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September 24, 2015

Man with the Gun

man with a gun poster.jpg

Richard Wilson - 1955
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Man with the Gun begins with titles superimposed over a sheet of burlap, kind of like a film from Yasujiro Ozu. The similarity to Ozu is unintentional, but Richard Wilson's take on the western is to strip it down to the essential elements. There is a lot of empty space here. Wilson probably had a very modest budget, so he worked that in as part of the narrative, about a small town with a dispirited citizenry, bare trees, surrounded by flat, dusty plains.

Wilson's film is something of a companion piece to Invitation to a Gunfighter, with a professional gun man hired at the behest of the townspeople. Robert Mitchum's character of Clint Tollinger is what is termed a "town tamer". The deputy's badge gives Tollinger the right to start establishing a bit of law and order in a town mostly owned by the unseen Dade Holman. Holman's presence is felt by the thugs he sends to town to do his dirty work.

This was the directorial debut of Wilson, a former assistant to Orson Welles. Wilson also had a hand in the screenplay, and plays a bit with genre conventions. Tollinger is noted for wearing gray. That's a nice bit of shorthand, a visual queue for Tollinger's moral ambiguity, and seeming ambivalence. In the meantime, some of the bad guys can be spotted seeing the biggest hats, with oversized crowns and brims, that even a pimp from a blaxploitation movie might find in dubious taste. One of those hats is worn by perennial bad guy Claude Akins. Playing another of Holman's henchmen is Leo Gordon, who shoots a boy's dog in the opening scene. Somewhat less malevolent is Ted De Corsia as the proprietor of a small bar dominated by an absurdly oversized chandelier.

Photographed by Lee Garmes, the film provides some good examples of economical filming, especially in keeping two or more characters within the frame during conversations. While not as obviously showy as Welles could be, Wilson would seem to have taken what he's learned from Welles, especially in blocking his actors, keeping scenes of exposition visually interesting.

Wilson obeys some of the genre rules expected of a Hollywood western from the Fifties. It's hardly a spoiler to know that Tollinger is going to clean up the little town of Sheridan, or that he will finally reunite with his former sweetheart, now the town madame. The joys to be found here are mostly due to watching the cast of character actors, credited or not, such as Henry Hull as the talkative, if ineffective, sheriff, Jan Sterling is the woman from Tollinger's past, Barbara Lawrence as a dim-witted dancing girl, Emile Meyer as the town blacksmith. James Westerfield, as the mysterious Mr. Zender, is one of the several faces that will strike some as familiar, even if they don't know the name, as with much of the supporting cast. Some viewers will also recognize Burt Mustin, an actor often tapped as as the old man, as a hotel clerk. It would be a year later that Angie Dickinson would be formally "introduced" in Gun the Man Down. Dickinson, and her famous legs, are seen here as one of Sterling's dancing girls, Kitty. Dickinson is only seen for a few minutes, but it's no surprise that Samuel Fuller and Howard Hawks took notice.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 24, 2015 07:27 AM