Friday, 10 December 2021

Movie Review: The Gunfighter (1950)

A soulful Western, The Gunfighter explores the curse of notoriety as the clock ticks towards multiple showdowns.

Aging and lonely outlaw Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) is saddled with a reputation as the fastest gunslinger in the west. Everywhere he goes, he is challenged by smug gunfighters. Arriving at a small town, he is forced to kill Eddie (Richard Jaeckel), the latest young thug to draw on him. Jimmy rides out towards Cayenne, pursued by Eddie's three brothers.

Jimmy's arrival at Cayenne's saloon causes a commotion. Bartender Mac (Karl Malden) alerts Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell), a reformed ex-outlaw. Jimmy seeks Mark's help to arrange a reunion with his wife Peggy (Helen Westcott) and young son, but Peggy is reluctant to get re-involved. Meanwhile, grieving father Jerry Marlowe believes Ringo killed his son; Hunt Bromley is the latest gunslinger eager for a showdown; and Eddie's three brothers close in on Cayenne, seeking revenge.

Jimmy Ringo is only 35 years old, but years of lawlessness weigh heavily on his shoulders. This Nunnally Johnson-produced ode to a gunfighter underlines the emotional toll of ghosting through life from town to town, carrying a quick-draw reputation to rival Wyatt Earp, and encountering a succession of snotty-nosed kids all willing to die in search of dubious glory.

Ringo settles down at the Cayenne saloon, and the presence of a celebrity triggers a wild and wacky carnival-like atmosphere in town. But director Henry King creates an intimate theatre-like experience, with writers William Bowers and William Sellers most interested in exploring the internal conflict between man and infamous legend. Although only 85 minutes long, The Gunfighter exudes comfortable and character-driven confidence in a search for what matters.

Ringo now only cares to re-earn Peggy's love and his son's affection, and until the reunions can be arranged, he will politely resist Marshal Strett's pleas to ride out. But Peggy is rightfully suspicious of any form of reattachment to a man unfamiliar with domesticity, while outside the saloon multiple threats converge: a father convinced Ringo killed his son; an arrogant and devious gunslinger craving the title of fastest gun in the west; and three brothers engaged in a dogged pursuit. Aided by Gregory Peck's sturdy presence in the central role, the resulting countdown is a conflict between Ringo embracing his humanity and defying his reputation.

Ringo and Strett reminisce about the old days and their diverging fortunes, Strett having chosen a path of respectability, Ringo too famous an outlaw to seek redemption. One man has a future, the other only a past. He squeezes minutes out of his remaining time in town, keenly aware of the dwindling opportunity to shape his legacy.



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