Thursday, January 26, 2012

Movie Review: The Gunfighter

The Gunfighter (1950) 
directed by Henry King, starring Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott

Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) may be the fastest gun in the West but even he can't shoot fast enough to keep up with his own deadly reputation. Everywhere he goes, some itchy gunfighter is just dying to challenge him and earn a name for themselves. But Ringo is tired of the fighting and the killing. After disposing of one overeager young buck (Richard Jaeckel), Ringo is forced to skip town early, with the boy's three angry brothers on his tail.

He makes his way to the small, quiet town of Cayenne, hoping to reunite with his old sweetheart Peggy Walsh (Helen Westcott) and their young son. But the town soon finds out that the notorious gunman is in town and they all crowd around the local saloon, from the little boys to the local barflies, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. The local sheriff Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell), an old friend of Ringo's, has his hands full trying to keep the peace and begs Ringo to leave. But Ringo won't leave until he talks to Peggy, even as she swears up and down that she'll have nothing to do with him.

Meanwhile, the local tough, Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier), is hanging around, hoping to take a shot at Ringo himself, and a grieving father (Cliff Clark) is out for Ringo's blood too. The clock keeps on ticking and Ringo's enemies are drawing closer but the gunfighter refuses to leave town. Peggy and his son are his last shot at freedom and he's got to try. Just five more minutes and then he'll go...

I realized that I hadn't reviewed a Western on this site yet and decided to start making up for it with The Gunfighter, a much-respected but relatively lesser-known classic. It's a story with elements that feels achingly familiar to even a casual Western fan. A tough and weary gunman wants to retire, his enemies are after him, there's the promise of revenge and love and death in a small, dusty town. But in 1950, when the film first came out, it made the critics sit up in surprise at its cold-sober approach to the mythical gunslingers of the West.

It begins at the end, after the glamor and violence have taken their toll. Our hero is a dusty, depressed man (with a period-appropriate mustache no less), hanging out in saloons and back rooms. He can't even order a drink without some cocky kid trying to pull a gun on him. There's no noble cause for him to fight, not even a worthy villain to take down. Just the grim and unpleasant business of survival. Other later Westerns would take similar tacks. We would get the unhappy, underpaid gunmen of The Magnificent Seven, the lonely Shane, the bloody bandits of The Wild Bunch, and the secretly sadistic Will Munny of Unforgiven. But The Gunfighter still stands apart, even today, for its cool simplicity. There are no heroes or anti-heroes or even villains. There are men with guns.

The Gunfighter came to life from a chance remark made by Jack Dempsey, at a dinner with screenwriter William Bowers. The former heavyweight told him that everybody always wanted to take a punch at him, because he was the champ. This sparked something and Bowers, with the help of writer-director Andre de Toth, spun the tale of a Western gunslinger cursed by his own fame. Originally, The Gunfighter was intended to be a John Wayne picture. There are conflicting stories as to what happened (Greenbriar Pictures has an excellent rundown of the film's history) but ultimately, Wayne was left nursing a grudge and the role went to Gregory Peck at Twentieth Century Fox.

Darryl F. Zanuck had already seen one "thinking man's Western" crash and burn at the box office with The Ox-Bow Incident and he saw similar danger signs in The Gunfighter. "It is unquestionably a minor classic, violates so many true Western traditions that it goes over the heads of the type of people who patronize Westerns," he said in a memo. "But on the other hand," shrugged Zanuck, "there was no formula mold about The Snake Pit and look what it did."

Putting Gregory Peck in the John Wayne role is the kind of casting choice that could give you whiplash. "He don't look so tough to me," is a constant refrain throughout The Gunfighter and you can imagine a disgruntled Wayne saying the same thing. But Peck uses that to his advantage here because of course, Ringo's reputation has grown far larger than the man can possibly sustain. He may be "tough" in the way he shoots a gun and stares down a bullet, but he's been reduced to popping off the pipsqueak kids who get in his way. Peck conveys much of that through his body language; he walks stiffly, he sits with his back hunched over and his arms held tight to his body, as if trying futilely to make his long limbs look smaller.

As Jimmy Ringo, Peck is more than just credible. He's heartbreaking. It's a portrait of a man whose life has essentially been whittled down to saloons and pointless fights, without even a drinking problem to keep him company. The only thing he has to hold onto is the promise of a new life with his love Peggy. When Ringo and Peggy finally meet, all Peck's tough-guy talk evaporates and he babbles on excitedly about running away to South America together. "We can make it, honey, we can make it," he says to her, clutching her like she's a life preserver. But in his face, we can see the truth.

Even better is the moment when Peck confronts an outraged citizen of Cayenne, who tries in vain to shoot him. "You killed my son--Roy Marlowe, remember?" the man tells him. Ringo doesn't recognize the name and the man sneers at him. "You killed him all right, but you don't even remember it." Peck denies it, stone-faced, but his eyes flicker for a split second. He hustles the man into a spare jail cell, telling him, "you're not safe running around loose." Peck voice sounds reasonable and sincere enough, but he shades his reaction just enough to show Ringo's fear at the thought that he can no longer keep track of the men he's murdered.

The film's biggest asset though, even more than Peck, is its claustrophobic and near-flawless screenplay. The screenwriters are canny enough to insert a ticking clock almost as perfect as the one in High Noon: Ringo can only stay in Cayenne for so long before three vengeful brothers catch up with him. His friends beg him to leave in a hurry but Ringo delays, hoping to see Peggy. Forced to hide from the town, he is consigned to bare dusty rooms and empty hallways, while the townsfolk eye him from the windows. Westerns are usually synonymous with open space and expansion but The Gunfighter refuses to give its hero (or its audience) any breathing room.

Later Westerns like Shane and The Magnificent Seven would follow The Gunfighter's portrayal of gunslinging as a cruel, lonely life. But few Westerns are as willing to be so resolutely anti-glamorous as this film. Even Unforgiven was kind enough to give its antihero a thunderously evil villain to fight against. Here, Jimmy Ringo must content with a series of idiot kids who constantly want to challenge him, like the ridiculously weaselly Skip Homeier (looking like a former member of the Dead End Kids). We see these numskulls in Western films all the time but usually they get picked off in the first five minutes. Here, they just keep coming. It makes gunslinging look about as much fun as being a professional fly-swatter. 

Prior to this, I only knew Millard Mitchell as the blustering R.F. from Singin in the Rain, the world's most understanding studio head. But he's unexpectedly marvelous here as the wise and weary Marshal Mark Strett. Mark takes one look at Ringo and knows exactly what kind of trouble has walked into his town. Ringo assures him, smiling, that he isn't going to start anything. Mark studies his old friend coolly, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "You sure?" Mitchell doesn't look much like a former tough guy, but he makes up for it with the simple, understated intelligence he gives to Mark. This is a man who can square the local toughs and pacify the village matrons, all without raising his voice. Next to him, Peck looks like an anxious, eager kid.

In addition to Mitchell, we have the ever-welcome presence of Karl Malden, as the grinning, fawning barkeeper Mac. Mac remembers Jimmy Ringo from the old days and he's happy to reminisce, fussing over him and offering him favors. Compared to the rest of the would-be alpha males in the film, Mac seems practically emasculated. He always walks around in a white apron, the little boys in town jeer and throw things at him. Even a skinny tough like Skip Homeier is enough to intimidate him. Malden retreats, eager to smile and pacify. But there's a darker side to all Mac's niceness. As Ringo gets ready to leave, Mac tells him that from now on, "this place'll be famous, it'll be like a shrine." Ringo jokes that maybe he should get money for that. Mac stares back at him, dead serious. "Why not? You're the one that's done it." Mac might like Ringo well enough as a person, but he likes him even more as publicity.

Unfortunately, two of the film's most crucial characters, Peggy Walsh and her son Jimmy, are played to lackluster effect by Helen Westcott and B.G. Norman. Westcott is young and pretty and she certainly carries herself like a prim schoolmarm. She rejects Ringo, not with anger but with blank weariness, and you sense that the defects in her husband's nature are as familiar to her as the multiplication table. But she's a little too stiff and cool; she doesn't act like a woman who ever had much passion to smother. When she and Ringo finally meet, there's no sense of the history crackling between them. How did she ever wind up as a gunman's girl?

B.G. Norman, playing the small but vital role of Ringo's kid Jimmy, is worse. He's like a transplant from 1950s suburbia, all "gosh" and "huh" and "aw shucks." Norman can't help the dialogue he's being asked to play but it's clear that little was expected from him outside of generic cuteness. In the pivotal meeting between Ringo and his son, it's Gregory Peck who has to carry all the emotional weight. Which he does, tremendously. He looks at Norman with barely concealed wonder and longing even as he gruffly tries to give the boy a few life lessons. Don't bust into a room, don't draw on an unarmed man, don't tangle with the tough guys. For all Peck's stentorian wisdom, there's very little of Atticus Finch in this performance. This is a man fumbling to fill a decade's worth of fathering in the space of five minutes.

Western heroes, like their distant cousins in film noir, always seem to know that they live on borrowed time. When death finally catches up to them, it carries the ring of inevitable. For Jimmy Ringo, the only question is who will finally be the one to do for him. But, as The Gunfighter makes clear, sometimes the answer to that question doesn't mean a damn thing. Gunfighters die but the game goes on.

Favorite Quote:

"Here I am, thirty-five years old and I ain't even got a good watch."

Favorite Scene:

The Gunfighter is a film wound as tightly as the watch Gregory Peck doesn't have. Trying to pick it apart to find a favorite scene is difficult but I'll try. Jimmy Ringo is in Mac's saloon, waiting impatiently for news of Peggy. Peck rocks back and forth in his chair, barely able to keep his composure. From outside, we can hear the chatter and giggles of children. Mac comes over to him, chatting jovially over a fresh bottle. Then one little boy peeks his head from under the door of the saloon, grinning openly at Ringo. The camera pans to two more boys glued to the window. "Somebody chase those kids out of there! Haven't you got a school for 'em?" Peck barks, jumping to his feet. Mac assures him that he can make the kids leave and rushes out, shooing them away. We see that it's not just little boys, but grown men too, laughing and jeering, unable to keep away. 

A few of the boys retreat, only to throw snow at the anxious mother hen Mac. One of the ladies of the town grabs the instigator (Ringo's son, it turns out). "Just you wait 'til your mother hears about this!" she snaps. The boy responds with one of the standard answers, "We're not hurting anybody." He's not defensive, he's completely sincere. And you realize that none of these people, from the boys to the men, understand what they want from Ringo. They don't think they're there to hurt him, but they can't keep away from him. The crowd continues to fishbowl Ringo and even after the scene ends, there is never a moment in the film where you don't feel their presence. Their attraction and aggression to Ringo just draws them in. The language of The Gunfighter is serious and civilized, but the image of those people crowding mindlessly around the saloon, staring longingly in at Ringo, is a slap in the face to anyone who thinks we're that far removed from the animals.

Final Six Words:

No heroes here, only dead dreamers


  1. Rachel,

    I haven't seen the movie but now I want to. I take it that the movie doesn't end well?

    Millard Mitchell also appears in a crucial role in another western- Winchester '73. His character is so decent and in such a non-ingratiating way that I was afraid that he was going to die at the end of the movie (he doesn't).

    I kinda wish that R.F. was the studio head at Columbia instead of Harry Cohn and who lets Welles edit his Lady from Shanghai and the studio head at MGM in '28 who gives Buster Keaton a free rein and unlimited budget, and the studio head who hires Stroheim and Lang and Ophuls and ... well, you get the idea.

    Now I'm trying to think of the appropriate replacement for the Hays Office.

  2. Shamus: It's funny. Right after I wrote this review, I went and saw Thieves' Highway, where Millard Mitchell was equally good as the shifty but still decent truck driver Ed. I'll have to keep an eye out for him from here on in. I think the Hays Office is an entity that just can't be niced up, although I often wonder about the censors who let Miracle of Morgan Creek by. Temporary bout of insanity or the black magic of Preston Sturges?

  3. I'll have to put this on my TBW list.

  4. I {heart} Rhody: I'd recommend it, even to non-Western fans.

  5. Rachel, first of all, congratulations on THE GIRL WITH THE WHITE PARASOL being inducted into the CMBA -- you deserve it! Second, although I'm usually more drawn (no gun pun intended :-)) to suspense films with comedy elements, I've liked a handful of Westerns, and it sounds like THE GUNFIGHTER will be one of them once I have a chance to watch it! Your post was so moving; you really put across the non-glamorous, lonely side of the gunfighter's life, still being goaded into gunfights even though Ringo wishes everyone would leave him in peace. It really gave me food for thought, especially the insinuation that Ringo has lost track of how many men he's killed in gunfights. I especially liked this line: "It's a portrait of a man whose life has essentially been whittled down to saloons and pointless fights, without even a drinking problem to keep him company." Kudos to you on an excellent post!

  6. Dorian: Getting comments from you is like a double scoop of ice cream :) Thank you for your thoughts and for mentioning what parts you liked. The Gunfighter is very much like The Ox-bow Incident, it's more of a melancholy morality play than a bloody shoot-up.

  7. Just catching up with this one as I troll through the CiMBA nominations; terrific post, Rachel, on one of my favorite western classics (Zanuck's "minor classic" is understandable, given how early on he said it, but I think the perspective of time enables us to drop the "minor").

    Another major asset to The Gunfighter, I think, was director Henry King; he's not mentioned much in the history books anymore, but in his day (which ran from 1915 to '62) he was one of the best at building a really lived-in movie -- to say nothing of getting two of Gregory Peck's best performances, in this and 12 O'Clock High.

  8. Jim Lane: Wow, Jim, it's so kind of you to drop in to comment on an old post. I find it unfair that the tag of "revisionist Western" is used so frequently for films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, and Unforgiven, when this film did it even earlier. And still holds up pretty damn well. Yes, I remember reading about how much Henry King insisted on historical accuracy, right down to that period mustache that the studio hated so much.

  9. Congratulations Rachel on your CMBA Award - Great post for a little known Greg Peck film. Keep up the great work.