Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

There's a weight hanging over the first ten minutes of this film.  The heavy, bittersweet presence of a man who died before the film even began.  Senator Ransom Stoddard and his wife have travelled for two full days from Washington to attend his funeral, even though the dead man's name is barely known to the people of the town where he will be buried.

It's obvious that the deceased was particularly significant to Mrs Stoddard, as we see in a scene where renowned comic actor Andy Devine shows that he had some dramatic chops, as well.

Eventually of course, the weight of the presence has to be lifted, and it comes when Senator Stoddard agrees to tell the tale of Tom Doniphon, and why the deceased means so much to them.

The problem with this, of course, is that the cost of that early gravitas is a movie that is 90% flashback.  It's difficult to be too worried over the fate of a character you know is alive and well to tell the tale twenty-five years later.  I do think it's a significant flaw with the film, not just because it robs the film's events of some immediacy, but because it delays the first appearance of John Wayne - who plays Doniphon - for nearly twenty minutes.

At the time when the majority of the film is set, the Senator was just a young lawyer, looking to establish himself in a wild frontier territory.  Things are just a little wilder than he expected, though. He's badly beaten by bandits when the stagecoach he's on is robbed, and his outspoken ways attract the attention of bad men: in particular, one named Liberty Valance.  Doniphon warns Stoddard that the only way to defend the law in the West is with a gun, but Stoddard is reluctant to take that step.  The film is however, called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, not "the man who successfully prosecuted Liberty Valance before a jury of his peers", so I bet you can guess how that ends up.

This film has a great cast, and some fine use of light and shadow.  It's filmed in black and white, most likely as a cost-cutting measure, but director John Ford makes a virtue of necessity, especially in the titular gunfight.

On the other hand, the script is a little undercooked, to my thinking.  I don't know if it would be better without the framing story or not.  It would certainly have more immediacy without it, but it would also lose some of the melancholy that we see at the start and end.  Of course, for a significant part of the audience "less melancholy" is probably a good thing.  More problematically, some of the later plot developments of the film definitely feel a bit handwaved and perfunctory, like they were running out of time to hit all the plot points they needed to make.  Cutting those 15-20 minutes of framing would definitely have helped with that.

Despite those issues though, there are some fine performances to enjoy here.

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