The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Dir. John Ford. Starring Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a real giveaway, up there with classics like The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Not only that, but the movie makes it fairly clear what happens to its main characters before we even know they’re the principals. Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) is shot and absent from Shinbone. Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) is a senator married to Hallie (Miles). Tom Doniphon (Wayne) is dead, about to be buried in a small, quiet funeral. These are all facts that are made clear somewhere between the time one hears about the movie to the time one gets fifteen minutes into it. It’s a bold choice for a western; usually this is the kind of game one plays in a film noir, a genre which by 1962 was very much on the way out. The twist at the end sells the movie. The man who we are led to believe shot Liberty Valance is the beneficiary of a man with much better aim, and what each man represents is changed in our eyes through it.

From the beginning, Stoddard argued that law and order is maintained through a justice system held up by its educated, civilized electorate. Doniphon counters, with some evidence, that the strongest man is the king out west in whatever nameless pre-statehood territory they live in. Unsurprisingly, both men choose the system which flatters them most. Stoddard is a recently minted lawyer, and Doniphon is a rancher with a quick draw who is the only man willing or able to go toe-to-toe with Valance. (This is a distinction that he enjoys. It’s good for his ego to have the baddest man in the territory defer to him, and it says a lot about Doniphon that he never tries to intervene in favor of public safety before Stoddard forces his hand.) Stoddard’s professional accomplishments are listed at the end of the film – governor, senator, ambassador, senator again – and Doniphon is so inconsequential that the editor of a city paper hasn’t a clue who he is. Yet it is Doniphon, not Stoddard, who shot and killed Liberty Valance, a fact revealed to Stoddard by an unshaved and hard-drinking Doniphon behind the scenes of the territorial convention itself. (If the writers had really wanted to mess with everybody, Woody Strode’s Pompey would have killed Valance and saved the day. We can only hope for a remake, I guess.)

Curiously, the movie manages to affirm by this twist everything that it stands for while simultaneously affirming everyone. Stoddard can continue to be the high-minded politico without any twinges of conscience concerning the death of a hated outlaw, while Doniphon can rest assured that he was always the biggest bully on the playground; outwardly, the killing of Valance gives Stoddard the bona fides as not merely a principled private citizen but a heroic lawman, too, and it carries him to massive success. The movie, on its surface, has a very pre-Vietnam moral: building a better future requires a little violence to grease the wheels. There’s more underneath the moral, though. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance takes place in a town where the marshal, Appleyard (Andy Devine), is fat and chickenhearted, more concerned with bumming steaks than protecting his fellows. Appleyard is played for laughs all the way through the movie, but there’s something sinister in the picture of an elected official who abdicates his responsibility at the cost of his constituents’ safety. In short, Stoddard should not have to meet Valance in the street any more than Doniphon should have had to cover the dishwashing attorney from a side alley. And at the convention, when Tom convinces Ranse to go back and accept the nomination to Congress, his depression and hurt has less to do with killing a man (which does bother him) and more to do with the fact that he believes Hallie loves Ranse. It’s a concern that has dogged him throughout the movie, although there’s virtually no romance in Liberty Valance at all. Tom only has one pick-up line, which is that Hallie looks good when she’s mad. He never takes her seriously at any time, and although he assumes that she’ll marry him, he never does ask. Ransom, though he never speaks words of love to her, inspires her to learn to read and write and never strings her along. It’s no surprise that she married Stoddard; politically and personally, Doniphon is barren. It takes him a little time to learn it, but we know when Stoddard, originally from back east, comments on the cactus rose Doniphon gave Hallie. Have you ever seen a real rose? he asks. No, she admits, I haven’t.

Old Stewart, a favorite actor of this blog, is miscast as Stoddard. It’s not his fault, really, but the problem is that the movie really requires Young Stewart, the guy from the Capra movies who represented idealism and good faith rather than cynical impotence. (In the scene where Ranse stammers his way through encouraging Hallie, telling her that of course she can learn to read, we can see Jimmy with Jean Arthur…and the whole scene really comes out hollow as a result. It’s just not the same.) Even though he’s the lead, John Wayne is probably the more engrossing figure in the movie from his unexpected supporting role, but perhaps that’s because his character can get away with appearing as old as he does. Wayne and Stewart were born almost exactly a year apart; both were in their early fifties in the movie. Old Stewart we’ve covered; with the exception of True Grit in 1969, this is the last John Wayne movie which isn’t remembered because it appears in a four-movie box set at Wal-Mart. If there is one thing which really holds the movie back, it’s the age of those two and how old their characters are supposed to be. Tom Doniphon could be a man in his late forties, realistically, but he would make sense as someone fifteen years younger than that. Ranse Stoddard is meant to be even younger, perhaps in his mid-twenties. (Even Vera Miles is probably a little old, although it would hardly matter even if Paul Newman were playing the Wayne part and Steve McQueen playing the Stewart role; in any event, Hallie is probably supposed to be Ranse’s age.) With a younger cast which suited the story better, I think Ford might have gotten along with a better result.

Ironically, I don’t think I would change a single casting choice otherwise. This is a movie which is full to the brim with familiar faces and character actors perfectly suited to their positions. Lee Marvin is spot-on as Liberty Valance. His sidekicks, played by two guys whose names almost make his when you put them together (Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin), are the two sides of Valance’s personality. Van Cleef plays the icy one, as he does so perfectly, and Martin plays the mouthy one with the constant laugh. Devine’s girth is funny in the way Chris Christie’s is, but it’s his tiny little voice that makes Link Appleyard the two hundred and ninety-eight pound weakling in this story. In my mind, Edmond O’Brien as the eloquent and perpetually drunk newspaper editor, Dutton Peabody, steals the show for long stretches of the movie.

As pictured above, Peabody has long conversations with his jug, which he hides unnecessarily in his stove. He has just enough breeding and education to make a show of losing track of both; he chides Hallie about the position of the forks at her restaurant and, in one hilarious moment, realizes that he spelled it “DEFEETED” in a headline. He spends much of the convention in Shinbone, which sends Stoddard and himself (much to his horror) to the territory convention as the town’s delegates, begging for a drink from the barman. It’s Ranse’s idea to close the bar, one which is upheld with some hard effort from Tom. One of Peabody’s many attempts to get some alcohol ought to be tattooed on every drunk frat boy in America as his personal dictum:

Peabody: Just a beer!

Doniphon: The bar is closed.

Peabody: A beer’s not drinking!

In Liberty Valance, Ford layers his shots with the effortless ability of a man who had been directing movies since World War I. The foreground, middle ground, and background are all spoken for seemingly all the time. It has the quality of Renaissance painting, in which the whole canvas is used and no part of the canvas is wasted. More of the movie than you’d expect takes place at rush hour in the restaurant run by Peter (John Qualen), a Swedish immigrant. Stoddard is washing dishes while Hallie waits tables and shouts out orders. Ford has a keen eye for contextualizing. I’m fond of this shot, where Stewart and Miles are in the foreground and the customers, noisy and hungry, lurk in the background.

Later on, Ford will showcase his ability to fill, but never crowd, the screen. Tom places his order and pays attention to Hallie while Ranse and Pompey, holding a cactus rose, look on. Meanwhile, Peter and his wife, Nora (Jeanette Ericson), keep working over the stove. Customers are still eating out in the dining room.

That shot is special in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance because it’s so heavily weighted to the middle of the screen, with the possible exception of Woody Strode holding the flowers. More often, Ford places people at all three levels and builds meaning through their positions. Early in the movie, while Stoddard is recovering from a beating taken at the hands of Valance, Doniphon reinforces his tough guy image by dropping Appleyard’s hat on the ground.

Just about everyone has his back to everyone else in this shot, with the exception of Appleyard. Stewart, foregrounded, mirrors Wayne in the background, with Hallie quite literally (and all the more figuratively) between them. Ford’s usually stationary camera lives for this sort of beautiful blocking, and it is immensely useful later on.

In this standoff, Valance has just tripped up Stoddard, who was bringing Doniphon’s dinner from the kitchen. The foreground-middle ground-background dichotomy is clear as day, and the positioning of the men signifies a great deal as well. With hands on holsters, Valance and Doniphon look like men who have already taken it outside and are prepared to open fire on one another. In their line of sight, only the presence of Stoddard – a mere “tenderfoot,” in Doniphon’s words – keeps them from having an out-and-out duel over a spilled steak.

During the actual duel much later in the movie, notice how Ford uses a hitching post to emphasize the distance in the middle ground between Stoddard, wounded and reaching for his pistol, and Valance, about keeling over with laughter.

After the duel, when it appears that Stoddard has dropped Valance in the street like a rabid dog (I know, wrong quintessentially white American hero), notice how it appears that Stewart is in the foreground while a great crowd gathers around the cooling corpse of a mighty gunslinger. It turns out, though, Stewart is really in the middle, as we can see in the second shot.

There’s a much larger panorama here which I’m not sure could be shot in a single frame, not even in Cinerama. Stewart’s face says a great deal and his feet do the rest. In the background, the past, lies a dead man shot down by the vigilante justice that Stoddard abhors; he walks, ashen-faced, to small business and family and domesticity. It’s often said that acting is more reaction than action; I’m not sure that there’s a saying which so neatly encapsulates the brilliance of this single cut, at once illuminating Ranse Stoddard while creating a long progression with the camera.

The simplest distillation of camera-builds-character is in the shot below:

Stewart is not often placed in the background in this movie, but he is here. Wayne, totally in shadow, is in the foreground, in someways even more invisible than his costar. This image comes with very little run time remaining in the film, which emphasizes Ford’s point: there is a great vastness between Stoddard and Doniphon, one without a bridge. Even in what should be Doniphon’s greatest moment of triumph, he is obscured, exceeded by the little grainy figure in the distance.

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