What makes The Fastest Gun Alive so unusual is not only that it has a twist ending, but also that the twist ending so thwarts our expectations that a lot of people do not remember it years later, but only recall the ending they were expecting.
By the time this movie was made, the Western formula of the gunfighter with a guilty past who wants to hang up his gun was well established, as in Shane (1953) and Johnny Guitar (1954). In some of these Westerns, as in The Gunfighter (1950), the point is made that once a man has a reputation for being fast on the draw, he will be plagued by young punks trying to goad him into a fight so that they can prove they are faster, thereby establishing a reputation of their own.
And so it is that early in The Fastest Gun Alive, we are encouraged to fit George (Glenn Ford) into that category. We see him practicing with his gun, which he has told his wife, Dora (Jeanne Crain), that he threw away a long time ago. We believe that she does not like violence and killing, and she has made George promise to give up his gunslinging ways. This recalls the way Peggy (Helen Westcott) in The Gunfighter left her husband, Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck), because she abhorred his life as a gunfighter. In other towns where George and Dora have lived, his reputation of being fast with a gun has resulted in his continually being challenged to a gunfight, just as with Ringo. And just as Ringo promises his wife that he is through with gunfighting, and that they can start a new life in California where nobody will know who he is, George and Dora have started a new life in Cross Creek under assumed names.
Unfortunately, there is no glory in being a shopkeeper, and so every time George and Dora settle down in a new town, there eventually comes a time when he just can’t stand it any more, and ends up proving to everybody what a hotshot he is with a gun. And once the word is out, he and Dora have to move again. And thus it is that in Cross Creek, George once again finds himself irked one day when he hears a bunch of men in the saloon talking about men like Vinnie Harold (Broderick Crawford), reputed to be the fastest gun in the West. George gets his gun and puts on a show, shooting coins out of the air and blasting a mug of beer before it hits the ground.
Now everybody knows. And now Dora is disgusted. She tells George that she is all through running. George tells the townsfolk his problem, and they go along with keeping his expertise with a gun secret, but unfortunately a few letters have already gone out, and word has reached Vinnie, who arrives in town, threatening to burn it all down if George does not come out of the church to meet him in a gunfight. The townsfolk turn to Dora, begging her to release George from his promise to her not to get into any more gunfights.
And then comes the twist no one expects and which many cannot even remember. Dora tells them that she doesn’t care if George gets into a gunfight and she never has. She says he has always been free to use his guns. The problem is, George is a coward. He has never been in a gunfight, and so every time men come around challenging him to a fight, he wants to run away and hide out in a new town. And she is just tired of having to move.
So, George straps on his gun, kills Vinnie in a gunfight, and then the town digs a mock grave with a tombstone that has George’s name on it. That way, George can stay in Cross Creek without having to worry about men coming around trying to prove themselves by challenging him to a gunfight, and at the same time, he can strut around town like a real man, because everyone knows he is the fastest gun alive.