‘The Gunfighter’ or — The Obliteration of Myth?
A gunslinger walks into a bar… and that’s it. Thank you and goodnight!
Okay, so ‘The Gunfighter’ (1950) might have a plot so extremely minimalistic it’s practically radical but what is done within this slender slice of drama is really something else. This is an outstanding piece of work.
Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) might just be the fastest gun in the West (we know this because he draws so fast it can’t be captured on camera) and he’s just walked into the town of Cayenne, planted himself down in a seat in the local bar and seems to be waiting for something or someone. Word immediately gets out that Jimmy Ringo is in town and soon the entire population of Cayenne is peeking in through the saloon’s windows hoping to snag a glimpse, or maybe even a piece, of the famous gunfighter.
Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell) is an old friend of Jimmy Ringo’s so warns Jimmy to get out of town because wherever Jimmy Ringo goes trouble always follows, something we already know is highly likely because we’ve seen Jimmy Ringo kill a man and incur the wrath of his three brothers after the opening credits had rolled. Jimmy Ringo, however, is staying put.
And so we sit and wait with Jimmy Ringo, but what is Jimmy Ringo waiting for? His salvation or his doom?
What’s initially fascinating about ‘The Gunfighter’ is that it starts off very much like a precursor to the action-packed Italian Westerns of the Sixties. So there’s a mysterious gunslinger called Ringo in possession of superhuman abilities like Sartana or Sabata whilst groups of young boys eagerly spy on the famed killer hoping to see some blazing action, an idea Leone would later go on to exploit. Ooh, looks like exciting things are going to kick off!
Yet they never do! Instead, ‘The Gunfighter’ almost turns into ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ (1975) with Jimmy Ringo under siege in the bar as a huge crowd gathers outside with events unfolding in real time. Not only that but there’s practically zero action or gunplay which means there’s an overriding atmosphere that dominates the entire movie — that of suffocating impotence. The whole film is like an explosive sneeze that refuses to be unleashed.
Not that ‘The Gunfighter’ is dull. Oh, no siree bub. Its got some real firecracker dialogue, an outstanding supporting cast all perfectly integrated into the unfolding events and although there’s a deliberate absence of action the film’s pacing is snappy as anything (Peck might be an immovable object but this film is in constant motion).
Now personally I’ve always found Peck to be a somewhat overly reserved actor (he always speaks as though his jaw has been ever so slightly wired shut) but here his tendency towards innate inertness works as an advantage with his Jimmy Ringo acting as the town’s black hole as the accretion disc of the townsfolk forms around him. And it’s the citizens of Ceyanne that might just be the focus here as we learn more about them than we do the gunfighter whose mere presence has caused such a stir in their society.
When we do discover something of Jimmy Ringo’s character the film takes a distinct psychological shift as Jimmy Ringo somewhat clarifies before our eyes and it was only at this point that I noticed his hat was pitch-black. Uh-oh. That’s not a good sign.
When the inevitable act of violence does happen it’s pathetic and anticlimactic and in direct opposition to the film’s glorifying opening where men talked of Wyatt Earp and how many people Ringo has killed whilst ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ is played on the piano. The myth of the gunfighter is exactly that — a myth, and this movie is about to demolish it entirely.
‘The Gunfighter’ is fascinating, compelling and with an intelligent and complex script. It’s also bleak as hell but that’s because being a gunfighter isn’t something to be celebrated. It’s an unshakeable, lethal curse.