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Gentle Gunman, The (1952)


Main image of Gentle Gunman, The (1952)
86 mins, black and white
DirectorBasil Dearden
Production CompanyEaling Studios
A Production byMichael Balcon
ProducerMichael Relph
Screenplay/Original PlayRoger MacDougall
MusicJohn Greenwood

Cast: Mills, John (Terence Sullivan); Dirk Bogarde (Matt Sullivan); Robert Beatty (Shinto); Elizabeth Sellars (Maureen Fagan); Barbara Mullen (Molly Fagan); Eddie Byrne (Flynn)

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The relationship between brothers Terry and Matt, both active in the IRA, comes under strain when Terry begins to question the use of violence.

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Politics was never Ealing's strong suit. Alexander Mackendrick's mordant satire The Man in the White Suit (1951) is perhaps the studio's only fully-realised political film. Thorold Dickinson's Secret People (1952) and Robert Hamer's His Excellency (1951) end up hampered by the evasions of liberal squeamishness - though both work far better than The Gentle Gunman. Adapted (like Man in the White Suit) from a play by Mackendrick's cousin, Roger MacDougall, it attempts to tackle the question of terrorism - and specifically IRA terrorism - but fudges the issues and, as so often with Ealing, finally lapses into conventional pieties.

The film's chief faultline runs straight down the central character of the 'gentle gunman' himself. Terry is an activist in the IRA who's become disillusioned with the Army's violent methods. "There are better ways of getting what you want," he tells younger brother Matt, "than at the point of a gun." Quite possibly there are, but Terry never troubles to explain what they might be. His argument is further undermined by the way that, repeatedly throughout the film, he gets people to do what he wants by pointing a gun at them.

The Gentle Gunman struggles to find the right tone for its material. There are serious questions broached - a bomb in a crowded London tube station (at the height of the Blitz); two men shot dead during an abortive raid on a police van; a young innocent on his first IRA job, who's shot in the spine and eventually dies. Against this we have the pair of comedy stage Irishmen given to bursting into boozy renditions of 'I'm a Rambler, I'm a Gambler' at the drop of a shillelagh; and the eternally squabbling chess-partners, Gilbert Harding's bigoted Englishman and Joseph Tomelty's roguish Irish doctor. Matters aren't helped by leads John Mills and Dirk Bogarde, neither of whom manages to maintain an Irish accent for longer than thirty seconds.

Everything piles up in the car-crash of an ending, with menace (Robert Beatty's hard-man Shinto condemning Terry to death), pathos (Barbara Mullen's grieving mother), comedy (the boozy singing pair again), and farce (a Keystone-Cops-style car-chase) all tumbling into a series of gaping plot-holes. The usually reliable Ealing producer-director team of Michael Relph and Basil Dearden are patently out of their depth here, and The Gentle Gunman, for all its preaching of non-violence, ends up shooting itself in the foot.

Philip Kemp

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Video Clips
1. This suitcase is ticking (2:24)
2. Johnny's first job (3:04)
3. A hopeless situation (6:14)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
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