Sog.: William Bowers, André De Toth. Scen.: William Bowers, William Sellers. F.: Arthur Miller. M.: Barbara McLean. Scgf.: Lyle R. Wheeler, Richard Irvine. Mus.: Alfred Newman. Int.: Gregory Peck (Jimmy Ringo), Helen Westcott (Peggy Walsh), Millard Mitchell (sceriffo Mark Strett), Jean Parker (Molly), Mae Marsh (Mrs. O’Brien), Karl Malden (Mac), Skip Homeier (Hunt Bromley). Prod.: Nunnally Johnson per Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.. 35mm. D.: 85’. Bn.
Commonly described as an ‘adult’ western, The Gunfighter differs from both the Freudian Pursued (1947) and the classical The Furies (1950). Though it comes close to equating screen time with real time, without any rhetorical emphasis (as High Noon brings with clocks), its method is historical revisionism, postulating a ‘real’ West that tragically undermines the ones we accept in other westerns. It plays an intricate double game with genre expectations, satisfying some demands and implicitly chiding us for others. Significantly, the film’s first and final images are almost identical but register as antithetical in moral significance. After all, the callow silliness of boys skipping school so they can witness a hoped-for shootout – occasioned by the even sillier macho pretexts of adolescent males for beating still older gunfighters to the draw – is not so different from the spell exerted by most westerns, which take this sort of behaviour with utmost seriousness.
This film was reportedly first suggested by retired heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey telling screenwriter William Bowers that kids kept trying to pick fights with him, and the script’s original title, The Big Gun, even stressed the sexual implications. But Henry King’s approach to this material, scripted by several hands (including Bowers, André De Toth, William Sellers, producer Nunnally Johnson and even future director Roger Corman), is historical realism that strips settings, costumes, props, and hairstyles of most of their glamour. Gregory Peck’s handlebar moustache even occasioned some executive resistance at Fox for what it did to his star image.
Speaking as someone who has always disliked the inauthenticity of Peck’s performances in Southern roles (notably in To Kill a Mockingbird and I Walk the Line), I’ve tended to regard him as a specialist in mythic archetypes rather than an actor capable of creating believable or complex characters. Given Jimmy Ringo’s status as a gunman and former bank robber trapped in the prison of his own reputation, Peck is unusually persuasive as an icon aspiring to an unreachable ordinary existence.