Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Saturday night is movie night at No-house.  If you're looking for a good one, you'll find it in the "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Edmund O'Brien, Vera Miles and Lee Marvin as the most debased villain you've seen since Stephen Hanks.  It is directed by John Ford and shot expertly in black and white.

From the  moment that Marvin snarls onto the screen to rob the stagecoach bringing eastern lawyer Stewart out west, you know you're going to be hooked til the end.  Stewart intervenes to protect an elderly woman on the coach asking "What kind of men are you?"  Liberty (Marvin) whips him to the ground saying "This kind, dude."  He follows up half in bemusement, half in mockery asking "Now what kind of man are you, dude?"

It's a compelling story of a principled man (Stewart's Ransom Stoddard) trying to stick to his guns (the law, civilization) in a place where the only law is the point of a gun.  The movie drips with irony as Wayne continually saves Stewart's bacon, only to be rewarded by watching his girl Halle--the love triangle's hypotenuse--and dreams slip away to the high-minded and sympathetic Stewart.  By the end of the movie, it's clear to Noman at least that Wayne (Tom Doniphon) was the better man.  The film is artful enough to implant the sad recognition that, sometimes, being the better man is not enough.  Life can be that way.

It's more Stewart's movie than Wayne's, but Wayne steals it.  He's too dominant a personality for it to be otherwise.  Back before Peggy Noonan realized that the other side paid better--in the Fall of 2001, specifically, when she should have won the Pulitzer Prize, but didn't--she penned a classic in celebration of manliness entitled "Welcome Back, Duke."  There is only one Duke of consequence in the American psyche: John Wayne; not of Earl; not in Doonesbury.
It is not only that God is back, but that men are back. A certain style of manliness is once again being honored and celebrated in our country since Sept. 11. You might say it suddenly emerged from the rubble of the past quarter century, and emerged when a certain kind of man came forth to get our great country out of the fix it was in... 
I should discuss how manliness and its brother, gentlemanliness, went out of style. I know, because I was there. In fact, I may have done it. I remember exactly when: It was in the mid-'70s, and I was in my mid-20s, and a big, nice, middle-aged man got up from his seat to help me haul a big piece of luggage into the overhead luggage space on a plane. I was a feminist, and knew our rules and rants. "I can do it myself," I snapped...
But perhaps it wasn't just me. I was there in America, as a child, when John Wayne was a hero, and a symbol of American manliness. He was strong, and silent. And I was there in America when they killed John Wayne by a thousand cuts. A lot of people killed him--not only feminists but peaceniks, leftists, intellectuals, others. You could even say it was Woody Allen who did it, through laughter and an endearing admission of his own nervousness and fear. He made nervousness and fearfulness the admired style. He made not being able to deck the shark, but doing the funniest commentary on not decking the shark, seem . . . cool. 
But when we killed John Wayne, you know who we were left with. We were left with John Wayne's friendly-antagonist sidekick in the old John Ford movies, Barry Fitzgerald. The small, nervous, gossiping neighborhood commentator Barry Fitzgerald, who wanted to talk about everything and do nothing... 
But now I think . . . he's back. I think he returned on Sept. 11.  I think he ran up the stairs, threw the kid over his back like a sack of potatoes, came back down and shoveled rubble. I think he's in Afghanistan now, saying, with his slow swagger and simmering silence, "Yer in a whole lotta trouble now, Osama-boy." 
I think he's back in style. And none too soon. 
Welcome back, Duke. 
There's a scene in the movie that perfectly captures the John Wayne mystique: a virile character with firm limits, an unerring sense of right action, an equilibrated temper and a sure compass for justice.

Noman, too, remembers John Wayne's America, and mocking "The Green Berets," Wayne's 1968 paean to patriotism at the height of the Vietnam War.  The critics panned it; the adult public ate it up.  Noman was a teenager then.  He dismissed it without ever having seen it because he was too imbued with protest, too swept up in confusion, and too afraid of dying in the jungle to appreciate its staunch anti-communist message.

The Duke was becoming history before our eyes, an anachronistic reminder of an America that demonstrated its love of country by celebrating it virtues rather than criticizing its defects in public for foreign consumption.  Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda were the cutting edge.  The Duke was old hat.  Time has changed Noman's mind.  The Duke speaks to us once again.  Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda slimed the place up.

Speaking of old, both Wayne and Stewart are a touch long in the tooth to play romantic leads.  But, it doesn't detract.  Both were great enough character actors to overcome it.  

Special mention should be made of Edmond O"Brien's besotted wag of an editor, Dutton Peabody.  He delivers the best line of the movie when asked by Wayne (Doniphon) what it was that made Liberty Valance retire from a challenge.  "It was the specter of the law arising mightily out of the mashed potatoes and gravy," jests Dutton.  Andy Devine is superbly annoying in his role of Marshall Link Appleyard, a mooching, overeating and cowardly man of no other talents.  

Vera Miles is lovely, as always.  He remembers her best for a chilling episode of The Twilight Zone in which her doppelganger threatens to assume her identity at a bus station.  Her immigrant parents in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" are precious.

But, Marvin.  What can one say?  You won't forget his performance as the sadistic, murdering Liberty Valance.  As the title suggests, he gets his, which is as it should be.

Generally, Marvin played a good bad guy, one of the best (worst).  His talent far surpassed that pigeon hole, however.  Check out "Cat Ballou" (1965), another No-family favorite, and prove it to yourself.

Noman hopes you enjoy "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" as much as No-family did.

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