A long, lean Texan, Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) has created quite a name for himself over the last few years. Throughout Texas and the southwest, he's known as the quickest, deadliest gunfighter around with anywhere from 10 to 15 men killed under his gun. Now with his infamous reputation established, Ringo rides from town to town dealing with young guns and eager rivals who want to be the one who killed the famous Jimmy Ringo. Having killed one trigger happy gunslinger (Richard Jaeckel), Ringo finds himself again on the run with some pursuers, the gunslinger's three brothers. He heads for the town of Cayenne with a purpose; he wants to see a woman, Peggy (Helen Wescott), from his past, but it may take some convincing. Ringo is looking for a change in his life, but he may be running out of time.
I have long sought this western from director Henry King out with no luck. I could never find a VHS tape, never find a DVD, never find it airing in the dead of night on a movie channel. Until now that is. I found a video store (GASP!) that actually has old VHS tapes (double GASP!) and wouldn't you know it, this was available. It is a western that is ahead of its time. It takes the concept of the romantic western and twists it around to a more realistic, darker world. The west wasn't white hats vs. black hats. It was a truly nasty, brutal place. So a western that portrays a trail-weary gunslinger who's sick of what he's become....and in 1950?!? We're talking about a movie released two years before the overrated High Noon and with a vastly different, significantly darker message. Moral of the story; I loved this western for a lot of reasons.
More than the story or the characters, 'Gunfighter' has a lot going for it. Filmed in black and white, it has an almost stage-based film noir feel to it. With a few, quick detours, the entire 85-minute running time is spent in the Cayenne saloon as Ringo waits to meet Peggy. We see the story from inside the saloon, from the street in through the windows, and the most bizarre thing...it works ridiculously well. If you've got two working brain cells, you know where the story is heading with King doing an incredible job building up the tension. We know the three revenge-seeking brothers (including Alan Hale Jr., David Clarke and John Pickard) are close behind, some quick cutaways showing them riding with a purpose across the desert. As Ringo waits in the saloon, we see quick shots of a clock on the wall. It's an underplayed, low key tension, but it works in a big way in building up that sense of doom right up until the finale.
Gregory Peck continues to impress me. As far as acting goes, he hit the ground running and never really looked back. Already with a handful of gems to his name, he follows his Best Actor nomination from Twelve O'Clock High with a role that should have at least earned him a nomination. With a few quick scenes, a few dialogue exchanges, we learn a ton about him. Years ago, he wanted to be the fastest gun in the west, and he earned the tag but now he has to deal with it and all it ensues. We learn some tidbits from his past, including his past with Wescott's Peggy and also with Cayenne's sheriff, Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell). A great scene with a youngster in town gives Ringo an added layer of depth that makes him more than just an infamous gunhand. King's film does a wise thing; Ringo is neither a prototypical good guy or bad guy. He's one of the first sympathetic anti-heroes I can think of. Another big winner for Peck.
In the supporting cast, Wescott and Mitchell are gems as Peggy and Mark, maybe the only two people in Cayenne on Ringo's side. The history among the three is a worthy, necessary addition to the story. Also look for Karl Malden as Mac, the saloon owner/bartender who buddies up to Ringo, Jean Parker as Molly, a saloon girl who knows Ringo well, Skip Homeier as Hunt Bromly, a young, inexperienced gunfighter who wants his chance at Ringo, and Anthony Ross as Charlie, Mark's capable if cautious deputy.
Some critical reviews point to the ending being a little heavy-handed in its execution. It's a fair criticism I suppose, but I think it's necessary to consider something. In 1950, a story shooting holes in the myth of the gunfighter is unique. It's new. It hasn't been seen. Yes, it spells everything out a little too much, but it was a necessary ending for a 1950 audience. What isn't in question is that the build-up and a surprising ending are pretty perfect. This is a western that deserves more notoriety (in a good way). It's a gem of the genre.
The Gunfighter (1950): ****/****