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A reformed Gunfighter Jimmy Ringo is on his way to a sleepy town in the hope of a reunion with his estranged sweetheart and their young son who he has never seen. On arrival, a chance meeting with some old friends including the town's Marshal gives the repentant Jimmy some respite. But as always Jimmy's reputation has already cast its shadow, this time in the form of three vengeful cowboys hot on his trail and a local gunslinger hoping to use Jimmy to make a name for himself. With a showdown looming, the town is soon in a frenzy as news of Jimmy's arrival spreads. His movements are restricted to the saloon while a secret meeting with his son can be arranged giving him ideas of a long term reunion with his family far removed from his wild past. Written by
Meet the western, deglamorized: gunslinging makes you feel guilty, your ex is a prudish school teacher too hung up on your trail of corpses to see you, the town where you've decamped is filled with half-witted bums, puritans, celebrity-gazers and a most unlikely marshal, and somewhere on your trail are three brothers of the dead smart ass who drew on you in the last town. Jesus, do you need a whiskey.
No ordinary genre film, "The Gunfighter" (1950) is both a hugely satisfying entertainment and a conventional studio film with surprising depths. The surprise comes from the nature of the western in the mid-century where, with few exceptions, the black-and-white morality plays are as plain as the gunfire. Not so here, where we get the treat of seeing Gregory Peck play an antihero who has stepped far outside of conventional morality and now wants readmission, even though the bloodstains won't wash out. Welcome to Ambiguiety Gulch.
It's tempting to say that "Gunfighter" looks forward to the spaghetti western, especially in its themes of alienation and social revulsion. Frankly, though, it feels less like a western and more like a film noir. The feeling of claustrophobia is always near, whether in Peck's fear of another violent summons or in subplots involving the closeted desires of various townspeople to kill him (one gritty sequence in a boarding room is more unsettling than anything in Hawks or Ford). Surfaces are untrustworthy, motivations questionable, psychological derangement hovers in the wings, the "law" is both more and less than it appears, and as characters make startling pacts with their bloody pasts you can almost sense the triumphalism of the post-war years turning to anxiety and dread.
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