Thursday, October 23, 2014

Some Initial Thoughts On GUN STREET (1961)

I'm in the middle of working on the next entry in my Poverty Row Professionals series for Noir City magazine. I'm going to be profiling the director Edward L. Cahn. As such, I've been watching a lot of his work, and not just the noir stuff either.

I just watched his 1961 western GUN STREET. This is a modest little film with a small cast, limited sets, and little in the way of a budget.

The film isn't claimed by anyone (least of all me) as some kind of hidden masterpiece, but within the context of when and how it was made, it's quite an interesting movie.

It's something of a knockoff of HIGH NOON, though like RIO BRAVO, it is critical of that film's subversive message. HIGH NOON is essentially an extended meditation on the fickleness of society and the fragility of the institutions that are meant to keep it together. GUN STREET, like RIO BRAVO before it, is not.

GUN STREET has a heroic lawman (played in an effective turn by Cahn's frequent leading man, James Brown) waiting for the imminent arrival of a deadly outlaw. The town panics as the outlaw nears. The lawman stands strong.

That's the basic plot, but in more ways than one GUN STREET fails to deliver what the usual oater would promise from this scenario. We never see the outlaw. Never. Some critics of the film have argued that this dissipates the tension, but I would argue otherwise. Most normal westerns would hop back and forth between the hero and the villain, would give us someone to hate. Instead, here, the approaching trouble feels more like a storm than a man. The townspeople bicker over why the outlaw wasn't executed to begin with. (The movie could be read as a 67 minute argument in favor of the death penalty.) But at the end the outlaw is found dead, having bled to death from a gunshot wound he suffered while escaping. Thus, the villain we never see is killed by some guard we never even hear about. Everything in the film has led up to a climactic gun fight that we never get. It's as if Frank Miller had missed the train in HIGH NOON.

Again, many critics of the film see this as a simple oversight, but I somehow doubt that. Edward Cahn made roughly a million westerns. He knew all too well that the audience was expecting to see the hero kill the villain at the end, and I find it hard to believe that either he or his writer Sam Freedle (who had been a script clerk on HIGH NOON) simply forgot the gunfight at the end. I doubt they ran out of time or money either. The final scenes of the film, involving the discovery of the body of the outlaw and the retirement of the lawman (he rides away through a posse scattered over the side of a mountain) would have been as complicated as a simple two-man gun fight. 

I think Cahn just wanted to do something different.

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