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.”
“So much of The Gunfighterbreaks down along lines of who men are and who they want to be. ”
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