You probably have your own list of the best western films ever made.  We do too.

Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers here to discuss the Best Westerns ever made. Twentieth Century Fox’s underrated 1950 “oater” —  The Gunfighter starring Gregory Peck — is our opening salvo.

John Griggs in The Films of Gregory Peck says that The Gunfighter actually was the landmark western that marked the turning of the genre from shoot-em-ups to psychological drama (with Shakespearean undertones.)

Griggs concedes that most people think High Noon (director Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 classic starring Gary Cooper) is that landmark film.  But he reminds us that  the Nunnally Johnson-Henry King production actually got there first — complete even with the wall clock ticking away the minutes to heighten suspense and reinforce the tension with its unrelenting countdown to a fateful conclusion.

First, there is Gegory Peck to deal with.

Robert Mitchum, an actor we much admire, once referred to Peck (his costar in the superb 1962 thriller, Cape Fear) as the dullest actor in Hollywood. As British author-critic David Thomson puts it: Peck’s one besetting failure as an actor  — that he is dull — is excused because it confirms the aura of responsibility and commitment to proper causes that surrounds him.

In this regard, think of Peck as the upstanding dad in 1946’s The Yearling; as the reporter uncovering anti-Semitism in 1947’s Gentlemen’s Agreement; or as the valiant guerilla fighter in his 1944 debut film, director Jacques Tournier’s Days of Glory.  (We are reluctant to even mention the virtue that oozes from Peck’s liberal country lawyer in 1963’s To Kill a Mockingbird.)

To put it simply, we prefer the “bad” Gregory Peck: as the mentally frazzled Air Force officer in 1949’s Twelve O’Clock High (a superb World War II combat film); as the medical poseur in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 melodrama, Spellbound; as Jennifer Jones’ sexual dancing partner in 1946’s Duel In The Sun; as the harried ambassador in 1976’s The Omen; or even as the gruff Nazi in 1978’s The Boys From Brazil.

In The Gunfighter, Peck plays veteran gunfighter Jimmy Ringo — complete with a un-Peckian drooping moustache (see above) — trying to go straight and join the ranks of full-time family men. But, but:  he has a history of killing people, and is forced to deal with his reputation as “fastest draw in the west.”

Testing him is a brash upstart played by one of our favorites, Richard Jaeckel; see our Jan. 27, 2012 blog, What’s A “Working Actor”? (Richard Jaeckel, anyone?). After plugging Jaeckel, Peck has to deal with the victim’s three brothers, who set out on a relentless pursuit of our man.

The Gunfighter has many elements going for it: subtle direction by Henry King, a rock solid supporting cast including Skip Homeier and Karl Malden; and an ending that is surprisingly downbeat given that this is a big studio product of the Fifties.

In his June 24, 1950 review of The Gunfighter, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called Peck’s character one of the most fascinating Western heroes as ever looked down a six-shooter’s barrel. Peck’s performance was, Crowther added, personally remote and laconic. 

In short, a sterling example of the “bad” Gregory Peck.

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