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Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Gunfighter

The Gunfighter is one of those fascinating psychological Westerns that I love. The title suggests there are shootouts a-plenty, but there are only two. Most of the film is talking, and most of that in a bar. But it is great nonetheless.

Gregory Peck is Jimmy Ringo, the fastest gun in the West, but he's older and tired. The title is a curse--every town has what he calls a squirt gunning for him. Everyone wants to be man who kills Ringo.

At the film's opening he encounters just such a fellow (a young Richard Jaeckel). "He's not so tough," Jaeckel says, and his companions warnings he does not heed. Peck has to kill him, and learns that he has three brothers who won't care who drew first. So he hits the trail, the brothers following (one of them is Alan Hale Jr., later the Skipper on Gilligan's Island).

Peck heads for a town where his long estranged wife (Helen Westcott) lives. She's changed her name, and their son doesn't even know who his father is. Peck wants to give up gunslinging and open a ranch where nobody knows him, and hopes to talk to Westcott. He runs into the Marshall, who happens to be an old crony of his (a very good Millard Mitchell). Marshall, in the interest of Peck and the town, wants him to leave, but is willing to let him stay to talk to Westcott.

So Peck stays in the bar (tended by Karl Malden) while children (including Peck's son) and gawkers want a look at him An old man who thinks Peck killed his son takes a vigil in a room across the street, waiting to shoot him. The brothers are on their way into town. And another squirt (Skip Homeier) says "He doesn't look so tough."

This is a terrific old Western, directed by Henry King. It wouldn't be made today--not enough action, too much dialogue. But the script is taut and the suspense palpable. In our hearts we know how it will end, but it's painful nonetheless. And Peck is great--when was he not?-- as a man trying to leave behind his past, which, in the movies at least (see Out of the Past) is not possible.

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