Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Shadow of Death Lingers Over "The Gunfighter"

Released in 1950--the same year as Winchester '73--Henry King's The Gunfighter helped usher in the "adult Western" genre. From its simple title to star Gregory Peck's authentic mustache, this character study works hard to differentiate itself from conventional oaters.

Peck plays Jimmy Ringo, a gunslinger and former outlaw whose body count numbers "10, 12, 15--depends on who's telling." Ringo knows the exact number, as well as the names of the men he has killed. It's not something that he takes lightly. And though there was a time when he wanted to be the fastest gun in the West, he now longs for a normal life with the woman he loves and the son he's never known. Unfortunately, he cannot escape his reputation--and those determined to earn their own fame by killing the notorious Jimmy Ringo.

Millard Mitchell was also in Winchester '73.
Most of The Gunfighter takes place in a practically empty saloon as Ringo awaits his wife's decision on whether she will see him. He reminiscences about the past with his friend Mark (Millard Mitchell), who became a marshal years earlier when errant gunfire killed an innocent boy. He learns that his best friend, another gunfighter, was shot in the back of the head in an alley. He confronts a young hothead named Hunt who unsuccessfully tries to goad him into a shoot-out.

Skip Homeier as Hunt.
But mainly, Ringo awaits his ultimate fate. In addition to Hunt, an elderly man aims a rifle at the saloon doors, hoping to kill the man he believes was responsible for his son's death. There are also three men riding toward town with the goal of gaining revenge on Ringo for the death of their brother (although it was a fair fight). It quickly becomes as clear as the ticking of the loud clock in the saloon that Ringo will not survive the day.

The use of time in The Gunfighter foreshadows the later High Noon (1952). Just as Will Kane prepares for a face-off at noon, Ringo has been given a 10 a.m. deadline for hearing back from his wife Peggy. What he doesn't know--but the viewer does--is that the vengeful brothers are due to arrive in town at that same time. As the clock counts down the minutes, the film turns more somber and the conclusion more inevitable. 

Gregory Peck and Helen Westcott.
In addition to Peck and Mitchell, the strong cast includes Karl Malden as a bartender who remembers Ringo from the old days. Regrettably, Helen Westcott comes off as incredibly bland as Peggy. While that could have been by design--a sort of opposites attract relationship with Ringo--one wishes for more passion on her part in the big scene with her husband.

William Bowers and Andre de Toth (best known for directing House of Wax) wrote the original story for The Gunfighter and received an Oscar nomination. It was initially intended as a vehicle for John Wayne. When a deal couldn't be reached with the Duke, the property wound up at Twentieth Century-Fox. 

Bob Dylan and playwright Sam Shepard co-wrote a 1986 song called "Brownsville Girl" that references The Gunfighter. The opening lyrics are:

Well, there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding 'cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself 
The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck.

5 comments:

  1. Studio blamed THE MUSTACHE for the film's failure. Maybe it did get negative reactions at test screenings.

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    1. But it looked authentic in hindsight!

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  2. Grand review of a true classic. The strong script makes this an easy film to admire, and a difficult drama to watch as the inevitability creates such tension.

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  3. I must see this one. Sounds terrific...the moustache notwithstanding...

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  4. Gregory Peck turns in a very good performance in a film that teaches you that actions have consequences, sooner or later. It was interesting to read about "Brownsville Girl" and its rhyme of Peck and neck.

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