good, but could have been better.

The odd part? There are times you feel like you're watching a small-scale film noir western. Revenge stories are nothing new to the western genre, but this one is simple and straightforward. We've got our anti-hero (Arness) trying to right a wrong, get his revenge, and get his woman (Angie Dickinson) back in the process (the femme fatale). The villains are dastardly, the cops are waiting for their chance, and we've got a fringe character or two waiting to swoop in for a profit. How can you go wrong? I wish all these pieces fit together in tighter fashion though. It is only 76 minutes long, but it drags at times with some serious pacing issues. Lots of talking, lots of dialogue, making an already short movie feel inexplicably long at times. That's never good when you're struggling to get through a movie that isn't even an hour and a half long.

Without the star power of a John Wayne, 'Gun' still has some cool parts. Arness is a solid, resolute hero who in the second half is more of a presence than an actual hero. We see other characters react to him, see others cower and worry what he's up to. Also, he was robbing a bank to provide for a new life with Dickinson's Janice so he's not all-bad, right? Right?!? Wilkie and Megowan are solid as our villains, ready to cut bait at the first sign of trouble. My favorite parts were for Emile Meyer (usually playing a heavy) as Sheriff Morton and Harry Carey Jr. as his well-meaning but little slow deputy, Lee. Morton knows the dangers of the job, has been at it forever, and is trying to look out for Lee as best as possible. Their dialogue scenes are especially worthwhile, especially Meyer as Morton. Also worth mentioning are Michael Emmet as Billy Deal, a hired killer and friend of Rem's, and Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as a hotel employee (he'd work with Dickinson in a similar role 3 years later in Rio Bravo). A solid cast, nothing too flashy.

I just wish I liked this one more as I'm wavering back and forth between ratings. I liked it, but man, it was slow-going at times. There's also some funny, odd moments, including Rem being told a judge will throw the book at him for the robbery...and he gets a year sentence for bank robbery where a man in town was shot during said robbery. Maybe I misread it, but there's a hilarious scene where Wilkie races to catch his horse, mounts up, rides about 4 feet and then dismounts. I'm assuming it's meant to show the horse came up lame, but it had me laughing. Now with all that considered, it's still a pretty decent little western. There are some surprising, dark twists in the last act, and things are wrapped up nicely for everyone (well, almost everyone). Western fans should at least check it out with just enough positive going for it.

Gun the Man Down (1956): ** 1/2 /****

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