In every genre you’re going to find a few overlooked great films. A handful of gems which for one reason or another have been all but forgotten about by everyone. Fifth Element, Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Dark City, there’s quite a few which people know are exceptional but seem to think aren’t worth mentioning along side famed classics. The Gunfighter has to be the biggest example of this ever to have a star in the lead role. The film is fantastically shot, brilliantly written, has a deconstruction of an old western character type, and yet Heaven’s Gate turns up on more “100 Best Westerns” lists than this one.
Made in 1950, The Gunfighter shows the impact of a reformed gunslinger Jimmy Ringo, Gregory Peck, on a small town he stops in to try and reconnect with his estranged family. Despite having retired years ago, Ringo’s feared reputation keeps coming back to haunt him; many seeing him as a vicious killer and wanting him run out of town. To make matters worse three vengeful gunmen are pursuing him, planning to make a reputation for themselves by bringing them down.
While it might seem tame by today’s standards, especially in the light of the ultra-gritty True Grit remake, the film is a good realistic take on Westerns for something which is a little over sixty years old. Made in a time in which six-shooter carrying cowboys were glorified, it showed the impact such a life would have on a person in their later years, becoming a millstone dragging Ringo down.
As well as being rightfully feared by many locals and outright hostility by others. One memorable sequence featured him being pinned down in a saloon by an old man with a
and having to sneak out then disarm the man. Ringo beats him, only to learn the man was trying to avenge someone he never met, mis-blaming the gunfighter due to his fame. winchester
The acting as a whole is very good, definitely on par with the best films of that era such as the Maltese Falcon, but what really helped was its star. Outside of To Kill A Mockingbird, Gregory Peck has never felt like a great actor to me, but here he’s outstanding. He’s able to play the character of Ringo as someone tired with his life, his past mistakes weighing heavily upon him, but at the same time with something to hope for keeping him going. He manages to balance out opposing characteristics and delivered a performance which definitely elevated the quality of the film.
Despite this, even if the film had lacked the superb acting its direction would have still kept it head and shoulders above its competition. The style feels very theatre-esq, with very few close ups and frequently two actors being in the same shot for prolonged periods of time and few cuts. At the same time it’s very tightly shot and no scene is wasted in the finished product.
The only area the film really falls short in is its almost total lack of musical accompaniment. Many scenes feel like they could have been improved if The Gunfighter had a proper score written for it, nothing overt but something to be present in the background during tense moments. Aside from that there are no real complaints worth making of the film.
Does it stand up when compared with lauded flicks like The Searchers? In all honesty: yes, it really does.
The Gunfighter and all related characters and media are owned by Twentieth Century Fox.