Friday, June 23, 2017

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

USA, 123 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck, Dorothy M. Johnson
Photography: William H. Clothier
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Editor: Otho Lovering
Cast: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O'Brien, Andy Devine, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen, Ken Murray, Woody Strode, Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, John Carradine

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," Gene Pitney's #4 hit song in 1962 written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, has only a little more to do with this movie than Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day," a #1 in 1957, had to do with another famous John Ford movie, The Searchers. It's possible the Pitney song was originally commissioned for the movie, given how close the release dates are, and certainly it is based on the same 1953 story by Dorothy M. Johnson. But the song never appears in the movie. Nevertheless, the chorus rampages through my head every time I even think of the title.

It's easy to see why director John Ford would have rejected the little pop confection, but in many ways his movie is a kind of pop confection itself (albeit somewhat dulled by the soundstages and the black and white treatment, which were due to budget constraints). It's packed with stars new and old—John Wayne and James Stewart go back to the days of silent films, while Strother Martin, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, and Lee Van Cleef look forward to visions of the future by way of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and TV. And The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a kind of clinic in the art of engrossing narrative. I've seen it several times and if I'm rarely enthusiastic about seeing it again—the Pitney song pounds through my head at the thought, a certain deadly earworm—all resistance falls away once the story begins to unfold.

That story comes with a frame that meanders some in the start, but it's still a nice start, introducing the characters and setting piecemeal, like actors assembling on the stage, foreshadowing what's to come. As always, one of Ford's strengths is the matter of physical confrontation. He sets these scenes up and pays them off well in all his movies. Here, the rustic air of melancholy that accompanies the start is soon subverted when the flashback and main body of the movie begins, with a remarkably vicious stagecoach holdup. Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) is a heartless bandit and we're trained to hate him almost immediately.

Just as we are trained nearly as much to revere Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), a young Eastern attorney who is all about fair play and the rule of law. His idea of vengeance on Liberty Valance is not to kill him, but to put him in jail. Ford gets a lot of mileage out of feminizing Stoddard, who works washing dishes as he recovers from the beating he took in the holdup. He's happy to help by waiting tables when it's busy. Even the restaurant owners are horrified that a man would volunteer to wait tables, and the cowboys out in the main room eating steaks, potatoes, beans, and deep-dish apple pie view it as abject self-inflicted humiliation. For that scene, of course, Liberty Valance is also in the crowd, eating other people's food because he's hungry and can't wait for his own order. It's soon another epic confrontation.

But this time Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) is more the opponent than Stoddard, who flops around on the floor in his apron. After Stoddard, Doniphon is the other main player in the picture, a typical Ford / Wayne collaboration of the strong and silent loner who occasionally volunteers (and/or is drafted) to protect others. In many ways both Wayne and Stewart are playing their classic types and the charge of the movie is seeing them together and in opposition. Wayne is forever the outsider who can never quite connect with others. Indeed, he's not sure he wants to. Whereas Stewart is a kind of idealized insider, with a rich emotional life based on his social connections (which also betray him, especially in the Frank Capra movies where the character was largely born), often living even more profoundly on his internal values and moral compass (e.g., Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). He knows who he is and what he stands for, and it's usually codified some way in law. The Wayne character has internal values and knows himself too, but it has less to do with the law, at least not the formal kind.

In terms of the Western, this story uses the coming of statehood and the conflicts between ranchers and farmers in the late 19th century as setting. The region is left unspecified. We only know it's a territory that is debating statehood. Doniphon is a notably complex character in this milieu and an interesting creation, a kind of bridge between the town classes—he's sympathetic with the farmers, but his values seem closer to those of the ranging ranchers. He scoffs openly at norms of civilization. This role and performance has worked well as a barometer of my shifting views of the enduring Wayne character. I'm never inclined to like him, but over time I think he has become a little more understandable. The disrespectful way he can speak to Stoddard, and at least one of the dirty tricks Doniphon plays on him, at one time just confirmed my view of the Wayne character as a lout and basic asshole.

But I see more to it now. Some of the disrespect might be Doniphon's "rough ways," his lack of socialization, because in other ways he is always decent to Stoppard. It's Doniphon who is often most insistent on the rule of the gun, but the issue is not so clear-cut. It's more that Doniphon is aware of certain social realities which Stoddard has not been able to grasp yet. Everyone in the movie and watching it is saddened a little when Stoddard finally decides he has to shoot it out with Liberty Valance. Those closer to Stoddard's views are sorry to see him choose the route, while those more of Doniphon's views doubtless see it as a necessary acceptance of reality.

But the events and nuance of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are really there to be discovered. It's a great big rip-roaring Western story with lots of fine points. In 2017, it looks more like a product of the midcentury time when it was made, because the rejection of gun violence is so open and complete. Nowadays Westerns are more often an excuse for shoot-em-ups with no apologies, though Clint Eastwood has also shown similar tendencies for soul-searching. But the good news here is that, even if you're not in the mood for soul-searching, you're still likely to get a big bang out of this classic Western.

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