Directed by Henry King
Written by William Bowers and William Sellers
A lot of what I had seen within the western genre before I embarked on this marathon involved a great deal of violence. Shootouts, outlaws, bank robberies, etc. And while the films to this point have involved at least some of these elements, there hasn’t been a great mystique yet made of the outlaw and gunfighter. When I think of westerns, at least prior to this marathon, I think of the Sergio Leone films, which are certainly violent and carry a certain aura about them which is what I associate with quintessential western. We’ll see whether that aura remains when I get to them here, but with 1950’s The Gunfighter, we are treated not to a violent film, but certainly one which examines the legend and character of an outlaw in lawless country, the Old West.
Whenever Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) rides into town, most people get scared and stay out of his way. However, there are some young bullheaded heroes who like to think they can take on the fastest gun in the west. These young cowboys usually end up dead in the dirt. After one such youth bites it, Ringo must elude his three brothers who are out to get Jimmy, whether their kid brother drew first or not. Hiding out in nearby Cayenne, Ringo runs into a familiar barkeep (Karl Malden), a friendly marshall (Millard Mitchell), and the woman he loves (Helen Westcott). With the brothers in hot pursuit, Jimmy only wants to stay in town long enough to convince Peggy that he loves her and is a changed man.
What The Gunfighter excels at is creating a character with mystique. We don’t get to share in Jimmy Ringo’s exploits, they’ve come before, we only hear of them in legend. But with the performance from Gregory Peck, we get to see the bags under his eyes, the gruff in his breath when another up and comer wishes to challenge him simply to claim he killed the fastest there ever was. Being a legend has to be tough, especially once your legacy is cemented yet you’d rather move on and retire to a simpler life. Such is the curse of Jimmy Ringo, and director Henry King captures this transition period in the life of an outlaw perfectly by using a manhunt/hideout as an exciting backdrop.
I really do want to focus on Gregory Peck for a moment too, as between this and Yellow Sky, I am really beginning to like what he has to offer in the landscape of the west. I always pegged him as a good guy, like most people probably because of his turn in To Kill a Mockingbird, but he has shown time and again so far here to make a great bad guy too, even if he is the sympathetic bad guy here. He is a star in The Gunfighter, taking command of the screen and carrying the film with his performance. I would even go so far as to rank it as one of the best lead performances thus far in the marathon. I have not taken the time as of yet to reflect on things like that yet in this journey, and perhaps I should, but his performance is what would keep bringing me back to revisit this film time and again.
But while Peck is awesome as Ringo, the scenario is unique to this marathon as well in some respects. Setting it in such a confined amount of time, and within the small town of Cayenne, brings about a natural amount of tension and excitement to the film, which is the perfect backdrop for the type of drama between Ringo and Peggy as they work out the rest of their lives. Setting is everything in a western. Certainly seeing the beautiful buttes in the desert background is what a lot of people think of, but most westerns happen in Generic Springs or in Standard Saloon. With The Gunfighter, Cayenne and the Palace Bar feel like real, lived in places. All of it comes together to make this film a complete package.