Friday, October 14, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Gunfighter (1950)

The Gunfighter (1950) ****
Directed by: Henry King.
Written by: William Bowers and William Sellers.
Starring:  Gregory Peck (Jimmy Ringo), Helen Westcott (Peggy Walsh), Millard Mitchell (Marshal Mark Strett), Jean Parker (Molly), Karl Malden (Mac), Skip Homeier (Hunt Bromley),  Anthony Ross (Deputy Charlie Norris), Verna Felton (Mrs. August Pennyfeather), Ellen Corby (Mrs. Devlin), Richard Jaeckel (Eddie).

The Gunfighter was years ahead of its time when it came in 1950. Darkness was just starting to creep in Westerns at that time – in films like Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948), but for the most part, Westerns will still fun, entertaining adventures. But The Gunfighter looks at the dark side of the Old West – and stars Gregory Peck in one of his greatest performances as a gunslinger, already old at 35, who is tired of living life on the run, tired of having to prove just how tough he is every time he walks into a bar, or really anywhere else he goes. All he wants is to live a normal life – and that is something that he almost certainly will never have.

Peck stars as Jimmy Ringo, who along with Wyatt Earp is one of the most famous gunfighters in America. Everyone knows his name and how many people he has killed (or at least they think they do, as many more deaths have been attributed to Ringo than he actually killed). The film opens with a wonderful sequence where a young Richard Jaeckel finds out the stranger at the bar is THE Jimmy Ringo. “He don’t look so tough” Jaeckel says, and proceeds to antagonize the older man, who tries to get the kid to sit down and shut up, but the kid won’t listen. When he draws his gun, Ringo has no choice but to kill him. But Jaeckel has three older brothers, who are none too pleased that Ringo killed the baby of the family – never mind that it wasn’t Ringo’s fault – and they come after him, forcing Ringo to leave town. That doesn’t matter too much to Ringo anyway – he’s already on his way somewhere else.

The movie takes place over the span of 24 hours – with most of it happening in a barroom in a small town. The bartender is Mac (Karl Malden), who remembers Ringo “from the old days”, and the Town Marshall is Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell), who used to run with Ringo and his gang, has now gone on the straight and narrow. All Ringo wants in town is to see Peggy Walsh (Helen Westcott), the wife he had to run out on years before. If she’ll talk to him, he’ll leave with no trouble.

For a Western, the action in The Gunfighter is oddly muted. There are only three gunfights in the movie, and even using the term doesn’t quite seem right. When they come, they come quickly, and are over just as fast. Most of the movie is simply Peck’s Ringo, walking around the bar trying to figure out why his life went so wrong, and what he could have done to prevent it. The other part of the movie is the town’s reaction to Ringo being there. Some are scared, some “don’t think he looks so tough”, but everyone is curious. One of my favorite scenes in the movie involves the local ladies, who all get behind Mrs. August Pennyfeather (Verna Felton) as they go to the Marshall Strett to demand that he run this murderer out of town – or even string him up. Little do they realize that the ever polite man they are talking to as they wait for the Marshall is actually the nefarious evil doer himself.

The Gunfighter calls to mind a film like Unforgiven (1992) – which was about a much older gunfighter, who had many more kills to his name, who has tried to go straight. Clint Eastwood’s film is a masterpiece – one of the very best Westerns ever made, and The Gunfighter is pretty much just as good. Gregory Peck was known for the dignity he brought to his roles – he did after all play Atticus Finch – and he brings that same dignity and authority to his role here. But he also brings a tiredness – a weariness to this role that fits it perfectly. This could just be the best work of Peck’s career. Millard Mitchell works well as the Marshall – a man who realized the path he was travelling would lead him nowhere before Ringo did – in essence before it was too late. There is no hatred or anger in him towards Ringo – but more of a pitying sympathy. Ringo is holding onto a delusion that he knows really isn’t going to happen, and Mark knows it too, but they don’t mention it. Sometimes delusions are all we have.

The film was directed by Henry King, who was an old pro of the Hollywood system. He also directed Peck in 1949’s High (a film I really do need to watch for this series at some point). Hardly one of the greats of the studio era, and not much remembered today, here he finds the perfect way to shoot the movie. The period detail is more accurate that most Westerns of its era – including Peck’s ridiculous mustache and bowl haircut – and he captures the sudden violence and the weary tone of the film perfectly. Had The Gunfighter been directed by someone like John Ford or Howard Hawks, it would probably be recognized as one of the greatest Westerns ever made – it certainly deserves to be. But it wasn’t, so to a certain extent the movie has toiled in relative obscurity throughout the last 61 years. This needs to change. The Gunfighter is a masterpiece.

No comments:

Post a Comment