This 50s Movie: Gun the Man Down (1956)

Gun the Man Down is an obscure 50s Western, which I only watched because I became fascinated by the idea of watching the debut movie of director Andrew V. McLaglen, from whom I haven’t really seen any other movie. Somehow it intrigued me to watch this “first movie” (although it might have actually been his second) and to watch a western. I didn’t expect to like it and it certainly nothing special, but it’s also not really bad. It has some interesting ideas for your run-of-the-mill western, even if the story is short on surprises. It’s a revenge story, bank robber left behind by his accomplices, seeking revenge. I thought when writing about my first western, I could about Native American clichés, but it seems this movie couldn’t afford more actors and locations than necessary. But it still has an interesting female character to talk about.

The “hero” of the movie is Rem (James Arness), who is betrayed by Rankin (Robert J. Wilke) after Rem is shot when they rob a bank together. Rem’s girlfriend is Janice (Angie Dickinson, in her first starring role) and though she struggles with leaving him behind, she does, with some force by Rankin and Farley (Don Megowan). Here she comes across initially as weak and passive.

When we meet her again, she is in a relationship with Rankin and obviously we can only think of her as even weaker. She seems to have switched owners and the men almost treat her this way. When she sees Rem again, he expectantly is mad at her, but then something unexpected happens as he mentions that he should have left her where he found her, “in a saloon.” No one says it directly, but she was a prostitute, rescued from this immoral business by him. She explains that herself in a passionate, but hardened monologue:

No, you look. I’m every dirty thing you think I am. Only worse. Alright, so I ran out on you. You think you’re the first man I played for a sucker? I’ve rolled drunks in every cheap saloon in this territory. I’ve cheated and lied my way ever since I can remember and there’s not one sin I haven’t done at least once. But I loved you. You’re the only clean thing that ever happened to me.

It doesn’t read this way here, but it’s almost impressive. She really takes a stand, even if she basically says that she is born a bad person. And she blames him for wasting their opportunity at a normal life.

Still, as powerful as this scene and the whole performance is, the movie eventually comes back to portraying her as full of doubts about her identity, seeking definition by the men around her. When Rankin confronts her about her talk to Rem, she despairs and asks him “What am I? Just what am I?” His response:

A woman, a full woman that’s had to make her way the best she could right from the ground up. And doing it got a little dirt on her. You’re not all Sunday school and lace, but that’s not your fault.

It’s fascinating to see the supposed villain have obvious affection for her. He knows he is not a pretty man and he hopes she just doesn’t just stay with him for his money and power, but for love. Defending her womanhood in the process is not the most expected behavior for this kind of character. He also says, he never forced her to stay with him. He is actually relatively cool and emotional for a villain.

Well, this turns bad later, when they contemplate their situation before the final shootout in the forests. Raine thought Janice enjoyed being with him, despite his looks and character, but now she remembers wanting to settle down with Rem because she actually loves him. They talk and then Rankin says: “That’s what I like about us, Jan, we want something, we take it!” and tries to forcefully kiss her, which she rejects. And then she is killed in the end by him, with her last words to Rem being: “Whatever you think of me, you were the one. The only one. We would have been respectable, wouldn’t we, Rem?” All she can think of is being respectable, not a sinful, immoral woman and her death proves that. The movie punishes her for being the way she is, for switching men. Her death seems inevitable because no matter what she tried to do, she did something bad. Those old movie morals are hard to come by. Despite all of this, her scenes, especially her death scene, are affecting and feel tragic. Her character is not amazing for females in movies, but it’s more rounded and deep than the average female lead. Not what I expected from this cheap and old little movie.