Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell, Jean Parker, Karl Malden, Skip Homeier, Anthony Ross, Verna Felton, Ellen Corby, Richard Jaeckel
Written by: William Bowers, William Sellers, based on a story by William Bowers, André De Toth
Directed by: Henry King
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 85
Date: 06/23/1950

The Gunfighter (1950)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Ringo Scars

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

At some point, filmmakers decided to put a black tie on the Western genre, and make "important" films that could be considered for awards, rather than just entertaining audiences. (Never mind that many filmmakers, such as John Ford, were already making artistic masterpieces in the genre.) The Ox-Bow Incident, Shane, and High Noon are among these types of movies, as is Henry King's The Gunfighter. But, with an Oscar-nominated story by André De Toth — an unsung director of sturdy, brutal "B" movies — it has enough grit to make it seem like a model hybrid of respectable and genuine.

Gregory Peck stars as Jimmy Ringo, a famous gunfighter who has killed no more than 15 people, but whose reputation suggests something more like 50. A headstrong kid in a saloon has a try, and Ringo shoots him down. Unfortunately, the kid's three brothers want revenge, so he gets the jump on them, and heads off to Cayenne, counting on his head start to buy him a little time. He holes up in the local saloon, bartended by friendly Mac (Karl Malden). Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell), an old friend of Ringo's, tries to keep the peace and protect his friend, while word gets out and the saloon begins to be surrounded by fans. But Ringo has something he needs to do. He wants to re-connect with an old love, Peggy (Helen Westcott). Unfortunately, she refuses to see him, and Ringo refuses to leave until she does.

Most of the lean movie takes place in one spot, with several vivid characters drifting in and out, and it's extremely well crafted. King has something of a soft spot, rather than the usual masculine quality that many Westerns display, and he uses it to effectively explore the differences between illusion and reality. Ringo's skill as a gunfighter is a fantasy that everyone looks upon with awe; only Ringo knows how wearying the whole thing is, and yet his idea of suddenly settling down and starting a family is equally a fantasy. The ending is a gloriously heartbreaking nugget of poetic justice.

The Criterion Collection released the black-and-white film on a beautiful Blu-ray in 2020, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Bonuses include an interview filmmaker, writer, and archivist Gina Telaroli, making a case for director King, a new video essay on editor Barbara McLean by film historian and author J. E. Smyth, and audio excerpts of interviews with King and McLean from 1970 and 1971. Film critic K. Austin Collins provides the liner notes essay.

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