Archive for Jesse James

Gunny

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2021 by dcairns

I was blown away by THE GUNFIGHTER. I missed it in Bologna a few years back, but enjoyed Henry King’s STATE FAIR and OVER THE HILL, also shown. Of the other Gregory Peck vehicles, I found TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH fairly impressive and THE BRAVADOS was going OK until Peck decided to ruin it by smiling at the end. Can’t think of another film so categorically betrayed by a single facial expression. I think Peck’s niceness worked against him, his eggy moments onscreen tend to be motivated by unwonted injections of pleasantry. There’s that disgraceful moment in GUNS OF NAVARONE where Peck and Quinn share a joke about a woman, despite hating each other over a woman…

Well, THE GUNFIGHTER is amazingly uncompromising. There’s two bits of Hollywood bullshit — the first is Peck shooting a gun out of a man’s hand (nobody can do that — something I learned as a kid from some TV movie with Stuart Whitman or somebody — he was a cop and he said “We can’t shoot the gun out of his hand, you know,” and I was like, wow. Obviously Tarantino never saw that one since he did an interview about Black Lives Matter where he seriously pondered why cops didn’t do that). The second is a dead character riding off into the sunset, one of those faux happy endings like the superimposed Flynn at the end of THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON. It’s just decoration, not really a cop-out.

Otherwise the film is pure noir. Nobody is all good but many are all bad. (I use “good” the way old Hollywood thought of it — so the women aren’t pure, but they’re morally positive.) It has a HIGH NOON hook two years before that film was made — the clock is ticking and the action is almost real time after the first couple of scenes. Peck, the fastest gun west of the Gregory Pecos, is in town to see his estranged wife. He waits in the saloon. But his fame as gunfighter makes him a target for every young punk with a pistol, there’s a vengeful father aiming at him with a rifle from across the street and three vengeful brothers riding after him. He really needs to get out of Dodge but circs keep delaying him. I hope fingernails are good for you because we’re chewing them to the quick.

Speaking of quick — Peck demonstrates his skill early on, and seals his fate, executing a young Richard Jaeckel who provokes a duel. King’s presentation of this is stunning — we see Peck at the bar, glass in hand. Jaeckel draws on him, and is shot — we never see Peck draw or fire, we just cut back to him after, gun in his free hand. He’s so fast the camera can’t see it, is the implication.

Of course this gag gets exaggerated into a great bit in BLAZING SADDLES, and Gene Wilder’s backstory in that film seems drawn from this one too.

Cinematographer Arthur C. Miller delivers a number of stunning wide shots using single-source light from windows bouncing off wooden floors or ceilings.

Peck is really good in this. Cinema’s paragon of stiffness is credible as an outlaw since the film doesn’t go into great detail about his wild past. Impossible to imagine him being like Jaeckel, ever, or like Skip Homeier, memorably repulsive as the film’s other psycho-squirt. In MAN OF THE WEST there’s some powerfully nasty talk about Gary Gooper’s criminal activities, and the result is cognitive dissonance — you can’t square Coop’s persona with the stuff he’s supposed to have done. Discretion helps GUNFIGHTER get over this hurdle.

Andre De Toth co-wrote the film — I own two books on De Toth but am unable to learn why he didn’t direct also. King steps in and does an excellent job — now I have to see JESSE JAMES. Feels like he did one great film with Peck and Ty Power apiece, then kept using them, with diminishing returns.

Millard Mitchell is outstanding as the town marshall, a former crony of Peck’s. Who’s the kid? He’s good. IMDb has a huge list of cast members, down to the smallest extra, but nothing on him.

THE GUNFIGHTER stars Atticus Finch; R.F. Simpson; Cobweb; Kitty O’Day; Sheriff Dad Longworth; Melakon / Sevrin; Big Ed Williams (uncredited); Fairy Godmother; Grandma Walton; Sheriff Kip McKinney; Eggs; Cojo; Skipper Jonas Grumby; The Dear One; Pee Wee; Kane’s father; Dr. Walter Coley; and Capt. Patrick Hendry.