By the late 1940’s, the Western was beginning to grow up. Films like Robert Wise’s BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948), Mark Robson’s ROUGHSHOD (1949), and William Wellman’s YELLOW SKY (1949) incorporated darker, more adult themes than the run-of-the-mill shoot ’em up. Henry King’s THE GUNFIGHTER tackles the still-relevant issues of celebrity culture and the price of fame, personified by Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a notorious fast gun whose reputation brings him the adulation of the masses but little peace.
Jimmy Ringo is weary of being challenged everywhere he goes by young punks eager to make a name for themselves. When one such punk (played by a young Richard Jaeckel) draws on him at in a saloon, he quickly learns how Jimmy earned his fast-draw rep. Problem is the punk has three brothers who “ain’t gonna care who drew first”. Ringo once again hits the trail, heading for the town of Cayenne, New Mexico, this time with a purpose in mind. His estranged wife Peggy is living there, along with the child he’s never met, having been on the run eight long years.
Cayenne is all a-buzz about the presence of the infamous gunfighter in their humble town. Saloonkeeper Mac (Karl Malden ) treats him like royalty. The local schoolkids, including Jimmy’s own, skip class and line the streets to get a glimpse of the famous Jimmy Ringo. But not all are so welcoming. Jimmy’s former outlaw pal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell ) is now town marshal, and wants his old pardner out-of-town ASAP. Peggy (Helen Westcott) refuses to see him. Yet another young punk, Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier ), wants to test his mettle against Ringo. The ladies auxiliary (led by Verna Felton and Ellen Corby ) demand he leave town. And those three brothers keep riding, hot on Jimmy’s trail and hellbent on revenge…
Peck cuts a menacing figure as Jimmy Ringo, with his perpetual scowl and dark moustache. By this time, he had become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, with credits like THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, SPELLBOUND, THE YEARLING, DUEL IN THE SUN, and GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT. More hits would follow, including his Oscar-winning performance in 1962’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Jimmy Ringo is tired of being hounded at every turn, whether by celebrity seekers or the next two-bit punk. Ringo’s an outlaw and a killer, to be sure, yet Peck manages to elicit sympathy as a man who only wants to live out the rest of his life in peace and anonymity.
All the supporting cast are good, but I wanted to make special mention of Jean Parker in the role of Molly, a saloon girl once married to one of Ringo’s gang. Miss Parker, a promising starlet in the early 30’s, had been relegated to starring in low-budget films for Universal, Monogram, and PRC for a decade. THE GUNFIGHTER was her first movie role in four years, after replacing Judy Holliday on Broadway in BORN YESTERDAY, and she makes the most of her limited screen time. Some of my favorites with her are Laurel & Hardy’s THE FLYING DEUCES, Lon Chaney Jr’s “Inner Sanctum” mystery DEAD MAN’S EYES, and Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD (with John Carradine). It’s a pleasure to see Jean Parker in anything, and her presence adds to this film’s success.
Director Henry King made his first film in 1915, and was responsible for classics like IN OLD CHICAGO, THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, WILSON , TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (with Peck), and LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING, among many others. King keeps his focus on Ringo and the world he lives in, hunted and haunted by his notoriety. THE GUNFIGHTER is a genre classic, and helped the Western movie mature and move with the times. As relevant today as it was in 1950, in my opinion this is a must-see film.