July 10, 2019

The Gunfighter (1950)
Grade: 77/100

Director: Henry King
Stars: Gregory Peck, Millard Mitchell, Skip Homeier

What it's about. A western set in the late 19th century. Gregory Peck is the infamous gunman Ringo, who is not wanted by the law for his dozen-plus body count because the quick-draw artist always waits until the other man goes for his weapon first. After killing reckless young Eddie (Richard Jaeckel), Ringo is once again obliged to leave town. This time, he is pursued by Eddie's three vengeful brothers (Alan Hale Jr., David Clarke, John Pickard).

Ringo holes up in a nearby town, where he has a respectable schoolteacher wife (Helen Westcott) and a stereotypical preteenaged son (B.G. Norman). He is also friends with the sheriff, Millard Mitchell, who is sympathetic toward Ringo but wants him to leave town.

Word gets out that a famous gunmen is holding court in the local tavern. Among those who seek to kill Ringo are troublemaker Bromley (Skip Homeier) and aged Eddie (Richard Jaeckel), who mistakenly believes Ringo killed his son. Future television stars Karl Malden and Ellen Corby have supporting roles.

How others will see it. The Gunfighter was not a box office smash, despite the star power of Gregory Peck in the lead. The downbeat story probably did not help. The movie garnered only a single Oscar nomination, for the William Bowers and André De Toth story.

Today at imdb.com, though, the film has a respectable 8K user votes, and a creditable 7.7 (out of 10) user rating. No demographic trends are significant within the votes. The user reviews glow with praise for the classic Hollywood "film noir" western.

How I felt about it. The script for The Gunfighter was a hot property in Hollywood during the late 1940s. John Wayne was given first look, but his offer was too stingy. 20th Century Fox promptly bought it instead. It seems likely, then, that the quality of the movie comes from the William Bowers and William Sellers screenplay.

Yet Gregory Peck does well in the lead role, and adds a humanity to his ever-pursued character that might have been missing if, for example, Sterling Hayden had been cast instead. The premise is simple: there is a jerk in every town seeking to become famous as the man who shot the notorious gunslinger. No matter where Ringo goes, some jerk will always be there.

One is supposed to feel sorry for Ringo, who only kills when forced to, in self defense. But it is implied that Ringo had a criminal past, like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, and cannot escape from it, like Al Pacino in the Godfather films. It is his past behavior, rather than his present actions, that condemn him into being hounded from one western town to another to escape the biddies, sheriffs, vigilantes, and would-be gunslingers that eternally confront him.

The one character most out of turn belongs to Mac (Karl Malden), who is all too eager to give a handsome sum to Ringo as a thank you for making his saloon famous. It would be much more famous if Ringo was gunned down there, and the enterprising Mac would more likely solicit a local troublemaker to send Ringo into an early grave. But if Ringo did receive a payoff from Mac, he would pocket it, since he has no way to earn a honest living, instead of giving it to his wife, who wants nothing to do with him.

Also, the three brothers of Ringo's latest killing, who pursue Ringo throughout the movie, are dealt with too summarily. Marlowe, the would-be sniper whose home is conveniently across the street from the bar, is cast incorrectly, since Cliff Clark appears too old for the role.

But overall, The Gunfighter is a compelling drama that benefits greatly from Arthur C. Miller's black and white cinematography. The film came near the end of Miller's storied career, with only one further effort (The Prowler) in front of him.