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): ****/****

 

Sabata (1968)

sabata_dvd_coverIt’s beyond easy to point to Clint Eastwood as the actor most profoundly impacted by the popularity of the spaghetti western genre. His Dollars trilogy with Sergio Leone put him on the map on a worldwide basis. Who’s the second guy on that list? There are a handful of names that come to mind, but it’s not really close. It’s gotta be Lee Van Cleef, who co-starred with Eastwood in two Leone westerns. Van Cleef immediately shot to stardom, including an iconic character in one of the best spaghetti westerns in the entire genre, 1968’s Sabata.

 

In the Texas border town of Daugherty City, a gang of bandits rob a heavily-guarded bank and escape into the desert, heading for Mexico with the haul. That’s the plan at least. A mysterious gunfighter clad in all black, Sabata (Van Cleef), stops them in the desert, killing them all. He returns the money to the town and receives a sizable reward from the Army. That’s not all though. Three prominent businessmen in town were behind the robbery, looking to use the stolen cash to purchase more land, land the railroad is going to buy soon. Sabata quickly finds out their plan and blackmails the trio for increasing amounts of money. The only solution for the trio? Kill Sabata, but any would-be killers will have their hands full with this seemingly unstoppable gunfighter.

 

By 1968, the craze of spaghetti westerns were in full swing. ‘Sabata’ marks an interesting turn for the genre with director Gianfranco Parolini at the helm. The crazy villains, sweaty/sandy landscapes, the overdone violence, all three are on display. But Parolini’s western has a much lighter tone. There is genuine comedy, featuring some great one-liners and memorable sight gags. Acrobats fly through the air, including one of Sabata’s partners (but more on that later). Everything is exaggerated and overdone…but it works. It’s criminal how well it works.

 

It starts at the top with Lee Van Cleef as Sabata. It’s hard not to compare the character with Col. Mortimer from For a Few Dollars More (probably Van Cleef’s most memorable, iconic role), from the black suit and black hat to the expansive weapons arsenal. What’s added here is the more humorous tone. His one-liners are great, and his use of his guns ends up being some punch lines too. He seemingly can’t miss! Most importantly, Van Cleef seems to be having a ball. His evil smile is always on display, and you always get the sense he knows more than everyone else. As for his mysterious backstory, that definitely adds a layer to the story. His most memorable part? No, probably not, but it’s so much fun.

 

The general odd qualities to characters of the genre is a big positive here too. William Berger plays Banjo, a similarly mysterious gunfighter who’s always carrying…a banjo (with a surprise). He works for whoever will pay him, so one scene that’s Sabata and the next the bad guys. He wears bells on his pants and his coat and has some effeminate touches, but it’s a scream. The dialogue between Van Cleef and Berger provide repeated gems. Ignazio Spalla has a ball as Carrincha, Sabata’s right-hand man, a drunken Civil War vet who’s an expert knife thrower. His maniacal laugh is awesome. Aldo Canti plays Alley Cat (Indio in certain cast listings), a mute Indian who bounces around town like an acrobat with some nicely hidden trampolines. Definite oddballs but fun throughout.

 

Franco Ressel plays Stengel, the powerful rancher pulling all the strings. With an epic combover, heavy eyeliner and almost alien eyes, Ressel isn’t the most imposing villain…but definitely one of the more eccentric. Antonio Gradoli and Gianni Rizzo play his partners in crime, ever worried Sabata will ruin their plan. Also look for the beautiful Linda Veras as Jane, a saloon girl who loves Banjo, an eye candy part if there ever was. Also keep an eye out for plenty of familiar faces if you’re a spaghetti western fan.

 

What caught my attention on this latest watch was that really, there’s not much in the way of a story. Sabata blackmails the baddies, the baddies try and kill Sabata with epic failures….and then there’s a lot of shooting. You don’t notice though. It never slows down — at 102 minutes — enough for you to not enjoy the ride. Lots of action throughout, highlighted by Sabata, Carrincha and Alley Cat attaching Stengel’s fortified ranch. As well, the finale has a good twist and one of the better final shots.

 

Last but not least, composer Marcelo Giombini turns in one of the great spaghetti western scores over. Big and loud, featuring some almost gothic orchestra uses, and a GREAT theme song, it’s so good. Listen to a sample of the soundtrack HERE and the main theme song HERE. Apologies in advance if they’re stuck in your head for a couple days. Not always mentioned as one of the best spaghetti westerns, but it’s a gem and one of my personal favorites. Also, check out two Sabata sequels, with Yul Brynner taking over the part in Adios, Sabata and Van Cleef returning in ‘Return of Sabata.’ Neither are as good — Adios is better — but still worth a watch.

 

Sabata (1968): *** 1/2 /****

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

gunfight_at_the_o-k-_corral_film_posterAmerican history in the wild west has a handful of instantly recognizable, oft-told stories that the film industry has visited time and time again. Just some include Custer’s Last Stand, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, the Alamo, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and maybe most famous, Wyatt Earp‘s involvement in one of history’s most famous gunfights. Here’s 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

It’s the late 1870s and Marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) is on the trail of several outlaws who he can’t quite catch up with. In Texas, Earp meets Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), a dentist turned gambler who’s dying of tuberculosis. The two become unlikely friends of sorts, each saving the other’s life in a do-or-die situation. Both men seem to be drawn to danger — for different reasons — but always seem to get through unscathed. That luck may be running out as circumstances drive both Earp and Holliday west to the mining town of Tombstone in the Arizona territory where a gang of rustlers, cowboys and gunfighters are a constant threat. All roads lead to a little two-bit corral where everything will be settled.

There aren’t too many directors better suited for a guy’s guy movie like this than John Sturges who would go on to direct The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape in the coming years (among many other action-oriented, male-heavy casts). Sturges (and screenwriter Leon Uris) does a fair job bringing to life one of the American west’s most well-known stories. It is a big film that looks gorgeous, especially the sweeping plains and desert shots. Composer Dmitri Tiomkin turns in a familiar-sounding score that suits the historical story well. Some cool location shooting in Old Tucson especially stands out, especially the actual shootout in the finale.

What surfaces again and again in O.K. Corral westerns is the friendship and the bond between noted peace officer Wyatt Earp and dying gambler Doc Holliday. By far, the performances from Lancaster and Douglas are the best parts of ‘Gunfight.’ Lancaster as Earp — sans mustache — is steadfast, stubborn, loyal and an incredibly capable man who lives by his word. Dying of tuberculosis, Douglas’s Holliday is living one day at a time in hard-drinking fashion. Through their many differences, the two men find they also have many similarities. Their chemistry is smooth sailing throughout. Douglas is an intense scene-stealer as Holliday, even if the character isn’t too much like the real-life dentist-turned-gambler.

The lead performances are solid, but still not enough to rescue a western that has glacial pacing early. At 122 minutes, ‘Gunfight’ is slow to say the least. It takes 73 minutes for Wyatt and Doc to even reach Tombstone. Getting there is an episodic story that has some potential but typically gets bogged down too much. Go figure, there’s unnecessary love interests, Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet), Doc’s girlfriend with who he has a less than stable relationship, and Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), a beautiful gambler who catches Wyatt’s eye. Taking the movie as a whole, there’s little historical truth to anything. Yes, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were in Tombstone, there was a gunfight at the O.K. Corral…and yeah, that’s about it.

One of Sturges’ specialties as a director was leading the way for male-dominated casts, like Great Escape and Mag7 among others. The star power isn’t huge here, but western fans will appreciate the depth of familiar faces you’ll see. John Ireland plays quick-on-the-draw gunfighter Johnny Ringo while baddie Lyle Bettger plays the slimy Ike Clanton. Also look for Dennis Hopper, Frank Faylen, and Jack Elam as other members of the Clanton gang. The underused Earp brothers include DeForest Kelly, Martin Milner and John Hudson. There’s also supporting parts for Earl Holliman, Ted de Corsia, Whit Bissell, Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef and Olive Carey.

Now how about that titular gunfight? In a movie that’s generally light on action and gunplay in general, the showdown at the O.K. Corral runs about 5 minutes — about 4 minutes and 30 seconds longer than the real gunfight — and packs quite a punch. Again, the history is garbage relative to the real event, but as a cinematic gunfight, it is pretty exciting. A mixed bag in the end with a fair share of positives and negatives mixed in one bag. Western fans will definitely get some enjoyment out of it, if for nothing else than the casting of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Also worth checking out? The very catchy, whistle-worthy theme song sung by Frankie Laine which you can listen to HERE. Listen to the soundtrack itself HERE.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957): ** 1/2 /****

High Noon

high-noonAs a diehard fan of the western genre, I have one glaring omission that I not so proudly reveal today. Though I’ve seen bits and pieces of it over the years, I have never sat down and watched 1952’s High Noon from beginning to end. I know…crazy, right? Well, here we are. I can officially check it off the list. Put your pitchforks and torches away.

In the town of Hadleyville, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just married Amy Fowler Kane (Grace Kelly) and is retiring as the town marshal. He’s minutes away from leaving town on his honeymoon when three gunfighters ride through town. The telegraph office begins clicking away with a message too, notorious killer Frank Miller (Ian McDonald), has been paroled after receiving a life sentence, members of his gang waiting at the train station. The marshal who put him away who he swore revenge against? Will Kane. Now, Kane must decide what to do. With everyone telling him to hightail it out town before Miller arrives on the noon train, Kane decides to make his stand. Will Hadleyville support him though or will he be on his own?

From director Fred Zinnemann, ‘Noon’ is consistently ranked as one of the all-time great westerns. I never actively avoided it, just never actively sought it out either! I liked the idea of the movie more than the final product to cut to the chase. It’s good — really good — but not great for me. The story unfolds basically in real-time (clocking in at 85 minutes) from the moment Kane finds out Miller is coming to the time the killer and his gang descend on the town. Filmed in black and white, the stark western town feels very isolated to the world, removed from any civilization.

So that Gary Cooper, man, he’s always good. When I review his movies, I often find myself typing ‘one of his best roles.’ Playing Marshal Will Kane, Cooper earns the description again. Along with Sergeant York, this is probably his most famous, iconic role. Bigger picture? It’s one of the most iconic roles ever in the western genre. It doesn’t get any more straightforward than a man — a lone man — deciding to make a decision that he believes is right, potentially dangerous consequences be damned. Everything screams ‘RUN’ and everyone around him echoes the sentiment. He’s married, he’s retiring and he has a whole new (hopefully peaceful) life ahead of him. He should run for the hills. He doesn’t though. Cooper’s Kane makes his stand because he believes he’s right, even when the entire town abandons him.

Cooper was perfect at that Everyman role. He’s not a super marshal, not a gun-slinging gunfighter. He’s just a man. Few characters in a western resonate as much as him. Alan Ladd’s Shane, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, William Holden’s Pike Bishop, maybe a few others I’m missing, but Kane is right in that western hierarchy.

This is Cooper’s movie, but the supporting cast is nothing to shake your head at. Kelly is the newlywed bride, a Quaker who sees a future with Kane. Katy Jurado is a scene-stealer as Helen Ramirez, a Mexican woman with power, albeit hidden power, who has a past with Cooper’s Kane. I would love to see what a movie not limited by 1950s standards would do with this character. Just the same, an excellent part. Also look for Lloyd Bridges as Harvey, the angry deputy, Thomas Mitchell as the Mayor, and Harry Morgan, Lon Chaney Jr., and Otto Kruger as some of the key townspeople. Miller’s gang includes Robert J. Wilke, Lee Van Cleef and Sheb Wooley. Also look for small parts for western regulars Jack Elam and John Doucette.

One of many claims to fame this western has is the famous criticism it received from….the Duke himself, John Wayne. Wayne objected to the townspeople’s response to Kane’s desperate plea for help. He even made Rio Bravo with director Howard Hawkes as a direct counter to ‘Noon.’ I tend to agree. Human nature kicks in, but it is a tad heavy-handed at times. Naturally no one wants to die going up against four hardened gunfighters, so Kane finds himself fighting a battle on his own. The negative is that it goes a little slow in getting to the showdown, a little repetitive. Minor complaint, but I did lose some interest along the way.

The tension is palpable though as the showdown looms. As noon approaches, the tension and anxiety kick in in crazy doses. ‘Noon’ has one of my favorite single shots in film history, a pan on a dolly that shows a nervous Kane, completely alone on a vacant street waiting to do what he believes is right. Cooper nails this scene, some nervous twitches, touching his hat, his gun as the train whistle blows in the background. No nonsense finale, just what we’ve been waiting for. Glad I finally caught up with this and officially checked it off my list.

High Noon (1952): *** 1/2 /****