The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) attends the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in a small Western town. Flashing back 25 years, we learn Doniphon saved Stoddard, then a lawyer, when he was roughed up by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). As the territory’s safety hung in the balance, Doniphon and Stoddard, two of the only people standing up to him, proved to be very important, but different, foes to Valance. Stoddard opened a law office over the offices of the Shinbone Star, the newspaper which is run by a steadfast editor determined to expose the reality of the violence terrorising the territory and preserve the freedom of the press. Both Doniphon and Stoddard are in love with the same woman, Hallie (Vera Miles) who cooks in her immigrant parents’ restaurant and whom Stoddard teaches to read and write. When the newspaper prints a (mis-spelled) headline declaring Valance is defeated, he takes revenge – and then the peace-loving Stoddard takes up a gun … This is a film of polarities, exemplified by the civilising influence of Ransom opposed to Valance and Doniphon’s own belief in the power of the gun (which ironically opens up the possibility for bringing law and order to the place). Vera Miles is splendid as the illiterate love of both men:  What good has reading and writing done you? Look at you – in an apron!  An eloquent essay on the genre itself, this was not received warmly upon release. And yet its entire narrative provides the content for soon to be popular structuralist analysis of the western:  the East versus the West, old versus new, the wilderness versus civilisation, violence versus law and order, reality versus myth, the desert versus the garden. Never was a cactus rose deployed to such symbolic effect! John Ford made one of the great films but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch up. Adapted from Dorothy Johnson’s short story by producer Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah .

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The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

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Appears to me you’ve been seventeen kinds of damned fool. Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) has been abandoned to die by fellow failed prospectors Taggart (L.Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin) in the Arizona desert. When he finds a water source he digs a ditch and determines to settle there and charge passers by for a drink at his way station. When fake priest Rev. Joshua Sloane (David Warner) – minister of a church of his own revelation – stops and introduces him to photos of some fresh female flesh and enquires about ownership Hogue races to file a land claim at nearby Dead Dog where he takes a fancy to feisty prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens). She joins him after being run out of town. They take leave of each other when she sees he isn’t committed to her. When Taggart and Bowen return in his absence they see an opportunity for prospecting. Then he comes back and takes charge but there’s a car on the horizon … Hogue is one of Peckinpah’s most empathetic characters, a rounded individual and funny with it and is embodied wonderfully wryly by Robards who has rarely been better. Stevens is equally at home with the material and their scenes together are remarkably tender (not for nothing did she get the Reel Cowboys’ Silver Spur award for her contribution to the western). This is a highly unconventional exercise in genre with marvellous characters adorning a story that is – as the title suggests – a kind of elegy to frontier life, with songs (by Richard Gillis) playing a large role in the narrative whose tragicomic end can be inferred. The end of the Old West is symbolised by the arrival of the motor car (or ‘horseless carriages’ as they call them here) when all at once Hogue’s little oasis is out of date. Too subtle to be a comedy western, too sweet to be lumped in with Peckinpah’s more violent fare (particularly his previous film, The Wild Bunch), this is quite a mellow and reflective essay on what a man needs to confront in his life:  change, loss and obsolescence. Written by John Crawford and Edmund Penney and beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard with split screens and speeded up scenes to remind us when it originated.

 

The Remains of the Day (1993)

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There are times when I think what a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life. In 1930s England James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) serves as butler to the doltish Lord Darlington (James Fox). Stevens is so dedicated that he forgoes visiting his father (Peter Vaughan) on his deathbed in order to serve a bunch of blackshirts dinner. He overlooks Darlington’s Nazi sympathies and growing anti-Semitism even dispensing with the service of two young Jewish refugees who he knows will be returned to Germany. Twenty years after the disgraced Darlington’s death and in the wake of the Suez Crisis Stevens tries to make contact once again with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), Darlington’s head housekeeper who married their former colleague Benn (the late and lamented Tim Pigott-Smith). He travels to see her in the West Country and in the course of his trip begins to regret his blind loyalty and servitude to his former master who pursued a libel case to the detriment of his reputation and whose American critic Congressman Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve) now owns Darlington Hall. Stevens now works for him and his life is utterly unfulfilled. He must make up for lost time. The Merchant Ivory team regroup with their Howards End stars and the amazing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prize winning novel ponders class relations, political naivete and the lack of wisdom in relationships at every conceivable level. A friend of mine commented caustically on it at the time of its release, The fireplaces are wonderful. And it’s true, they are, but that is much too reductive of a project which  cannot translate the more subtle nuances of the novel instead transmitting through performance on a sometimes barely perceptible register of glances or a slight movement what mere writing cannot – the affect of loss and its immense impact on the totality of a life. Hopkins has one of the most difficult roles of his career – the stubborn butler who simply cannot accept the limitations of his boss or his father’s revelation. His refusal to admit emotionality is devastating. His humiliation at the pleasure of his lordship’s house guests makes you squirm on his behalf. Thompson is heartbreaking as the woman who loves him but hurts him rather than tell him directly. Their final leavetaking is horrifying in its simplicity and tragedy. There are two other exquisite scenes and they both predominantly feature fingers:  when Stevens finds his father collapsed and must wrench his fingers from a trolley after the old man has had a stroke;  and when Miss Kenton prises with great difficulty a novel from his own hand to declare rather disbelievingly that it is only a sentimental romance. The fear of embarrassment is all over this epic tale of a country’s honour in microcosm. It is an achievement that seems much larger in retrospect than a quarter of a century ago. A stylish, intelligent, immensely moving drama.

Union Pacific (1939)

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First time I’ve discarded aces for a queen! President Lincoln signed off on the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act to authorise pushing the Union Pacific Railroad west across the wilderness toward California. However now that Lincoln is dead financial opportunist Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) hopes to profit from obstructing it. Chief troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) has his hands full fighting Barrows’ agent the gambler Sid Campeau (the wonderfully devilish Brian Donlevy). Campeau’s partner veteran Dick Allen (Robert Preston) is Jeff’s war buddy and rival suitor for Irish rail engineer’s daughter Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck). Who will survive the effort to push the railroad through at any cost? And who will win Molly? Cecil B. DeMille’s rousing, sprawling western was in the vanguard of historical tales bringing together the rival attempts at forming a national history – and this all culminates at Promontory Point Utah when Leland Stanford drove a ceremonial spike to unite this with the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. Filled with great starry performances this is history on a human scale. Despite Stanwyck’s typical luminosity and McCrea’s decency and likeability,  it’s probably Preston who comes off best, even photographically, in his showy role. Filled with fighting, shooting, murder, building and dismantling, Indian attacks, drinking, gambling, love and death, with one killing from the window of a train that is shocking to this day, this is truly a film for the ages. A splendid, zesty example of the power of classical Hollywood. Written by Walter DeLeon, Jack Cunningham and C. Gardner Sullivan, adapting Ernest Haycox’ novel Troubleshooter. This is the first ever winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes – awarded in 2002 due to the debut Festival’s cancellation following the outbreak of WW2!

The Spoilers (1942)

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A woman doesn’t run out on the man she loves, she sticks with him through thick and thin. It’s 1900 and Flapjack (Russell Simpson) and Banty (George Cleveland) arrive in Nome, Alaska to check up on their claim to a gold mine. Saloon owner Charry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) knows that Bennett (Forrest Taylor) and Clark (Ray Bennett) are plotting to steal their claim. The new gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott) is part of the corrupt scheme as is the territory’s judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S. Hinds) whose niece Helen (Margaret Lindsay) has a thing for Cherry’s old flame Roy Glennister (John Wayne), fresh from a trip to Europe. Roy makes the mistake of siding with McNamara which damages his relationship with longtime partner Al Dextry (Harry Carey).  Roy realizes he’s been deceived as McNamara and Stillman prepare to steal at least $250,000 while the mine’s case awaits appeal. Helen is now in love with Roy, who begs Dextry’s forgiveness and persuades him to rob a bank to take back the wealth stolen from them. Both Glennister and Dextry don black faces to disguise themselves during the heist. The Bronco Kid (Richard Barthelmess) kills the sheriff but Roy gets the blame. He is arrested and a plot forms to kill him – permitting him to escape then murdering him on the street – but Cherry comes to his rescue, breaking Roy out of jail. A spectacular train derailment occurs during his fight for freedom. Then a fierce fistfight with McNamara results in Roy getting back his mine and his girl. A great starry cast play brilliantly off one another in this spirited adaptation of the novel by Rex Beach, adapted by Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed. The tone is set from the start with a shootout in this muddy town and Dietrich beats a path to the dock to greet old love Wayne. She doesn’t sing but wears several sparkly numbers in this monochrome delight. Her byplay with romantic rival Lindsay is a wonderful contrast in performing styles and her scenes with Wayne positively crackle The frequent references to Robert Service’s works are done with a nod and a wink to his own appearance as The Poet. Directed by Ray Enright who brings everything to a rousing conclusion with one of the longest fistfights ever filmed – and it’s all over the saloon! Wonderful fun.

Ramrod (1947)

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From now on, I’m going to make a life  of my own. And, being a woman, I won’t have to use guns. Connie (Veronica Lake) is the ambitious daughter of rancher Ben Dickason (Charlie Ruggles).  When her sheep farming boyfriend can’t take pressure from cattle baron Frank Ivey (Preston Foster) she buys the sheep ranch to augment her property and hires recovering alcoholic overseer Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) to take care of business. But Ivey burns down the ranch and a range war begins between cattle and sheepmen (and women). Connie’s ruthlessness then dominates the action, seducing both Dave and his friend Bill (Don DeFore) a promiscuous and deadly gunman to do her bidding which she claims she can accomplish without guns, just her femininity … This western noir sees Lake’s famous platinum hair darkened and her character is likewise streaked with ruthlessness. She sets her sights on Dave but he only has eyes for Rose (Arleen Whelan). Directed by her then husband Andre DeToth, she really works it. Jack Moffitt, C. Graham Baker and Cecile Kramer adapted a story by Luke Short and it’s a well constructed, complex character study of a female anti-hero (or femme fatale) just filled with satisfying scenes and interesting male-female interaction.

Buffalo Bill (1944)

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They were all my friends. William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (Joel McCrea) is the legendary hunter and scout who rescues Senator Federici (Moroni Olsen) and his daughter Louisa (Maureen O’Hara). They fall in love and marry and Louisa bears him a son, named for Kit Carson. Bill becomes good friends with Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn), chief of the Cheyenne but Bill is forced by a collection of businessmen, politicians and the Army to fight them – a fight he doesn’t want. Writer Ned Buntline (Thomas Mitchell) immortalises his escapades and when he arrives in Washington is stunned that even little kids know who he is. When he receives distressing news of his baby son’s illness he blames his wife for their coming East and leaves her while his political disagreements become newspaper fodder. He is basically destitute until he’s offered work in a Wild West show … This more or less fictionalised biography is told with customary efficiency and verve from Twentieth-Century Fox with a screenplay by Clements Ripley, Aeneas MacKenzie, John Francis Larkin, Frank Winch and Cecile Kramer. It’s an absorbing yarn, shot in gorgeous Technicolor and moving like quickfire and has interesting touches, such as Dawn Starlight (Linda Darnell) trying on Louisa’s ‘white woman’ clothes for size and of course the marvellous action scenes, expertly choreographed.  Directed beautifully by ‘Wild’ Bill Wellman who is under-remembered now but is the subject of a great big new coffee table book which I am anticipating under the Christmas tree. Just sayin’!

Two Rode Together (1961)

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They’re expecting a Messiah, a Moses, to deliver them from their bondage – and I’ve got to send them you! Cynical Texas marshal (James Stewart) and conscientious Army officer (Richard Widmark) are deputised to rescue white people kidnapped by Comanches years earlier but only when negotiations with them succeed. They get two of them back to camp – some mother’s son and a Mexican woman – but find they have completely forgotten their origins and a massive culture clash ensues with the boy killing the woman who is convinced she is his mother and Elena ostracised by white society for becoming an Indian squaw.  The casting of this John Ford western is interesting as Stewart wears his talismanic hat from the Anthony Mann westerns and pours cold water on everything while Widmark always tries to do the right thing; Shirley Jones makes an impact as the girl who can’t get her missing brother out of her mind. Ford didn’t want to make this since he felt he had said all he needed to say about this sort of thing with The Searchers and he was basically correct. But his new star, Stewart, and the widescreen shooting make this worth a watch and the double act at its heart is genuinely interesting. Adapted by Frank Nugent from Will Cook’s novel Comanche Captives.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

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It’s man taking on himself the vengeance of the law. Drifters Gil (Henry Fonda) and Art (Henry Morgan) wander into a small Nevada town and enjoy a drink at the bar when news reaches people that local rancher Kinkaid has had 600 head of cattle rustled and he’s been murdered. The sheriff has gone to investigate. In the meantime the locals take the law into their own hands and Gil and Art tag along with the lynch mob. They find three men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and elderly Francis Ford) eating in Ox-Bow Canyon and without evidence, trial or jury, decide to hang them as thieves and murderers despite the eldest man protesting he bought their cattle from Kinkaid without receiving a bill of sale. Only seven men refuse to support their actions. Then the sheriff arrives and tells them he’s found the murderer… This taut adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1940 western novel was adapted and produced by Lamar Trotti for Twentieth-Century Fox and its economy of form (a studio set) immeasurably aids the aesthetic choices by director William Wellman in a sparse and breathtaking seventy-three minutes. Within that straitened narrative are teased the limits of a father-son relationship (the self-righteous Major Tetley whose son doesn’t agree with his actions), a romantic relationship between Gil and Rose (Mary Beth Hughes), who turns up on the stage with the man she just married en route to San Francisco, and the allegorical debate about law and justice at the heart of everything. Fonda’s future role in Twelve Angry Men is also prophesied while his part in The Grapes of Wrath is recalled by having Jane Darwell join the baying murderers. A classic of liberalism, a jewel in Hollywood’s crown and a warning about the sadistic lure of mob rule.

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

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Everybody’s got a right to be a sucker once. When Budd Boetticher wrote this story he thought it would be a perfect return to Hollywood after his near-decade long Mexican odyssey when the subject of his bullfighting documentary died and he nearly bought the farm himself. But his career was effectively over and this was rewritten by Albert Maltz, another (blacklisted) resident of Mexico and instead of his hoped-for Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr starring, it was supposed to have Elizabeth Taylor in the lead. She gave the script to Clint Eastwood on the set of Where Eagles Dare (in which he co-starred with Richard Burton) and the whole game changed when it wasn’t going to be shot in Spain. In fact it became a Mexican co-production.  Eastwood is Hogan, a mercenary en route to assist Mexican revolutionaries against the French who were then engaged in an invasion of the country, with the promise of enough gold to set up a bar in California. He rescues nun Sara (MacLaine) who has had her clothes ripped off her by a bunch of marauding cowboys and he shoots them dead. She proves to be much more resourceful than he expects and enjoys drinking, smoking and helps him stop an ammunition train in its tracks as they make their way to a French fort on behalf of the Juaristas.  It turns out that the nun’s garb is just a costume that covers up her real vocation, that of prostitute … Gorgeously shot by Gabriel Figueroa (assisted by Bruce Surtees) this is a sensational comedy western with two gripping star performances. Don Siegel didn’t like MacLaine whom he declared unfeminine because she had too many balls. It was the last time Eastwood got second billing and also the last time that he would agree to an actress of stature as his co-star until Meryl Streep acted opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County. Siegel takes a spaghetti-style story and gives it some nicely sardonic twists with some terrific scenes – when MacLaine is giving a former client the last rites; and playing for time with General LeClaire (Albert Morin) while children dump a dynamite-filled pinata at the fort, to name but two. Boetticher was appalled at the alterations to his original story and when Siegel said he woke up every day to a paycheque, Boetticher responded he woke up every day and could look at himself in the mirror. Nonetheless this is engaging, smart and funny and a really great acting masterclass. Ennio Morricone’s insistent, brutally repetitive score is a plus.