December 3, 2009

#050: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving weekend. Hopefully you got to spend some quality time with family, and watch some good movies. Unfortunately, I was only able to catch a couple of films over the break, but they were both good. I watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall again. I was really impressed by how funny it was the second time around. Not all of the jokes worked as well as they did the first time, but I also picked up on some things I probably missed on the first viewing. I sill would have to say that it was the best comedy of last year.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) was the other film that I watched.  I had never even heard of the film just several weeks ago, but it has come up on three or four occasions recently.  I had every intention on renting it from Netflix, but fortunately I didn't have to.  It was on our HD movie channel last week so I recorded on the dvr.  It is always amazing to see such an old film perfectly restored into HD.
I have to confess that I have never seen an entire John Wayne film.  I wasn't sure what to expect going in.  I have a hard time getting into older films.  I am always conscious of the dated style and it prevents me from becoming invested in the story.  I didn't expect this film to be any different.  At first, it didn't seem to be.  After the first few minutes I wasn't confident I could finish the film in one sitting.  Then Branson Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) starts recounting the story of how he first came to Shinbone, and the film started to pull me in.  I haven't seen a lot of westerns, but we all know the troupes that most every single one of them contains.  In newer westerns this can feel awkward and corny.  However, in this film you almost feel like you are watching the genesis of the cliches.

Both Jimmy Steward and John Wayne have such distinctive voices that it was distracting at first.  Once I had some time to get used to it I didn't notice it anymore. The one thing I wasn't able to get over is how much this film felt like a stage play.  I can't really articulate why, I just always felt like I was watching actors on a stage.  I am not sure that it is a bad thing, but it was noticeable from beginning to end.  Some of the attempted comedy didn't work from me.  I wasn't expecting many laughs from this film.  I was surprised by how many scenes seemed to be going for laughs.  For the most part it was fine, but there were a couple scenes that were pretty horrible.  I won't fault the film too much.  Those scenes were few and far between.  There were enough really strong scenes to more than make up for the few bad ones.

The thing that surprised me most about this film is how engaging and well laid out the story is.  The title alone has so much meaning.  The film doesn't start out with a lot of exposition that tells you who the main character is, who Liberty Valance is, or why somebody shoots him. We go in blind, and have to figure things out as we go along.  There are compelling reasons why several characters would want to put a bullet in Liberty.  This question looms for the entire film, and we don't find out the answer until the ending.  There isn't a lot of action in this film, but it has a subtle yet effective way of creating a lot of tension.

It was great to watch John Wayne and see what his mystique is all about.  He really was as much of a badass as what I imagined him to be.  I really enjoyed Jimmy Stewart in this film after I was able to stop thinking of him as George Baily from It's a Wonderful Life.

I was pleasantly surprised by this film.  If you like old westerns, or quality-made classics, then you should check out The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.


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