Gun the Man Down is proof that Burt Kennedy’s scripts were not dependent on director Budd Boetticher to be successful. In the hands of Andrew V. McLaglen (not as consistent of a filmmaker), the power of Kennedy’s storytelling stays strong.

“You’re still killing, Billy?”
“I’m alive.”
“Are you?”

This Western is filled with such simple yet effective exchanges, Kennedy’s dialog delivered without frills by an excellent cast led by James Arness and supported by Angie Dickinson (in one of her first big roles), Robert J. Wilke, Emile Meyer, and Michael Emmet. The latter performer is perfect as Billy, the cool as a cucumber killer for hire. I love the scene where he’s paid to kill Arness and declares that his employers better bury the victim when the job’s been done because he’s “my friend”. It’s a perfect taste of irony, followed by an unforgettable dialog-less sequence of Billy searching the town for his prey. McLaglen reveals a sparse, tense approach to storytelling that I haven’t seen in his other work and like many Western directors, it’s possible that his early work was his best.

Back to the performances, Wilke portrays a complex, sometimes weak villain who is hard to hate even when he does bad things. He may not have the strength of a Richard Boone or Lee Marvin but this is a different kind of villain, almost a pathetic antagonist whose fate is sealed. Though that element of the plot might be a little predictable, Kennedy throws a narrative curveball in the final act that I didn’t see coming, a dark decision that distinguishes Gun the Man Down from other Westerns of its day.

Finally, I loved Emile Meyer’s performance as the Sheriff. It’s a refreshing take on the frontier lawman, an easy-going but not lazy approach to justice that speaks of decades of experience. It may actually be one of the most realistic portrayals of an Old West policeman in the history of the genre. Arness may be good leading man but it is Meyer who steals the show.

Watched on YouTube