Blu-Ray Review: Criterion's THE GUNFIGHTER Draws on Western Glory
Gregory Peck stars in this early example of the "psychological Western" done right; now available on Blu-ray.
When did Hollywood’s deconstruction of the American Western myth officially break through? Depending on which aficionado you look to, the answer given may be Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), or Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), or another venerated film amid the 1950’s great run of what’s come to be recognized as the “psychological Western”.
Lurking alone out on the untenable dusty plains, however, is what is quite likely the true candidate, Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950, written by William Bowers and William Sellers from a story by Bowers and Andre de Toth). Gregory Peck (whose name is as big as the title on the Blu-ray’s cover- an unusual graphic decision for Criterion) plays Jimmy Ringo, the fastest and most feared gun in the West.
But the macho pursuit of shooting one’s way to the top is a young man’s game, and Ringo is no longer a young man. When he returns to the peaceful town of Cayenne, he’s confronted by what he already knows about himself: the legend that he fought so hard to see printed has branded him an outcast, an outlaw, a monster — and always, always a target for the next guy.
Peck plays Ringo’s sullen lament to a tee. Crucially, it never crosses into self-pity, thanks primarily to what else is in the mix: deep, heartfelt longing. The kind of longing rooted in regret. Though it’s clear from the outset that Ringo is not fragile and not to be trifled with, the character spends much of the movie sitting alone, simmering in remorse, at a corner saloon table. Much coffee and alcohol are consumed as other characters come and go.
Old friend-turned-lawman Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell) inquires to his purpose in Cayenne- and insists he be on his way. Then there’s aspiring quickdraw Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier), looking to provoke Ringo into a pointless duel. “How come I've got to run into a squirt like you nearly every place I go these days? What are you trying to do? Show off for your friends?” But he knows. He knows all too well.
Gradually, we come to know just what Ringo is longing for. It is in fact those inestimable things he himself had willfully forsaken in his rowdy past. A surprise for the intuitive viewer, no, but tremendously resonant nonetheless, thanks to the surehanded direction of Henry King (The Song of Bernadette) and the commitment of Peck. The Gunfighter followed 1949’s Twelve O’Clock High as the second in a run of collaborations for the pair.
Filmed in evocatively humbling black and white, The Gunfighter demonstrates itself time and again in its brisk eighty-four minutes to be a film of tremendous nuance. This holds true even in the titular gun fighting, what little of it there is. From the outset, in the obligatory scene when our protagonist’s expertise is demonstrated, King denies viewers the moment of witnessing Ringo actually drawing his gun and pulling the trigger. Instead, the shot remains fixed on his adversary’s instigation and quick consequence.
The Gunfighter, for all its quietly proclaimed advancement of the Western form, traffics comfortably in its iconography. It delivers the rugged lone rider, the uneasy isolated town, the quick-drawing hero. The saloon, the dusty streets, the horses, the hats, the spurs, the holsters, the swagger- it’s all here. But it’s here with a most subtle intentional veneer of exhaustion. Among other things, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) and Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993), with their haggard heroes operating amid dilapidation, come to mind.
Arriving at a time when Western cinema was riding high in the public consciousness as a very specific and relatively simple thing (though there had certainly have been several great challengers to that notion by this point), King dresses the film in low-key entropy: imperfect handlebar mustaches, hats that have seen better days, the stark façade-like nature of the bar itself... The film is nothing if not indicative of its own inner truths, and spot-on in its maturity.
On a personal note, The Gunfighter is Criterion’s single release of the year that I’m happiest to see come about. Oft referenced in research of the Western genre but heretofore unseen, this wonderful Blu-ray release has provided not only the opportunity to check the film off of that nagging “need to see” list in style, but to do so with the benefit of truly excellent accompanying contextualization. Gina Telaroli and J. E. Smyth provide fresh insights regarding the film, particularly about the careers of Henry King and Fox “editor-in-chief” Barbara McLean. One will likely come away from their short featurettes hungry to experience the rest of the now-obscure films which they cite along the way. The beautiful illustrations adorning the Blu-ray’s packaging and booklet makes this fine cut of steak all the richer.
Here are the official specs for Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of The Gunfighter:
• New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
• New interview about director Henry King and the film with filmmaker, writer, and archivist Gina Telaroli
• New video essay on editor Barbara McLean by film historian and author J. E. Smyth
• Audio excerpts of interviews with King and McLean from 1970 and ’71
• English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• PLUS: An essay by film critic K. Austin Collins
- Henry King
- William Bowers (screenplay by)
- William Sellers (screenplay by)
- William Bowers (from a story by)
- André De Toth (from a story by)
- Gregory Peck
- Helen Westcott
- Millard Mitchell
- Jean Parker