Last week when James Arness passed away, I decided to watch something of his I’d never seen before. I wound up watching GUN THE MAN DOWN, from 1956, which must have been made about the same time Arness was starting work on GUNSMOKE. It’s a pretty good hardboiled Western.
The script by Burt Kennedy starts off with a fairly standard premise. Arness plays Rem Anderson, a young man who falls in with bad company, in this case a couple of bank robbers played by veteran movie heavies Robert J. Wilke and Don Megowan. When the job they pull goes wrong and Rem is wounded, his so-called partners abandon him to the law, taking with them not only the loot from the bank but also Rem’s girl, a soiled dove named Jan who is trying to leave that life behind (played by a very young Angie Dickinson).
Well, Rem gets sent to prison for a year, and when he gets out, you guessed it, he tracks down the men who double-crossed him so that he can get his revenge on them. This leads to a war of nerves in the town where the two bank robbers have settled and used the loot to become the owners of a successful saloon.
Actually, GUN THE MAN DOWN is maybe a little too leisurely as it tries to build suspense by having the characters sitting around and waiting for all hell to break loose . . . which it inevitably does, of course. But if the script is a tad weak, the movie has plenty of other virtues to make up for it, first and foremost among them a very solid cast. Arness, as always, is a powerful physical presence. During one brawl, he picks up a buggy (!) and hits a guy with it. Granted, there wasn’t a horse hitched to the buggy at the time, but still, that’s pretty impressive. Wilke does a great job portraying sleazy, sweaty desperation, and the town’s two lawmen are Emile Meyer, who was so good as the old cattle baron Riker in SHANE, and Harry Carey, Jr., a welcome presence in any Western movie.
The black-and-white photography is very good, too, and the movie’s low budget gives it a stark, stripped-down look that adds to the noirish atmosphere.
GUN THE MAN DOWN is also interesting because it was the first film directed by Andrew W. McLaglen, the son of legendary character actor Victor McLaglen, who went on to direct several of John Wayne’s later films. The Wayne connection is no accident. Wayne and Arness were good friends (we’ve all heard the story about how Wayne recommended Arness to the producers of GUNSMOKE after turning down the role of Matt Dillon himself, and you’ve probably seen the intro Wayne filmed for the first episode of that series), and GUN THE MAN DOWN was produced by Wayne’s company, Batjac Productions. The presence of Angie Dickinson playing a somewhat shady lady and Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as a hotelkeeper, along with the general air of tension in the movie, makes GUN THE MAN DOWN seem a little like a dry run for RIO BRAVO, which came along several years later. Other than that the two movies aren’t alike, but I can’t help but think those roles might have helped Dickinson and Gonzalez get similar parts in the later film.
I don’t think GUN THE MAN DOWN ever quite lives up to its early promise, but it’s still a brisk (76 minutes), well-made, and very entertaining Western. James Arness gives a fine performance and is great fun to watch in it, as always. If you’re a Western fan and haven’t seen this one, you really should.