"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paramount, 1962)

 
 










A dangerous, not to say fatal exercise.







Directly after The Horse Soldiers in the list of 94 Westerns that John Wayne made (don't worry, we aren't going to review them all) comes his own personal pride and joy, The Alamo. We looked at it back in April.  Poor John. What a clunker. And he invested so much in it - not just thirteen million 1960 dollars but his heart and soul.
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Two years later he was back in front of John Ford's cameras in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
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To confine a Western almost totally to sound set interiors and studio street scenes is a dangerous, not to say, fatal exercise. Westerns depend on action and scenery and movement. John Ford knew this, too. Yet The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance is a static, over-talky and rather tired film, Ford’s penultimate Western and one of his worst.
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The themes of Liberty Valance were those that had always concerned the famous director: East versus West, the creation of law and order in a wild land, nostalgia for a bygone time of freedom. The film has something interesting to say on pacifism and courage and the freedom of the press. Much of the dialogue (James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck from the Dorothy M Johnson short story) is well written and thoughtful. There is just too much of it.
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James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard and John Wayne as Tom Doniphon were, by 1962, top stars, of course, and both put in powerful performances but both were a bit long in the tooth to portray the young Turks they are supposed to be. (James Stewart was known as the man who brought law and order to Bottleneck without a gun way back in 1939. Perhaps he was chosen to do the same thing for Shinbone in 1962?) Fortunately, the supporting acting is a veritable roll call of grand cowboy actors: led by Lee Marvin as Valance, splendidly bad, the cast also contains Edmond O’Brien (earlier of Denver and Rio Grande, later of The Wild Bunch) as Peabody, editor of The Shinbone Star, Andy Devine as the cowardly Marshal Link Appleyard of gargantuan appetite, Woody Strode as Wayne’s 48-year-old ‘boy’ (servant? Slave?) Pompey, Denver Pyle in spectacles as a townsman and Lee van Cleef and Strother Martin as heavies to back up Liberty. It’s a great list.
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The photography was by William Clothier again and indeed there are fine shots of shadow and light but why did Ford choose in 1962 to film it in the studio and in black & white, the first of his films in monochrome since Rio Grande in 1950? Clothier had so little scope for artistry. Perhaps because it was mostly set at night, Ford wanted it dark and somber and he wanted to show that there was more to Westerns than Indians chasing stagecoaches across Monument Valley? Ford always loved black & white, of course. Or maybe simply that Paramount were cutting costs and John Ford Westerns weren’t the draw they once had been? The film was often shoved into double-bills as a makeweight. How sad.

.The whole look and feel of Liberty Valance is old-fashioned, from the monochrome to the Cyril Mockridge music and the almost William S Hart costumes. How The West Was Won came out the same year – what a difference! And big, colorful, commercial, action-packed vehicles like The Magnificent Seven were now the thing, or modern angst-dramas like The Misfits. Liberty Valance was stuck in the 1940s.

The triangle of manhood linking Valance, Stoddard and Doniphon is mirrored by that of tenderness between Stoddard, Doniphon and Hallie (Vera Miles). It’s well-constructed and crafted alright. Hallie, though, is tamed and civilized – Ranse teaches her to read and makes her a Senator’s wife – just as the West is tamed. Almost the last words are Hallie saying, “It was once a wilderness. Now it’s a garden.” But she loses her fire and the joie de vivre that Tom would have nurtured.
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In the last resort, Stoddard has lived a lie. And for all his success and Doniphon's apparent failure (dying unknown and alone in a backwater), Stoddard is not half the man Doniphon was. And he knows it.

Fundamentally, it's a very sad story.
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