Blind Spot 48: ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’

As you all know I have been heavily ensconced in the Christmas movie watching season in the month of November. Believe it or not I have watched 60 new Christmas movies from 2019 alone! This is why I almost didn’t get my Blind Spot pick in this month. There’s only so much time!

Fortunately I found time to watch the classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and not only was it a welcome change of pace but an excellent film. I can see why it is heralded as one of the great films of the Western genre.

From my admittedly limited experience it seems like there are 2 brands of Western films:

1. There are the sprawling films with cowboys on horses fighting Indians and claiming territory like The Searchers or Dances with Wolves.

2. Or there are the films that show off the isolated, lawless nature of the West. Usually these are set in town rather than on the open prairie. Examples include The Magnificent 7 or High Noon.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is definitely of the latter variety. I was actually shocked at how violent it is. I can sometimes be guilty of putting movies from the 50s in a squeaky clean box when that is certainly not always the case. Evidently they are going to be making a remake soon, which without question will be rated R if it is accurate to the original film at all. I didn’t mind the violence. It just surprised me.

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The thrust of the violence comes from the outlaw listed in the title: Liberty Valance played by Lee Marvin in a really cold and calculated performance. This is a true outlaw with no feeling for anyone who comes in his way. Marvin does not play Liberty as an outlaw with a heart of gold like Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not at all. He is a man who will kill you over a steak dinner and not give it a second thought.

Naturally everyone is terrified of Liberty including the useless Marshall named Link Appleyard (Andy Devine). The only exception is cowboy Tom Doniphon played with huge charisma by John Wayne. He picks his battles with Liberty but is not afraid to challenge him especially when he gets in his way (or messes with his steak!).

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Into all this mess comes an idealistic lawyer named Ransom Stoddard played by Jimmy Stewart. Talk about perfect casting! Director John Ford uses the innocence and every-man appeal of Stewart to his full advantage. There is never a moment where we aren’t rooting for him or wanting him to defeat Liberty or his  gang. And to the movies credit it is not an easy path for Ransom. The people are so afraid of Liberty he is often left standing against him alone.

The problem is Ransom believes he can solve things peacefully with Liberty and not resort to violence. This creates the central conflict of the film: Is the law abiding attorney going to give into the wild ways of the west or will his pure ideals prevail? It’s an interesting question and it plays out with a compelling script and excellent filmmaking.

You might be saying to yourself ‘I hate Westerns and have no interest in seeing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’. And I’d reply I am also not a big fan of the genre but the whole point of the blind spot project is to get out of my niches and try new things. I honestly think if you give this film a shot you will be impressed by the interesting characters, story, messaging and pacing. It is a classic for a reason and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Have you seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence? What did you think and who would you cast in the remake? Who can fill the shoes of John Wayne, Lee Marvin and Jimmy Stewart? It’s a tall order!

9 out of 10

smile worthy

 

 

Treasure of the Sierra Madre Review

treasure of sierra3Tonight I didn’t have much going on so I figured why not check out the special screening of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on the big screen. I knew almost nothing about this film except that it starred Humphrey Bogart and is a classic but I figured that’s good enough for me! (With the moviepass I could basically see it for free so why not?).  I didn’t know what to expect and came out of it really impressed. I can see why it is a classic and in many ways it reminded me of the current Oscar favorite The Revenant, except it was clearly its superior in every way.  I find it fascinating to compare the two.

Released in 1948 Treasure is written and directed by the great John Huston starring Humphrey Bogart (Dobbs) , Walter Huston (Howard) and Tim Holt (Curtin).   They play 3 men who decide to prospect in Mexico for Gold in the 1920s.

treasure of sierra5They start out with the best of intentions- promising to be moral, upright and to not let the money go to their heads.  Dobbs in many ways starts off the most confident in his own morality while Curtin is more morally consistent.  Howard, on the other hand, is morally practical, even to the point of understanding why a man might kill him for the money.  He says something like ‘I don’t think I’d do it, but I’d sure be tempted’.

What’s really brilliant is the morality of the film is set up with Dobbs and Curtin getting taken advantage of by a shifty businessman in Tampico before they go prospecting.  This is somewhat of a prediction of the conflict to come.

treasure of sierra9The cinematography by 3 time academy award winner Ted D McCord is fantastic, using shadows to show the physical and moral challenges facing the men.  Watching it makes me yearn for black and white movies again! I’d take it any day over the bleak, albeit impressive cinematography in The Revenant.

Treasure 7 Bandito Treasure 2 DobbsThe three leads are so good with particularly Bogart’s Dobbs unwinding  in such a believable way.  It doesn’t happen over night. In fact, at one point he is rescued by Curtin and we think that may create some kind of obligation between the two men.  Instead, Dobbs becomes more and more suspicious of Curtin’s motives and more guarded over his money.

There is a great scene where Curtin tries to stop a poisonous lizard from going in Dobbs hiding place for his ‘share of the goods’.  Dobbs accuses Curtin of stealing from him and Curtin says ‘don’t believe me! Put your hand under the rock’. He’s challenging him to test his trustworthiness and see if the lizard will pounce on him.  The sequence works brilliantly and tells you so much about both characters.

Howard, as the practical moral compass,  never once gives a big speech but consistently warns them about the curse of the gold.   It was impressive how Dobbs becomes dirtier and more disheveled as the greed overtakes him.  In some ways his story arc kind of reminded me of Lord and Lady MacBeth as their lust for power, causes moral compromises that lead to mental instability.   It’s like I could see Dobbs trying to wipe the blood from his hands!

Treasure 6 GoldFaceThe dialogue is so well done by Huston.  It felt authentic to the characters and settings for the 3 leads the entire time.  I never felt like someone was ‘acting’ or trying to win an Oscar.  These were prospectors and I bought how they talked and the evolution of the characters.  Each man spoke in a distinct way that fit who they were and who they become.  It is also believable how Dobbs goes from begging for 2 pesos at the start of the film to a scene where 25,000 in gold is not enough.

treasure of sierra7Where the Revenant gets a lot of its character from the cold surroundings, Treasure of the Sierra Madre gets a similar effect from the heat.  You can always feel the heat of the Mexico sun on the prospectors.  It feels every bit as taxing as the scenes in Revenant, particularly towards the end.

treasure of sierra8One of the problems I had with The Revenant (which I don’t hate btw) was its bleakness and almost complete lack of humanity . It becomes kind of deadening by the end and something that should be shocking feels a little ‘meh’.  There’s just a limit to how many times you can be stunned by an actor freezing to death. It becomes kind of lifeless film-making by the end.

Treasure in contrast has many moments of humanity, even humor, which makes the eventual moral crisis and madness all the more compelling.  We care about these men because we’ve seen both their goodness and darkness.

The performances are also a lot more subtle and absorbing than in The Revenant.  This is partly due to the script but also the acting is just that good.

treasure of sierra4The only flaws I saw in the film is the complete caricatures of the various Mexican groups.  There’s the ‘Indian Mexicans’ who treat Howard as a medicine man after he saves a little boy and then the Bandits who are literally too stupid to recognize giant bags of gold. That seemed a little hard to believe.

The music also sometimes seemed a little too cute for the story but it wasn’t a big problem.

treasure of sierra2Small flaws aside, Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a must see for any movie fan.  John Huston directed and wrote a true masterpiece and the acting is some of the best I’ve seen.  It is an absorbing story with a compelling moral conflict that I think I will purchase on blu-ray.   I particularly suggest if you have seen The Revenant watch this and see if you notice the similarities like I did.  What do you like best?

Have you seen Treasure of the Sierra Madre?  What did you think?  I’m honestly kind of shocked with how much I liked this film.  It was so well done.

I give it an A+