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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The fifties is regarded as the decade of the great classic western. For
a whole ten years Hollywood was consistent at turning out the best and
most mature tales set in the great American West. Gems like "Shane"
"High Noon" and "The Searchers", to name just a few, were from this
era. Along with the Randolph Scott/Bud Botticher collaborations and the
splendid projects of such directors as John Sturges ("Escape From Fort
Bravo" /"Last Train From Gun Hill") and Delmar Daves ("Broken
Arrow"/"The Last Wagon"/"3 Ten To Yuma") there was also the splendid
collaborative efforts of Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann with their
remarkable contributions to the genre with "Winchester 73", "The Far
Country" and "Naked Spur".
But the first picture to really start things moving on the road to producing western films with a dimension of intellect and reality was THE GUNFIGHTER. Produced by Nunnally Johnson in 1950 for 20th Century Fox this was the first time audiences would be exposed to an "adult" western. A dark downbeat story of the last days of a gunfighter (perfectly performed by Gregory Peck) told with genuine realism and honesty. Stylishly written by William Bowers and William Sellers the screenplay was based on an original story by William Bowers and Andre deToth. Sharply photographed in monochrome by the great Arthur Miller the movie was directed with a positive flair by Henry King.
Peck plays Jimmy Ringo the now world weary legendary gunfighter who after many years arrives back in town to see his estranged wife (Helen Westcott) and their small son. Hoping for a reconciliation - and with plans to start over in California - his presence in the town causes a great stir among the citizens and of course attracts all sorts of young guns out to make a "reputation" for themselves one of whom, alas, will be responsible for the doom of the protagonist in the final reel.
The picture is fleshed out with a marvellous cast. Millard Mitchell is excellent as the reformed outlaw turned Sheriff who once rode with Ringo and now wants him to leave town before trouble erupts. Good too is Skip Homeier as the brash errant young gun and Karl Malden as the amiable saloon owner. Helen Westcott gives a good performance as Ringo's wife. A well measured portrayal of a woman who still loves her husband and who promises to leave with him which ultimately can never be. Helen Westcott was an interesting actress! Very attractive with classical good looks she was born in 1928 but never distinguished herself in film and is remembered now only for THE GUNFIGHTER and possibly for her humorous turn as the Lady Diana in "The Adventures Of Don Juan" (1948) as Juan's "betrotted". After many parts in many indifferent films she became just another working actress mostly on Television. She died in 1998.
THE GUNFIGHTER stands up today as an engrossing taut and dramatic western which shows little signs of wear. But I have a problem with the omission of any kind of musical score. The great Alfred Newman composed a cracking defiant and robust main title and only gave what amounts to a coda for the closing of the picture but there is no underscoring whatsoever during the movie. And there are a couple of scenes that cry out for some scoring and would have benefited with the addition of music. For a studio that boasted one of the finest music departments in Hollywood under Newman's direction Fox were the worst offenders of sparse scoring during this period. Who knows? Perhaps it was a money saving Zanuck decision but a practice I always found to be impractical, doctrinaire and at the expense of more meaningful dramaturgy. Motion pictures are not plays which depend solely on the spoken word to connect to an audience. Film has the facility, through music, to heighten emotions, point up feelings of love and loss and to embellish triumphs and pathos. Therefore, since the possibility exists to add music to a film soundtrack to enhance dramatic impact, movies should be scored!
However, underscoring not withstanding, THE GUNFIGHTER still manages to remain one of cinema's most cherished and highly regarded westerns.
Is there any place, any retreat, any home of retirement, that an
inevitably tiring gunman can move on to?
This predicament is best conveyed, explored and given its full tragic weight in Henry King's 'The Gunfighter.'
Ringo (Gregory Peck), wearing his reputation as the fastest gun in the south-west territories like a heavy load, enters each bar warily when he needs a quiet drink, knowing full well the reactionfear, respect, perhaps admiration, and certainly the intervention in some form or other of a young upstart with itchy gun-fingers.
Although Ringo, guilty for previous sins, tries to refrain and to avoid the shoot-out... But he is always compelled to eliminate the worthless maladjusted gunmen, wishful for a big name...
The pattern is set early on when Peck has to shoot a boy (Richard Jaecke1) in self-defense. And so a feud beginsyou feel it's only one of manywith the three brothers of the boy (Alan Hale Jr., David Clarke and John Pickard) hell-bent for revenge
Peck deals with this situation, at least for the moment, sighs and then moves on to a place that passes for home... Here is his wife (Helen Westcott) and his son, who won't, however, be providing him with a welcome since in the eight years that husband and family have been apart the wife has been trying to build a life of their own Here also is a sheriff (Millard Mitchell) formerly engaged in Peck's outlaw activities, but now reformed, and an old girl friend (Jean Parker) ready to he1p him in anything that concerns him most His actual concern is reconciliation with his wife and a new life together There is a tentative rapprochement but, of course, there is another of those young contender interventions, this time in the person of Skip Homeier
Henry King draws up carefully the ultimate end of the 'top gun of the West.' His film is an inclination towards a classical tragedy, destined to be destroyed inevitably... Peck strikes the right note from his first edgy entry... He wants to shake off his past... He is disgusted to kill in order to survive... He is aimless for a change, sick with death and glory, showing tiredness of killing, conscious to a tragic fate one day...
Peck is superb in his brief and nervy reunion with his small son, impressed like the rest of the local kids by the fact that Jimmy Ringo, the gunfighter, is in town...
"The Gunfighter", keen and penetrating, explosive and tense, is beautifully acted, tautly directed and superbly photographed by Arthur Miller in black-and-white...
This film was made during the peak years of "Film Noir". Although it is
almost incongruous to place the western film into that genre, "The
Gunfighter" comes close to meeting the criteria.
It is a deep dark western devoid of gunplay(until the conclusion)highlighted by a marvelous portrait painted by Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo, the gunfighter, trying to escape his past.
Ringo in his younger days was one of the "fastest guns in the west" who has survived to reach middle age. As he has matured he realizes you can't change what has happened.
Everywhere Ringo goes he is perceived as the "the fastest gun in the west" and everywhere he stops there is some young gun who wants to prove he is faster than the great Ringo. In fact when Ringo stops in a dusty town, he is being pursued by three brothers of his latest victim seeking revenge.
Ringo's arrival in this town is more than just co-incidence. We learn that the sheriff (what a performance by Millard Mitchell) used to run with the Ringo gang, the saloon singer was married to Ringo's best friend, and most importantly, Ringo's wife and son live there.
The bulk of the story is spent waiting to see if Ringo who lives by his wits as well as his guns, can survive.
The acting is uniform with Karl Malden as the saloon keeper and Skip Homeier standing alongside Peck of Mitchell for acting cudos
The script by Bill Bowers is taught and suspenseful. Henry King's in his second of 5 films with Peck(their previous collaboration was "Twelve O'Clock High") brings out the essence of a tired lonely tragic man without using any tricks(In fact there is no music except for the opening titles.
If you're looking for a shoot-em-up you won't find it here. If what you want is a top flight adult western, well pardner you've come to the right film.
This underrated classic deservs to be seen by true fans of westerns - in 1950 when it came out it was one of the first that tried to get it really right - the clothes, the guns, the look, etc. Peck gives a wonderfully angry, sad performance as Ringo an old gunfighter who is dead tired of the "life" and wants to retire. Fascinating characters, great performances, tight, strong script. Seek this one out. Made before High Noon but never gets the attention it deserves.
The Western is not my favorite genre. I've seen some of John Ford's
classics and many B-Westerns. Of most I can't even remember the titles,
but this one is different. It's much more a psychological study,
without the grand landscapes, backgrounds or epic story lines. If John
Ford's splendid cinematography is not for you, this one cuts back to
the basics of human relationships, without the epic adventure many
Westerns try to depict.
This film is skimmed down to an absolute minimum with Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo, notorious killer and the deadliest shot in the Old West. Though his appetite for bloodletting is over, Ringo is forced to stay on the run from young ambitious gunners determined to shoot him down. After killing an upstart in self-defense, he escapes to the nearby town of Caynenne. There, he hopes to convince his estranged wife (Helen Westcott) to resume their life together, but his arrival causes a sensation. With more young bucks gunning for him, Ringo's fate lies in the hands of the sheriff (Millard Mitchell), his old bandit partner.
With this film the old credo, "less is more", is evident. No great showdowns, not much action, just Gregory Peck in a great character study with carefully built-up tension. He never let me down, giving a fantastic performance, again.
Camera Obscura --- 9/10
THE GUNFIGHTER is the seventh western movie I've watched in the last
couple of weeks in my quest to catch up with a bunch of films I've
never seen that I recorded from TV. And I've made sure I've posted a
review as I viewed each for the first time.
THE GUNFIGHTER is another superb western from a director not normally associated with the genre. Falling squarely between the 1940s and 1950s, I was at first uncertain at to which camp this film fell into. It has all the incidents you'd expect in a 1940s oater, but overlaid with the kind of psychology and sensibilities you'd expect in a 1950s western. In the end, I decided this is a film about contrasts.
The first contrast you notice is the visual one. The movie is shot in black and white and it seems that those were the only two tones available to director Henry King. The exteriors are bright, bleached out and hard on the eyes. The interiors are dark, cool and gloomy. There doesn't seem to be much shades of grey going on (of course, I could have been watching a bad print, but work with me, here ...)
This visual contrast is echoed by the contrasts between the characters. The first of these we see is the contrast between Peck's Jimmy Ringo and the dumb kid who challenges him in the first bar. Ringo tries to talk him round, the kid won't have it and goes for his gun. But Ringo - of course - is faster. Darwinism at work ...
The next telling contrast is between Ringo and his old compadre, Town Marshall Mark Street. While Ringo still drifts from town to town, occasionally having to show some punk who's fastest, Mark has gone respectable and settled down. Mark is a respected citizen while Ringo's presence causes mothers to call their children indoors.
Then there's the contrast between Peggy, Ringo's estranged wife, and the gossipping, prejudiced biddies of the town. Is it any coincidence that Peggy is a teacher, representing education and, by implication, civilisation?
THE GUNFIGHTER is very tightly plotted at just 85 minutes. It seems longer because of the wealth of incident it packed into its slender running time. Film makers of today could learn a lot about how to pace a story from films like this.
If it shows up on TCM or somesuch satellite/cable channel, do yourself a favour and make the effort to catch it. It's well worth your while.
Many viewers may not expect this little known tale to grab their attention, but that,s exactly what it does. There are no spectacular gunfights, cavalry vs indians or raucous barroom brawls. It is quite simply a character study of a haunted man trying to exchange his reputation for a simple quiet existence far from his reputation. I suggest you watch this movie without outside interuptions. Don,t over analyze it,just accept it for what it is. Damn good storytelling.
Over a span of exactly 10 (1949 - 1959) years journeyman director Henry King shot five films starring Gregory Peck; two of them, The Snows Of Kilimanjaro and The Bravados were pretty ho-hum whilst the last one, Beloved Infidel with Peck as Scott Fitzgerald (King's next and final film was Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night)was woefully underrated and has still to find its audience. The first two, shot back to back, 12 O'Clock High and this one remain the pick of the bunch, two early and excellent studies of psychological stress. The Gunfighter is shot through with the air of inexorability that has been with us since Euripedes, Aeschylus and Sophocles were writing out of Athens in the 5th century BC. You are what you do; you can't reform and hope the Gods will forget your past. Take one false step and you've sealed your own fate. It's hard to think of an actor who, at the time (1950) could have conveyed an essentially decent killer (Alan Ladd of course did something very similar three years later in Shane but Ladd somehow lacked Peck's gravitas) so perfectly. Woefully underrated as an actor Peck was right on top of his game here, as he was in 12 O'Clock High and if they even considered 85 minute movies for Oscars then his Jimmy Ringo may well have preceded his Atticus Finch statuette-wise. William Bowers provided a very literate screenplay and snatches of dialogue have remained with me for years: an arrogant young punk (Richard Jaeckel) remarks to his barber-shop cronies that Ringo doesn't look so fast to him, 'I bet I'm faster than him', to which a friend replies drily 'if you're not can I have your saddle'; and Karl Malden's loquacious bartender, full of reminiscence of earlier encounters with Ringo 'I used to serve you and Bucky Harris all the time', to which Peck replies, equally drily, 'did we ever get a drink?'. Millard Mitchell was in both movies (12 O'Clock High and Gunfighter) and here he plays outlaw-turned-marshall Strett and serves as an illustration for what Peck's Ringo MIGHT have become if the Gods didn't have it in for him. We cover a lot of ground in 85 minutes whilst perversely seeming to have all the time in the world with King allowing his camera to linger on two-shots. Helen Westcott doesn't have much to do as Mrs Ringo but she lends just the right air of respectability that makes it hard for us to picture Ringo as a cold-blooded killer. As other posters have pointed out for a Western there's not all that much gun-play or even fistfights yet it towers over other Westerns that are packed with action. A real treasure.
Other than "To Kill a Mockingbird", I have not considered Gregory Peck to be
a great actor. Having only seen him in films like "Roman Holiday","The Man
in the Gray-Flannel Suit" and "Spellbound" I always thought his acting style
was a little on the stiff side.
However, and this is a big however........I have now seen both "The Gunfighter" and "Twelve-O-Clock High" (he made them in succession) and realize that he can be sensational in the right part.
His portrayal of Jimmy Ringo was so wonderful, especially at the end, I have completely changed my opinion regarding his acting ability. I also thought that Millard Mitchell (the Marshal) was excellent. The final scenes of this movie were absolutely riveting........which is not always the case with westerns. I was also not surprised to find out later that this script was nominated for an Academy Award. I would watch this movie again just for the dialogue.
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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