|Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter, 1950.|
Gregory Peck delivers an excellent performance as Jimmy Ringo in the 1950 western The Gunfighter. It’s a taut and tense little movie, and much of it’s 85 minute running time takes place in almost real time, upping the tension. As the movie opens, we see Ringo entering a saloon in a new town. His reputation as a famous gunslinger precedes him, and Eddie, a brash young man (Richard Jaeckel) challenges Ringo. Ringo warns him to not cause any trouble, but Eddie keeps provoking him, and when he draws on Ringo, Ringo shoots him dead. Ringo is warned to leave town, as Eddie’s brothers will be looking for revenge. Ringo leaves town and heads to Cayenne, where his old friend Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell) is the sheriff. Cayenne is also where Ringo’s estranged wife and son now live. The entire town of Cayenne takes to the streets as word spreads that the famous gunfighter is in town. Ringo takes refuge in the local saloon, owned by Mac (Karl Malden). Strett wants Ringo to leave town before any trouble ensues, but Ringo wants to see his wife and son. His wife Peggy (Helen Westcott) refuses to see him at first, but eventually relents. Ringo tries to reconcile with her, promising to go straight and to move to a place where no one knows of his reputation. Peggy says she will reconsider his offer if he can come back after a year of staying out of trouble. Ringo is also able to meet his son, who knows of Ringo’s fame, but doesn’t know that Ringo is his father. Ringo is just about to leave town when town punk Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier) shoots him in the back and kills him. Before dying, Ringo tells Strett to spread the story that he drew first, as he knows this will increase the pressure on Bromley as “the man who shot Jimmy Ringo.” The film ends at Ringo’s funeral, as Peggy lets the town know that Ringo was her husband.
The Gunfighter is an excellent film with good performances by everyone in the cast. Peck might not have been everyone’s first choice for a deadly gunslinger, but he gives Ringo the humanity needed for us to sympathize with him. It’s very strange for me to see Millard Mitchell in a western, since in my mind he will always be R.F. Simpson, head of Monumental Studios, from Singin’ in the Rain. Mitchell does an excellent job playing Strett, who used to be part of Ringo’s gang, but has since gone straight. Strett tries his best to be fair to both Ringo and the nervous townspeople.
A major theme of The Gunfighter is Ringo’s fame and notoriety, as this causes punks like Eddie and Hunt Bromley to pick fights with him. They say “Aw, he doesn’t look so tough,” and they think they can become the man who shot Jimmy Ringo. Ringo deliberately lies to Strett as he is dying, because he wants people to think that Hunt Bromley outdrew him, not that Bromley shot him in the back like a coward. Ringo knows that if people think Bromley outdrew him, they will hound him for the rest of his life, and he will constantly be fighting to uphold his reputation, just as Ringo had done.
Veteran director Henry King was behind the camera for The Gunfighter, and he did an excellent job of crafting an engaging movie with many memorable characters. King directed his first movie back in 1917, and some of his notable credits are the first movie version of State Fair, from 1933, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, with Jennifer Jones and William Holden, and Carousel, with Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. King also directed matinee idol Tyrone Power in 11 movies, including Lloyd’s of London, which tells the thrilling tale of how the insurance company was formed. No, really! It’s on my list of movies I want to see, just because I’m curious about how you could make that into an interesting movie. But seriously, King directed Power in many of his most famous movies, hits like Jesse James, A Yank in the R.A.F., The Black Swan, Captain from Castile, Prince of Foxes, and The Sun Also Rises. King had previously directed Peck in Twelve O’Clock High, and they would make six movies together. Another one of King’s movies that sounds interesting to me is 1959’s This Earth is Mine, about a winemaking family trying to survive during Prohibition, starring Rock Hudson and Jean Simmons. There aren’t very many movies about winemakers.
If you’re looking for an excellent western with a compelling plot and well-drawn characters, you’ll enjoy The Gunfighter.