johnlink ranks THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962)

Back in 2005, as I was finishing up my undergrad degree, we almost watched this movie in one of my film classes. It ended up being outvoted (by quite a bit, frankly), but I went out and bought it because the idea of it was intriguing. It’s been sitting on my shelf for the past 7 years, give or take, and seemed like a perfect title to knock off my list as I close in on 500 rankings.

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I watched THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) on 1.5.12. It was my first viewing of the film.

The movie begins with an aged Senator Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) riding into a small town with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles). The newsmen gather to discover why he they are back in Hallie’s home town. A funeral, they explain, a funeral for an old friend named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Nobody understands why the Stoddards would be back in town for somebody so insignificant. The Senator agrees to tell the story.

Most of this film, then, is a flashback. Senator Stoddard, then just plain old Ransom Stoddard, is new in town. He has a run in with the local bandits, led by the nasty Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Stoddard is a lawyer. He doesn’t understand all this gunplay and need for violence. He wants to settle his disputes by himself, to be sure, but he doesn’t want to do so using guns.

The movie plays out with Liberty showing up in town every so often to bully people around. Ransom and Tom have a respectful, though tense, relationship. They also are both smitten for Hallie.

Clearly, this is a movie about the old-guard and the new-guard. The film is directed by the legendary John Ford. This turned out to be the last Western made by the Ford/Wayne tandem after a career of doing so. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE starts with Wayne’s character dead. Many illusions are made to the old west being modernized by railroad and the rule of law. Wayne’s Tom wants to solve it all with a gun, while Stewart’s Ransom wants to settle it with law books. Tom resists Ransom’s efforts to educate the town.

Yet, often, they agree ideologically. Both want to fight for statehood, to join the United States. Both want Hallie to be happy. Both want to stop Liberty Valance and his reign of terror. They just don’t agree, at all, on how to do it.

The opening and closing of the film, the sections set in the ‘present’, are interesting to consider. We learn right away who Hallie will choose because we see her with Ransom. She seems saddened and uncomfortable returning home (despite later saying that she dreams of moving back regularly). There is an unspoken tension in the marriage, and it becomes evident that it has to do with Tom. One of the great questions the film does not answer is whether or not Hallie is happy with her choice. The other question is whether or not she knows the truth about what happened to Liberty Valance.

Those four central actors (including Marvin) all give strong performances. You won’t see much of the silver-screen western genre on these pages, it just isn’t my go-to style. I’m usually so-so on Wayne, mostly because I find him to be one-note. I’m not a fan, at all, of the Ford/Wayne SEARCHERS which is considered a classic by most. I say all this to preface the fact that I truly like Wayne’s performance in LIBERTY VALANCE (save one drunken scene which feels unnatural). There seems a real contempt for modernity shining through, and a nearly tangible sense of nostalgia on his part. Stewart absolutely nails his part. He is certainly too old to play the character, though the black-and-white aspect of the film hides that somewhat.

Some of the other performances are uneven. Edmond O’Brien overacts the newsman Peabody. Andy Devine provides comic relief, but no weight (well, emotional weight) as the Marshal. The best of the supporting bunch is Woody Strode as Tom’s right-hand-man Pompey.

The script meanders a bit, but throws some nice punches in the Wayne/Stewart scenes. A nice rivalry is built, so we become absolutely invested in their stories. It seems to drag along a bit after the titular event happens, but the point for doing so lands in the final shots. The film doesn’t pass judgment on the  characters, but the characters certainly pass judgment on themselves.

I’m glad I saw this. I think it warrants a second viewing at some point. There seems to be real depth in the characters, and I feel like there are plenty of nicely directed subtle moments left undiscovered.

I can add this to the small list of John Wayne films I like. I can also add it to the much, much larger list of Jimmy Stewart films I can say the same thing about.

SCORES

FILM: 8; MOVIE: 6; ACTING: 7; WRITING: 7

8+6+7+7+0=28

FINAL SCORE: 7

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~ by johnlink00 on January 5, 2013.

One Response to “johnlink ranks THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962)”

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