Criterion Review: THE GUNFIGHTER

A gripping Gregory Peck Western is ripe for rediscovery with this 4K restored edition

It’s 1950. Once relegated to Poverty Row B-pictures, Westerns are coming back around to rule American media. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry rule screens and airwaves, and old hand John Ford continues to contribute classics of the genre–long after Stagecoach and 7 years before The Searchers. Also continuing his stellar directorial reputation is Henry King, known for his fastidious love of shooting on location and telling ruminative, character-driven epics that turn a sizable profit for his studios. On the rise is Gregory Peck, a few years removed from his first Oscar nomination and fresh off the war picture Twelve O’Clock High, also helmed by King. The genre, this director, and this star converge in The Gunfighter–the result of which is a modestly-acclaimed yet box-office disappointment.

The titular Gunfighter is Jimmy Ringo, a man who’s been constantly on the run across the frontier for the better part of eight years. His reputation as quickest-on-the-draw precedes him wherever he goes — acting as a siren’s call to whatever young upstart that seeks to prove themselves by finally besting him in a gunfight. But when they inevitably meet their demise, off Ringo goes on the run again, and so it goes. Ringo’s latest flight from justice finds him pursued by the three brothers of his latest self-defense killing — and before they can catch up to him, Ringo is dedicated to try and make things right with his lost love, and the son he was forced to abandon for his lonesome life on the trail.

Back then, audiences didn’t know what to make of a Western about a Gunfighter that, well, features little gunfighting to begin with. It’s a slow-burn of a picture, reveling in furtive masculine silences and crackling tension that’s only released when guns actually do go blazing. Oh, and clean-shaven Peck sports the unruliest mustache and frumpy, lived-in getup. Again, it’s 1950. Then, nothing about The Gunfighter seemed to work.

But now, The Gunfighter seems like a foundation-laying harbinger for more complex visions to come, from High Noon just two years later to Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Working from a wonderfully-paced, dynamic script, Peck shines as a man who desperately tries to outrun a reputation that all other cowboys seem to crave. There’s no rest for a man who’s almost always mentioned in the same breath as Wyatt Earp, always locked in some dueling comparison whether it be physical or verbal. Peck’s Ringo bears the weight of this life on the run right off his matted sleeves, his off-putting outfit evidence of a man whose only concern is to stay breathing than to stay fashionable. Hell, he doesn’t even have time to shower before someone calls in the local Marshal to give him a sizing-up. The film spends roughly an hour in the life of a guy like Ringo, but given his endless and exhausting drive to flee, it feels almost like a lifetime in full.

Much of this is also due to the craftsmanship on display. King and editor Barbara McLean are total studio workhorses, focused only on what barebones material we need to keep the story moving at a quick clip. As such, each cut and shot fulfill multiple purposes–from illustrating Ringo’s quick-draw speed by never showing it at all, to how one line of dialogue from Ringo can send a packed saloon packing for the swinging door.

Lovingly restored in 4K by Fox and ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal by 2020 audiences, The Gunfighter’s new Blu-ray by Criterion is a Western well worth its breathless 84 minutes and then some.


Criterion presents The Gunfighter in a 1080/24p transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration from a duplicate negative undertaken by the 20th Century Fox restoration department in 2015. The transfer preserves the film’s original 1.33:1 Academy ratio, presented on this disc as pillar boxed for widescreen TVs. English subtitles are presented for the feature film, while special features go unsubtitled.

The Gunfighter’s black-and-white cinematography is quite complex in its use of overlapping shadows and sunlight, giving way to fine textures in wood and period wallpapering. Some shots do feel less-detailed in medium or long-shots, but this may be due more to the limitations of period camera technology than the capacity of current restoration equipment. Throughout, The Gunfighter looks as seedy and reserved as it feels–and makes for a thrilling, vibrant watch.


Criterion presents The Gunfighter in a monaural track restored from a 35mm soundtrack print provided by Deluxe.

A good deal of the film’s supplemental material notes the attention to detail for the film’s sonic storytelling, which shines through in this restored mono presentation. There’s impressive layering and sound design to make up for a deliberately small amount of non-diegetic scoring by Alfred Newman, from the creak of shifting chairs to the screams of gossiping children eager to see a duel take place. There’s never a quiet moment even in such a quiet film, and each aspect of noise gets its due in a well-crafted mix like this.

Special Features

  • Gina Telaroli: Film essayist and archivist for Martin Scorsese’s Sikelia Productions, Telaroli discusses the life and career of The Gunfighter’s director Henry King leading up to The Gunfighter’s production, the subtle yet deliberate impact of editor Barbara McLean and cinematographer Arthur Miller’s work, and the gradual re-evaluation of the film over the last 70 years.
  • J.E. Smyth: American film historian and author J.E. Smyth presents an extensive video essay on The Gunfighter’s editor, Barbara McLean. Smyth insightfully breaks down the major beats in McLean’s career, from cutting her teeth as an editor through the advent of sound in cinema, to her rising power through the studio system, to her long and fruitful collaborations with Gunfighter director Henry King and movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, who produced the film.
  • Audio Interviews with Henry King & Barbara McLean: Conducted as part of the Darryl F. Zanuck Research Project for the American Film Institute’s Oral History Collection, these separate audio interview excerpts with The Gunfighter’s director and editor cover a wide breadth of material firsthand also analyzed by Telaroli and Smyth. King’s interview covers the making of The Gunfighter and the importance of location shooting, while McLean’s interview covers her working relationship with King, Zanuck, and classic Hollywood in general.
  • An Essay by Rolling Stone film critic K. Austin Collins, breaking down the film’s deconstructionist approach to then mythic-in-stature Westerns, King’s love of detail and how it applies to the film’s intricate blocking, and the introspective, melancholy nature that sets the film apart from then-contemporary Western cinema.

The Gunfighter is now available on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

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