Notorious gunfighter Jimmy Ringo rides into town to find his true love, who doesn't want to see him. He hasn't come looking for trouble, but trouble finds him around every corner.
REVIEW (WARNING: Spoiler Alert):
The Gunfighter is a classic in ‘western’ filmmaking. Easily categorized as a studio picture from the Hollywood Golden Age, it’s also one of the first anti-westerns films. And signaling an initial shift in studio thinking and approach, there are several genre-changing elements that separated it from most westerns of that era.
The hero and his story is dark and by attracting a star such as Peck, the actor was stating a belief in the material that went beyond typical box office concerns of the day. Westerns were a mythological expression of the formation of the American mystique, using grande visuals and locations their motif. Yet this film leaves the picturesque vistas behind and stages the story of an outlaw unable to escape his reputation in the confined, domestic spaces of a developed town. It’s a claustrophobic setting with which to express the ethos of the Wild West and a brave departure in style and genre. The result is a stark moral tale with a hero whose conflicts have become internal. Because of this, the movie was considered a risky proposition for both star and studio since at the time Peck owed much of his fame to his romantic appeal. In the long run, it was well worth the risk.
The film’s hero, Jimmy Ringo (Peck), rides out of the night and steps into a crowded border-town saloon. Although content to drink alone, he’s recognized and confronted by Eddie (Richard Jaeckel), who challenges Ringo’s reputation as the fastest gun in the territory. Eddie’s killed and Ringo’s amazing skill is demonstrated in the editing: we never see Peck draw and fire, only the boy as he draws first, but he’s not match. Ringo is left in a single frame with his smoking gun. King’s visual pace is brilliantly economic as he establishes Ringo as a drinker, an outlaw, a killer, and a shot too fast for the eye. Yet it’s Ringo’s reaction to the killing that resonates with meaning. There’s a hint of regret. This opening sequence seamlessly introducers us to character as theme and is one of many masterstrokes by the director.
Forced to run from Eddie’s vengeful brothers, Ringo is quick to outsmart his pursuers. Leaving them without horses, he escapes without killing, and heads for the next town as we discover that his true quest must be something other than gunplay.
On the run, continuously pursued by the brothers, Ringo arrives in Cayenne and enters another Saloon, the films central location. But this Saloon is empty, evidence that it’s a more civilized town. Cayenne’s Marshal, Steve Strett (Millard Mitchell) hearing of the legend’s arrival, investigates. It turns out that Strett is an old friend and, ironically, a former fellow gang member. He questions Ringo, discovering that he’s there to reunite with his estranged wife (the town’s school teacher) and the son he’s never met. We wonder, will Ringo survive long enough to reunite with his family?
This doubt lies partly in how we’ve seen him. Although he’s a killer, the labored, dusty way he walked into both Saloons shows that he carries the full weight of his past. He’s a dangerous man, also a world-wary pilgrim and Peck (with a performance unmatched until his Atticus Finch, in To Kill A Mockingbird) uses these contradictions to draw us in.
Ringo asks to send message to his wife in hopes of a reunion, the Marshal agrees, and compels him to stay indoors to avoid trouble as townsfolk gather outside. Also, a man with a rifle sits hidden in a window across the street. He’s ready to kill Ringo, convinced that the outlaw murdered his son long ago. Jimmy Ringo’s story surrounds, defines and traps him, dramatized in a swift ten minutes of film.
In the saloon the director’s mise-en-scene and metaphor are one; Ringo sits at a table, literally backed into a corner by the world he’s created in pursuit of notoriety. On the wall (and two years before High Noon) a ticking clock, visually linked to the advancing brother’s, tells us that time is against the man who has not yet settled his accounts.
This world is deep in contrasts and expresses the totality of Ringo’s life of killing and the fact that he’s headed towards crisis for it. Because we learn the man with the rifle is wrong about Ringo’s involvement in his son’s death we discover the hero is both the author of his own predicament and a victim of circumstance.
King suggests, that what lurks beneath a gunman’s heroics, is ruin and by questioning the moral outcome of such a life, the film is uniquely dark for it’s time. We know that Ringo wants to reunite with his family in spite of his past, however, what this “grown up” western gives us, are all the reasons why he never can. Through near classical tragic progression, a sinking feeling is created as Peck’s hero begins to regard his own history with a sense of distant resignation and we are made to feel that inevitable loss.
Peck’s acting is seminal but there are two supporting characters worthy of equal consideration. Karl Malden plays the Cayenne’s Saloon’s keeper, Mac. Skip Homeier, plays Hunt. Malden’s excitement runs the perfect counter to Peck’s somber reflection of the past. Mac, thinking of the future, naively helps to spread word of Ringo’s presence, hoping to draw the crowds long after Ringo’s gone. With a nebbish energy he predicts the money that will be made from Ringo having been there, saying “it’ll probably be a shrine.” King’s direction is subtle as the line floats; it’s prophetic tone noticed only by the audience. Skip Homeier, as Hunt, is an example of inspired casting. Homeier’s acting has a theatre-like projection, however, his characterization plays beautifully against Peck’s nuanced delivery, bringing Hunt in stark relief to Ringo as the boy who thinks he is a man. He’s a refection of Ringo’s past self, and the very reason Ringo is trapped the way he is. This is a fine example of support casting and the balance of personality and approach between actors, seen through the eyes of a great producer-director team. As well as great screenwriting. Nearing the end of the film, Ringo, pledging to return after finally meeting his son, attempts to makes his escape just as the brother’s are captured in town.
But never makes it out of the back allies were King has wedged the drama, far away from of the liberating horizon. A brooding Hunt Bromley jumps from the shadows and back-shoots the hero who cannot escape his fate. It’s an expected moment, yet a sudden and unforgiving one.
Dying, Ringo insists that he drew first and Hunt’s off the hook for murder. Turning to his killer Ringo declares he wants him to live long enough to learn what it means to “be a big, tough gunny.” His last words, “you’ll see what I mean. Just wait” and Ringo dies self-aware, though maybe not redeemed. To underscore this, Ringo’s wife and son hear the shot and the rumor of his death away from the scene. Marshal Strett drags Hunt into a barn, and with an ugliness rarely seen in films before the 70’s, beats him while explaining how Ringo has cursed the young man; others will come for Hunt’s fame, but not in his territory, and he orders Hunt to leave Cayenne and “get killed somewhere else”. A final vicious kick to the head (but in the edit, no contact seen, keeping to King’s motif) leaves Hunt Bromely a hopeless soul. The final shot of the film is a dark silhouette of a man on horseback riding to the horizon. It’s not clear whether the figure is Jimmy Ringo released from his destiny or Hunt Bromely riding towards his.
This new vision of the Wild West is as profound as it is startling and many of the critics noticed something special. There are few romantic notions to let the audience off-the-hook in The Gunfighter, and Henry King, supported by a brilliant script and acting, proves to be a director of considerable vision.
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