The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

the_man_who_shot_liberty_valanceAsk a western fan what John Ford movie is his favorite, and you’ll get any number of answers. Rightfully so too, Ford directing gem after gem. My personal favorite is 1948’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Ford’s tone shifted later in his career though, portraying the American west in a more realistic, negative view. I’d say more honest. Movies like The Searchers, Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge, and of course, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, all dug deeper, portraying a west unlike we’d seen in the director’s previous efforts.

A lawyer from the East, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is on a stagecoach heading to the town of Shinbone in a western territory when the coach is attacked by an infamous bandit, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and his gang. Stoddard is savagely beaten but nursed back to health in Shinbone. It is turbulent times in the budding town and territory with a potential push for statehood on the line. Stoddard becomes a key person in the fight, all the way trying to figure out what life in the west is like. Valance constantly berates the lawyer, but a small rancher who’s fast with a gun, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), always seems to be in the right place at the right time. With so much on the line for so many people, Stoddard must decide how far he wants to push his luck.

By all accounts, ‘Liberty Valance’ is the anti-John Ford western. Shot in black and white on the Hollywood backlot, there are no sweeping vistas, no majestic shots of riders on the horizon. Instead, this is a story about the people, their relationships and the turbulent times they find themselves in. There’s little in the way of gunplay/gunfights. It’s just not your typical western, but it is a film that’s firing on all cylinders. A classic that deserves its reputation.

Never a bad thing when two Hollywood legends star together. They were in How the West Was Won together but had no scenes together. They were excellent together in several great scenes in The Shootist. What’s so cool here is the dynamic. Both Ransom and Tom believe in the same things, just different ways of accomplishing those things. I love Stewart’s Ransom and the character arc he goes through. It’s a fascinating character. He hates guns, hate violence and abhors bullies. He sees Tom’s ways of doing things and can’t get on-board with it…until he does. Not your typical western hero — by a long shot — but one that brings a great, unique edge to a familiar genre.

Ford and Wayne go together like peanut butter and jelly, albeit PB that’s abusive to the J. Wayne did some of his best work in Ford films — especially She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers — but Ford was infamous for railing on his star non-stop. So was the case here as Ford picked on Wayne mercilessly. Well…it worked. This is one of Wayne’s more underrated parts. His Tom Doniphon is a bit of a bully himself, constantly calling Ransom ‘Pilgrim,’ but he’s a small rancher who’s well-respected (even feared) and is lightning quick with a gun. Like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Doniphon is a tragic character here too, an arc that all comes together in a fitting, moving and at times, tough to watch conclusion. Kudos to the two Hollywood greats.

Easily one of Ford’s strongest casts from top to bottom. Vera Miles is Hallie, the uneducated waitress who’s drawn to both Tom and Ransom (oh no! A love triangle!), avoiding plenty of awkward pratfalls. Marvin is terrifyingly perfect as Liberty, an unhinged psycho capable of all sorts of violence. Edmond O’Brien hams it up and steals his scenes as alcoholic newspaper editor Dutton Peabody. Andy Devine is the cowardly sheriff because of course he is. Gotta mention Woody Strode who in subtle fashion steals his scenes (as he usually did) as Pompey, Tom’s “man,” almost a right-hand man kind of deal, not a slave but always at his side.

Also look for John Carradine, Denver Pyle, Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen and plenty more familiar faces to round out the cast.

Earlier in his career, Ford’s films tended to have a broad, obvious sense of humor that bordered on too much (and sometimes was just way too much). His later films lost that innocence. Sure, Devine gets some laughs, but it’s far more subtle. There’s a darkness here that hangs in the air. It’s always building to that inevitable showdown, but even there, a twist is revealed in a lightning-quick noir-esque flashback that’s beyond perfect. There is an edge, a violence, a meanness (especially in Valance) that brings the movie up a notch. The black and white filming goes a long way toward aiding the cause in that department.

‘Valance’ is famous for one of the best lines in western history. Simpy put, it’s “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The story is held with a framing device that adds some additional layers to the story. I won’t spoil it here, but it works on basically all levels. Some great storytelling from beginning to end as we try to piece it all together as an audience.

I can’t say enough about this western. It’s not your typical Ford western, not even your typical western in general. It had been years since I watched it, and I loved catching back up with it. I came away very impressed with Stewart’s performance this time. There’s a moment late where he’s simply a man who’s had enough. He’s been pushed too far. If he has to die righting a wrong, his Ransom Stoddard — educated to the bone — is ready to pick up a gun and die for it. The end result propels the last 25 minutes of the movie to a highly memorable finale. Go watch this one.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): ****/****

 

The Dirty Dozen

One of the all-time great tough guy casts — if not the greatest — in one of my favorite genres. A movie that stands the test of time that is action-packed, darkly funny and amazingly entertaining. It has taken abuse over the years by some because of its shocking ending, but it also has built up a diehard following by those who will defend it to the last (including me). One of my favorite movies ever, and a Memorial Day themed review, 1967’s The Dirty Dozen.

An American army officer with a record a mile long, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) has been given a mission that even he doesn’t believe is real. It’s late spring 1944, and as the Allies prepare for the D-Day invasion, the Allied high command (including Ernest Borgnine) delivers his impossible, suicidal mission. Reisman is to take 12 prisoners either sentenced to death or years of imprisonment and hard labor, train them, and then in the days before the D-Day landing, drop them into German-occupied France. Their mission? Attack a German chateau, killing as many high ranking German officers as possible, hopefully wreaking havoc on the high command. Can Reisman get the prisoners to work together before they kill him?

This is a movie that is a perfect storm of timing, casting and story. A story of 12 convicted criminals — rape, murder, robbery — turned commandos who resent any sort of authority given a mission to kill enemy officers in cold blood? Could that story even remotely fly in any time other than late 1960s America? It was a time when America was changing, a darker, more cynical time in our history. Director Robert Aldrich taps into something special there. ‘Dozen’ has a unique look to it, interesting camera angles, a catchy theme for the Dozen — listen HERE — and a general feel of giving the middle finger to any sort of power or authority figure. Could there be a more perfect movie for a 1967 audience?

I could write a whole review discussing the characters and the long list of tough guy actors who play them, but I doubt many people would read 10,000 rambling words about how the cast of The Dirty Dozen is the coolest thing ever. Let’s start with Lee Marvin, an all-around bad-ass who by the mid 1960s had become a major, bankable star. His Major Reisman, a sarcastic, quick-witted, smart-mouthed and brutally effective officer, is probably his most well known role, and he owns this movie. With the cast behind and around him, that’s saying something. Marvin delivers brutally funny one-liners left and right, handles the action scenes flawlessly, and is believable as the cynical leader of this group of crook commandos. With those type of men behind him, you need someone like him to lead.

Richard Jaeckel is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Bowren, the MP assigned to work with Reisman in training and execution of the mission. Along with Borgnine, the High Command and other Allied officers include Robert Webber, George Kennedy and Ralph Meeker. Oh, and Robert Ryan as a stiff-collared officer from the 101st. Enough for you? No?

And then there’s the Dirty Dozen. The group includes Charles Bronson as Wladislaw, the former officer sentenced to hang for killing one of his own men, a medic carrying medical supplies away from battle. There’s former NFL star Jim Brown as Jefferson, an African American soldier who killed in self defense but is sentenced to hang nonetheless. John Cassavetes was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Franko, a Chicago hood who killed a London man for $10 worth of cash. Telly Savalas is Maggot, a psychopathic Southerner convinced God works through him. Clint Walker is Posey, an Apache with rage issues, Donald Sutherland is Pinkley, a dimwitted soldier, and singer Trini Lopez plays Jiminez. Rounding out the Dozen are character actors Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland, and Al Mancini as Bravos, the smallest of the bunch but with a mean/funny streak. The focus is Bronson, Brown, Cassavetes, Walker, Savalas and Sutherland, none of them disappointing, all of them living up to the hype, all given a chance to shine.

What has helped ‘Dozen’ gain its cult-like following over the years is its humor in looking at and poking some fun at war in general. Sutherland’s dimwitted Pinkley is forced to inspect a crack platoon of Ryan’s Col. Breed in one of the most memorable, truly funny scenes. Watch it HERE. Reisman later arranges for eight London prostitutes to visit the Dozen as their training winds down. The facial expressions exchanged back and forth are priceless. The high point comically — however dark it is — comes in the War Games sequence, the Dozen forced to prove their worth by capturing Col. Breed’s headquarters. They resort to cheating, con jobs, stealing, and all sorts of trickery. After the extended training sequence — which has its fair share of funny moments — the War Games development and the eventual payoff provides some great laughs.

The portion of the movie though that tends to drive people away is the attack on the chateau. SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS STOP READING Here’s the plan, courtesy of Reisman, which you can watch HERE. It of course, doesn’t go as planned, Reisman, Bowren and the Dozen forced to improvise. Their solution is simple; throw grenades and gasoline down air chutes and burn (think napalm) the German officers to death. Heroic? No, I would say not. It’s a movie though. These guys aren’t portrayed as heroes. These are prototypical 1960s anti-heroes! What does work? The entire finale sequence (around 45 minutes long) is dripping with tension, and once the adrenaline starts pumping, it doesn’t stop. The Dozen start to get picked off — including two legitimate shockers — as the bullets start flying. I’ve seen this movie 50 times and still root for two characters especially to make it, knowing all the while they won’t. The means are brutal, but as far as an entertaining action sequence goes, it is one of the best.

I’m not sure what this says about me, but I grew up watching this movie a lot. Introduced to it via Memorial Day war movie marathons, it will be always be one of my favorites. I love its cynical, dark look at war. I love the ridiculously strong cast from top to bottom. It is funny, entertaining, action-packed, and a true example of ‘They don’t make them like that anymore.’ A classic.

The Dirty Dozen <—trailer (1967): ****/****

Bad Day at Black Rock

bad_day_at_black_rockDirector John Sturges helmed two of my all-time favorite movies, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1963’s The Great Escape. He specialized in tough guy movies, and in 1955 directed an interesting mash-up that features elements of several different genres, including film noir, mystery and western. How could that not work? Here’s 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock.

It’s late in 1945 in the isolated western town of Black Rock. After four years of not stopping, a train stops at the station and one man steps off. His name is Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). He’s outfitted in a black suit and black hat and is carrying a suitcase, but no one has ever seen him before. No one in town has ever even heard of him. Polite and mannerly, he drifts around the one-street town, instantly arousing suspicion to his intentions. A local rancher, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), owns the town, intimidating anyone who gets in his way. Smith and his men are concerned about what Macreedy is up to but they can’t figure it out. What is he looking for exactly in Black Rock?

What a great movie. Clocking in at a brisk 81 minutes, this is a movie without a wasted moment. It does effortlessly combine film noir, mystery and western archetypes in a way you wouldn’t expect. You think the story is going one way and then WHAM we’re going a different way. There is a minimalist style to it, but all these separate pieces meld together perfectly. Definitely a must-see movie.

Leading the way is Spencer Tracy as our mysterious lead, John J. Macreedy. He enters town with an unannounced mission, a smile on his face and some questions he’d like answered. An established Hollywood legend by 1955 (and then some), Tracy makes it look easy. Met with interference, stone faces and roadblocks everywhere he turns, he seamlessly moves along down another avenue. It’s only late when he’s pushed too far that he finally pushes back. His eventual confrontation provides one of the movie’s great moments, a genuine shock as he handles the situation. Maybe the biggest compliment you can give an actor is it doesn’t seem like they’re trying too hard. Tracy is a prime example, stealing scenes without us even realizing he’s doing it.

Typically directing guy’s guys types of movies, Sturges does not disappoint here. Ryan is the steely-eyed Smith, the town owner who knows more than he’s letting on. His scenes with Tracy crackle, intimidation just seeping through all his lines. His henchmen of sorts are pre-star Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, equally intimidating and ominous. The rest of the townspeople include Walter Brennan as the doctor, Dean Jagger as the washed-up sheriff, Anne Francis as Smith’s girl and the garage owner, John Ericson as the hotel owner (and Francis’ sister), Russell Collins as the telegraph operator and Walter Sande as Sam, the bartender. Some good characters all delivering with key supporting parts.

An additional member of the cast is the on-location shooting in Lone Pine, California and the nearby Alabama Hills. The little one-street town features five or six small, rickety buildings with one main road splitting the town. Mountains hover in the distance over the town, a train zipping through once a day but never stopping. Sturges films the streets scenes low, both the cast and the mountains seemingly looking down at the camera. You feel the isolation and loneliness, a town seemingly separated from the rest of the world. That uneasy feeling of being trapped plays a key feature as Macreedy continues to ask questions. Has he dug himself too deep? A sun-drenched, uncomfortable setting for a story that takes place in a period of just 24 hours.

A classic that doesn’t always get its due. A must-see.

(1955): ****/****