Blu-ray Review: The Gunfighter | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, March 1st, 2021  

The Gunfighter

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Nov 19, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The Gunfighter was curiously absent from the recent collection of Western Noirs on the Criterion Channel, which highlighted films from the late 1940s and early 1950s and the way in which the influence of film noir created a new breed of darker, morally ambiguous westerns that reflected a jaundiced post-war view of a mythic past. This cycle of films laid the groundwork for the Revisionist Western period that would redefine the genre in the 1960s and 1970s. Thematically, The Gunfighter mirrors Unforgiven, the 1992 Clint Eastwood Oscar winner that brought the Revisionist Western period to an end, the story of a bad man trying to go straight even though his past won’t let him. The Gunfighter brings this story to a more traditional conclusion than the apocalyptic moral climax of Unforgiven, but the two films exist at the beginning and ending of a decades long project of bringing the myth of the gunslinger to an end.

From a narrative standpoint, The Gunfighter is similar to the 1976 Don Siegel film The Shootist. John Wayne’s final film before dying of cancer, The Shootist is about a legendary gunfighter waiting out terminal cancer and fending off endless challenges from up-and-coming outlaws who want to cement their legend by ending his. Jimmy Ringo, the titular character of The Gunfighter, is still in the prime of his life, which makes his situation all the more tragic. Played with lean, somber assuredness by Gregory Peck, Ringo is a man cursed by his talent. The fastest gun in the west, his career of famous shootouts and felled adversaries have painted a target on his back. The film begins with him quietly drinking in a bar, only to be challenged by a loudmouthed youth who goads him into killing him. Pursued by the youth’s vengeful brothers, Ringo spends the afternoon in the the town of Cayenne, visiting old friends and old flames and attracting the attention of another lethal young punk.

Structurally, The Gunfighter resembles High Noon; both stories taking place in almost real time, involving protagonists anxiously awaiting the arrival of a group of killers they know they must face alone. But while Gary Cooper’s Will Kane is a good man stranded in a town of cowards, Ringo is a repentant man in a town of people who, love him or hate him, only see him as a myth, not a man. Peck and director Henry King made five films together - including the 1949 Best Picture nominee Twelve O’Clock High - and King's sense of Peck’s screen presence is on full display in The Gunfighter. Peck famously played competent, taciturn men, and while Ringo is certainly those things, the film spends a great deal of time with him as he nervously fidgets while glancing at the clock or keeping his eyes downcast and almost ashamed as yet another person approaches him to gush about his legend. His regret is palpable and the film smartly never stops rubbing his past actions in his face.

Sharply edited by Barbara McLean and beautifully staged by King and cinematographer Arthur C. Miller, The Gunfighter turns from drama to comedy to tragedy with ease and thoughtfulness, building the town of Cayenne into one of the most memorable towns in Western cinema via a cast of wonderfully written and performed characters. Standouts include method acting pioneer Karl Malden as the obsequious barkeep who sees Ringo as his ticket to fame, Skip Homeier as the sneering, shit-talking young hotshot who sets out to build his reputation on Ringo’s grave, and Jean Parker, the widow of Ringo’s old friend who tells Ringo the story of his own death before he even knows what he’s hearing. The cast is so stacked that even the uncredited players are memorable, particularly an old man who’s so fearful and respectful of Ringo’s reputation that he apologizes profusely for interrupting Ringo’s conversation with the marshal to report that his house is in the process of being burned down. Criterion’s new release of The Gunfighter features interviews and video essays focusing on the career of Henry King and the work of editor Barbara McLean. It’s a must for any fan of the Western genre and anyone with particular interest in how the genre transformed in the wake of World War II.



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