The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Sho tLiberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – 1962

Director – John Ford

Starring – Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, and Lee Marvin

In the westerns of the thirties, forties and fifties, there was a clear line of right versus wrong, good guy versus bad.  At the beginning of the film, when someone new rides into town, all you have to do is check out the color of his hat, and by paying careful attention, you can fairly reliably ascertain whether they are a hero or a villain.  In the films of the late sixties and seventies, the west is filled with anti-heros, outlaws, and characters whose motivations are all colored in shades of gray.  A good man and a bad man are harder to tell apart, both through their deeds and their choice of clothing.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is roughly halfway between these two extremes.  Our main character may be obviously good, but he has a limit and can be pushed over it.

A sort of companion piece to the earlier Jimmy Stewart film, Destry Rides Again, this film explores the somewhat darker side of being an upstanding citizen.  Where in Destry, Stewart played a character who overcame the danger and conflict through sheer force of will, never letting his ideals falter, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sees him as a strong-willed man left with no further options than to turn his back on his idealism and resort to violence.  Whether one film was a commentary on the other, or if it was just a sign of changing times is something I can’t say for sure, but together, each illustrates the glory and the grime of standing up for what you believe in using what is essentially the same character as a means of illustration.

Liberty’s story is a familiar one.  Jimmy Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a well-meaning yet naive lawyer, who while on a stagecoach heading into the small town of Shinbone runs afoul of a local desperado and general bully, Liberty Valance (the one from the title).  Valance, played by the deliciously malicious Lee Marvin, beats Stoddard to such a degree that he is in need of treatment by the local nurse/doctor, which forces him into the lives of the local restaurant proprietors (including the love interest of local tough guy and town hero Tom Doniphan played by John Wayne).

As Ransom mends, he searches for a legal means of defeating Valance, educating the town, and unbeknownst to him he works his way into the heart of the restaurant owner’s daughter Hallie Stoddard.  As this affection becomes more and more plain, Ransom runs the risk of ostracizing his best and only chance of beating Valance at his own game.  Without Tom Doniphan standing in between the outlaw and himself, Ransom will be forced to either use violence and maybe live, and or stick by his ideals and likely die.

Well, hopefully the title of the film should explain that someone, at some point, actually does deal with Valance, but the grand question is who, and ultimately the question becomes Does it matter?”  The world is a violent place full of trials and challenges.  Is rising to face those challenges on those terms a failure of character?  Does it diminish the fact that you do what you can to find a better way, or does the need for self-preservation trump such minor concerns?  Not to mention if you go against your ideals, resort to violence, then find out that it wasn’t even you who ended up solving the problem, what then?  Are you still culpable for the choices you made, or do you get a pass?

(***Warning Spoilers***)

The film posits that it is all about perspective.  Ransom Stoddard, gets teased, taunted, beaten and worn down so low, that he finally picks up a revolver, squares off with Liberty Valance, takes aim, and shoots.  Liberty ultimately got what he wanted.  The high-minded, goody-two-shoes, was knocked from his high-horse and forced to come down to his level.

Ransom drew, shot, and Liberty ultimately died, but it wasn’t Ransom’s bullet that did the killing.  Tom Doniphan, watching from the darkness, made the shot that killed Liberty Valance and saved Ransom’s life.  The towns people held Ransom up as a hero, and by saving his life, Tom made sure the woman he loved was happy, but did it negate or tarnish Ransom’s sacrifice?  I think it did.  Ransom took the woman Tom loved, whether he meant to or not, so through his bullet Tom responded by robbing Ransom of  both his ideals and the ability to deal with the problem himself, although ultimately it cost him everything.

Tom tells Ransom what he did, freeing and trapping him with his choices at the same time, but it doesn’t change what everyone in the town thinks happens. The outcome is still the same.  The only ones affected are Stoddard and Doniphan.  Their perception of their own actions defines how they see themselves, and ultimately informs their actions on into the future.

(***End Spoilers***)

That’s pretty heady stuff considering that Destry Rides Again was really more of a typical hero cowboy story about men wearing white hats saving damsels in distress from the men in black hats.  Wayne’s Doniphan and to a different yet just as important degree Stewart’s Stoddard are each wearing multifaceted hats made up of constantly shifting shades of gray.  Each man is not what you might consider a bad guy, nor are they as undeniably good as compared to the heroes of earlier westerns, but I would argue that this makes them each more compelling characters, capable of a more realistic portrayal, and ultimately more relatable to the audience.

Definitely worth a look, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is leagues better, in my opinion, than another John Wayne film Stagecoach, but not nearly as good as some rather grittier and challenging westerns out there like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Oxbow Incident, and a film not on this list (though it should be), The Proposition.  Check it out.

Advertisements

Freaks (1932)

Freaks

Freaks – 1932

Director – Tod Browning

Starring – Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, and Harry Earles

Traditionally in most movies, especially within Hollywood, the portrayal of a group of people with extreme differences (read: Freaks),  is usually done in one of two ways.  Either they are depicted as terrible abominations not capable of human compassion and understanding, or they are misunderstood and extricated by the so-called decent “normal” people of the story.  One paints a portrait of fear, desperation, and anger, and the other, one of an almost saintly devotion to decency, virtue, and humility.

Tod Browning’s appropriately titled film, Freaks, utilizes both the fear and the somewhat more humanistic approach to paint these rather misunderstood characters in a much more three-dimensional way.  Each of the so-called freaks operates on the same instincts and motivations that any of the other characters might, rather than being simple plot modifiers and footnotes.  Jealousy, anger, love, friendship, and loyalty not to mention a good old desire for revenge all come into play in this rather straight forward, yet effective story.

For a film that does seek to humanize it’s characters regardless of their disabilities or handicaps, it also tends to overly rely on the circus sideshow type shock factor of it’s stars.  Even the film’s poster asks “Can a full-grown woman truly love a midget?”, and while the plot of the film makes a bit more headway in making them relatable, it certainly doesn’t forego the sensational nature of the subject matter entirely.

The story is simple enough.  Hans a man of diminutive proportions (or a midget), has fallen in love with Cleopatra, the beautiful trapeze artist who is more than happy to lead him on, all the while plotting just how to get his forthcoming inheritance   Cleopatra’s thinly veiled disdain is clear to all the rest of the circus’ performers, freaks and normies alike, but despite their objections Hans refuses to see her for what she is and asks her to marry him.  In the spirit of giving her the benefit of the doubt, the “freaks” hold a dinner officially welcoming her into their private circle of friends.  When Cleopatra drunkenly laughs at and tells this close-knit group just exactly what she thinks of them (negative stuff!), they hatch a plan to take their revenge.

The acting, plotting, and cinematography on display here is all fairly standard for the time, with nothing extraordinary on display. The difference, and what sets this film apart, comes in the realization of the characters, and the juxtaposition of their visible flaws with the internal flaws of the vain shallow “beautiful” people.  Though that doesn’t remove their desire for fair and equitable treatment.

It’s not that the ending, or the actions taken by the “freaks” was too shocking, or unwarranted, quite the contrary actually.  It was just odd to see from a film that came out in the time frame that this film does.  Once again, like His Girl Friday, Detour, and She Done Him Wrong, I find my conceptions of what to expect content-wise from films of the 30’s and 40’s can be drastically different from what I get.  At this point I don’t think I can pre-judge any of the films from that rather tumultuous time frame in America’s history.

Often times I forget that these years aren’t as homogenized as  early television, and some popular films would have us believe.  For every Jimmy Stewart-esque character, or idyllic suburban homestead on display, there are hundreds of characters who lived through the great depression, watched the buildup to and the active fighting of World War II, and eventually had to deal with the financial and emotional effects of both.

The means and method by which our “freaks” take their revenge may be harsh and  more than a little cold-blooded, but you’ll have to admit, it is overwhelmingly fair at the same time, and it rather accurately paints them as, well, people.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

The most unsettling images in the film come out of the last reel of the movie, where Cleopatra is dragging herself backwards through the rain and mud while upwards of fifteen different attackers stalk closer, each with a knife, gun, or blunt instrument.  In the end, it’s really a toss-up whether or not the audience will consider it a happy ending.  Thanks to the care taken in the writing and the time spent getting to know each character, I did.

(***End Spoilers***)

Though it wasn’t my absolute favorite film on this list so far, it is solidly somewhere in the middle, and as such is pretty deserving of its ranking as one of the 1001 films you should see.  Though I think director Tod Browning’s film Dracula is my favorite between the two, Freaks is a really solid film and totally worth checking out!

“In the end, aren’t we all freaks?”  –  Ashley

The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers – 1956

Director – John Ford

Starring – John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, and Natalie Wood

In my review of the another John Ford, John Wayne, western on this list, I complained about the fact that the story seemed shallow, the characters didn’t seem invested in what was happening to them, and that Wayne couldn’t act.  Stagecoach was a blueprint for most of, if not all of the westerns that came after it, The Searchers included.  But where Stagecoach attempted and (in my humble opinion) didn’t succeed, The Searchers passes with flying colors.  Everything from the scenery, the plot, and the acting was leagues better in this film.  Apparently I spoke too soon.

The Searchers, despite the trip that drives the plot, is really about the relationship between two men.  One, played by the perfectly crotchety Wayne is a hardened soldier, Ethan Edwards, who after having fought for the south in the Civil war, has an intimate knowledge of the evil that men can do to each other.  The other, Jeffrey Hunter, plays the slightly naive Martin Pawley, the adopted, half Native American son of Ethan’s only family.  At first, Ethan both distrusts as well as dislikes Martin because of his nationality, but eventually the two men find themselves working together when most of the family gets brutally massacred by Comanche indians, and the women are taken hostage.

Edwards and Pawley set out on an epic journey to find the two lost women, and in the process reveal a good deal about themselves.  Their ride takes them from New Mexico all the way north to the Canadian border.  They slog through the heat, rain and snow for 5 years looking for the elusive band of indians that are responsible for the massacre and kidnapping. 

The real revelation for me with this film, was Wayne’s acting.  He doesn’t just play a stereotype version of himself.  While Ethan is tough, and smart, he is also mean and wounded.  He’s been hurt before, by the Union, by Comanche indians, and he’s not about to let himself be hurt again.  Wayne plays him realistically, blemishes and all, flexing his acting muscle and in my eyes earning the notoriety that surrounds him.  Hunter’s Pawley is essentially the relief from Wayne’s gritty performance.  It balances the tone of the movie, keeping it moving forward on an even keel.  Hunter’s is not nearly as profound of a performance as Wayne’s, but it is exactly what is needed from his character.  The film both starts and ends with an image of Wayne in his element, and he is truly the character that changes the most.

Cinematographically, this film is miles beyond what we saw in Stagecoach.  One major element is the brilliant Technicolor that it was shot on.  The saturated blues and reds of the landscape mix and accentuate nicely with the passion of the character’s emotions.  Everything is bright, shocking, and powerful.  The vistas of Monument Valley have never looked as good as they did here (fully taking care of one of my complaints about Stagecoach), and the full range of climate, weather, and time of day was on display in this film.  Oppressive snow storms, rain, hot sun, and nighttime action are all on display here.  Our characters live in a hard scrabble, dangerous, yet beautiful environment, one that they must be wary of at all times. 

The aforementioned shot of Wayne that opens and closes the movie, is such a fantastic way to introduce the character at the start, and illustrate how he has changed by the end, it is by far my favorite part of the film.   Before I started it, I was more than expecting to see Stagecoach 2, but instead I got a thoughtful, elegant film with masterful performances by its actors, and subtle yet powerful guidance by its director.  The Searchers more than deserves to be on this list of best movies ever!

Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach – 1939

Director – John Ford

Starring – John Wayne, Claire Trevor, John Carradine, and Thomas Mitchell

I’ve talked quite a bit about how I came to the western genre with a negative pre-disposition, and about how that impression was generally wrong.  Well, it turns out, when I was thinking of bad or poor quality westerns, I was thinking of westerns like Stagecoach, John Ford’s epic old west road movie featuring the Duke himself, John Wayne. 

It isn’t that I disliked Stagecoach, far from it.  It was a completely passable, formulaic western.  The problem may be that I am coming to it a little over 70 years after it was made.  I’m sure that in its day, it was fresh, exciting, and brand new.  However, from my position here in 2010, it seemed like a story that could have easily been a TV serial, and probably was in any number of forms, but the one thing it doesn’t feel like is new.

The characters, though conventionally acted, seemed paper-thin and sparse, lacking any real conflict or emotion.  John Wayne’s character, the Ringo Kid, is supposedly freshly broken out of jail and on his way to even the score with the thugs who done him wrong.  But instead of being driven and angry, he seemed rather cheerful, and nonplussed about everything that happens throughout the entire film.  The character arc of Thomas Mitchell as the drunkard doctor, is limited to becoming slightly less of a drunk so that he can barely help the rest of the passengers in the coach when there’s trouble.  Immediately after the crisis, he bellies back up to the bar and has, you guessed it, more to drink.

The gruff sheriff, the smarmy gambler, and the prostitute with a heart of gold are all equally superficial and un-changing.  None of the characters seem to learn anything or grow even the slightest bit.  In fact  ***SPOILERS*** the closest anyone comes to growing or changing is when the gambler dies, and then he only changes because he’s dead, and isn’t in the story anymore ***END SPOILERS***. 

Another beef I had with the film, was all the hullabaloo that was made about it being the first of John Ford’s westerns to be filmed in Monument Valley.  I’m surprised it was such a selling point to the film that it was shot there, especially seeing as how it is so very rarely seen on-screen.  The trivia on IMDb sheds a little light on the reasons for filming it there, and they are mostly so Ford could keep the studio out of his hair, which makes a certain amount of sense.  Ford’s desire for solitude, however, doesn’t make the film beautiful to look at.

It is to be expected that films that set the bar initially, today, will seem a bit dated and a tad un-impressive based simply on the fact that so much has come after it.  Unfortunately for Stagecoach, most all of its flash and innovation has long since worn off, and been replaced by other films that were able to make more of a lasting impression on me through strong characterization (Ox-Bow Incident), fantastic visuals (Once Upon A Time In The West), and iconic performances (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Proposal).  Stagecoach left me more than a little disappointed.