Monday, September 03, 2007

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

John Ford | 1962 | 123 min | US

Even in the year 1962, westerns were already archaic + out of fashion. Ford himself signaled the death knell of the form not six years earlier with The Searchers. That movie turned the genre on its head to create a story that was as enthralling as it was bizarre + blew the character of Heroic Everyman John Wayne out of the water.

In what seems to be a direct counter to that early genre turning, the opening shot of Liberty Valance is a familiar western trope: a close-up of a worn wooden sign bearing the film's credits. Ford immediately creates all appearances of a throwback picture; an old-timey black + white homage to the films that made Ford's career. But it's not long before the film reveals itself to be Ford's final joke. Perhaps even more than The Searchers, Valance betrays every assumption the audience has in Ford films, the western tradition, + its iconic stars John Wayne + Jimmy Stewart.

Stewart is the focus of the story as a senator who rose to fame as the man who shot the outlaw Liberty Valance. Decades after the shooting, Stewart returns to the frontier town of Shinbone for the funeral of an old friend; the town which Valance once terrorized . He meets a local reporter who demands to know who the deceased man is + Stewart sits down to tell him the truth beind the legend of his rise to fame.

Not a lot can be said about the film without betraying what makes it great, but Ford does an expert job of slowly building our expectations of characters + circumstances only to turn on them over + over again. He seemed particularly aware of the public perception of the celebrity personas of Wayne + Stewart + uses them to great advantage. This would not be the same story without being able to pin so much nuance on nice guy Jimmy + towering John. And subtlety is the key here (eat it, Shyamalan). It is not an overly complex story, but it is full + satisfying. The same can be said of all of the performances, as well.

A final note: fans of Lee Marvin will enjoy every moment of his titular villain. I am a big fan of Lee Marvin + I marvel at how much more light-hearted + humorous his portrayals of the bad guys seem to be than his portrayals of the good guys. His heroes always seem burdened by a heavy conscience + a heavy heart. His ne'er-do-wells relish every moment of their freedom. Marvin's Valance seems to genuinely enjoys being a bastard. I love that man. . .

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