The Gunfighter

THE GUNFIGHTER—“Well if he ain’t so tough, there’s been an awful lot of sudden natural deaths in his vicinity.”

33-year-old Gregory Peck had starred in 12 films since his 1944 debut, knocking back big hits with seven and earning four Oscar nominations, so it must have seemed this 1950 western, directed by veteran Henry King, was a lock. But #13, good reviews aside, was just modest with money, the $5,600,000 gross slow-drawing 48th place for the year. Leanly made, it was hardly a flop, yet the brass at 20th went ballistic, with Fox’s president Spyros Skouras bleating “Gregory, you cost me a million dollars with that goddam mustache.” In opting for realism, Peck & King went against the studio brass and outfitted haunted, hunted ‘Jimmy Ringo’ with an accurate period look in costuming, haircut and facial fur such that it raised squeals of “ick” from his legions of female fans. The wisdom of the choices, the fine work of actor and director and the all-round excellence of the movie has outlived the silly squawks of yesteryear.

Composer Alfred Newman jumpstarts the compact 84 minutes with a zesty title theme; the leathery tale that follows tracks the lonely trail of outlaw Ringo as he makes a last-ditch attempt to mend fences with his ex-wife and the son he’s never seen. Complicating hopes for a more peaceful life is the legend of his quick draw, something he can’t shake, what with eager young punks repeatedly goading him to prove who’s faster.

How come I’ve got to run into a squirt like you nearly every place I go these days?”

The no-nonsense screenplay was written by William Bowers (Pitfall, Support Your Local Sheriff) and William Sellers. Bowers and Andre de Toth earned an Academy Award nominee for Best Story. King, who had cemented a solid working relationship and friendship with Peck on Twelve O’Clock High, their first of six collaborations, runs a taut ship in this moody, realistic production, embellished with unobtrusive, well-picked details in characterizations and settings. Peck excelled at playing strong men struggling with matters of conscience, a deceptively calm exterior masking tightly wound inner torment. Ringo (this fictional one, anyway) would be a better man, but his choices, abilities and reputation have him hemmed in.

Sturdy support comes from Millard Mitchell, who aced a number of fine supporting roles before his 1953 death from cancer, just 50. He’s quietly strong as Ringo’s formerly rowdy associate, now the straight-edged town marshal. Look for Mitchell adding gravitas to Twelve O’Clock High, Winchester ’73, My Six Convicts, Singin’ In The Rain and The Naked Spur.

                                    Millard Mitchell

Karl Malden, 38, gets a plum early role as a unctuous bartender. The arrogant wannabe’s itching for fame are personified by Skip Homeier,19, the picture of nastiness, and Richard Jaeckel, 23 and begging for hard knocks. The only somewhat weak link is Helen Westcott, colorless as Ringo’s ex. The unsung Jean Parker makes more of an impression as a sympathetic bar maid.

Action is downplayed; the story is not centered around displaying violence but about rather about its costs. That said, Mitchell’s lesson-booting Homeier in the kisser is almost as gratifying as John Wayne’s later kick-dispatch of cur Strother Martin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Extremely well done, with good bits for Anthony Ross, Verna Felton, B.G. Norman, Ellen Corby, Alan Hale Jr., James Millican, Peter Brocco and Kenneth Tobey.

* In terms of quality 1950 was arguably the best year ever for westerns. Fabled 1939 may have been more of a watershed, the popular and critical success of Jesse James, Dodge City, Stagecoach and Destry Rides Again making the genre respectable, but 1950 unloaded both barrels, with The Gunfighter joining a mature and gritty crew led by Broken Arrow, Rio Grande, Winchester ’73, Rocky Mountain, The Furies, Devil’s Doorway and Two Flags West

** Frontier gunman Johnny Ringo (1850-1882) has been given reel-life on the big screen (notably Richard Boone in City Of Bad Men, John Ireland in Gunfight At The O.K. Corral and Michael Biehn in Tombstone) and numerous TV shows, including a one season series 1959-60. Peck considered The Gunfighter one of his favorite films: of the 53 features he starred in, he saddled up in the genre in 12 of them, among them epics Duel In The Sun, The Big Country and How The West Was Won. 

 

 

 

 

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