Not Rated | 1h 25min | Western | 1950
When I first heard of the 1950 Western “The Gunfighter,” I immediately imagined a bunch of lawmen and outlaws drawing their six-shooters and blasting away at each other, either in tawdry saloons or standing in the middle of a street in some dusty town. But to my surprise, what I found instead was a completely different cinematic animal—a slow-burn character study about a man trying to run from his shady past, and perhaps turn his life around.
I also wasn’t expecting Gregory Peck to star in the lead role as apex gunslinger Jimmy Ringo, a man with a reputation so ferocious that people gape and stare at him wherever he winds up. Fortunately, Peck manages the character quite well since Ringo isn’t the young, thrill-seeking hothead he once was. On the contrary, Ringo, now in his mid-30s, has matured and pulls his pistol only when his life is threatened.
The film opens in the Southwest of the 1880s. Ringo rides into a small town and enters the local watering hole in search of a stiff drink. His presence immediately raises some eyebrows. But a young hotshot named Eddie (Richard Jaeckel) isn’t impressed. Like so many before him, Eddie yearns to test his burgeoning gunslinging skills against the legend Ringo, and thereby make a big name for himself. And also like so many others, Eddie’s self-delusional vision of himself vastly outstrips his gunfighting skill set.
After Eddie challenges Ringo and loses badly, Ringo is once again on the run, even though he shot the brash youth in self-defense. Eddie’s three older brothers don’t care who drew their pistols first—they simply want to settle the score for Eddie’s death. Therefore, they begin trailing Ringo to another town called Cayenne.
Once there, Ringo sets up shop in a drinking establishment ironically called “The Palace.” Its proprietor is Mac (Karl Malden), who recognizes Ringo and quickly alerts the town’s top lawman, Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell). Strett happens to have a past with Ringo, and they used to run together as buddies.
Ringo knows that the three brothers will arrive in town at some point, but he’s determined to make amends with his old sweetheart, Peggy Walsh (Helen Westcott), and see his young son for the first time. Gossip swiftly envelopes the town like wildfire, and soon another local young buck named Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier) wants to make a name for himself by shooting Ringo down.
A Western With a Great ScriptThis sets up a complex set of dilemmas and fascinating situations. Fortunately, the superb script (written by William Bowers and William Sellers) has a peppy buoyancy to it that never drags, yet lets its more thoughtful moments linger. These great scenes mainly consist of Peck as Ringo quietly pondering his next move or weighing his limited options.
Peck’s long and lean frame subtly shifts and twists—indicating the inner torment of a man who is considered the “top gun of the West” yet has grown weary of the notoriety and simply wants to reconcile with his wife and settle into a normal life with his family. But Peck can also suddenly transform into an aggressive version of Ringo’s old self. This happens whenever his more mature and tolerant persona doesn’t quite get the message across to any of the reckless souls who confront him. It’s a marvelous display of multidimensional acting.
The supporting cast is likewise excellent, with standout performances by Helen Westcott (who reminds me of Grace Kelly) playing a woman who is conflicted about letting a formerly very bad man (and only love) back into her life, as well as by Millard Mitchell as a sympathetic friend who is trying to uphold the law.
Frankly, “The Gunfighter” surprised me in a very positive way. Its mix of interesting characters, tense drama (along with wry bits of humor), fantastic writing and direction, beautiful black-and-white cinematography, and outstanding set design make it a highly entertaining Western that is a delight to watch.