"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Gun Fight (UA, 1961)


In 1961 producer Robert E Kent put together two B-Westerns released by United Artists and starring James Brown: Gun Fight, released in May, and Gun Street, which came out in November. Gun Street will be our next review. Bet you can’t wait.

I’m sorry to tell you right away that neither is very good. They are low-budget black & white affairs, cheaply staged with interior sets that a local amateur dramatics troupe might have been satisfied with and unconvincing studio ‘exteriors’ that remind us of those old 1940s programmers. There are plastic logs and fake snow. The writing and acting is also plodding and ponderous.

Kent was a prolific writer and producer of B-movies of all kinds and was involved in one way or another in a good number of Westerns. To be fair, there were some reasonably good ones among them, such as Utah Blaine, the screenplay of which he wrote from a Louis L’Amour novel, and he worked a good deal with George Montgomery on his less-than-brilliant but nevertheless solid oaters. But he also wrote and produced some clunkers, and I fear Gun Fight and Gun Street will both be found in the Clunker rack in DVD stores.

Both were directed by Edward L Cahn (left). Cahn, born 1899, had been in movies since 1917, was a Universal editor and started directing in the early 30s. He became something of a cult figure in the 50s when he turned his attention to trendy teenage rebellion films and schlock science-fiction (with a special penchant for zombies). He didn’t direct a great number of Westerns in his long career but he started very well, with the 1932 Law and Order, the fine one with Walter Huston and Harry Carey, though it did rather go downhill from there. He never did a Western as good as that again and we certainly don't count Cahn among the élite of Western directors. These two 1961 Kent B-Westerns were his last as director.

Brown had started as an athlete, got picked for war movies and then made his name as Lt. Rip Masters in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. The show ran on ABC on Friday evenings from October 1954 to May 1959, for no fewer than 164 episodes, and was enormously popular, so Brown, though rather a wooden actor, was a well-known character in uniform.

The best actor is in the middle. Actually, that's not quite fair: Lee Aaker was very good too.
However, Brown seems to have been demoted because in Gun Fight he is a sergeant, mustering out (and changing into buckskins) after serving with Benteen on the Little Big Horn and going to Wyoming to join up with his brother Brad (Gregg Palmer) who has a cattle ranch. Or so he thinks. Actually Brad is a low-down rustler and stage robber with a mean gang which includes vicious half-breed known as Pawnee (Ron Soble).

In fact the gang hold up the very stage Sgt. Brown is on, riding with his girlfriend Nora (Joan Staley) and an oily gambler, Cole Fender (Charles Cooper). The skunk Fender bonks the sergeant on the head with a pistol, to stop him shooting at the outlaws. Naturally, because Fender is a slick gambler in a frock coat, this gun is a derringer, so that sent the movie up in my estimation (you know who besotted I am with derringers). The interior of the stagecoach, by the way, is one of the most laughably bad studio sets I have ever seen in a Western.

Palmer, you will certainly know, did dozens and dozens of B- and TV-Westerns, becoming a regular member of John Wayne’s stock company of actors. He started as Grat Dalton in the Audie Murphy picture The Cimarron Kid, and among many other appearances was an Army captain in both Taza, Son of Cochise and Revolt at Fort Laramie. He was Jack Slade in the Stories of the Century episode, and the same year as Gun Fight he was one of the duelists in Wayne’s The Comancheros. He was always reliable, and quite good as heavy. This time he’s a heavy with a heart of gold, though.

Bad guy Gregg (obviously bad because unshaven) with goody bro
Soble takes the acting honors (such as they are) as the nasty and treacherous Pawnee who hates our hero. He was a regular as bad guy on any number of Western TV shows but only did a handful of big-screen oaters. He had small parts in True Grit and Chisum, so that’s something.
Soble is the really bad guy though
Gun Fight was written by Gerald Drayson Adams, so really the screenplay should have been better. But much of it is lurid melodrama. There’s a very vague attempt at a Cain-and-Abel theme but as Cain doesn’t kill Abel it doesn’t really come off.
Both pictures were photographed by Walter Stenge, later to become President of the ASC. Unfortunately, there is so little location shooting and the studio sets are so basic that Stenge hardly got a chance to shine. You get the impression that such shots of Wyoming as there are were intercut from footage of other movies.
If I had to choose, I’d go for Gun Fight over Gun Street, but to be brutally frank (and when, dear e-pards, am I anything else?), they both pretty well suck. Oh, that's unkind. Let's say they aren't terribly good.



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