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Month: July 2013

Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The (1962)

Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The (1962)

“Somebody better listen to somebody about Liberty Valance!”

Synopsis:
A beloved politician (Jimmy Stewart) returns with his wife (Vera Miles) to the small Western town where he’s famous for having killed a bullying gunslinger named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin); but as he begins to relate the story of his relationship with the recently deceased town drunk, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), new details about the killing emerge.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • John Carradine Films
  • John Ford Films
  • John Qualen Films
  • John Wayne Films
  • Lee Marvin Films
  • Revenge
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “marvelous John Ford western” — about the transition from an untamed western frontier to an era of “law and order”, as well as our tendency to valorize legends at the expense of the grittier truth — “looks better with every viewing”, and “certainly… summarized themes that were vital to earlier Ford westerns”. He notes that “for Ford, the real heroes were men like Tom who tamed the wilderness and made it possible for civilization to take root”, and he points out that “it is a shame that such pioneers have no place in civilization”, given that “in a law-and-order world of lawyers and politicians, Tom is just as anachronistic as gunslingers like Liberty”. He writes that the “picture has interesting characters and their relationships with each other are complex”, and he argues that the “picture has strong emotional resonance”. As noted in TCM’s article, upon its release …Valance was apparently dismissed as a lesser entry in Ford’s lengthy oeuvre, with specific criticisms leveled at Ford’s choice to make the film in black-and-white and primarily on a sound-stage; but in later years, critics (like Peary and many others) began to recognize its thematic and aesthetic values.

While I appreciate much about how …Valance is constructed, I’ll admit it’s not a personal favorite. Ford’s characteristic inclusion of comedic supporting characters — most specifically Andy Devine’s cowardly sheriff, presumably meant to provide some levity to the proceedings — simply feels forced and out of place here; and Stewart’s idealistic, stubborn “young” lawyer comes across as merely another iteration of his earlier starring roles for Frank Capra. With that said, I admire the craftsmanship of the script (based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson), which manages to evoke a surprising amount of tension despite the fact that we can guess the truth behind the title from the beginning; however, it starts to bog down a bit towards the end, when Stewart goes head-to-head with Marvin in a contrived, Capra-esque town hall scene, and Wayne (“Think back, pilgrim.”) conveniently saves the day. Speaking of Marvin, he deserved the notoriety he gained for his key role here as Liberty Valance; he represents everything corrupt and vile about a lawless west in which might overtakes right every time.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance
  • William Clothier’s cinematography

  • The impressive final shoot-out

Must See?
Yes, as one of Ford’s acknowledged classics. Listed as one of the Best Films of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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28 Up (1984)

28 Up (1984)

“Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

28 Up Poster

Synopsis:
A group of diverse British children are interviewed at the ages of 7, 14, 21, and 28.

Genres:

  • Documentary
  • Michael Apted Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
I’ll be cheating a bit in my review of this “unique, fascinating documentary” by Michael Apted, which “began as a television short called 7 Up,” in which a “crew interviewed 14 seven-year-old school-children about what they wanted in their futures in regard to education, occupation, money, and marriage”, and then interviewed them again every seven years, with snippets from each set of interviews strategically interwoven. Peary’s review in GFTFF is of 28 Up (1984), but most film fanatics today will likely also have seen the follow-up entries — 35 Up (1991), 42 Up (1998), 49 Up (2005), and 56 Up (2012) — and I find it impossible not to reference the entire series in my own response. With that said, Peary makes a few key points in his review that remain relevant for all of the films in the series: he writes, for instance, that “the viewer is placed in an awkward position in that s/he becomes a judge as to whether these 28-year-olds [or 35, 42, 49, 56-year-olds] have succeeded, as most contend they have, in reaching their potential happiness; and the unfortunate tendency… is to feel superior to most of these people who have lives we don’t envy”.

Peary further asserts that in 28 Up, “the ‘successes’ we see are those subjects who have somehow achieved some freedom” — such as Nick, “the science researcher who… fled with his wife to Wisconsin” and Paul, “the bricklayer who is raising a family in Australia”; but he pities both Neil, the “near-genius who has dropped out altogether and lives on welfare” and “a cabbie [Tony] who is satisfied with [the] ‘freedom’ he gets from his job and his close family life, but whose poor education deprived him of what a person of his natural intelligence and warmth deserves”. He argues that the “picture leaves you sad”, but notes that “surely a documentary on any seven [sic] subjects taken over 20 [sic] years would have the same result because, let’s face it, kids look happier, cuter, and more enthusiastic than adults”. Interestingly, seeing the participants at later ages (specifically 56, as in the most recent entry) allows one to feel a little less melancholy about the inevitability of both heredity and class, as nearly every participant seems to have achieved some measure of happiness and contentment — whether through (re)marriage, grandchildren, and/or career. Few, for instance, would feel sorry at this point for Tony, who has actually achieved an enviable measure of financial success (he owns a second home in Spain); and while Neil has continued to struggle with his mental challenges, he’s been able to pursue his dream of a career in politics.

Apted’s series has been rightfully praised over the years as an invaluable longitudinal document of humanity itself — regardless of its specificity in following Britons from a certain generation (and mostly white males, an initial “casting” choice Apted apparently regrets). While there’s nothing particularly innovative about the way in which Apted films his subjects, or the questions he asks them, his devotion in tracking down the participants like clockwork every seven years (or occasionally in between, as when he filmed a participant’s wedding) is an impressive feat in itself. (Apted is reportedly so devoted to this project that he’s said he hopes someone else will take up the mantle in the event of his own death; he’d like to follow the participants to the ends of their lives.) One also feels appreciation for the dedication of the participants, all but one of whom have chosen to reappear in most (or all) of the episodes; long before the advent of “reality T.V.”, they have graciously allowed at least portions of their lives to be on public display. Most film fanatics will eagerly await the next installment, and hope that all the “children” — Andrew, Bruce, Jackie, John, Lynn, Neil, Nick, Paul, Peter, Sue, Suzy, Symon, and Tony — will still be alive and well at the age of 63 and beyond.

Note: Devoted followers will enjoy watching the entire “Up Series” (as the DVD set is referred to); others may simply want to watch 56 Up and work backwards as desired.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An enduringly fascinating long-term social document
    28 UP

Must See?
Yes, as part of a deservedly classic documentary series.

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Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach (1939)

“There are some things a man just can’t run away from.”

Stagecoach Poster

Synopsis:
A diverse group of passengers — including a prostitute (Claire Trevor), an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a gambler (John Carradine), a whiskey seller (Donald Meek), a shady banker (Berton Churchill), a sheriff (George Bancroft), and the pregnant wife (Louise Platt) of a cavalry officer — embark on a stagecoach trip led by a nervous driver (Andy Devine), despite warning of warring Apaches up ahead. Along the way, Bancroft picks up an escaped prisoner (John Wayne) who falls for Trevor — but will they survive both the rigors of their journey, and the outlaws waiting for Wayne at their final destination?

Genres:

  • Claire Trevor Films
  • George Bancroft Films
  • John Carradine Films
  • John Ford Films
  • John Wayne Films
  • Morality Police
  • Prostitutes and Gigolos
  • Road Trip
  • Thomas Mitchell Films
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary opens his review of this “seminal” John Ford western — written by Dudley Nichols, whose “script was adapted from Ernest Haycox‘s story ‘Stage to Lordsburg'” — by accurately referring to it as “the type of film you’ll take for granted”, and noting that “between viewings, one forgets what a magnificent film [it] is”. He adds that “Ford kept it simple — it is a simple morality play — but directed with great feeling for the West, the time, and for his characters”, and notes that “it’s obvious that the actors really cared about the people they played”. He points out that while “we may [primarily] recall the action scenes — a lengthy Indian attack on the stage, John Wayne as the Ringo Kid shooting it out with three bad guys” — one “sees that Ford is more interested in how characters respond to danger — for instance, are they worrying about themselves or others when lives are at stake?” Indeed, Stagecoach is essentially a compelling, character-driven drama couched within a consistently suspenseful western-adventure, and bolstered by a sweet romance — the perfect recipe for a genuine American classic!

I believe this was the film that sparked my admiration for character-actress Claire Trevor as a teenage film fanatic; I recall learning that she considered herself merely a “working stiff” in Hollywood, trying to survive as a single mother, and that I felt intense admiration for her no-nonsense approach to a notoriously ego-filled field. She’s top-billed among the ensemble cast here, and deserves this status, given that she’s the emotional glue holding the stagecoach passengers together. When Platt suddenly gives birth along the journey (during the film’s most heartfelt extended sequence), Trevor selflessly cares for the newborn while Platt recovers; and when she’s given the unprecedented opportunity (by Wayne) to turn her life around, she cares more about his safety than her own future. Speaking of Wayne, he’s never been more charismatic or appealing than he is here (as Peary points out, “What an entrance Ford gave him!”); and the rest of the “marvelously cast” supporting players — Mitchell, Meek, Carradine, unknown Platt, and others — are excellent as well. I especially like how nearly every character in the story is given an arc of some kind, and allowed to emerge by the film’s end as someone much more nuanced than we could ever have expected.

All this in a “mere” western! — one which, on the surface, seems like simply a conglomeration of conventional characters and situations, yet comes together so seamlessly it’s been studied as a masterwork by countless famed directors (most notably Orson Welles). Indeed, Stagecoach is an excellent example of a solid genre flick which simultaneously functions as a vehicle for deeper musings on human nature. To that end, Peary notes that “the coach serves as an arena for a clash between those who represent society” (the banker, the doctor, the married woman, and the salesman) and “those whom society considers outsiders” (the escaped prisoner, the prostitute, the gambler) — with nearly all the former passengers (the corrupt banker being a key exception) “won over” by the latter, and the driver and sheriff remaining “outside on the ride through the wilderness” (they represent “neutral figures who are part of civilization but have open minds towards those who don’t fit in”).

While I’m not generally a fan of Ford’s characteristic incorporation of humor throughout his films (usually in the form of buffoonish characters), in this case he uses humor as a starting point for some surprisingly heartwarming revelations: Mitchell’s tippling doctor, for instance, eventually sobers up enough to deliver Platt’s baby (and to be of genuine help during the pivotal, excitingly directed Indian attack); Meek may initially stand “meekly” by while Mitchell downs his supply, but he ultimately proves he’s more than merely a spineless sap; Devine’s whimpering ninny of a stagecoach driver keeps going despite his own worst fears (which come true); etc.

Regardless of whether one chooses to view this film as part of Ford’s broader oeuvre — or merely as an engaging flick in its own right — it remains a must-see classic, one worthy of multiple enjoyable visits.

Note: Interestingly, at the time he directed Stagecoach, Ford — who’s largely remembered these days for helming countless classic westerns — hadn’t made one in 13 years, since the silent western Three Bad Men (1926).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Claire Trevor as Dallas
    Stagecoach Trevor
  • John Wayne as the Ringo Kid
    Stagecoach Wayne
  • Donald Meek as Mr. Peacock
    Stagecoach Meek2
  • Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone
    Stagecoach Mitchell
  • Bert Glennon’s “magnificent” cinematography
    Stagecoach Cinematography
  • Iconic use of Monument Valley as a backdrop
    Stagecoach Monument Valley2
  • Expert direction by Ford
    Stagecoach Trevor2
  • The genuinely exciting Apache attack sequence
    Stagecoach Shootout
  • An Oscar-winning score “adapted from American folk songs”

Must See?
Yes, of course — this one is a genuine classic, and ranks among my top five personal favorite westerns. Nominated one of the Best Films of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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