At the start of The Gunfighter, Jimmy Ringo is a man with eleven kills to his name, soon to be twelve. But the only place he actually appears to be very violent, or even very vital, is in other people’s language. “Just two hands, like anybody else.” “He don’t look so tough to me.” “If he ain’t so tough, then there’s been an awful lot of sudden natural deaths in his vicinity.” If Jimmy weren’t talked about this way—if he hadn’t been rendered into flesh-and-blood myth by being the skillful and lucky survivor of a few too many quick draws, in his outlaw days and in the many years that seem to have passed since he first tried to leave those days behind; if he hadn’t somehow secured himself a reputation as a savage killer on par with Wyatt Earp—he might barely exist anymore.
At least, the news of his arrival in a small town would likely make no real difference to anyone. But Henry King’s skillful, still-fresh film, released in 1950, has things on its mind besides starkly outlining western archetypes against the genre’s horizon. It is far more concerned with the mind and desires of its hero, for one—and with those desires on their own terms, less as shorthand for a way of life than as evidence of the ways of one man. The time is the 1880s. The place could be anywhere in the American Southwest; we get so few views of the environs, so little in the way of evoking a landscape in the manner that, say, John Ford does Monument Valley, that the actual setting almost doesn’t matter. What matters are a person’s choices.
The western is inescapably entangled with iconography—from the canon of real-life figures we still make movies about (your Earps, your Wild Bill Hickoks, your Calamity Janes) to the land itself, with its open horizons and its shifting populaces and politics, its double-edged promises of prosperity. Yet The Gunfighter largely trains its eye inward, and not just on the psyche of its protagonist. For a long while, it plays something like a hostage movie, during the part of the story when the cops have the place surrounded and the robber, the hostage taker, has himself become the hostage. Replace the bank with the Palace Bar in Cayenne, and replace the robber with the comparatively coolheaded Ringo, with everyone around him stepping in by turns to play negotiator. Ringo is very much trapped, in this movie, hemmed in on all sides. There is a gun trained on the door should he try to leave the Palace, and a crowd outside whose oppressively celebritizing gaze he would like to escape. There are also the two figures who have come to define his life, as they seem to crop up in every interchangeable town he passes through: a barkeep fanboy eager to draw him into conversation when he stops for a drink, and a young “squirt” who would like nothing more than to make a name for himself by taking down a big-league outlaw.
Ringo has his own desires to contend with, too, though—and the mission that landed him at the Palace to begin with. That story is also told through an emphatic sense of space. King’s movie is centered on the places where people live and work—a framework within which Ringo, who spends the movie waiting, can’t help but come off like a man without anything to hold on to. There are the marshal’s office, the schoolhouse, a barbershop, a store—all of them the sites of pivotal conversations. There’s the main street, too, opposite ends of which the Palace and the marshal’s office occupy. King traces the path between them in swift, crisscrossing tours that, as the street becomes more and more crowded with onlookers, begin to make the bar and the lawmen’s office seem a world apart—a fine analogy for the way the gap between Ringo and the upstanding life he seeks to lead grows wider as the movie tumbles on.
“What Gregory Peck shows us is how tired this man is, and how badly he wants out of life on the run from his own reputation.”
The Gunfighter is a film that, already in 1950, assumes we’re up to speed on the myth stuff, and asks us to consider the making of these icons as a part of the story. Rather than lingering on the gun-fighting renown of its hero, or giving us a braggart or someone tightly coiled, prone to swift violence, it gives us a long, lean, unflappable Gregory Peck—a presence, to be sure, but one very much at odds with the prevailing idea of a vigilante. What Peck shows us is how tired this man is, and how badly he wants out of life on the run from his own reputation. As if anyone could live up to such a reputation, even if he wanted to. What is a man like Ringo—whose rumored body count goes as high as fifty, depending on whom you ask—supposed to look like? Not like Peck usually did; his mustache here apparently so violated the star’s image that executives wanted it changed. But this is of a piece with King’s vision, which short-circuited the western repertoire to aim for unadorned realism. A genre audience trained on desert landscapes, murderous, alienated Native people, westward aspirationalism, and the like won’t find much of that here. Instead, we get a man looking to craft a redemption for himself—with redemptive arcs becoming another of the tropes King is undermining here. Ringo has come to Cayenne to see his wife, Peggy Walsh (Helen Westcott), and their young son for the first time in eight years. He’s here to take them away, into a future free of the cycle of violence that, by the time Peggy finally gives him the chance to propose his plan, has already made his death inevitable.
The Gunfighter paired King with producer Nunnally Johnson, in their second western outing, but this time with the addition of the elite film-noir mind of Andre de Toth, who conceived the story with screenwriter William Bowers (Bowers went on to cowrite the script with William Sellers). It was Bowers’s idea to borrow from one version of the history of an altogether minor figure: Johnny Ringo, a peripheral member of the Clanton gang and onetime opponent of Wyatt Earp at the O.K. Corral. Besides an evident skill with a pistol, there are few similarities between the real Ringo and the hero of King’s film. But one other detail is consistent: his murder at the hands of a man who not only gave him no chance to draw but bragged about that fact.
Darryl F. Zanuck was the head of Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, and he’s said to have been looking for a “prestige” western: one with the craft and moral seriousness of a picture by Ford (whose My Darling Clementine Fox had released in 1946) that would appeal to an audience beyond devotees of the genre. As Richard Slotkin has noted, the figure of the gunfighter as this film understands it was a new invention. De Toth drew particular insight from Eugene Cunningham’s 1934 book Triggernometry: A Gallery of Gunfighters, which was unique in its focus on sharpshooting as the basis for an archetype. The kind of man Cunningham had in mind wasn’t a professional killer or mercenary of the type that audiences were familiar with; he wasn’t a man reducible to his quick draw. But that idea—combined with de Toth’s taste for the lonely, troubled noir hero and the circumstances of the real Johnny Ringo’s death—was the seed of The Gunfighter’s best and most permanent notion: the (as Slotkin terms it) “killer-celebrity.”
There’s a trace of the fate of the killer-celebrity in Ford’s My Darling Clementine, actually. The Gunfighter’s elaboration on the idea, its inversion of the emphasis placed on the archetype, is part of what makes it such a different type of western. In Ford’s film, a drunk, violent Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) is pulled aside by Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and warned, “There’s probably fifty fellas around town just waiting to see you get liquored up so they can fill you full of holes, build themselves up a great reputation: the man that killed Doc Holliday.” The movie leaves it there, as it should: Earp dispenses his pearl of street wisdom like the fragment of social code that it is, to remind Holliday of the way their world works, and Holliday can do with it what he will. Ringo, by sharp contrast, experiences this dilemma less as a social norm than as the primary determinant of his own fate. In both films, peace on the frontier comes down to the choices of individuals—heroes and outlaws both. But in King’s, the outcome of those choices no longer has anything to do with the fate of civilization.
This is what it means to suggest that The Gunfighter peers inward, and that in doing so it represents an intriguing pivot in the history of the western. The presiding sense of fate that accompanies Ringo into Cayenne is what makes the character feel familiar but also out of place in this genre at this time. His arrival is, after all, a bona fide event. Word about it gets around, and if anyone has a job, few seem eager to do it. The local girls get the day off from school because the boys, hoping to witness a gunfight, are playing hooky and loitering outside the saloon. King takes pleasure in watching the news travel, his swift tracking shots picking up bits of detail and healthy heaps of shit-talk along the way. We see the moment that the town’s moral gatekeepers—a fastidious troupe helmed by a Mrs. Pennyfeather (the great Verna Felton, in a very Verna Felton role)—catch wind of these goings-on, by chance, on a visit to the store; we see the moment that Hunt Bromley learns the news, too, in a barbershop, where what ought to have amounted to idle chatter instead becomes the information that does Ringo in.
But what really seals Jimmy Ringo’s fate is the emotional baggage weighing him down and keeping him in Cayenne, the past that is catching up with him—an idea deftly literalized by the plot itself, with its insistently cyclical sense of comeuppance. In this way, the film has a noirish fatalism that is key to its enduring resonance. You certainly couldn’t argue that it was the first film of its kind to trawl the dark. But to do so with so little outright violence—to displace half of the film’s tension onto the question of the man’s future and his aspiration for reconciliation with his family, rather than making it merely the shoot-’em-up revenge tale it teasingly imitates—was something new.
The shoot-outs are a case in point: precisely staged and cut, beautifully gestural and psychological in their implications, but almost completely obfuscatory in their approach to violence. Just look at the opening inciting incident—which takes place in the town Ringo stops in before Cayenne—wherein the young upstart Eddie tries to take on Ringo, as Ringo could have predicted someone would, and dies for it. Ringo is at the bar; the conversation heats up; and suddenly we confront Ringo, a glass of whiskey in one hand, letting his shooting hand dangle near his holster with the intensity of a rattlesnake’s rattle. We cut to Eddie, who draws—and when a shot rings out, he falls out of the frame. We return to Peck, gun now in his hand, the shot still ringing in the air. But King—and editor Barbara McLean, whose rhythmic handling of not only this scene but the introduction of every new space and pivot in the film is another key to its success—has denied us the goods: Oughtn’t we get to see the famed gunfighter draw? Everyone else did—this becomes the subject of the scene. “Did you see that?” Ringo asks. Multiple men attest that they did. He asks because the fact of who drew first is the legal difference between self-defense and outright murder—though, so far as Ringo’s body count and reputation are concerned, it is clear the distinction is of no consequence.
Eddie’s death is the event that, lawless vengeance being what it is, sends the film spinning toward the inevitable. This becomes clear almost immediately, when Ringo is advised to get out of Dodge; Eddie, we learn, has three brothers. And though Ringo gets out ahead of them early on—taking their guns, scattering their horses, and leaving them to hoof it through the desert—they nevertheless remain in his rear view. The movie lets us forget about these guys until it doesn’t: their impending arrival is, after all, what makes Ringo’s departure from Cayenne necessary. As it happens, by the time we see them again, Ringo has already quashed a feud with one unwanted enemy in Cayenne and made another one: Bromley, last in the line of chest-thumping “squirts.”
One of the great joys of The Gunfighter, one of its most recognizably human touches, is in fact one of its most melancholic details: the shadow that crosses Peck’s face every time a barkeep tries to engage Ringo in a game of “Remember when . . .”; it’s the same deflated, agitated look he gets when it’s clear that a young man on his periphery is heading his way with aggression on his mind. Ringo isn’t exactly one to kill and tell, but it’s more than implied that he was once young and reckless. It’s his old friend and former fellow vigilante Mark (Millard Mitchell) who alludes to the man Ringo once was, the one who wanted to be “top gun of the West,” whose lifestyle once drove his family away but who now seems, if not regretful, at least thoughtful on the subject of violence. “Guess I got more people wondering when I’m gonna get killed than any other man in the country,” says Ringo. “You don’t sound as happy about it as you did the last time I saw ya,” says Mark.
A lot can change in eight years. An infant can grow into a healthy young child, for example. An outlaw like Ringo can live long enough to see his own youth catching up to him by way of violent karma. And an outlaw like Mark—now the marshal of Cayenne—can live to change his ways. Can Ringo? He tries; there’s an effective scene a ways into The Gunfighter in which Ringo, mistaken for one of Mark’s deputies, witnesses the “decent” women of Cayenne, led by Mrs. Pennyfeather, demanding that Mark do something about the presence in their town of Ringo, whom they believe, in unambiguous terms, to be a murderer. So here’s Ringo’s chance to mount a defense for himself. That he’s forced to make his appeal to a group of women foreshadows the appeal to come—to his wife, whom he spends much of the film waiting to see. His defense? Self-defense. One thinks back to the moment of Eddie’s shooting and Ringo’s insistent canvassing of the witnesses: “Did you see that?”
“So much of The Gunfighter breaks down along lines of who men are and who they want to be. ”
But who, then, is the man with twelve notches on his belt? You never doubt that Ringo is who he says he is. But the gulf between his reputation and the man we see on-screen couldn’t be wider. That’s in part thanks to smart choices on King’s part. And King could use the appreciation. His directing career started in the silent era, in 1915; he was more than an old pro by the time he teamed up with Zanuck for this feature. It was the second of his collaborations with Peck, who joined him for six films in the span of a decade: Twelve O’Clock High (1949), for which the star earned an Oscar nomination; The Gunfighter; David and Bathsheba (1951); The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952); The Bravados (1958)—another, rather darker western—and Beloved Infidel (1959).
Twelve O’Clock High and The Gunfighter make a particularly good case for what sets King apart without his being, in the auteurist sense, a personal or stylistically distinctive filmmaker. He was a good storyteller—which is to say that part of the impact of his films depends on the quality of the story. Give him a script that’s a little vexed or odd and he could do something with it, if not wholly surpass its limits.
King’s camera style is discerning and unobtrusive. The details that catch in The Gunfighter, the ones I recall when I play it back in my mind, are all thanks to the ways King sets up house in the Palace Bar—how carefully he tracks Ringo’s movements, physicalizes his evaporating calm in the deceptively straightforward staging of the actors and the inviting swing of the camera. There’s great tension in the way Peck carries his body throughout his Palace scenes: his isolated, careful stillness when Bromley shows up with trouble on his mind, or his showing us how Ringo is drawn toward the door—toward escape—only for circumstances to keep reeling him back in. All the while, King successfully animates a plot that, for all the ways it is about Ringo’s being static, cooped up in the Palace Bar in a sad kind of limbo, nevertheless seems to expand as it goes. That’s in part a credit to the film’s structure, the way one altercation and its cycle of vengeance turn into three such cycles: ghosts of Ringo’s distant past, recent past, and immediate present.
And that trio has an analogue in the fates of gunfighters, writ large, as the film presents them. Ringo, whose past glories cause him daily suffering, is but one option. There’s also Bucky, formerly of Ringo’s entourage and only lately dead, to consider. And Mark, of course: the one who got out, who went from being a source of social disorder to being a keeper of order. It seems clear that it is too late for Ringo to ever become a Mark. There’s nothing to say he won’t yet become a Bucky. And then there’s the life he wants, with his wife and child.
So much of The Gunfighter breaks down along lines of who men are and who they want to be. And who they were: more than once, Mark is asked how long he has known Ringo. It being a question about his past, it goes unanswered. In the way that Peggy has shed her former identity as Ringo’s wife, down to changing her name, Mark—prompted by some unspeakable experience that seems to have killed the fun for him—seems determined to forget his past. This background is what prepares him for the day’s nonsense, in which his central role will be as diplomat, a skilled handler not only of the unbridled mob his town has become but also of the local hothead who’ll make it worse, Bromley, and of Mark’s own unpredictable friend Ringo.
The role of Mark is an essential supporting one in part because it provides the psychological heavy lifting that another film might relegate to flashbacks. He provides context for who Ringo is. And for what this film is—for all its expansions on the western genre, it doesn’t abandon or deconstruct the hallmarks of the tradition. It is about a white frontier community, its drift toward civilization, its desire to curb lawlessness and encourage order. It still gives us a cowboy straddling the line between savagery and civility; his uneasy alliance with everyone around him, as he adheres to his own moral code within amorality, is familiar too. And, of course, all roads lead to a climactic gunfight.
But we shouldn’t oversimplify it. What makes The Gunfighter an admirable and unique accomplishment, and more than just a satisfying spectacle or good storytelling, is its handy undermining of its own redemptive arc. Perhaps we never really think things will work out for Ringo. Peggy’s choice not to leave with him—her choice to protect their son from what she, too, knows will be Ringo’s fate—is not really a choice at all. Just look at that crowd; there is no version of this story in which Ringo somehow, if only barely, gets out of this situation alive—heart-bruised and browbeaten, surely, but alive. It would be dramatic enough, tragic enough, a conclusion for him to end up a mere heroic failure, a man with no future. But that would be the outcome of a lesser movie, with a lesser vision than The Gunfighter’s surprisingly harsh view of a person’s chances of escaping their own fate.
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