The American Southwest in the 1880s: at night, in long-shot, someone on horseback rides fast screen-leftward. This turns out to be Jimmy Ringo—at 35, a man who would ordinarily be in the middle of his life. But, a killer, Ringo is no ordinary man. Notorious, this weary gunslinger has become the target, in town after town, for some young “squirt” to prove his own prowess by drawing on the living legend and attempting to take him down. Thus far, however, Jimmy Ringo has prevailed.
Ringo is now headed for the town where his estranged wife lives with their son. Ringo is tired and wants to flee the law with his family and settle somewhere obscure, like the Pacific Northwest. He is tired of killing, running, being shot at. Pursuing him into town, though, are the three vengeance-seeking brothers of an arrogant boy whom Ringo has shot dead after the boy drew on him first. Interspersed with Ringo’s attempts in town to see wife and child, and to stave off new trouble from another young squirt, Hunt Bromley, are shots in daylight of the furious brothers riding fast, on horseback, screen-leftward. But it is Bromley who ends up shooting Ringo in the back, killing him. The closing shot: at night, in long-shot, someone on horseback rides fast screen-leftward. On one level, it is Hunt Bromley, having assumed the mantle of Ringo’s fate and looking just like Ringo at the beginning of the film. On another level, the image is an abstraction of their shared fate—a fate shared as well by others.
Nicely directed by Henry King, The Gunfighter was adapted by William Bowers, Nunnally Johnson (who also produced) and William Sellers from a story by Bowers and André De Toth; and, despite what has become, since, a clichéd predicament, it is one of the best westerns of the fifties. In the entire King œuvre, moreover, it is bettered by only 12 O’Clock High from the previous year.
The film’s centerpiece is the only brilliant performance ever given by Gregory Peck, who as Jimmy Ringo is both deftly nuanced and overwhelmingly moving. Ringo’s moments with Peggy, his wife, rip the heart out. Also excellent is Millard Mitchell as Mark Strett, the town’s chief lawman, formerly a member of the same criminal gang to which Ringo belonged. America: for some, a land of second acts; for others, a preëmptive curtain.
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