Aging gunslinger Jimmy Ringo (Peck) rides into a strange town where he's immediately recognized. As kids gather at the saloon windows to glimpse the killer and townsfolk gossip about his exploits, the town marshal (Mitchell) tries to keep the peace. He wants Ringo out of town, but Ringo asks for a few hours' grace to visit with his estranged wife Peggy (Westcott), who he hasn't seen in more than eight years, and their son, who he's never seen. Meanwhile, three angry cowboys are on his trail and the town's young hothead is scheming to see just how fast Jimmy is. Ringo only wants to be left alone, to live with his family, maybe on a small ranch away from his reputation. But can he escape that reputation and find peace?
The Gunfighter provides examples of:
- But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Jimmy Ringo is accused of having this mentality but denies it. It's really a case of Not Me This Time.Jimmy: I never killed any Roy Marlowe, I never even heard of him. You must be out of your mind.Jerry Marlowe: You killed him all right, but you don't even remember it.Jimmy: Your crazy to think if I killed someone I wouldn't remember it.
- Cruel Mercy: Ringo gives this to Hunt Bromley. A dying Ringo swears that he drew first, sparing Bromley from being hanged for murder. But now Ringo knows Bromley will spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, hunted by some other young punk wanting a reputation by killing the man who killed Ringo. Soon, Bromley will know that being "a big, tough gunny" is a miserable way to live.
- Decoy Antagonist: The gunslingers who spend the film tracking Ringo are easily neutralized, without bloodshed. Ringo's more threatened by Hunt Bromley.
- The Dividual: Eddie's brothers are all unnamed and fairly indistinct in terms of being vengeance-seeking Determinators who share their screen time.
- Fake Shemp: Cinematographer Charles G. Clarke shot the title backgrounds using Gregory Peck's double.
- Genre Deconstruction: Of the Western. Considered one of the earliest.
- Get Out!: Marshal Strett delivers this, along with some punches, to Bromley after Bromley shoots Ringo dead. He knows that Bromley will get killed sooner or later, but it won't be in Strett's territory.
- The Gunfighter Wannabe: Dealing with wannabes is a major theme of the film.
- The Gunslinger: Ringo is a Type D.
- Hope Spot: Ringo's gotten a chance to meet with his wife and the son he's never seen until now, and the town marshal has planned a quick getaway before the gunslingers hunting Ringo can get there. Unfortunately, Bromley's still smarting from his embarrassing takedown, and still desperate for a reputation as a gunslinger...
- Mis-blamed: In-universe, Ringo has been blamed for the deaths of people he'd never could have met.
- Retired Outlaw: The Gunfighter has two men who do this. One succeeds, the other fails. The one who succeeds becomes a town marshal.
- Revised Ending: In the original ending, Hunt Bromley was arrested by the sheriff, but studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck demanded a stronger resolution, so Henry King and Nunnally Johnson rewrote the final scene.
- Right in Front of Me: Ringo discusses his reputation with a group of housewives, who don't realize who he is.