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.

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12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men – 1957

Director – Sidney Lumet

Starring – Henry Fonda, Jack Klugman, and Lee J. Cobb

The legal system is a funny thing. By and large it works on the notion of truth, the differentiation between lies and provable fact. The problem is, that since all of these definitions and judgements are filtered through, and interpreted by other human beings, it’s nearly impossible to keep prejudice, opinion and point of view from clouding the “truth”, and making an unbiased result a near impossibility.

12 Angry Men seeks to scrutinize the process of determining a mans guilt or innocence by watching that process unfold. Henry Fonda plays juror number 8, the one man on the jury of a murder trial who hasn’t pre-decided the fate of a young man who is accused of stabbing his father to death. Each of the other jurors has their own individual reasons for thinking he is guilty, although none of them have anything to do with the facts in the case and have more to do with their own biases.  The entire duration of the film is tied up in the task of separating perception and fact, and as a result the internal, and is some cases subconscious motivations of each of the jurors is laid bare.

One major theme in this film is prejudice. Whether its prejudice against the young man because of where he comes from (a poor, immigrant neighborhood), or prejudice in favor of ones own interests (the man who wants the trial over with so he can get to his baseball game), the film is really asking what form of prejudice do you, the viewer, subscribe to, and are you able to understand it and take responsibility for it?  To a certain degree we are all guilty of this manner of behavior at one level or another, but like juror 8 we are also capable of standing up for what is right, understanding when we’ve made a mistake, and changing course when we are wrong. The biggest takeaway from this film is the idea of personal redemption. Yes, the personal redemption that is on display in the film, but moreover the potential for our own personal redemption.  Despite the dramatic story acting as a vehicle for the message, it is the audience that is under scrutiny the entire time.

The jurors are a vehicle through which we can see ourselves.  The young man accused of murder is not even a character that we get to know.  All we know of him is based on the impressions that we get from the completely normal,  yet flawed human beings that are charged with judging him, and we in turn make our own judgements based on what we think of them.  It quickly becomes apparent how fragile and important the system is that decides a man’s fate can be.  Not based on the color of his skin, his occupation, the neighborhood he grew up in, or much more scary, what else you have going on in YOUR life, but by the definable and provable facts of what he (or she) did or didn’t do.

As usual, Henry Fonda plays the role of our system’s super-ego to a tee (a role he has worked on and perfected in another film I had the pleasure of seeing and reviewing, “The Ox-bow Incident”).  With his furrowed brow, stoic features, and piercing eyes, he was born to take on the good guy role (precisely why he is so good as the villain in “Once Upon a Time in the West”).  Similarly, the gravely voice, gruff “angry-father” demeanor, and intense stare, make Lee J. Cobb a perfect choice as the stubborn, petulant, juror 3.  Finally, despite the fact that it took me out of the story a little, it was fun to see The Odd Couple’s Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) take a turn as a raving, racist, who doesn’t quite understand how uncomfortable he makes everyone else.

As far as cinematography goes, this film is beautiful to look at.  The fact that it takes place (almost) entirely in the same room throughout the entire film is a testament to how engaging the film’s subject matter, and how talented cinematographer Boris Kaufman actually is.  One scene in particular, just after the aforementioned racist rant, where each Juror is forced to listen to what they sound like and each responds with shame and disgust, is so well orchestrated that I kept thinking about it for days after seeing it.

When it comes to the films on this list, the ones you should see, some are good, some are not so good, and there are others, like 12 Angry Men, that transcend the boundaries between importance of message, and quality of work.  It’s a wonder that this film came out of the 1950’s, before the bulk of the civil rights movement that would come after it.  It has definitely earned it’s place on this list, and is well worth a watch.  Incidentally, if you haven’t already seen it (or read the review), go watch The Ox-bow Incident too!  It might actually be my favorite of the two films, but both are fantastic.

“Acting!” (said in a whisper) – Ashley

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox-Bow Incident – 1943

Director – William A. Wellman

Starring – Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, and Anthony Quinn

The Western, as of late, has gone through a bit of a transformation.  What was once a nice clean depiction of black and white, good and evil, has changed over the years flitting across many different themes and archetypes into the  metaphorical and allegory laden period pieces that they have become today.  As I’ve said in my review for the fantastic McCabe & Mrs. Miller, I have tended to discount westerns in general, and early westerns in particular as being fluff, and devoid of value.  My appreciation for the genre came to me fairly recently, and I’ve been working to shake my initial impression ever since.  The Ox-Bow Incident goes a very, very long way in repairing my misconceptions of what the western is capable of, as well as make me wonder why I haven’t seen Henry Fonda in more films.

As the title suggests, the plot centers around a single horrific incident, that we the audience don’t even see.  Everything that inspires what we see happens off-screen.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Quentin Tarantino took a little inspiration for how to achieve the bank heist from Reservoir Dogs from watching this film. There is not a word of dialog wasted in this almost too-brief potboiler that deals with fear, anger, and the tenuous connection between the two.  Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (better known as, and from here out, referred to as Col. Potter from the M*A*S*H TV show) play a couple of ranchers who, fairly new in the area, come into town for a bit of relaxation and a bit of drink.  Conversation in the saloon quickly turns grim when word comes that a local cattleman has been shot to death and his herd stolen.  Fear quickly turns to anger, and despite the best efforts of the few level-headed townsfolk, a posse forms and rides on the word of rumor to intercept the criminals.  Soon enough, the lynch mob happens upon a group of three sleeping men, who quickly become a target for the aggression and fear of the scared towns folk.

So we have a typical western-ish set up, and a cast of characters that also seem a little typical for your average western, so what makes this one so different?  Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews.  Henry Fonda’s character, Gil, is neither good nor evil.  He doesn’t moralize, blindly standing up to do “the right thing”, nor is he driven by nefarious motives toward the typical tying of a helpless maiden to the railroad tracks.  He is a cynical observer who is no more exempt from the actions of the mob than the rest of them.  Despite his objections, he believes without question that there will be no redemption, no help for the three accused men.  He is a beaten man from the beginning.  The real hero, “Good Guy” is played by Dana Andrews, as Donald Martin, one of the suspected cattle rustlers.  He tries to reason with the mob for the lives of him and his companions, a senile old man, and a Mexican man (played soulfully by Anthony Quinn) who is instantly demonized by the crowd due to his race.  Together Gil and  Donald juxtapose the humanity of individuals as well as the monstrosity capable of indifferent men, a struggle that wouldn’t creep into mainstream cinema consciousness till the noir films that came out later,  after the war.  It is in these two men, that we see victory battle defeat, and true good versus true evil.

As far as the artistry and construction of the film, it is economical, taking place in two main locations (the Saloon, and at the accused men’s camp site).  The film doesn’t rely on flash, massive set pieces, or spectacle.  Instead, it simply lets the solid, well-told story play out as it should.  The fact that it was shot in black and white (although probably more of a decision based on when it came out rather than as a conscious artistic choice) really helps to underpin the fact that the characters see each other as well as themselves in terms of black and white, good and evil.  Similarly, the “trial” of the three men takes place out in the wild, literally and figuratively outside the bounds of civilization.  Civility is not a quality that the mob has going for it, and the creaky, shadowy setting suits this subtext perfectly.

I chose to watch this movie via my streaming Netflix choices mainly based on it’s length (it’s only 74 minutes), but I was wowed by everything about it.  The message of the film can be seen in both the overt imagery, the subtext of the plot, and the finely honed dialog.  Each element of this film works together so incredibly efficiently, that 74 minutes was all it needed to do the job right.  You owe it to yourself to watch this film, I promise it won’t take long and you’ll be happy you did.