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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paramount, 1962)

All livelinks in this post are internal, i.e. they will take you to other reviews on this blog.

I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.

Like many people, I am not a huge fan of the late Westerns of John Ford (left, photograph by Richard Avedon). The Searchers was the last really good one he made, and that was in 1956. The Horse Soldiers in 1959 was really very ordinary (despite a fine performance from William Holden). Sergeant Rutledge (1960) was better but distinctly flawed. Ford himself said of Two Rode Together (1961) that he only made it for the money and it was “the worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years”. Ford’s segment of How the West was Won in 1962 was no better than the other turgid parts of that bloated turkey. And by Cheyenne Autumn (1964), his last Western, the old man had completely lost it, turning in a meandering, disappointing film which was among his worst ever.

Only The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance of the late pictures really had quality, and even that was studded with weaknesses, though it is highly regarded by many. A friend of mine, a writer, who is not (poor soul) a Western lover, asked me once which Western I thought to be the best of all; was it not Liberty Valance? Fascinating. No, ma’am, I told her, it is very far from the best Western, and far also from Ford’s best Western.

But so many people, including real Westernistas, even (gasp) people who read this blog, hold Liberty Valance in high esteem (and Ford himself thought it definitely one of his better efforts) that when it came on TV last night I decided to give it another go. I reviewed it back in the spring of 2017 and was pretty down on it then, though I hope fair. Maybe it deserved a re-evaluation.

The picture opens (and closes) with a classic Western image, a train. There is a reference to the benefits of modernity that the railroad will bring.

“The place sure has changed.”
“Well, the railroad done that.”

When we see a stagecoach, it is covered with cobwebs and up on blocks, disused; it represents the old days, the days of highway robberies, of slow and dangerous travel. And perhaps it also makes reference to an earlier John Ford Western, also of a bygone time.
Another era

The train has brought Senator Ransom Stoddard and his wife Hallie back to Shinbone (perhaps in Arizona or New Mexico, but it is never stated). They explain to the local newspaperman that they have come for the funeral of their old friend Tom Doniphon. The reporter wants to know why; he didn't know Doniphon. “I have a right to the have the story,” he rather presumptuously claims. Surprisingly, the senator agrees, and tells what happened all those years ago when he and Hallie and Tom Doniphon were young in Shinbone. Stoddard is, in fact, unburdening himself. So most of the movie is a long flashback.

The screenplay was by Willis Goldbeck and Ford regular James Warner Bellah. Goldbeck had worked on Sergeant Rutledge but didn’t really do Westerns; he wrote the Doctor Kildare pictures for MGM. Bellah was more of a Western specialist, especially of Army pictures: he worked on all three films of Ford’s cavalry trilogy and on Sergeant Rutledge with Goldbeck. The script of Liberty Valance was based on a 1949 short story by Dorothy M Johnson, she of A Man Called Horse and The Hanging Tree, for which Ford paid $7,500 in 1961. Ford and his writers made substantial changes, however. Ford wrote to Wayne, “Seriously we have a great script in my humble opinion,” though when Ford’s opinion was ever humble is not entirely clear.

Is that Liberty's whip Dorothy is holding?
And my word, on the wall I spy a derringer!

The cast was very strong indeed. James Stewart, who appeared in four late Ford Westerns (sad that he came along when the glory days were gone) was Stoddard and John Wayne (to whom Ford was even more beastly than usual on the set) was Doniphon. To tell the truth, both Stewart, 53, and Wayne, 54, were a bit long in the tooth to be playing young Turks, but this is only one of the many areas where viewers need to suspend their credibility for the sake of the film. Stewart is very good, as he always was, both as the regretful older man and as the spirited young lawyer, and Wayne is simply magisterial as the wise Westerner, tough as all get out, the man, it turns out, who killed Liberty Valance. We don’t know how good Duke might have been as the older Doniphon, because when Stoddard comes back to Shinbone he is in a pine box.

Stewart fine as decent citizen, Marvin splendid as badman Valance and Wayne rarely better than he is here as tough Westerner

Wayne was in fact a bit miffed at his part, which he thought, with some justification perhaps, was overshadowed by those of Stewart and a perfectly splendid Lee Marvin as badman Liberty Valance. Marvin was at the height of his powers. In the previous decade he had appeared in Westerns for Don Siegel, Raoul Walsh, André De Toth, Budd Boetticher and John Sturges in some really memorable pictures, before coming to Ford, and Ford rated him highly. Scott Eyman, in his biography of Ford, writes, “He adored Lee Marvin immediately. The two men had a great deal in common: periodic alcoholism, a passion for the sea, brave showings in World War II and surprisingly liberal politics.” Marvin is excellently malevolent as the brutal bully Valance. It’s tempting to think that his name refers to the ‘liberty’ of the old West, now gone, and to another Valance, John Ireland’s gunslinger Cherry Valance in Red River, but in fact Johnson invented the name, not Ford, and she was almost certainly making no reference to the Howard Hawks picture. In any case, Liberty Valance, with Marvin conveying deadly menace and snakelike charm, was one of the actor's stand-out roles, in a great career (Marvinorama coming soon).

Wayne magnificent
A truly great Western actor

Stewart was known as the man who brought law and order to Bottleneck without a gun in Destry Rides Again way back in 1939 so perhaps he was an appropriate choice to try to do the same thing for Shinbone in 1962 – though in both he finally did have recourse to a firearm. Stewart and Wayne clearly worked well together, as they were to do on their final Western, The Shootist, fourteen years later - another film about the dying of the myth.

Always in that apron

By 1962 star salaries had inflated enormously, and Ford’s nose was put out of joint that they were getting more than he did. For example, Wayne got $750,000 and Stewart $300,000, while Ford was paid $150,000. Lee Marvin was not considered such a star, though. He got $50,000.

In support of this trio of greats, we have a marvelous line-up of character actors, many of them members of Ford’s ‘stock company.’ At the train station in the first reel we meet Andy Devine, almost stealing the show as the cowardly Sheriff Link Appleyard, of gargantuan appetite (and girth). The reporter, Scott, who buttonholes Stoddard is Ford alumnus Carleton Young, while John Qualen is highly entertaining as Peter, the Swedish restaurateur who takes the young Stoddard in when he has been badly beaten up by the villainous Valance in the first-reel stage hold-up.

He almost steals the show

Liberty’s two henchmen are the giggling lowlife Floyd (Strother Martin) and the thuggish Reese (Lee Van Cleef, doing yet another of his villain’s lackey parts). Martin lived in mortal fear of Ford and jumped two feet vertically in his chair when the director bellowed at him. Denver Pyle, another Ford regular now become almost a confidant – though he still continued to call the director “Mr. Ford” - said that Strother regarded Ford as a god – “undoubtedly the God of the Old Testament.” Pyle himself had a nice little part as bespectacled townsman Amos Carruthers.

Great henchmen

Woody Strode (Sergeant Rutledge) is Pompey, Doniphon’s servant (unlikely to be a slave, though Doniphon refers to the 47-year-old as “my boy Pompey” and bosses him about roughly) and Edmond O’Brien has one of his greatest roles as the drunken editor of The Shinbone Star, Dutton Peabody, a juicy part that O’Brien truly makes the most of.


Paul Birch is the mayor and, towards the end of the film, John Carradine hams it up (as usual) as the scoundrel ex-Confederate Major Cassius Starbuckle, the cattlemen’s mouthpiece and opponent of Stoddard at the Territorial Convention, and Willis Bouchey enjoys his small part as the train conductor. Other regulars have bit parts.

Carradine hams it up

Only the female lead, Vera Miles as Hallie, torn between Stoddard and Doniphon, doesn’t quite convince as an illiterate small-town waitress. Ford had used her in The Searchers, where she was also a slightly weak link. In fact the whole sub-plot of the love triangle, with Doniphon and Stoddard both loving Hallie, while well-constructed and crafted (the triangle of manhood linking Valance, Stoddard and Doniphon is mirrored by that of tenderness between Stoddard, Doniphon and Hallie) never quite rings true – apart from the business of the cactus rose, which symbolizes Hallie’s love for Tom.

Love triangle

But otherwise, yes, the cast and its acting are top-notch.

When Stoddard decides, after Valance has smashed the free press and beaten Editor Peabody nigh to death, that he must face the thug with a gun, which goes against all his instincts, Pompey says he will stand by with a buckboard so that if Stoddard changes his mind he can get out of town fast. There’s something High Noon-ish about this, ten years on. Like Gary Cooper, the meek lawyer declines the escape route despite the overwhelming odds. Actually, the confrontation is interesting from a classic Western point of view. Despite his lack of skill with a gun, Stoddard courageously stands up and confronts Valance face to face, while Doniphon shoots from the shadows, as we afterwards see, in flashback. Normally, the Western ‘code’ would have precluded the heroic Doniphon from doing that. Doniphon is perhaps the man who killed Liberty Valance but not necessarily the only one who shot Liberty Valance.

The myth...
...and the reality
It’s quite a political Western, with nominations and elections figuring largely and the men of Shinbone (not the women or Negroes, naturally) doing their civic duty. Even the gunman villain stands as a candidate. Doniphon is nominated but turns it down – no politician he. The two delegates finally chosen, Stoddard and Peabody, are properly diffident and reluctant to accept (though of course they do). The politics have a Populist twang to them. Richard Brody, in a later edition of The New York Times, wrote, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the greatest American political movie." He explains: "The Western is intrinsically the most political movie genre, because, like Plato's Republic, it is concerned with the founding of cities, and because it depicts the various abstract functions of government as direct, physical actions." Maybe.

Many standard genre plot devices make their appearance, almost as if Ford was wanting to ‘reprise’ the Western. The shooting lesson, for example, which had been done so very often, in which Doniphon tells Stoddard, “Don’t jerk the trigger, squeeze it!” That one’s as old as the hills – though Doniphon humiliates Stoddard during the lesson, which is more unusual. The crusading newspaper, smashed up by the bad guys, is another almost-cliché. The drunk doc (Ken Murray). Valance winning a poker game with aces and eights. The showdown in Main Street at sundown. The saloon with the bar closed used as town meeting place. Stoddard hangs his shingle at the newspaper, by invitation of the editor, and there he also teaches the townsfolk to read and to respect the history and constitution of the United States. So the place is a newspaper, law office and school – all signs of patriotic civilization. And of course there is the truly venerable cattlemen vs. homesteaders plot. Ford himself had used that right back in the silent days with Harry Carey. In this one, the ruthless ranchers want to keep the region as a territory, to preserve their open range, while the salt-of-the-earth small farmers want statehood.

Yet another shooting lesson

Some of the dialogue also verges dangerously on the edge of cliché. Doniphon calls Valance “The toughest man south of the Picketwire – next to me.” When the stage hold-up happens (in a studio) Liberty yells, “Stand and deliver!” When he finds that Stoddard is a lawyer from back east, he whips him mercilessly, to give him a lesson in “Law – Western law!” The whip was usually the weapon of lowdown types. When Valance challenges Stoddard to the final showdown, he says, “Either you get out of town, or tonight you be out on that street alone. You be there, and don't make us come and get you.” If other writers and directors had used these tropes, we might have raised our eyebrows.

But this is the West, sir. And when the fact becomes legend, print the legend.

Ford knew all about printing the legend. That’s what his Westerns did. He knew the power of myth. Hero Kirby York (Wayne), at the end of Fort Apache (1948) claims to reporters that the famous painting of his commander’s last stand is true in every particular, when he knows it to be completely false. The truth will not serve anyone well. The legend is far more potent.

But in Liberty Valance Ford is doing something else. He is dismantling the myth. The legend is based on a lie.

The central theme of Liberty Valance is ‘the end of the West’. This wasn’t just Ford’s central theme but a basic tenet of the whole genre. Even in its first incarnation as real Western myth, Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902, first filmed in 1914), the nostalgic notion that the days of the Old West were passing, and ‘civilization’ was bringing about the death of frontier freedom filled the pages. Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘Frontier Thesis’, first published in 1893, was rapidly gaining acceptance everywhere. The frontier was ‘closed’. The days of exploration and settlement were now giving way to the age of industrialization and modernity. Artists such as Frederic Remington were portraying the ‘cowboy’ West in nostalgic and melancholy tones. ‘The frontier’ had now been reduced to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West spectacle (which had stolen away scholarly attendees at Turner’s lecture during the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago).

When Hallie says, “It was once a wilderness. Now it’s a garden,” she is speaking approvingly, but Ford definitely shows a tinge of regret in this story. Yes, the new century would usher in good things – there are two approving references to the benefits dams will bring, for example, perhaps a slightly pre-war notion – but the new times would also bid farewell to many fine qualities of the frontier. Doniphon and Valance, though in so many ways antagonists and polar opposites, are actually of the same stamp, Westerners of a bygone age. Doniphon is a horse trader, Valance a stage robber. Stoddard is the future, and education, statehood and railroads. Hallie herself has had a long and, we assume, happy marriage to the senator but she still harbors regret for the dashing Doniphon and for the life that might have been.

Paramount wanted the picture to be in color, and by 1962 this was commercially pretty well de rigueur. The budget of $3.2 million would certainly have permitted it. DP William Clothier, who was increasingly Ford’s creative muse, wanted Technicolor too. He preferred working in color; in fact he had been Oscar nominated for Wayne's The Alamo in 1960. Ford was obdurate: “Goddamn it, we’re going to do it in black and white. It shouldn’t be in color.” It may be that Ford was right, artistically anyway. The studio staging, the prevalence of night-time shots and the rather old-fashioned style of the picture all pointed to monochrome, of which Ford was, we know, a master, and perhaps the black & white enhanced the somber tone of the picture.

Shadows and shades

The decision to limit the picture almost exclusively to sound stages and do practically no location work was also a priori an odd one. The picture resembles a filmed stage play more than a Western movie as such. The landscape, a key element of Ford’s Westerns, is absent. Ford’s composition skills were thus reduced. Eyman says, “Visually, it’s among the most ordinary of Ford’s movies.” Perhaps this staging heightened the ‘false reality’ theme of the picture. Reader Bob suggested that while great Ford Westerns like My Darling Clementine or the cavalry trilogy were grand flowing ‘symphonies’, Liberty Valance is a more intimate chamber piece.

And talking of music, a big-name theme written specially, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung by then very popular Gene Pitney, was simply discarded, and Ford made the conscious choice to re-use some of the Alfred Newman score of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) – once again, harking back.

The picture just scraped into the Oscars ceremony with a nomination for “Best Costume Design, Black-and-White”, which was indeed damning it with faint praise. At least it avoided the fate of Cheyenne Autumn, awarded the ‘Worst Film of the Year’ award from Harvard Lampoon.

Actually, re. costume design, the characters’ clothes are interestingly and curiously old-fashioned, in an era, the 60s, where narrow-brim Stetsons and low-slung holsters were the order of the day in Westerns on the big screen and small. Liberty looks a bit like Jack Palance in Shane, or even like William S Hart. Stoddard spends most of the film in an apron, underlining his lack of status as a Western man.


The reception of the picture was hardly ecstatic. Variety said that “while it is an enjoyable film it falls distinctly shy of its innate story potentialand thought it could have been shortened by at least twenty minutes. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times called it “a rather sinister little fable” and thought it an example of creeping Hollywood fatigue. He called it “creaky” and used the words “obvious, overlong and garrulous”. Once it has become blindingly clear that Stoddard couldn’t hit a barn wall from inside with a six-gun, “Mr. Ford's irony is lost and his drama bogs down.”

As to the “garrulous” part, much of the dialogue is well-written and thoughtful. There is just too much of it. Ford was usually so good at paring dialogue down, cutting lines out, doing as much as possible visually, but on Liberty Valance he seems to have forgotten how.

In Europe the reviews were much more positive. The British Observer thought it was “bathed in Ford’s talent and affection”. In France, Henri Chapier called it « une fable morale dont les ressorts dramatiques n’ont rien à envier à une tragédie à l’antique » (a moral fable whose drama compares favorably with ancient tragedy) while Louis Chauvet described it as  « un beau film, plein d’élans oratoires, de méditation et d’action » (a fine film, full of oratorical brilliance, contemplation and action).

Old men

And reviews in more modern times have elevated the film into almost-greatness. Roger Ebert said that of all the Ford/Wayne Westerns, "Liberty Valance was the most pensive and thoughtful.” He thought that Liberty Valance was no exception to the rule that Ford’s “films were complete and self-contained in a way that approaches perfection”. Patrick Brion, in his Encyclopédie du Western, called it simply “un chef d’oeuvre”.

And of course even the worst of Ford's Westerns (and this is not the worst) is still not bad.

However, some modern critics don’t care for it. Dennis Schwarz thought it “too awkward and too obvious to move me over to its side. It became for me also too annoying in its cornball characterizations and pining for nostalgia.” And Brian Garfield thought it “very long and slow” (at over two hours runtime, he probably had a point). He wrote, “It’s a terribly old-fashioned film, rather wistful, lacking in energy. The characterizations are reduced to the simplicities of the ‘B’ formulas and I find it a dreary, tired movie.”

Harking back to My Darling Clementine

The picture is old-fashioned in so many ways. Big, colorful, commercial, action-packed vehicles like The Magnificent Seven (1960) were now the thing, or modern angst-dramas like The Misfits (the year before Liberty Valance). Ford’s picture was stuck in the 1940s, which had nostalgia value for older Western fans but… As James Berardinelli said on ReelView, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance probably could not be made today. In the pre-Watergate era, it was still possible to believe that the press would 'do the right thing' and cover up a scoop of this magnitude. Today, the only thing the media delights in more than building a legend is tearing one down. The truth about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is something no one would sit on.” British newspaper The Guardian reported “Hollywood to remake The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as 80s mob thriller”. Quite honestly, difficult to see how.

In The Rough Guide to Westerns, Paul Simpson writes, “Liberty Valance feels, at times, like Ford’s farewell to the Western – and the West. The absence of Monument Valley reflects not, as some suggested at the time, directorial fatigue but Ford’s loss of faith in the American frontier ideal.”

For all Ransom Stoddard’s worldly success and Tom Doniphon's apparent failure (dying unknown and alone in a backwater), Stoddard is not half the man Doniphon was. And he knows it. The final scene, of the train chuffing forlornly into the distance, bearing the senator and his wife away from Shinbone, is in fact more than doleful. It is like Matthew Arnold’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” as the tide of belief recedes. As Scott Eyman says, “Ford’s bleakest film ends with a poignant, mournful, dying fall.”


Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Spikes Gang (UA, 1974)

Old scoundrel mentors young boys - badly

By the early 70s Lee Marvin, pictured left, that great Western actor, was doing grizzled old-timer roles. The Spikes Gang was his penultimate Western – two years later he would do the rather unfortunate The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday. He started with the tiniest of parts, as the cheery train-driver stabbed in the back in Wyoming Mail in 1950, managing, though, to make an impression even with his 20-second uncredited and non-speaking appearance. By the time of The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), Don Siegel’s first Western, Lee was ninth-billed as saloon lowlife Tinhorn (his poker game with Audie Murphy is great) and he got bigger parts in The Raid (1954), Seven Men from Now (1956), and, most famously, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), in which he was Liberty Valance. He got to share the lead in Cat Ballou and The Professionals (1966), and finally topped the bill in both Paint Your Wagon (1969) and Monte Walsh (1970). I’ll do a Marvinorama at some point, for he sure deserves it, but for now just to say he was one of the most convincing Western actors around.

I like The Spikes Gang. Marvin is splendid as the old rogue Harry Spikes and the three lads he takes under his wing are, I think, endearingly naïve. It opens with a Great Expectations-ish scene as the three teenager friends Will, Les and Tod find the old man close to death after a bank robbery gone wrong, all shot up, and secretly nurse him back to health – secretly because their parents would not approve.

Marvin as Magwitch

The three friends, farm boys tired of being “treated like the farm mule”, decide to run away from home, and they set off for a life of adventure. But this is a realistic Western, not a glamorous one, and everything goes wrong. They are soon famished, and can either find no work or are really incompetent at the jobs they do get. They decide as a last resort to follow in the admired Mr. Spikes’s footsteps and rob a bank. Of course it goes really badly, they lose the money, a man is killed, and he turns out to have been a state senator. Oops.

It doesn't go well

The boys languish in jail for another, more minor misdemeanor, and Harry Spikes, now in fine fettle again, happens across them and gets them out. A prude might think that he then corrupts them, leading them into the ways of wickedness. And he does, in a way. The story is pretty well a wages-of-sin one. Before long the boys are committing armed robbery with their mentor.

He gets them out

But Harry has his code, even if it is a rough one. When Tod is fatally wounded in another bungled robbery, Spikes wants to leave him behind to die. The boys rail at this callousness but Spikes knows it is essential for survival. "I’m not a follower of the meek and lowly Jesus,” he declares, “and I never claimed to be.”

The boys are Gary Grimes as Will, Ron Howard as Les and Charles Martin Smith as Tod. All three had form as Western juveniles. Grimes had been very good as the lead as another youth who comes of age on the trail in The Culpepper Cattle Company two years before, when he was 17, and was then excellent as one of John Wayne’s sons in Cahill, US Marshal in ’73. Howard, before he became a big producer, 19 at the time of Spikes, was in his first big Western role but he would shine as the bolshie teenager Gillom, the would-be gunslinger, in The Shootist in 1976. And Smith, 20, apart from being Terry in American Graffiti with Ron Howard’s Steve, as a Western actor was also in Culpepper, and would be memorable as Billy the Kid sidekick Charlie Bowdre in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973. I think they all act really well in Spikes, moving from ultra-green country boys to bewildered adults, and in the end, bitterly disillusioned, all shot to death in squalid towns (sorry about the spoiler but there we are).

They think they'e men now

Arthur Hunnicutt and Noah Beery Jr have nice little cameos.

It was a Mirisch production, shot in Spain on a modest budget in the summer of ’73. You can always tell. I believe it to be the coloration. You can get away with Spanish towns if the story is set (as this one is) on the Tex-Mex border because the architecture has some verisimilitude. But the Almerian landscape couldn’t look like Texas if it tried. There were some decent American Westerns shot Andalusia, such as the excellent Valdez is Coming (1971) but they certainly needed capable directors of photography – Gábor Pogány on Valdez and Brian West on Spikes. West did Billy Two Hats the same year but they were his only Westerns.

The director was Richard Fleischer, better known for sci-fi and historical dramas, I guess, but he also helmed Bandido! and These Thousand Hills. He manages to keep the pace up in Spikes, and draws good performances from the lead actors.

Producer, director and writers

It was written by husband-and-wife team Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr, from the 1970 novel The Bank Robber by Giles Tippette. Ravetch and Frank had worked on Hud and The Cowboys, so knew what they were doing, especially with adolescents in the West.

In this coming-of-age story, though in fact the boys don’t survive long enough to do that, they are on the one hand young men enjoying their new-found liberty, like coralled colts now galloping free, but on the other they are still kids, having nightmares and being homesick for their ranches, even though they were mistreated there. It’s rather touching.

The inevitable bath scene...

The ending is bloody, sad and, in the last resort, pathetic, in the proper sense of the word.

...and the equally inevitable shooting lesson

Not everyone liked it. Vincent Canby in The New York Times said, "It's a movie without a center, with no coherent tone. Mr. Fleischer is incapable of sustaining even minimal audience interest in the material."

Brian Garfield was also pretty down on it. He wrote, “Unfortunately, neither the dialogue nor the directing conveys any spirit of reality, passion or even interest; even the action scenes are boring. Paper-thin mod Western was filmed in Spain and does no justice to Tippette’s engaging novel.”

Myself, I think these criticisms too harsh. I consider it to be an intelligent and thoughtful Western with many qualities.

They plan the robbery

You can’t actually hate any of the characters. Even the reprobate Spikes has saving graces, and there are no real bad guys. It’s a tale of disenchantment and the death of hope – not the cheeriest, I grant you, but well done, I think, and definitely worth a look. It’s not as if the 1970s were chock-a-block with brilliant Westerns, and this one is better than many.