For gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck), every shot that kills has to be justified, witnesses verified, and, unfortunately, every town has the opportunity for killing, as his reputation unfailingly precedes him through any swinging saloon door, and inside, there's some punk full of himself and whatever swill the barman serves who thinks he's tough because he can shoot a bottle off a fence. Every town has one...until Ringo comes to town.
Jimmy Ringo has a way of ridding the town of morons. Whatever benefit to the town's gene pool Ringo provides doesn't settle with him, though. He has to remember the faces of the idiots he kills. He carries the stigma of being a man to avoid, as he does the reputation of being "the fastest gun..."
So he keeps riding, because if he stays in place too long, trouble will catch up to him, or challenge him, only to wind up dead on the floor. To the onlookers, it's self-defense and that's how Ringo has to play it, but it happens with such regularity, he knows even if he had no choice, he's the one to blame.
Any lawman doesn't like him in their town, even the ones like Marshall Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell, a favorite character actor) who have history with him, may even like him, but know that his very presence will invite trouble and upset the peaceful status quo they're trying to maintain. So, Ringo is just as likely to be greeted with "When ya leavin'?" as a "Hello," or a hand going for its holster, opposed to a handshake.
Ringo arrives at Strett's town of Cayenne, fresh from killing another dumb kid (Richard Jaeckel) who wouldn't let it be, and several lengths ahead of the kid's three brothers who want revenge for the idiot's death. Ringo disarms them and sends their horses fleeing, in the hopes they might be discouraged from following him the rest of the way, but they're so hell-bent, they follow him on foot, and he arrives at the Cayenne saloon, thirsty, hungry and bone-tired, while the bar-keep (Karl Malden) goes out of his way to make the celebrity comfortable, while a regular goes to get the Marshall. Their meeting is cordial but serious and Strett discourages Ringo from setting in place too long. But, Ringo won't leave until he takes one more chance that might end the running—he wants to see the town's teacher, Peggy Walsh (Helen Westcott), who's gone into hiding and changed her name to avoid being found out by the man from her past—him. And, most of all, she doesn't want Ringo to meet her son—his son—who has skipped school with the other boys to hang around downtown for a glimpse of the fastest gun in the west.The Gunfighter is probably more influential than some might think—in two short years, High Noon would be released, another Western involving the enclosed fishbowl of a small Western town and the pressure of time. There were no cattle stampedes or Indian attacks or runaway stagecoaches, just a man at war with himself by being at war with others. It might be a great thing to be "the fastest gun" but that accomplishment has a quick shelf-life before things turn sour and the acclaim rings hollow, especially as time progresses—as far as one knows there's only one way to not be "the fastest gun" and that's by being the second fastest.
And those men are usually dead.
But, if Ringo can convince his wife and kid that he's changed his ways and that he's ready to settle now...well, that just might be a way out of it, too. But, she's reluctant...and those three brothers are on the way.
It's not the wide open spaces that set the stage for The Gunfighter, it's the closed interiors of the psyche and the self. Instead of focusing on the spectacle of building a Nation, it's about the painful process of deconstructing, not about the road ahead, but the one already traveled. It ushered in a decade of films re-appraising the Western and how changing a country can change the ones doing the changing.
* Once it got to Fox and Zanuck, three other writers worked on the screenplay—William Sellers, Nunnally Johnson, and...Roger Corman (yeah, that Roger Corman).