Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Man or Gun (1958)

We're on a quick visit to Flagstaff, Arizona, to drop our son off for his sophomore year at Northern Arizona University.

When we arrived at our hotel, I was pleased to discover the wi-fi had been greatly improved since our last visit in May. I settled in to relax with a movie on my Kindle Fire after our long drive.

The movie I chose from Netflix Instant was MAN OR GUN. I wasn't expecting a great deal from this Republic Western, but I like the cast -- Macdonald Carey, Audrey Totter, and James Craig -- so thought I'd give it a try.

MAN OR GUN turned out to be a real find, a well-executed, original film which surmounted its low budget with interesting characters, well-placed humor, a touch of mysticism, and a pair of creatively staged gunfights to end the film. Within the conventions of the Western, it also managed to avoid some cliches, resulting in a surprising and very satisfying ending.

A gunslinger (Carey) staggers into Dusty Flats, New Mexico. Having lost his horse in the desert, all he's got to his name is a fancy gun he found along the way.

Dusty Flats is a nasty little town overrun by the Corley family, and the gunslinger instantly finds himself drawn into a shootout in the saloon run by Fran Dare (Totter).  When he guns down two men, including a Corley (Ken Lynch), without even blinking, there are whispers he may be the famous gunfighter Scott Yancey, but Fran dubs him "Maybe" Smith.

Thanks to the shootout, Maybe comes into some reward money and decides to buy a local farm and settle down...but people just won't stop challenging him and his gun. Maybe never loses a gunfight, which gets to be a running joke with the complacent old sheriff (James Gleason), who appreciates the fact that Maybe is cleaning up the town.

Some town folks start to wonder -- is Maybe's success due to his skill, or is there something special about his gun? Mike Ferris (Warren Stevens), who wants to run the town himself, offers Pinch Corley (Craig) a reward if he'll go gunning for Maybe -- and also get him the gun.

There are a few creaky moments and bits of awkward dialogue, mostly surrounding Pinch's Indian wife, played by Donna Reed lookalike Jill Jarmyn. (Jarmyn married her movie husband, James Craig, the following year.) For the most part, though, this is quite an interesting and well-done film. There are some great bits of dialogue; a lackadaisical exchange between Maybe and the sheriff about the only witness to a gunfight being a horse had me sputtering with laughter.

Carey had previously come close to stealing the Ray Milland Western COPPER CANYON (1950) with a charismatic performance as the film's chief villain. He's not an actor who's the subject of much discussion in classic film circles today, but I find I always enjoy him, whether he's playing the earnest young detective in Hitchcock's SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), chasing after Paulette Goddard in HAZARD (1948), or playing Nick in THE GREAT GATSBY (1949). Here he's believable as a man who's getting older and would really like to trade in his guns for a good woman and a ranch, if only men would stop seeking him out to prove they're faster on the draw. He has some great wry line deliveries.

Totter's character is initially somewhat ambiguous, but she's always interesting, and I liked how her part of the storyline concluded. Stevens likewise can always be counted on, especially when playing a villain.

I always enjoyed James Craig in his MGM films of the '40s, where he was particularly good acting opposite children in films such as LOST ANGEL (1945), OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES (1945), and BOYS' RANCH (1946). He's older and beefier here, minus the Gable-style mustache of his MGM years, but he's still got a certain charm, and Pinch's sincere love for his devoted wife immediately pegs him as an atypical villain. His character grows more interesting from there.

I was quite impressed with the staging of the back-to-back gun battles which end the film. There are some nice unexpected moments, particularly concerning James Craig's character. I was watching the movie with earphones, and my son commented he could tell I was really enjoying it from my reactions!

Albert C. Gannaway directed this 79-minute film from an original screenplay by Vance Skarstedt and James J. Cassity. It was filmed in Naturama by Jack A. Marta.

This is a film I'd really like to see come out on DVD. In the meantime, as mentioned above, it can be seen via Netflix streaming.

2013 Update: MAN OR GUN is not currently on Netflix Instant, but it can now be streamed on Amazon Prime.

2020 Update: This film has now left Amazon Prime, so keep an eye out for it to show up streaming somewhere. It has yet to be released on DVD.


Blogger James Corry said...

"Olive Films" ( a specialty DVD/BD releasing company) seems to have gotten the rights to the Republic Library (now apparently housed through Paramount (!!))and have released quite a few "obscurities" to hopefully films such as "Man Or Gun" will show up one day, also hopefully in it's "Naturama" aspect ratio ("Naturama" was Republic's answer to "CinemaScope" a wide-screen process...).......


7:43 PM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

Thanks Laura for turning me on to this film and for the heads up that it is available on Netflix. This film wasn't on my radar at all but sounds like one I will enjoy watching. And all your writing on Flagstaff has really got me wanting to take a trip that way!

9:23 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Brad, that's a great thing to hope for! I'm also hoping Olive will release one of my favorite Westerns, Ray Milland's A MAN ALONE. I believe it was recently listed as a title they might be releasing.

Robby, I'd love to have your feedback if you check out MAN OR GUN. I found it so interesting!

I suspect you'd really enjoy Flagstaff, especially with Route 66 running right through it! And you can stop in Andy Devine country (Kingman) on your way and even see the hotel his dad owned. :)

Best wishes,

9:49 AM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

Hi Laura,

I got around to watching MAN OR GUN and I definitely liked it, but with mixed feelings. It was interesting to see MacDonald Carey in a western! I thought he was best in the early scene in the bar and he is refusing to sell his gun. He is such a different character from the films I've seen him in before.

I thought some scenes were a little slow moving, but the overall story was interesting enough. The beginning scene in the saloon and the shootout at the end were probably the most exciting. Oh, and the dog! - enjoyed him too :)

As for Kingman - yes, that would definitely have to be a stop! I've loved him ever since I heard his voice as Friar Tuck in Disney's Robin Hood.

9:17 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Robby,

Thanks so much for letting me know you got to check out MAN OR GUN! Those action scenes were definitely good ones, and the comic relief in the sheriff's office was mighty fun too. I enjoyed reading your comments.

You might also want to see COPPER CANYON, which is out on DVD -- it's only a so-so Western but Carey was really good as a bad guy. I think that's the first time I thought of him as anything other than the grandfatherly star of DAYS OF OUR LIVES (grin).

Best wishes,

1:45 PM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Good review, Laura. I just saw Man Or Gun today and agree with all your comments. An unusual story and good cast.I've always liked MacDonald Carey and of course Audrey Totter.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

So glad you caught this one, Vienna. It was really a nice surprise, and I'd like to watch it again!

Best wishes,

3:12 PM  

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