Gun Street

| December 10, 2011

MGM decided to unlock their Pandora’s box of ‘who knows what’ to the public in 2011. Over here at Film Monthly we were lucky enough to review some of these dusty gems, including the 1961 Western Gun Street.
Gun Street tells the story of hard-line sheriff Chuck Morton. He and his deputy, Sam Freed, don’t ask for much and prefer to only deal with the public when absolutely necessary. But living in the Wild West, the law is consistently prevalent in society.
When the news that former felon Gary Wells has escaped from prison, Sheriff Morton and Freed are called into action. The town is even on a higher sense of alert after the news that Wells killed a prison guard during his escape. But the law is not the only one looking for the escaped Wells. Joan Brady, the town’s saloon owner, warns Sheriff Morton that she will avenge her brother’s death without restraint. On the other end of town Wells former wife and new husband are on the lookout as well. And finally, Jeff Baxley, the cowardly snitch that helped put away Wells, pleads with Sheriff Morton for protection. Which Morton promptly does by locking him in his office.
Though tales of Wells liberated reign of terror continually infiltrate the town, no one can seem to find the escaped convict. Frustrated, Sheriff Morton and Freed turn to the only person they know who could possibly have any information, Wells’s sister, Pat Bogan. Though she denies any claim to Morton and Freed, Pat eventually discloses some information after a scuffle. Apparently Wells is hiding out in a cabin outside of town. The Sheriff and Freed quickly ride over to investigate.
Though the cabin appears empty, Morton and Freed are startled by footsteps outside. Could it be Wells? The two men climb out a back window and hide behind some bushes to see the stranger. Morton and Freed are surprised to see Joan Brady’s employee, Willie. Sheriff Morton confronts the man on his being here. Begrudgingly Willie admits that Joan Brady sent him to kill Wells. The Sheriff warns Willie to stay out of the law’s business. The two men get in a fight which leads to Willie’s imprisonment.
When Morton gets an anonymous tip (so anonymous that the film fails to mention it!) that Wells sister has withdrawn $500 for ‘unknown reasons’ he and Freed head over to investigate.
The Sheriff prods Frank Bogan enough until he takes his wife in their room and beats her. An action, Sheriff Morton allows ‘as long as the ends justify the means.’ Frank then returns to the room disclosing that Wells was last seen heading up a mountain.
Morton and Freed head back into town and assemble a posse of ‘any men who can ride a horse and carry a gun.’ The Sheriff even lets that hot headed young punk Willie out of jail and tells him to come. Morton’s posse heads up the hill, but still cannot find the escaped wells. Members of the group become skeptical if they are even on the right track, but Morton sets them straight. But even he’s starting to have doubts.
To quote the film’s trailer, “I bet you can’t guess the exciting climax!” You truly cannot. In fact, the finale of Gun Street is so ridiculous that I watched it twice to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
Morton is suddenly blinded by a reflection of light. At first, he believes it’s his old age, but on a second look, it’s Wells on top of the mountain! Morton quickly makes his way up the mountain while Freed and the rest of the posse stay at the bottom. His group of men hear a shot and run up to find out what’s happened.
They see Wells’s dead body, but only to be informed by Morton that only a warning shot was fired. Wells had been dead-on-arrival due to injuries sustained from the prison guard he killed during his escape.
It’s quite easy to see what’s completely wrong about Gun Street. (Which I will promptly do in the next paragraph), but let’s focus on what it does right. Much like in David Fincher’s Se7en, our villain is not seen until the end of the film. When we finally see the murderous John Doe near the climax of the film, it’s not a stretch to say it was worth the wait. Though Gun Street‘s villain Gary Wells is by no means as powerful of a character as Fincher’s, he carries a certain mysterious murderous allude that keeps us watching.
Now for the negatives. It’s hard to find a starting point where Gun Street goes wrong because almost everything is faulty. I put the most blame on James Brown (not that one) as Chuck Morton. Whenever we want to empathize with the embittered Sheriff, he shuts us out. A subplot in the film informs us that after Wells is caught, Morton and saloon owner Joan Brady will leave the town to live in a world of lawless obscurity. Which at that time was California. This would be fine, except at the beginning of the film Morton is sickened by the idea of Joan Brady, “a God-fearing lovely woman”, running her own saloon.
These inconsistencies in Morton’s character area a prime example why Gun Street falls flat most of the time. Made in 1961, it’s not too hard to see the subversive message of nostalgic need for an America that was ceasing to exist. This proven best by the character of the young gun slinger, Willie.
Fueled by an adolescent temperament, Morton and Willie are always butting heads. (Morton might also have an unconscious animosity out of jealous. Though we’d never know…) It’s obvious when the two men fight at the cabin outside of town that Morton must win, but not without a few good knocks from Willie. When the Sheriff lets the young gunslinger out of jail to join the posse, we see a tiny smile from Morton letting us know he’s “saved” Willie from a lawless life of debauchery. An authoritative viewpoint of the youth driven protest of the 60′s. “The upper hand must always win”.
It’s more comical in retrospect that there is a serious lack of gun-slinging in Gun Street. In fact, I wrote in my notes that the film is “incredibly wimpy”. And in every sense of the word, it is. Gun Street truly makes you wonder if it is one of the last films of the tight-fisted religious pragmatic Hollywood days. Five years later Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf would finally put the final nail in that era’s coffin, but films like Gun Street still function as a last ditch effort for a time well past.

About the Author:

Daniel currently resides in New York City working as a freelance writer and director. He is a graduate of the Film and Video department of Columbia College, specializing in Italian Neo-realism and French & British New Wave cinema.
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