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Gunfighter (The Criterion Collection), The

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // October 20, 2020
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted December 11, 2020 | E-mail the Author
During June and July 1950, the Western movie genre changed dramatically. There had been many important early Westerns, of course, from the 1903 silent film The Great Train Robbery through John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) and Howard Hawks's Red River (1948), but in the summer of 1950 three features heralded a far-reaching transformation. The B-Western genre was fast dying out and moving its tropes to series television, while, up to then, most A-Westerns weren't all that different from the Bs; glossier with bigger stars, certainly, often in Technicolor, yes, but precious few could be considered genre landmarks.

But then within weeks of one another came Anthony Mann's Winchester ‘73, the first of the dark, psychological Westerns starring Jimmy Stewart; Delmer Daves's Broken Arrow, also with Stewart, one of the first major Hollywood movies to treat Native Americans empathetically, even suggesting interracial love between whites and Indians might not be such a terrible thing; and, finally, there was Henry King's The Gunfighter, a noirish character portrait of a career gunslinger whose notoriety finally catches up to him. One example of its unusualness: ninety percent of the movie takes place indoors, mostly in a claustrophobic, shuttered saloon. Gregory Peck stars.

At an out-of-the-way saloon a young reckless cowboy named Eddie (Richard Jaeckel) foolishly taunts and ultimately provokes fast-draw gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Peck) into drawing his weapon in self-defense, Ringo reluctantly forced to kill the young man. Eddie's brothers (Alan Hale, Jr., David Clarke, and John Pickard), despite Ringo's obvious faultlessness, want revenge, but Ringo soon ambushes them out on the prairie, leaving the three without horses. Ringo rides into the nearest town, Cayenne, where his long-estranged wife, Peggy (Helen Westcott), and son live. Ringo longs for a reconciliation, hoping mutual friend Molly (Jean Parker), a prostitute, can arrange a meeting.

However, Ringo's arrival causes a great commotion in the normally sleepy, tamed Western town. Made uncomfortable by the crowds, Ringo is driven deep into Mac's (Karl Malden) closed saloon. The local Marshal, Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell), himself a reformed outlaw, urges Ringo to leave town immediately, discouraging him from attempting to meet with Peggy and their son, which Strett considers hopeless. Ringo believes he has time until Eddie's bloodthirsty brothers arrive, wrongly assuming they're having to walk all the way, unaware they've acquired other horses en route. Further, aspiring young gunslinger Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier) is anxious to make a name for himself as the man who shot Ringo, while another local, holed up in a hotel across the street with a rifle, blames Ringo for his son's death, and also intends on killing the infamous gunfighter.

The film did reasonably well at the box-office, though it was the least successful of that triumvirate of 1950 Westerns, Fox head Spyros Skouras blaming Peck's period-authentic mustache, of all things.

Strett, who understands Ringo, and Peggy, who still loves him, are the only ones in town who don't want a piece of him. Some want him dead to advance their own fame, or to avenge a killing Ringo may or may not have had anything to do with. The schoolchildren and townsfolk strain to catch a glimpse of the famous celebrity riding through town. Even Karl Malden's accommodating bartender wants to cash in on Ringo's notoriety.

Though Ringo's fast draw is on display, mostly The Gunfighter is about a man trapped by his own infamy. The quiet desperation in Peck's wonderful performance throughout is palpable. Worse, by midway through the movie the audience becomes aware that he hasn't got a chance. He's doomed, making his talk about reconciling with his wife and son, starting over, maybe moving far away and starting a small cattle ranch, we in the audience knowing, but not Ringo, that it's far too late, makes it all the more pitiful and painful. John Wayne famously lobbied for the role, disappointed when, for a time, rights to the story were owned by Columbia Pictures, a studio he harbored ill feelings toward and refused to work. But Wayne probably would not have allowed himself (though he certainly had the acting chops by this point) to exhibit the state of denial, fear and desperation Peck does.

Video & Audio

Criterion Blu-ray is presented in 1.33:1 format (why not 1.37:1 standard?) sourcing a 4K digital restoration by Fox in 2015. I've noticed many late'40s/early ‘50s Fox titles lack the crispness they should have, and in this case at least the less-than-perfect transfer's problems are rooted in having sourced 35mm duplicate negative rather than the original camera negative. Overall it looks fine, but it's still a good notch away from what one wishes it might look. The mono soundtrack was culled from a 35mm soundtrack print. SDH are provided and the disc is Region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

Supplements include featurettes with scholar Gina Telaroli on director Henry King and by J.E. Smyth on film editor Barbara McLean. Also included are audio excerpts from 1970-71 interviews with King and McLean; and a booklet essay by film critic K. Austin Collins. Criterion's artwork for the booklet and packaging are unusually good.

Parting Thoughts

A seminal Western still as powerful as when it was new, The Gunfighter is a DVD Talk Collectors Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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