Undoubtedly it’s a fool’s errand to single out a ‘greatest’ lone installment from a television show that ran twenty years, racking up 635 episodes. So, I’m not going to box myself into a corner by saying it’s the greatest but, when I reflect on Gunsmoke and its stunning number of quality adventures, “Mannon” is a go-to example of why this groundbreaking Western endures.
Deputy Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis) is guiding his mule, Ruth, along a dusty road on the outskirts of Dodge City, Kansas, when he encounters a traveler. There’s a prolonged camera shot as it lingers on a gun rig strapped to the man’s right thigh. That gunslinger, Will Mannon (Steve Forrest), shoots Festus with staggering speed, leaving him for dead, and rides Ruth into Dodge—singing along merrily as if he had simply swatted a fly. From this, the show’s opening teaser, it’s obvious that “Mannon” (1969) is one of the harder-edged episodes of the Gunsmoke (1955-1975) series, featuring one of the nastiest, most amoral villains to ever stroll across the small screen.
Dodge’s marshal, Matt Dillon (James Arness), is away on business and Mannon promptly asserts himself in town, holding court at the Long Branch Saloon and beginning a futile attempt at properly courting its proprietress, Miss Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake). A few of the locals, including faithful Deputy Newly O’Brien (Buck Taylor) and Sam the Bartender (Glenn Strange), want to duel it out with Mannon, but it’s fairly obvious that this killer—who was an infamous member of Quantrill’s Raiders—is too skilled a gunman to be taken down by anyone other than Matt. Festus, who was found and is being nursed back to health by Doc Adams (Milburn Stone), cautions that even Matt Dillon couldn’t outdraw Mannon with an expressive dire warning: “Take a snake’s tongue and grease it and tie it to a bolt of lightning you couldn’t get nothing as fast as his gun hand.”
Mannon wants to challenge Matt and cement his reputation as the fastest draw. While the townspeople anxiously await the marshal’s arrival, Mannon continually unnerves those around him by drinking bottle after bottle of liquor and still not missing glasses flung high into the air for target practice. If anything, he seems to be getting stronger. Actor Steve Forrest (S.W.A.T., North Dallas Forty) pulls out all the stops playing this psychopath, and it’s not just his menacing swagger but his singing (a trained vocalist in real life) that adds a foreboding, vile layer all its own. And Mannon genuinely, no matter how twisted the attraction, has a liking for Miss Kitty, who he calls ‘Red.’ He says he was brought up to know a lady when he sees one and continues trying to romance her with a gentlemanly approach, but she repeatedly rebuffs him. He acknowledges with admiration that he has been able to cut everyone in Dodge down to size except her. But, finally frustrated, he breaks into the Long Branch late at night and doesn’t take no for an answer. The camera moves away as he struggles with Kitty, but it’s understood a woman we have come to know as a pillar of strength has been viciously and appallingly violated.
Doc Adams (Milburn Stone) tends to Miss Kitty, and while she is still bedridden, she calls for Mannon against Doc’s better judgement, explaining she has to give any kind of advantage to Matt that she can find. Mannon enters her bedroom and on bended knee hands her a bouquet of flowers as a peace offering. His absurd ear-to-ear smile is swiftly erased when she informs Mannon that he hadn’t won with her the night before and that he isn’t half the man as Matt Dillon. His pride his wounded, he’s embarrassed and angered. He tosses the flowers aside. Kitty has done what no one else could—drilling to the rotten core of this loser. This notable scene between Forrest and Blake is very persuasive, filling in what had occurred not just with words but body language. Brilliantly played.
Matt finally arrives and is brought up to date on what has transpired. A classic showdown occurs when the marshal calls Mannon into the street to settle matters. Gunsmoke’s show intro for a majority of its run opened with a scene of two duelists—one being Matt—engaged in a quick draw on the dusty streets of Dodge City. We are accustomed to Matt getting the upper hand with the bad guy losing, but not this time around. Will Mannon easily outdraws Matt Dillon, as Festus had warned, and the lawman drops to the street. Mannon looks to Miss Kitty mocking, “Now there’s a man. A good man.” Director Robert Butler (The Blue Knight, Remington Steele) knows how to hold a shot, building suspense, allowing it to soak in that the hero isn’t invincible and that evil can triumph. Then Matt who has been shot in the shoulder, struggles to turn over, calling Mannon’s name. The startled gunslinger spins but it’s too late as Matt’s slug hurtles him backward and down. Once Kitty is sure that Matt is okay, she walks to where Mannon lays sprawled on the street, defiantly telling his prostrate figure, “Yeah, he is a good man.” Fade out on Matt Dillon being helped up, living to marshal another day.
“Mannon” was written by Ron Bishop who penned a number of respected episodes and, according to IMDb, “James Arness … referred to Bishop as one of the best writers on that series.” It’s to Bishop’s credit he took a cliché storyline like a gunslinger wanting to be the fastest gun alive and wove a compelling and abundantly rewarding story.
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