A lonely town that’s lost its way, a nasty land baron out to gouge it of its remaining assets, a solitary gunmen with a reputation for vigilante justice, and the saloon girl he left long ago—Richard Wilson’s Man with the Gun is practically Western 101. On the other hand, it’s hardly a course in filmmaking. Where certain directors from the era of the classical western were able to elevate familiar genre elements through the sensitivity of their touch, Wilson works the material with all the gracefulness of a lumberjack chopping away at firewood. His appropriately matched star is Robert Mitchum, who in his stiffer performances (this certainly being one of them) waddles through scenery like a hunk of meat willed partially to life.
Mitchum plays Clint Tollinger, a self-described town tamer hired by the Wyoming settlement of Sheridan to rid the malign influence of the largely unseen Dade Holman, who rules through his scrappy henchman. In the opening scene, one of these heartless bastards shoots a puppy point blank, which registers as both a ham-handed play at establishing the film’s moral universe and a surprisingly unseemly spectacle for a 1955 popular entertainment. With good-evil binaries dutifully established, the plot then goes about negotiating Tollinger’s place in this town as a man with a conflict of interest and questionably blunt ways of snuffing out violence with violence (his symbolically weighted outfit is all gray). At one point, when the old flame Tollinger’s set about reconnecting with (Jan Sterling, reading lines and hitting marks) informs him of their daughter’s death, he sets the saloon aflame and kills its crooked manager—not exactly the behavior of a responsible veteran. Wilson’s sense of moral ambiguity only surfaces through such extravagant plot devices, never through subtleties in the dynamics between his actors and their environments.
Holman (Joe Barry) finally materializes in the drab closing shootout looking like a premonition of the whale-sized 1970s Orson Welles, whom, as it happens, Wilson produced for on such early films as The Lady from Shanghai and Macbeth. Regrettably, however, Wilson seems not to have absorbed any of his collaborator’s visual muscle, nor his boldness with narrative structure. Man with the Gun plods along in nondescript interiors seemingly recycled from whatever the last production was on the Samuel Goldwyn lot, and features the kind of blocking that’s suffused with the academic intentions of an unsure director—Mitchum turning away from Sterling and staring off into the distance at a decisive moment of tension between the two, for instance. It’s the kind of hokum that might have been saved by sheer star charisma, but Mitchum, who reportedly passed on two other projects for this one, just puffs out his chest and slicks up his hair. He’s missing nearly everything else.
True to Clint Tollinger’s monotone get-up, Kino Lorber’s Man with the Gun transfer is a very gray affair, the nocturnal saloon inferno being the only notable chiaroscuro to distinguish from the dominant neutral shading. Granted, this stems largely from Lee Garmes’s conservative cinematography, which only timidly embraces the mild noirish overtones of the plot. Artificially boosting contrast would have been a dubious aesthetic "correction," and thankfully Kino stays hands-off in this regard. They also play it safe with the hushed soundtrack, which will require dozens of ticks on the volume knob to reach satisfying levels. With only scattered and brief gunplay, Man with the Gun is mostly carried by Robert Mitchum’s mumbly baritone, so noise-cancelling headphones might be a smart choice.
Only a trailer for the film, and ones for 1969’s Young Billy Young and 1959’s Wonderful Country.
The debut film by an early Orson Welles collaborator, Man with the Gun never transcends its stock western template, and the home-video treatment is correspondingly unremarkable.