Monday, November 2, 2015

Living to Die By: The Tragic End of a Long Hard Trail :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Henry King's The Gunfighter (1950)

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"In the Southwest of the 1880s the difference between death and glory was often but a fraction of a second. This was the speed that made champions of Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok. But the fastest man with a gun who ever lived, by many contemporary accounts, was a long, lean Texan named Ringo." 
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Now, as glorified as that preamble makes the notorious gunman out to be, the Johnny Ringo we actually meet as The Gunfighter (1950) gets to rolling proper is a study in sharp contrast. Seems all of his old friends are dead and his wildcatting ways have him worn down to a nub. And these feelings of wanting to abandon this life and start over before it all finally catches up with him, too, comes to the forefront when he's goaded into a fight by a young upstart and once more proves the faster draw -- but barely.

Then, trying to stay ahead of the dead-man's vengeful brothers, Ringo (Peck) heads to Cayenne, where his long estranged wife (Westcott) works as a school teacher, rearing a son he's never met. Turns out the local Marshall (Mitchell, who is fantastic) used to run with Ringo but has long since reformed. And while the arrival of Ringo is a cause célèbre, Marshall Strett does his best to run interference with any local hot-heads who want a shot at Ringo -- namely a young punk named Bromley (Homeier, equally fantastic) looking to make a name for himself, and move Ringo along before any trouble starts.

But Ringo refuses to leave before he talks to his wife, who initially refuses. And as the clock keeps ticking, like a child's puzzle, all the pieces of this rousing melodrama click into place, leading to an inevitable but fantastic climax and resolution that packs one helluva lasting punch.

This is a film that always gets unjustly overlooked when talking about the greatest westerns of all time. Maybe it's because The Gunfighter is so not typical of the genre; so lean and so economical it all boils down to a 'country cottage' melodrama and character study of a man trapped by his own reputation, which has been clouded and diluted over the years with exaggerations and falsehoods.

The film was loosely culled from the real life exploits of John Ringo, who was a distant cousin of the Younger brothers (who ran with Frank and Jesse James). And according to legend, Ringo also ran with the Cochise County Cowboys and was a ruthless killer, whose exploits included going up against Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881, but he would survive the legendary Gunfight at the OK Corral and Earp's vengeful purge. And like in this cinematic version, the real Ringo later made an effort to reconcile with his family but, unlike the film, he was summarily rejected. Extremely despondent over this, Ringo is alleged to have gone on a violent ten-day drinking binge before finally turning his gun on himself and, in a fit of despair, committed suicide.

The story was originally co-scripted as The Big Gun by William Bowers and director André de Toth, who offered it to Columbia, who envisioned the role going to John Wayne. But Wayne's long-standing hatred of Harry Cohn saw him passing on the part -- a decision Wayne would come to regret. (Wayne would sort-of remake The Gunfighter as The Shootist (1976), where, in true Wayne fashion, the aging outlaw goes out on his terms, not anybody else's.) With no star attached to it, the script was eventually sold off to 20th Century Fox, where it kind of moldered on the shelf until it was eventually dug up by, strangely enough, Roger Corman.

According to his own legend, back in 1948, as documented in his auto-biography, How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime (1990), the future schlock-meister and mini-movie-mogul-to-be Corman got a job at Fox and worked his way up from page to spec-script reader. And when word came down the line that the studio was looking for a suitable vehicle for Gregory Peck, "something offbeat but classy", Corman recalled the script, found it, made a ton of notes, and passed it back up the line. And when it was chosen, his supervisor got a bonus that failed to trickle down to him, which so disillusioned Corman he quit to study abroad, setting the stage for his triumphant return as an independent filmmaker and the undisputed king of exploitation movies.

But Corman wasn't the only one to punch up the script, with producer Nunnally Johnson and William Sellers also taking a revising run at it. Frequent Peck collaborator Henry King [12 O'Clock High (1949), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)] was tasked with directing and does an excellent job, as does pioneering editor, Barbara McClean, cutting it all together. (I love the throwaway bits, like the two drunks fighting in the street that fails to impress the gathered crowd.) In front of the camera Peck is ably supported by cast of rock-solid character actors, including Karl Malden, Ellen Corby and Jean Parker. And once more, Millard Mitchell manages to steal another western right out from under another mega-star -- just like he did to Jimmy Stewart the very same year in Winchester '73.

And then there's Skip Homeier, whose enigmatic presence, to me, always elevates everything he shows up in from this, to Fixed Bayonets (1951), to The Tall T (1957), to The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966). He is so good in this as the weasel Bromley. In the original ending, after gunning Ringo down, Bromley is arrested by Strett. But when Daryl Zanuck screened the rough cut, he apparently blew his top, sending King and Johnson scrambling to fix the resolution, having Ringo's dying wish to let Bromley go, a bit of poetic justice, as now everyone will be gunning for the man who gunned down Ringo -- but not before Strett gets his pound of flesh before sending him on his way "to get killed someplace else."

Despite all the clout in front of and behind the camera, The Gunfighter would fare poorly at the box office, which has gone a long way toward its dubious reputation. Most of the blame fell on the star. Well, not the star but his mustache. (Backed up by hundreds of scathing comment cards and weepy fan letters demanding the star never sport a nose broom again.) The studio wasn't keen on it to begin with but Peck had demanded that he be allowed to have it, claiming period authenticity.

And he probably got away with it because at the time of filming began, the head of production at Fox, Spyros Skouras, was on vacation. And by the time he got back and saw the rushes, too much of the film was in the can, making it too late to shave it off and start all over. And ever since, when Skouras ran into Peck, he would let him know that mustache cost them millions of dollars. As for me? Meh. I think the mustache looks fine. And I can't recommend The Gunfighter, the movie it "ruined", enough.

The Gunfighter (1950) Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation / EP: Darryl F. Zanuck / P: Nunnally Johnson / D: Henry King / W: William Bowers, William Sellers, André De Toth, Roger Corman, Nunnally Johnson / C: Arthur C. Miller / E: Barbara McLean / M: Alfred Newman / S: Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell, Jean Parker, Karl Malden, Skip Homeier


Randy said...

Amazingly, I had never seen this movie, to just this last year, when I caught it on TCM. I second your high recommendations, Buddy, as this is really a top-notch film, and yeah, Mitchell is as always----great.

W.B. Kelso said...

"Now go get killed someplace else." Greatest line of ever.

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