Classic Film Review: Mitchum is “The Deadly Peacemaker,” aka “Man With a Gun” (1955)

Close your eyes and listen to “Man with the Gun” and you can hear hints of “The Mercury Theatre on the Air.” The crisp, crackling dialogue, the brisk pace, it’s a film that has the aural qualities of an Orson Welles radio production.

I noticed that before I realized the director and co-writer was “THAT Richard Wilson,” aka “Dick Wilson,” longtime member of Welles’ rep company and the survivor of that group who helped oversee the editing and release of the documentary “It’s All True” from footage Welles shot making his unfinished South American project, a debacle that forever stained his Hollywood career.

This little seen Western, now on Tubi and some other platforms, caught my eye because of Robert Mitchum, Mr. Always Gives Fair Value, and the role he plays. In this outing, he’s a “town tamer,” a professional gunfighter/temporary lawman brought in to “tame” a town that’s gotten so violent and vice-ridden that only a temporary gunslinging dictator can set things right.

Especially when there’s a cruel and corrupt rich man with a lot of hired guns who has already set himself up as dictator, keeping the town and the local sheriff under his thumb.

It’s a longtime trope of Westerns. Remember “Support Your Local Sheriff?” This movie is what that James Garner comedy was sending up. There was even a Dana Andrews film titled “Town Tamer” released ten years later.

I couldn’t find any reference to this being an actual named profession in the Old West, where “bounty hunting” thrived. But it does sound suspiciously like the role the real-life Earps played — corrupt as they were — running gambling and law enforcement at the same time in assorted towns.

Mitchum’s Clint Tollinger rides in looking for a woman. Nelly (Jan Sterling) runs the local brothel, “dance hall girls” early Westerns on TV labeled them. Look for young Angie Dickinson as one of them. Clint has unfinished business with Nelly.

Clint’s ridden into town fresh on the heels of the chief goon (veteran heavy Leo Gordon) of the local cattle baron killing a dog that annoyed him by barking too much. Before the day is over, while Clint is tracking down the elusive Nelly, that thug and his Palace Saloon Boys (Claude Akins is one) have gotten into it with a local farmer (John Lupton).

In the sparsely-populated West, gunslingers and townsfolk often knew each other by face, name or reputation. Might the famous Clint Tollinger be available to tidy up this mess? The Doc (Florenz Ames) used to live in a past project of Tollinger’s professional interest.

Mighty sick town,” Doc remembers. “Clint operated on it. Patient lost a lotta blood…but lived.”

Clint, famously all “dressed in gray” even though “black would fit his profession better,” has other concerns. And he’s got rules.

“I always try to make sure a town needs doing, and wants doing.”

It does. Considering what a chatterbox the old sheriff (Henry Hull of “Lifeboat”) is, Clint won’t have much help. This “peacemaker by profession” prefers to work alone.

The first things that jump right out in this picture are the tense, martial Alex North score, the clean, simple narrative and the startling realism of the art direction by Hilyard M. Brown. Silent film vet Lee Garmes photographed it, and the static set-ups give it a TV Western feel. But it’s what he captured that sets the film’s look apart from legions of run-of-the-mill Westerns.

The streets are narrow, not built for driving cattle through. There’s grass, not just sand. There are cross streets and there’s visual depth to the village — buildings behind other buildings, of various vintages and designs. The moment Mitchum rides in, we notice Sheridan City has a slope to it (The Samuel Goldwyn backlot). That’s rare enough — in Westerns — to make you notice.

And then there’s that radio-drama-snappy dialogue.

“Where’ya heading?” “Not HERE.”

The film’s themes are more liberal than the usual amoral shoot-em-ups of TV of the era, recycled and re-broadcast and worshipped as some sort of code-for-living by generations of gun nuts. I wonder if that’s why I’ve never seen it, and I was sure I’d seen every Western worth taking in. It serves up simple, rough justice without ever feeling simplistic, and stands out from the crowd and the more reactionary guy-with-the-fastest-gun-makes-the-law dogma of most Westerns.

Here, Clint’s first order of business is gun control. “No weapons worn in town.” When he oversteps his bounds and overstays his welcome — he promises to be “quick” with his work, in and out in days — the locals start to grouse about the dictator they’ve put in charge.

Mitchum is bluff and tough, settling into the screen icon image he’d been building for ten years. Not all the casting works, but veteran character actors like James Westerfield ground the film in genre “reality,” of a sort.

“Man with a Gun” — also called “The Trouble Shooter” and “The Deadly Peacemaker” — gets a lot of characters, a lot of story and plenty of action into its lean 84 minutes. All that crisp dialogue delivered at a sprint helps, too. Clint’s first “arrest” is two shots heard off camera, and the big set piece isn’t the “High Noon” finale, but a big fire that lets us see Clint’s realization that he’s crossing the line, upping the violence ante because he knows they’ll be coming for him with pitchforks sooner rather than later.

Film buffs know the telltale signs of any movie Orson Welles had anything to do with — the visual flourishes, depth of field and shadows that suggest he “helped” direct “The Third Man” and “Journey into Fear.” But those of us who know his radio work beyond “War of the Worlds” can hear his influence on other projects, such as this Richard Wilson Western, scripted and performed like a classic radio drama, packing all the back story, character and plot in as if he’s expecting to be interrupted by commercials for Lux Soap and Lucky Strikes.

Rating: “passed,” violence, suggestions of prostitution, alcohol

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jan Sterling, Leo Gordon, Henry Hull, Karen Sharpe, John Lupton, Ted de Corsia, Emile Meyer, Angie Dickinson and Claude Akins.

Credits: Directed by Richard Wilson, scripted by N.B. Stone and Richard Wilson. A United Artists release on Tubi, Amazon, etc.

Running time: 1:24

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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