Westerns became darker after the war, in some cases translating aspects of the urban film noir mood and style to the wide-open spaces. The signature westerns of this type were the eight that director Anthony Mann made starring Jimmy Stewart, including my recommendations Bend of the River and the Naked Spur. But other filmmakers also made major contributions to the rise of the moody oater, including the talented team behind the 1950 classic The Gunfighter.
Written by William Bowers and William Sellers based on a story by the noir-experienced director Andre de Toth, the plot centers on world-weary gunhand Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck). He’s lived a life of violence that he can’t seem to escape. Every town he visits seems to include either a young “squirt” who wants to become the man who outdraws the legendary Jimmy Ringo, or, a vengeful relative of one of the many men he’s killed. But what Ringo wants is to retreat into a peaceful, domestic world by reuniting with his ex-lover Peggy Walsh (Helen Wescott) and their young son (B.G. Morgan). Ringo travels to a small town to reunite with his estranged family, where he camps out at a bar watched over by two other figures from his past, a chatty bartender who seems enchanted by Ringo’s exploits (Karl Malden) and an old running buddy who has gone straight and become a Marshall (Millard Mitchell). As Ringo waits and waits on Peggy’s decision, a crowd grows outside the bar, observing him like a circus animal. And as ever, men with guns are on his trail.
There are some action sequences in this film, but the energy here comes mainly from the excruciation of waiting, much like in another classic western of the period, 3:10 to Yuma (The original, not the disappointing 2007 remake). As Ringo’s penitent wait goes on and danger closes in, the viewer is increasingly, nervously, riveted. And like many of the best noirs, the movie dangles hope for redemption in front of the audience while undermining it with a cynical undercurrent of inevitable doom. The Gunfighter is about the isolating effects of living a violent life, which Arthur C. Miller, one of the most garlanded cinematographers of the period, conveys artfully through deep focus shots in interior settings (like the one at the top of this post) and shadowy wide screen shots in the desolate outdoors.
Director Henry King never quite ascended into the pantheon of all-time great directors, but he was a very good one for a very long time. King was an effective storyteller in multiple genres. And he particularly knew how to make the best use of Peck, whom he directed half a dozen times. As for the star himself, this is one of his greatest performances. He is cold and tough at one moment, vulnerable and warm the next, without making the transitions seem affected. And he makes the audience root for a man who is, let’s face it, a serial killer, even if he never shoots an unarmed man. Peck is well-supported by the rest of the cast, particularly Mitchell and Wescott in the biggest supporting roles (credit to King here too).
This remarkable film includes a few light moments, but an air of sadness prevails. As desperately as Jimmy Ringo wants to escape the life his choices have created, a line of other men desperately want it for themselves. Sometimes we can’t make good our mistakes and are equally helpless at stopping other people from making the same ones. That bleak view of human existence was central to film noir, and gives this noirish western enormous psychic weight
p.s. Intriguing historical note: different sources says that John Wayne either turned down the lead role and regretted it, or was denied the role and resented it. In any event, late in his life he visited quite similar dramatic territory in The Shootist.
p.p.s. William Bowers later wrote a hilarious spoof of the Western genre, which I recommend: Support Your Local Sheriff.