The Gunfighter (1950)

Dir. Henry King. Starring Gregory Peck, Millard Mitchell, Skip Homeier

Surely no other film makes as much dramatic hay with the insult “Mister Frazzlebottom” as The Gunfighter does. With terrible efficiency, Jimmy Ringo (Peck) makes quick work of Eddie (Richard Jaeckel), a loudmouth southwesterner with, given his death, an ironic yen for immortality. Eddie fancies himself fast enough to tangle with Jimmy Ringo, believing he can get the drop on a pistoleer with standing as great as Wyatt Earp. Against the better advice of his friends, the bartender, and Jimmy himself, Eddie puts himself into the fray, works up some pretext for an argument, and draws first. He is a type that Jimmy Ringo has found so many times before, the “squirt” who insists on trying to make a name for himself by gunning down someone else. Jimmy has only just brought a weary horse into town after a long ride, has only just gotten a couple drinks down, hasn’t eaten, hasn’t even peed, but he has killed another punk. Ten, twelve, fifteen, Eddie’s friend says, depends on who’s doing the counting. Peck’s delivery of “What are you trying to do, show off for your friends?” is just so weary, so exhausted, deflated. Getting a couple shots of liquor in some cut-rate saloon means having to kill someone he doesn’t want to kill just so he can get to the next gulps at the next bar with the next would-be hero. In the first ten minutes of the film, The Gunfighter puts down stakes that its title character cannot.

Comparing a movie to a fugue is typically saved for films pushing the three-hour mark or better with giant ensembles: Intolerance, Short Cuts, Short Cuts without the good parts (fine, “Magnolia“), etc. But The Gunfighter, as efficient as its title character in under ninety minutes, is one of the finest fugues of American movies. Despite limiting itself to maybe a dozen named characters, there are musical lines where these people and their actions intersect harmonically. It’s never just a single use for any character or a single effect from any deed, all of which manage to bring out a different perspective for what ought to be tired tropes. The story of a haunted gunfighter was old when Wyatt Earp was buddy-buddy with Tom Mix and John Ford, and it’s not like The Gunfighter does much to add to this narrative. Nor does the story of a basically decent man with a family he cannot regain signify something new.

Once again, it’s the Eddie sequence which holds the key to the film’s fugue structure. It would be effective even if didn’t have any consequences further down the line; heck, part of me wishes it had been a purely standalone event just because of how well it would have worked. It’s simultaneously taut and instructive, which is not a common combination. Not to break out the Surf Dracula tweet william nilliam, but:

The film grips us at the start because of this sequence, which shows us exactly what kind of man Jimmy Ringo has become in contrast to the kind of man that the squirts of the West imagine him to be. Eddie becomes Hunt Bromley (Homeier) in the next town, another twerpy fortune-seeker with a chihuahua’s bark and bite. It’s not simply that Hunt is a pain in the rear end for Jimmy; it’s that we know exactly what kind of hemorrhoid he is, and that Jimmy’s been feeling the chronic throbbing of Eddies and Hunts for longer than any man should have to. Yet Eddie is not merely a convenient case of show-and-fell dead for the kids; he also has three brothers. Jimmy, alert to their vengeful chase, manages to foil them for a time after getting them separated from their horses. All the same, the brothers add a time element to The Gunfighter not unlike the time element that High Noon would use a couple years later: there is a real time threat to the protagonist from armed forces coming to town. This organ is using Eddie to play two melodies at separate times, one having to do with the essential weariness in the film and the other about the deep urgency underlining it. The film does not work without both of them playing, even if one is at rest a little more than the other.

Even the way the bartender in the first town introduces himself is basically identical to the way Mac (Karl Malden) does it in Cayenne. It’s a harmony for Eddie and Hunt, one a little more humorous than the life-threatening tunes but still an earworm. Both make much of Jimmy Ringo, followed by a Don’t you remember me, I was in x town when y happened, I’m from the old days. Jimmy, of course, doesn’t remember. The saloonkeepers of the west are merely backstage figures, not even as important as stage managers, and it’s not up to the stars of the show to know the little people. And the more little people Jimmy runs into, the more indistinguishable all of them become. Cayenne, where Mac tends bar, stands out for two reasons. First, the local lawman Mark Strett (Mitchell) is a former member of the gang that Jimmy ran with in the old days. Even more importantly, Jimmy’s estranged and secret wife Peggy (Helen Westcott) and son Jimmy (B.G. Norman) are in Cayenne too. But the sign that all of this will be different, even more than Jimmy’s intentions to see Peggy, comes from the variation in an earlier bar of the fugue. Mac does not simply fawn over the great Jimmy Ringo. Instead, he alerts Mark, news travels fast, and Jimmy’s plan is disrupted for good at its first step.

The two themes of the fugue, alas, are not quite equally balanced. (This is Henry King, not Bach.) The Eddie/Hunt Bromley theme, is the stronger of the two; out of the two basically hackneyed stories in The Gunfighter, this is the one that leans more heavily on the film’s best actors. Millard Mitchell, AKA “Charles Bickford without the Oscar nominations,” is so good as the other link to Jimmy’s past. Mark, Jimmy’s secret answer to the question he gets frequently about who the toughest man he ever knew was, is no less tough now that he’s in a position of legal authority. Mitchell finds the line in the character between Jean Valjean and gruff uncle—Mitchell was more than a decade older than Peck and certainly looks it—and never strays. He has the hard-won wisdom of an ex-gunfighter himself, and where everyone from Mac to the leading and most excitable biddies of Cayenne wants to see Mark use force to get rid of Jimmy, Mark would no sooner open fire on Jimmy Ringo than he would Jesse James. Cayenne is no country for old men, and Mark is not shockingly weatherbeaten for nothing; it’s Jimmy’s skill more than their old friendship that keeps him safe in the tavern, regardless of how much the two men still like each other. Mitchell is so good at playing a man who projects total authority, which is to say he does not have to coerce or force his orders. He can act almost nonchalantly while this famously dangerous man is in town, and still people jump to the ready when he calls for them to do so. It’s a lovely piece of work. I also like Homeier a lot as Hunt Bromley, for where Jaeckel’s Eddie is childishly confident, Hunt is seedy. For all of the Mr. Frazzlebottom bluster in Eddie’s introduction, his maladroit challenge to Jimmy is basically hero worship. Hunt is not that kind of man, as evidenced from the fact that he ultimately fells Jimmy when the man is on horseback with his back turned to him. Skip Homeier, who looks exactly like you’d expect someone with that name to look, plays that character with an unvarnished greed which, in our time, is characterized by a hawker of some newly doomed crypto. There’s nothing good in this future exemplified by Hunt, and while two separate scenes devoted to showing his imminent damnation as the Man Who Shot Jimmy Ringo is piling it on a little thick, Homeier nails the role.

That second theme about Jimmy Ringo trying to settle down with his estranged flame is given over, in practice, entirely to Peck. The problem is that in a number of those scenes, Peck is opposite Westcott, and that’s not really a winning proposition. This is the one movement where it really feels like we’ve heard this tune before. I’d still take this movie over High Noon, but at least that movie understood what to do with Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado. For my money, the two most moving shots in High Noon feature them: Kelly crumpling after saving Gary Cooper’s life by killing, and Jurado looking out the window of her train car while she pessimistically deserts her old flame. A person could go through a whole lotta shots of Helen Westcott or Jean Parker or Verna Felton before ever finding something that stood out. The scene that works far better regarding Jimmy’s failed domestic life has to do with him meeting his son. For most of the film, young Jimmy has been hanging around the saloon trying to catch a glimpse of the famous gunfighter who he knows only for his fame as opposed to his actual relationship to him. It’s mostly led to his mother coming along to cart him away, but at the end—framed by a shot of Eddie’s three brothers at a gallop headed for Cayenne—the boy meets the gunfighter and vice versa. It’s a scene which, again, doesn’t feel so new, and most of it doesn’t stand out in memory. (The exception has to be the two of them bragging and then lying transparently at each other about their prowess in school, which gives Peck a chance to be funnier than he usually gets to be.) More powerful than Peggy proclaiming at Jimmy’s packed funeral that she’s “Mrs. Ringo” is this single scene where Jimmy tries to give his namesake a lifetime of advice within a few bare moments. And as touching as that threatens to be, more or less, what makes it really delightful is that this massages the tired spot in Jimmy Ringo. Open country, hard liquor, the march of time make it worse. Pretending that he was a father in more spaces than this hotel room and for more time than four minutes is the only way that he has, in the end, to wake up.

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