Thursday, December 18, 2008

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

It's embarassing to admit it, but until just a few nights ago, I'd never watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in its entirety.

I'm supposed to be a classic black-and-white movie guy. I'm supposed to be a huge fan of director John Ford, who could compose a scene on screen with a higher sense of artistry and beauty than pretty much anyone else ever. I'm supposed to be a fan of both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart Westerns. But I had never before seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance straight through. It was downright embarassing.

Well, I've fixed that by popping the DVD into my laptop the other night. Of course, I know about the film because it's impossible to know anything about classic films without knowing about this one. So I'm not surprised that it turned out to be every bit as good as it's reputed to be. Its highly intelligent, multi-faceted script is backed up by great performances, direction and photography.

It's also got the most loathsome villain ever to appear on film. Lee Marvin plays Liberty Valance as a violent bully, without a single apparent redeeming quality. All the same, Valance seems like a real person (and consequently, a real threat). Marvin is always memorable in villain roles--endowing such characters with individual (if evil) personalities.

He also does a great death scene when he's shot, staggering about just a little bit before finally collapsing. This was typical of the actor as well--watch him in Seven Men from Now and The Comancheros to see other examples of how Lee Marvin looks cool even when he was dying.

Marvin's sidekicks in Liberty Valance are played by Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef, two of the many great character actors that used to give American films so much heart. Martin is a sadistic little runt in this movie, letting out a high-pitched laugh whenever the perpetually angry Liberty Valance starts whipping someone. Van Cleef is the guy who has to pull Valance away from the whipping and remind him it's time to leave--we never get the impression that he feels sympathy for Valance's victim, merely that he's being practical. These guys just aren't taking up space in front of the camera--like Valance, they are giving their characters real personality. It all helps add to the versimilitude of the movie.

One other actor deserves mention--Edmund O'Brien plays Dutton Peabody, a drunken but still honest newspaperman and (eventually) reluctant politician. O'Brien really hams it up in this role, but also makes Peabody likable and--despite the character's many faults--worthy of our respect.

I'm glad I finally got around to seeing this one straight through.

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