Man with the Gun

During the early days of cinema, heroes and villains in westerns often wore white hats and black hats as symbols of their heroic/villainous status. The characters were often as simple as their wardrobes: the good guys were daring, resourceful men who fought valiantly to protect innocent townsfolk, while the bad guys were shifty, sneering mustache-twirlers who shot people in the back. By the 1950s, however, the genre had shifted into more morally complex territory. Moviegoers of the era were often treated to heroes like Clint Tollinger, the character Robert Mitchum (Out of the Past) plays in the 1955 feature Man with the Gun. Tollinger is neither a selfless hero nor a black-hearted scoundrel, but simply a no-nonsense mercenary who will help people out as long as he gets paid a handsome sum. Appropriately, he always wears gray.

Tollinger is a professional “town tamer” who travels across the west in search of troubled towns that could use a little law and order. Over the years, he's developed a reputation as a ruthlessly efficient operator: he always gets the job done, but sometimes the towns he leaves behind become a shadow of their former selves. As the film begins, Tollinger is paying a brief visit to the humble town of Sheridan, Wyoming, where he hopes to patch things up with his old flame Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling, Ace in the Hole). Shortly after his arrival, he learns that a sinister cattleman named Dade Holman (who remains offscreen for the vast majority of the film) has been making aggressive, violent moves to take over Sheridan, and that most of the townsfolk are too frightened to fight back. One thing leads to another, and soon Tollinger is tasked with dealing with Holman's countless sinister henchmen.

This is a pretty standard-issue western in a lot of ways, filling a typical “gunman cleans up the town” scenario with the sort of appealing-but-simplistic stock characters that often populate the genre: the stoic antihero, the world-weary madam, the cowardly sheriff, the fretful city council members, the attractive young lovers with a melodramatic subplot, the posse of smirking bad guys, the grubby saloon owner, etc. Director Richard Wilson – making his directorial debut – takes a stab at offering a handful of stylish flourishes, but many of these feel amusingly silly (for an example, note the scene in which Tollinger suddenly emerges from the shadows... a potentially terrific little moment that falls flat due to the clumsy manner in which it's staged).

Mitchum is predictably the most interesting thing about the film, and not just because he brings his usual brand of relaxed confidence to the part. Tollinger's gray outfit serves as an accurate symbol of both his morality and his politics. At times, he sounds vaguely like a modern member of the NRA, offering speeches in which he firmly endorses the notion that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. On the other hand, his method of “town taming” involves bringing the worst fears of NRA members to life: he places a weapons ban on the entire town (leaving an exemption for himself, of course) for the duration of his mission. It's a convenient way to bring the bad seeds into the light: people who don't wish to comply quickly find themselves on the receiving end of Tollinger's pistol.

There are no significant surprises in Man with the Gun, but once you accept that the film is going to follow a predictable path, there are a handful of small pleasures to savor. The characters are thin, but the supporting cast is filled with old pros like Henry Hull, Emile Meyer, Ted de Corsia and Leo Gordon, all of whom try to bring some flavor to their parts. Alex North's score is a typically intelligent, complicated piece of work that further hammers home the tale's moral ambiguity. Plus, you've got Mitchum gunning down bad guys with the easy calm of a man painting the front porch. It's okay.


Man with the Gun

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 84 minutes
Release Year: 1955