Film Score: David Buttolph Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Starring: Randolph Scott, Patrice Wymore, Roy Roberts and Philip Carey
The Man Behind the Gun is definitely lesser Randolph Scott. Part of the reason is that he doesn’t play a cowboy, and the stage-bound sets don’t do him any favors either. But the real problem is a story that just isn’t that interesting. Robert Buckner had written some big-budget films for Warners in the 1940s but he only came up with the story, leaving mid-level writer John Twist to do the screenplay. Unfortunately the film really undermines Scott’s western persona, the honest cowboy who gets caught up in something ugly and has to save others or himself. Here he plays an undercover military man who is looking for trouble. And the killing he does is pretty mater of fact and comes a little to easily for comfort. When he is finally forced to reveal himself he turns into a stern taskmaster at the fort and is rather unlikable. The only thing that makes any sense is that the studio was attempting to capitalize on the success of the John Ford--John Wayne vehicle She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, in which Duke plays a cavalry officer. But the two films are light years apart. Director Felix E. Feist is not an artist, but he’s not a hack either. He spent most of his early career making short films at the studio and his later career in television. But he did make a couple of interesting films in the fifties, one the adaptation of the Curt Siodmak novel Donovan’s Brain, and the other the Kirk Douglas vehicle The Big Trees.
The film begins with Randolph Scott in San Francisco working undercover, as he gets off a boat to head south to Los Angeles. Before he does, he kills two men in the street and teams up with former soldiers Dick Wesson and Alan Hale Jr. The trip south is like a miniature version of John Ford’s Stagecoach, with senator Roy Roberts who wants all of California to be a state, rival senator Morris Ankrum who wants southern California to be a slave state, schoolmarm Patrice Wymore, villain Anthony Caruso, and Scott pretending to be a schoolmaster. When Caruso shows off his gun to everyone, Scott secretly takes out the bullets. Then Caruso tries to rob everyone aboard and Scott gets the drop on him. Once in L.A., he hands over the criminals to soldier Philip Carey, who puts them in jail. It turns out Ankrum is in control of the water rights and gouging everyone, but one night in the town’s big dance hall he’s shot dead. Scott tries to get information from the dance hall singer Lina Romay about who the man in charge of everything is, the murder of Ankrum, the illegal guns he found in the basement of the dance hall, the new owner of the water rights, but she learns that he is really an army Major and he’s forced to reveal himself. Scott believes that Carey is part of the conspiracy and at the same time he tries to woo his girl, Patrice Wymore. But the whole thing becomes more and more convoluted as the movie goes on, at the same time that Scott’s character becomes lest and less interesting.
The other major character in the film is Robert Cabal as real-life desperado Joaquin Murietta. He had come from Mexico to California in 1849, but it wasn’t long before he was killed by rangers four years later. In this film he’s a young kid working for Anthony Caruso and when Scott out foxes the villain on the stagecoach he lets Cabal go. From then on he works both sides of the fence, getting information for and giving protection to Scott. In terms of acting, no one really stands out. Roy Roberts is a familiar face in the years before he turned exclusively to television. But there are also moments when he looks a little too much like Scott and it can be confusing. Dick Wesson and Alan Hale Jr. acquit themselves well, but Philip Carey is pedestrian at best. The real find is Patrice Wymore, who is absolutely gorgeous. She shows some real grit at the end of the picture and one wishes she could have had more of an opportunity to display her talents. No one really has that chance because the cast is so big and the story so intricate that none of the actors has enough screen time to enable them to develop any anything close to character and wind up being more types than real people. Even Scott, because of the changing nature of his character, isn’t really consistent, and so the ending seems a bit forced. For fans of Randolph Scott, The Man Behind the Gun definitely has something to offer. For everybody else, there are hundreds of fifties westerns that are better than this.