Gunfighter, The (1950)

“It’s a fine life, ain’t it? Just trying to stay alive.”

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Synopsis:
After killing a young upstart (Richard Jaeckel) in self-defense, notorious gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) flees to the town of Cayenne, where he hopes to reconnect with his estranged wife (Helen Westcott) and son. The town’s marshall (Millard Mitchell) allows Ringo to enjoy drinks provided by a sympathetic bartender (Karl Malden), while a saloon singer (Jean Parker) agrees to help him connect with Westcott — but Jaeckel’s three brothers are out for revenge, and the local hotshot (Skip Homeier) is eager to prove his mettle against the “fastest gun in the west”.

Genres:

Review:
Henry King directed this highly effective, economically paced tale of a talented gunfighter desperate to leave his past behind but literally haunted by his own prowess. Because Peck kills Jaeckel in self-defense — and does everything he can to try to prevent the killing — it’s easy enough to maintain empathy for his plight, and simply gloss over the lurid reality of how he came to his notoriety. Much like High Noon (1952), The Gunfighter takes place within a concentrated span of time, with a deadline of sorts looming and menace lurking around every corner; tension builds as more and more people (mostly awe-struck kids) gather outside Malden’s saloon (reminiscent of Dog Day Afternoon), and Peck wearily waits for resolution of some kind. This one is well worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo
    gunfighter-peck
  • Arthur Miller’s cinematography
    gunfighter-still

Must See?
Yes, as a fine, underrated genre flick. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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3 Responses to “Gunfighter, The (1950)”

  1. Just rewatched this – not must-see.

    Director Henry King had a very long Hollywood career – during which he seems to have been the kind of director who did just what was necessary to get his (for the most part) average stories told. He occasionally had a more prestigious project to work with (i.e., ‘The Song of Bernadette’, ‘Twelve O’Clock High’) – but you don’t (in this case) really look to the name ‘King’ for wildly memorable cinema.

    In that regard, ‘The Gunfighter’ is no exception. It’s an OK movie but not particularly a memorable one. In fact, it often comes off like something made for tv. The script is a little on the lumpy side. This is the kind of western in which ‘the bad guy’ returns to town and, when they are told of his coming, the townsfolk tend to say his name – and only that – as they more or less gasp. (“Jimmy Ringo?!”)

    Peck is oddly miscast. He is not usually suited to roles that require an element of danger. In this film, that element is in Peck’s character’s past (a character, by the way, who – in real life as ‘Johnny Ringo’ – was a LOT more dangerous; check IMDb for details) but Peck plays the role as though every single trace of his Ringo’s past is simply erased and not even a shadow of it remains. (Possible…but not likely.)

    Hitchcock didn’t have much better luck either with Peck in a ‘dark’ light when he made ‘Spellbound’ – but Huston was much more successful in bringing danger to Peck’s forefront when he cast him in ‘Moby Dick’.

    As a film, ‘The Gunfighter’ is mildly diverting. The last ten minutes are the best.

  2. I feel quite differently about this one (as you can tell by my review).

    I like Peck’s performance because I can believe a former hotshot would eventually mellow out… Also, I don’t think he was formerly “bad” so much as he was really, really good at gunfighting — Olympics-level good. And now he regrets the consequences of that extreme skill.

  3. Fair enough. I was just going by the reactions of the townsfolk, mostly – hearing his name with dread instead of awe for his reputation as a gunfighter. I might have to watch it again to pay attention to certain things that are said – but I’m not taken with the film in general as much as you are.

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