Will Tenneray and Abe Cross are two aging, famous gunfighters, both in need of money. Cross rides into town, having failed as a gold prospector. His reputation is such that everyone expects him to shoot it out with Tenneray, who capitalizes on his legend by working at the saloon to "sucker fools into buying drinks." To the town's surprise, Tenneray and Cross take a liking to one another. There is no hostility between them whatsoever.
Tenneray is desperate for money, however. He comes up with the idea to stage a duel to the death in a bullfight arena, with the ticket proceeds going to the winner. Unfortunately, by killing Cross, he reasons to Nora, his wife, "I could lose my best friend." The actual gunfight is shot in a low-key and unromanticised fashion, and is over in a couple of seconds, Cross killing Tenneray with the first bullet.
There is an extended fantasy sequence near the end, where we see what might have happened if Tenneray had won. It is open to interpretation if this is Cross's fantasy or Tenneray's widow's fantasy.
A Gunfight contains examples of:
- Beard of Sorrow: At the start of the film, Abe Cross has been living in the wilderness for months without bathing or shaving. When he rides into town, he is sporting unkempt hair and a shaggy beard.
- Beastly Bloodsports: Early in the film a bullfight takes place in the village across the border. It is this event that gets Tenneray reasoning that if people will pay to watch a bull die, then they will pay to watch a man die.
- Deconstructed Trope: Of the classic Showdown at High Noon. The gunfight between Tenneray and Cross is short, brutal, and in no way heroic or romantic. It horrifies and disgusts the people who had paid to watch it.
- "Do It Yourself" Theme Tune: The theme song "A Gunfight" is written and performed by Johnny Cash.
- Fantasy Sequence: The film ends with an extended fantasy sequence showing what might have happened if Tenneray had won the gunfight instead of Cross. It is left as exercise for the viewer if this is occurring in Cross's imagination or Nora's.
- Gladiator Games: The paid gunfight between Tenneray and Cross is an updated version of this.
- He Cleans Up Nicely: An understated version. Abe Cross arrives in town after months prospecting in the desert. Following a bath, shave, haircut and a new set of clothes, Jenny watches him walk along the street from an upstairs window and remarks that he looks "almost handsome".
- Off-into-the-Distance Ending: The film ends with Abe riding out of town into the bleak desert. Bud stands staring at him as he goes, and Abe never looks back.
- Shoot the Dog: Abe is forced to shoot his beloved horse in the head after it succumbs to rattlesnake venom.
- Showdown at High Noon: Averted timewise as the duel takes place at 4pm, with the contestants drawing on the fourth toll of the bell tower. Justified for everything else, as the duel has been arranged as a public spectacle, so it makes sense for them to stand out in the open and shoot at each other. However see Deconstructed Trope.
- Soiled Dove: Abe's girlfriend Jenny is a 'dance girl' who works at Marv's saloon, and probably the most decent person in the film.
- Suck Out the Poison: Abe cuts his horse's leg and sucks the poison out after the horse is bitten by a rattlesnake.
- The Thunderdome: The bullfighting ring is the most prominent structure in Bajo Rio. It becomes the venue for the gunfight between Tenneray and Cross.
- Would Hit a Girl: Will slaps his wife Nora when she calls him a liar.
- Young Gun: A young gunfighter (played by Keith Carradine) challenges both Will and Abe to a showdown; not caring which one he faces and hoping to take one of their places in the upcoming gunfight. After he shoots the marshal, Will throws down with him and kills him.
- Zip Me Up: After a heated exchange in Abe's room, Jenny gets Abe to button up the back of dress before she leaves. Abe does it without really thinking about what he is doing.