Thursday, February 21, 2008

Movie Review: Gun Street (1961)... John Brown loves westerns...

The sheriff is pissed off at the town. Years ago, he apprehended a killer. The jury of locals handed down a prison sentence instead of an invitation to the gallows. Now, the bad guy is on the loose and headed back to town for more. The lawman wishes they would've killed the criminal when they had a chance.

The people are terrified. They don't seem interested in taking responsibility for letting the bad man live. They don't seem excited at the prospect of helping the sheriff and his loyal deputy this time around, either. They expect the lawmen to handle the problem. They just want to be safe.

Most of Gun Street involves the sheriff, played by James Brown, doing western detective work. We get to meet the various county cowards as he tries to find the killer. Gun Street devolves into a B-grade High Noon rip-off wherein Brown eventually gets a posse put together to handle the killer.

Gun Street was one of over 100 movies directed by Eddie Cahn. Cahn was a B-movie king, known for producing better-than-average second-rate flicks in an era where a constant stream of low-dollar features were needed to feed an insatiable public appetite. He handled everything from sci-fi to early rock 'n' roll exploitation topics with what's been described as a "hyper-efficient" hand.

Cahn made passable movies in 10 days or less. It kept him busy and it kept matinee-goers occupied. Some of the work, like Gun Street, doesn't hold up very well. Gun Street doesn't look dirt cheap, but it certainly isn't textured. Gun Street doesn't feature bottom-of-the-barrel talent, but James Brown and Jean Willes aren't what you'd call "engaging on-screen presences" in this one. Gun Street is a quick-fix western with a shitty ending that will leave you emptier than expected.

Three more reasons not to watch Gun Street:


The Sheriff has a phone in his office. So do some of the townspeople. Look, I understand that there was a period in history where people still got around on horseback AND had phones, but it's really creepy to see people dialing each other up in a western.

It makes Gun Street look and feel more like a gangster flick than a western to me. Some people might not have a problem with old west telephony, but it's a distraction for me.


The movie feels like a macho advertisement for capital punishment. Now, I understand that left-wing politics and old westerns are unlikely to be a good match, but Gun Street is a little over the top. James Brown is downright pissed off that the bad guy didn't get the necktie of doom and he spouts off about it a few times. The movie itself seems to reinforce the notion that all these people had to do was hang the guy in the first place and everything would be alright. The argument is too simplistic and subtle like a sledgehammer. Another issue for me, a guy who doesn't dig capital punishment, that might not bother you, I suppose.


There are rules within genres. You can break those rules, but only if you have a good reason to do. Good reasons include (a) making a damn good movie, (b) making a movie more interesting or rewarding and (c) intentionally testing the limits of genre and expectation for effect or principle. You don't get to fuck with the rules if you're filming a short, B-grade matinee western. The ending of Gun Street doesn't offer the expected payoff.

I can tolerate a bad western because it creates a comfort zone of expectation. I can appreciate a good western that changes the contours of that zone. I can't abide by a piece of crap western that breaks the rules. This one does and that's a major problem. SPOILER (just in case you might be thinking about watching this on On-Demand in a few minutes no matter what I say): The bad guy dies, but no one involved in the movie is responsible. No shootout. No sheriff. No nothing. It's bullshit.

I'm giving Gun Street 1.5 singing cowboys. I would've given it a mere 1/2 Autry, but I realize that some of my criticism isn't universal in nature.


(1.5/5 Singing Cowboys)


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  1. Sounds like an awful, fun time.

    I say movies that cheerlead the death penalty are generally bad because the lack the quality of a good Western that I appreciate: a little humanity.

    The best Westerns, by my lights, got it. And others don't. That doesn't mean I won't watch 'em. It just means I don't like them as much as better Westerns, by my judgment, not because of politics, per se, but because they don't treat human beings like human beings. And those movies tend to be a kind of shallow, by the nature of that call, I think (although you can have depth to your thinking about capital punishment that doesn't result in a "noone ever gets killed" line of reasoning, I think, but it usually is prefaced with, "when there really is no other option" in its logic).

    That's why I think you can call good movies as good movies, independent of genre. Because good movies have something to contribute beyond entertainment or appealing to our baser insticts. Se7en appeals like crazy to peoples' baser instincts. It also has a lot to say beyond that, I think, which is why I rank it as one of the finer thriller/horror movies I've ever seen.

    I don't always have to agree on the finer points of a film or book or other literary work to appreciate it as strong. But I do think some fundamentals like a sense of humanity need to be present for me to make that call.

    I better get to work:).

  2. You can say in the end Gary Wells did in fact not only escape from prison but justice as well. It was Sheriff Morton who did the right thing in walking away from the thankless job that he had for some twenty years.