The fifties is regarded as the decade of the great classic western. For a whole ten years Hollywood was consistent at turning out the best and most mature tales set in the great American West. Gems like "Shane" "High Noon" and "The Searchers", to name just a few, were from this era. Along with the Randolph Scott/Bud Botticher collaborations and the splendid projects of such directors as John Sturges ("Escape From Fort Bravo" /"Last Train From Gun Hill") and Delmar Daves ("Broken Arrow"/"The Last Wagon"/"3 Ten To Yuma") there was also the splendid collaborative efforts of Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann with their remarkable contributions to the genre with "Winchester 73", "The Far Country" and "Naked Spur".
But the first picture to really start things moving on the road to producing western films with a dimension of intellect and reality was THE GUNFIGHTER. Produced by Nunnally Johnson in 1950 for 20th Century Fox this was the first time audiences would be exposed to an "adult" western. A dark downbeat story of the last days of a gunfighter (perfectly performed by Gregory Peck) told with genuine realism and honesty. Stylishly written by William Bowers and William Sellers the screenplay was based on an original story by William Bowers and Andre deToth. Sharply photographed in monochrome by the great Arthur Miller the movie was directed with a positive flair by Henry King.
Peck plays Jimmy Ringo the now world weary legendary gunfighter who after many years arrives back in town to see his estranged wife (Helen Westcott) and their small son. Hoping for a reconciliation - and with plans to start over in California - his presence in the town causes a great stir among the citizens and of course attracts all sorts of young guns out to make a "reputation" for themselves one of whom, alas, will be responsible for the doom of the protagonist in the final reel.
The picture is fleshed out with a marvellous cast. Millard Mitchell is excellent as the reformed outlaw turned Sheriff who once rode with Ringo and now wants him to leave town before trouble erupts. Good too is Skip Homeier as the brash errant young gun and Karl Malden as the amiable saloon owner. Helen Westcott gives a good performance as Ringo's wife. A well measured portrayal of a woman who still loves her husband and who promises to leave with him which ultimately can never be. Helen Westcott was an interesting actress! Very attractive with classical good looks she was born in 1928 but never distinguished herself in film and is remembered now only for THE GUNFIGHTER and possibly for her humorous turn as the Lady Diana in "The Adventures Of Don Juan" (1948) as Juan's "betrotted". After many parts in many indifferent films she became just another working actress mostly on Television. She died in 1998.
THE GUNFIGHTER stands up today as an engrossing taut and dramatic western which shows little signs of wear. But I have a problem with the omission of any kind of musical score. The great Alfred Newman composed a cracking defiant and robust main title and only gave what amounts to a coda for the closing of the picture but there is no underscoring whatsoever during the movie. And there are a couple of scenes that cry out for some scoring and would have benefited with the addition of music. For a studio that boasted one of the finest music departments in Hollywood under Newman's direction Fox were the worst offenders of sparse scoring during this period. Who knows? Perhaps it was a money saving Zanuck decision but a practice I always found to be impractical, doctrinaire and at the expense of more meaningful dramaturgy. Motion pictures are not plays which depend solely on the spoken word to connect to an audience. Film has the facility, through music, to heighten emotions, point up feelings of love and loss and to embellish triumphs and pathos. Therefore, since the possibility exists to add music to a film soundtrack to enhance dramatic impact, movies should be scored!
However, underscoring not withstanding, THE GUNFIGHTER still manages to remain one of cinema's most cherished and highly regarded westerns.
A reformed Gunfighter Jimmy Ringo is on his way to a sleepy town in the hope of a reunion with his estranged sweetheart and their young son who he has never seen. On arrival, a chance meeting with some old friends including the town's Marshal gives the repentant Jimmy some respite. But as always Jimmy's reputation has already cast its shadow, this time in the form of three vengeful cowboys hot on his trail and a local gunslinger hoping to use Jimmy to make a name for himself. With a showdown looming, the town is soon in a frenzy as news of Jimmy's arrival spreads. His movements are restricted to the saloon while a secret meeting with his son can be arranged giving him ideas of a long term reunion with his family far removed from his wild past.
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August 25, 2019 at 09:44 PM