How come I’ve got to run into a squirt like you nearly every place I go these days? What are you trying to do? Show off for your friends?
There can be absolutely no doubt that the 1950s represented the coming of age of the western, the genre’s full flowering as a mature and thought-provoking art form. Under the circumstances, it’s highly appropriate that the decade should open with a prime example of this growing assurance, a film which confidently presents a drama of great subtlety and humanity, and also happens to be one of the best pieces of work its director and star ever achieved. I’ve heard The Gunfighter (1950) described as a film which broke new ground and took the western in a whole different direction. I’m not sure I’d completely agree with such a sweeping comment as I feel there’s ample evidence of this move already being underway as the 40s drew to a close. I think it’s more accurate to say the film stands as a significant milestone in that process of development.
Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) is a big man, one of those guys everyone knows by reputation alone. He’s made a name for himself as a gunman, a deadly killer whose fame or notoriety has become something of a curse. As the credits roll we see him riding hard across a bleak, twilight landscape. Is he running from his past or forging ahead towards a more hopeful future? I guess it’s really a bit of both; Ringo’s personal history and skills with a gun have left him open to challenges from every young tough with a hunger for the limelight. His first stop at a cheap-looking saloon sees yet another glory seeker (a very young Richard Jaeckel) goading him and throwing down the gauntlet. Despite his best efforts to avoid an unwanted fight, Ringo is left with no choice but to shoot the young hot head and make himself three more enemies in the shape of the victim’s brothers. And so he’s on the move again, away from his own legacy and also on towards what he hopes may be his salvation. Eight years before he left behind a young bride (Helen Westcott) and an infant son, and his one dream now is to see them and maybe try to make a new beginning somewhere else. However, finding and contacting his wife won’t prove so easy as she has changed her name and determined to raise the boy without any knowledge of his infamous father. Ringo’s only ally, and he’s a reluctant one at that, is an old outlaw buddy turned marshal, Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell). Mark has given his word to safeguard the woman’s identity and will do no more than pass on Ringo’s message requesting a meeting. And so this tired gunman’s only choice is to wait it out in the saloon, besieged by rubbernecking locals and hero-worshiping kids, to see if there’s any possibility of a reunion and a fresh start. All the while the three revenge obsessed brothers draw nearer, and a young ne’er-do-well by the name of Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier) itches to take his turn at throwing down on the great Jimmy Ringo.
What we have here is the classic western scenario of a man hemmed in by bad choices in his past, desperate to make some kind of amends and striving for salvation, redemption and renewal. One tends to think of the western frontier in terms of wide open spaces, of boundless possibilities and the promise of personal freedom. Ringo dreams of these of course, but his world has narrowed and closed in around him. The west of Jimmy Ringo has shrunk to the dimensions of a saloon bar in a nowhere town. His fame has imprisoned him and he’s living out a sentence written out and pronounced upon himself by his own actions. But that’s not to say Ringo is a villain in the classical sense; he’s as much a victim of poor judgment, and his obvious love for his estranged family and his desire to make a clean break with violence means he cuts more of a tragic figure. According to one of the extra features on the DVD, writer William Bowers (co-credited with Andre de Toth) got the idea for the story when he spent some time in the company of the legendary boxer Jack Dempsey. It seems that Dempsey was confronted by some blowhard eager to show off and prove his courage by challenging him to a fight. It’s that dark side of fame that’s explored here and the Old West setting, with its inherent focus on the myths of masculinity and machismo, is an ideal canvas for its presentation. The script necessarily confines the action to a handful of sets but director Henry King and cinematographer Arthur Miller never allow any sense of staginess to dominate. The restrictions on Ringo’s movement are essential to the telling of the tale, since his room for maneuver in life is limited it helps that the viewer shares that feeling of being unable to get out into the open. In the end our anti-hero does attain his goal, albeit in an oblique fashion, and the final image, by mirroring the opening, has that perfect symmetry that is always the mark of top class filmmaking.
Gregory Peck was a big box office draw at this point, a leading man with a strong female following and the role of Jimmy Ringo, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the image, was to prove somewhat problematic. King wanted to nail the look of the period as well as he could and that meant making a few alterations to his star’s appearance. It’s been said that Darryl Zanuck laid the blame for the film’s lack of financial success squarely on Peck’s mustache, although it’s hard to know how seriously we’re supposed to take that. Nevertheless, Peck himself rated his performance highly and I guess it’s fair to say time has borne out his assessment. He brings a genuine feeling of the weariness of the burdens of his reputation to the role. The way his dusty and tired character carries himself as he enter the saloon for the first time hits just the right note, and his nervy twitchiness befits a guy who’s learned the hard way that he has to watch his back at all times. Peck was the same age as the character he was playing, although his look and demeanor suggest a man older than that. Apart from the conflict within Ringo which the script calls for, Peck also injects a touch of impish humor from time to time which rounds out the character and makes him seem more human – for example, the little interlude in the marshal’s office where he debates the merits of his being run out of town with the local ladies, all blissfully unaware of his true identity, and ends up conceding that hanging might indeed be a suitable punishment for him, is delightfully played.
Of the other cast members, Millard Mitchell really stands out. His portrayal of the reformed outlaw caught between his sense of duty to the community which has offered him a second chance and his loyalty to an old friend is spot on. As good as Peck is, it’s Mitchell who acts as the glue which binds everything together. Gruff, laconic and earnest, he displays a great sensitivity in his moments as the go-between passing Ringo’s message on to his wife, and his toughness is wheeled out too on the occasions when he has to confront the weaselly braggart Hunt Bromley. Skip Homeier always made a fine villain, and this early role is a memorable piece of work. He does a fine job of capturing the bravado, irreverence and resentment of youth, and I think it’s heavily implied in the final shot of the film (although other interpretations of that scene are possible) that Hunt Bromley is essentially a mirror image of a younger Jimmy Ringo. Karl Malden’s entrepreneurial barkeep is an entertaining turn too; obsequious in the face of opportunity and always calculating the profits to be gained, he comes to resemble a circus ringmaster wooing and shooing the onlookers keen for a peek at his prize exhibit. And of course there are the ladies. Helen Westcott as the conflicted wife is never less than affecting as she conducts an internal duel over her love for her husband and the need to protect her son, while Jean Parker is all guts and wistfulness as the widow of another gunman.
The Gunfighter was released on DVD by Fox some years ago as part of a box set of westerns in the US. There are also editions available in other regions but I think the US version is the best of the bunch in terms of picture quality – crisp, clean and sharp. Among the extra features on the disc are short pieces on the film itself, and its significance within the genre, and one on cinematographer Arthur Miller. While both are very welcome, I feel the movie actually deserves a more comprehensive analysis. The Gunfighter is one of the great westerns of the 50s, or any decade for that matter, and it’s always a pleasure to revisit it.