*. In my notes on My Darling Clementine I talked about how it represented various familiar elements of the myth of the Old West. That is to say, the Hollywood Old West. The Gunfighter covers some more of these, and adds one of its own, in a film a little more down the road and hence a little more aware of its status as myth. Not yet a modern, ironic Western then, but one that’s looking at itself.
*. Even the new wrinkle they add is a bit ironic: the story of the aging gunfighter that every punk kid wants to take a shot at in order to make a name for himself. According to the Criterion interview with Gina Telaroli this was the invention of the screenwriters, and apparently came out of the response movie stars had to always being recognized. It would go on to become a cliché of its own, and in her Criterion essay J. E. Smyth likens it to another film that editor Barbara McLean worked on the same year, All About Eve. Though I think that’s a bit of a stretch.
*. The point is that being a legend isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When the man becomes a legend, shoot the legend, we might say. Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck, with an off-brand moustache that the studio objected to so much they wanted him to shave it off and re-shoot his scenes) embodies this liminal in-betweenness perfectly. He’s quick on the draw — so quick we never actually see him pull his gun — but tired. Or, in Manny Farber’s view, stoic: having “the quality of a man standing absolutely straight while being depressed by a hopeless state of affairs.” Well put.
*. But more than that, even he seems a little confused about his status as a famous gunman. How many people has he killed? Who were they? Was it always in self-defence? He’s not sure. Should he be hanged? Well, maybe. But let’s talk about something else . . .
*. Jimmy Ringo is based on the real Johnny Ringo, an outlaw associated with the Clantons of O.K. Corral fame. Fun fact: Doc Holliday offered to be his huckleberry.
*. Ringo’s not only a legend himself, but has known legends like Wyatt Earp (who he thinks overrated). He’s so much a part of the culture that even the Cheyenne schoolkids can act as chorus to his fame. And his reputation does work to his advantage on occasion. When the reedy Hunt Bromley (who can’t even grow a proper moustache!) threatens him he can be frightened off with a pocket knife.
*. Another classic storyline that may have started here is the countdown til the arrival of the hero’s nemesis. I have to admit, when I was watching this I kept thinking of how it was riffing on High Noon, with the three brothers echoing the gunmen coming to town to settle scores with Marshal Will Kane (a role Peck turned down) and the constant checking of the clock to see how much time is left. But The Gunfighter actually came out a couple of years before High Noon, so you have to give them credit for that, and subsequent variations on the same story, like the outlaws coming to town in High Plains Drifter.
*. Irony is a big part of the structure of the story as well. It proceeds by way of deflated climaxes. We keep being led to believe that something big is going to happen and then it doesn’t. The vengeful father who is set up as a sniper across from the Palace has his gun taken away from him. Bromley goes looking for a fight but then has to back down. The three gunmen finally arrive in town and don’t end up doing anything. Then when fate finally does come for Ringo it comes at the hand of that yellowbelly wimp who gets bitch-slapped around before being sent out to the wastelands bearing the mark of Cain. He’ll have to try to live “like a big tough gunny,” which we’re sure isn’t going to last long as he isn’t a big tough gunny at all.
*. I think the point being made by this is the same one I mentioned earlier, that being a legend isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Because Ringo couldn’t live up to such a reputation himself. Or didn’t want to. But like many a bad guy to come, just when he thought he was getting out of the life it keeps dragging him back. There’s no dodging fate, or a screenplay that has the friendly marshal tell Ringo “Looks like you’re going to make it after all.”