The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Three directors stand out when it comes to classic westerns, and all define certain decades: John Ford, Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. That's not to say that there weren't plenty of others who added to the genre and sometimes even did better films than these guys, but for defining a certain style, as well as rounding up a consistent cast that they knew how to work with, they were the ones. By the time The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Ford had been making films in various genres since 1917. He hit his stride with westerns in the 1930s, particularly with Stagecoach, which also helped a young man by the name of John Wayne become famous as well.
Ford and Wayne went on to make a number of movies, both westerns and others, with many of them having the same group of character actors. The two of them also made the genre stand out as, while they were popular for a good first part of the 20th century, the genre was cheap to make and always guaranteed to turn a profit. That is why there are so many well-worn clichés; someone like John Ford would put effort and budget into making a prestige movie, and then hundreds of smaller studios would copy them. It is probably one of the reasons that, by the 1970s, it took Clint Eastwood putting the effort into making epic Leone-inspired films to even keep the genre slightly alive.
Even when it came to movies with Ford and Wayne it was still the Old West of fantasy, created by exaggerated ghost-written penny novels and Buffalo Bill's theatrical shows. One of the major scenes in a lot of classic westerns is the gunfight, where two men meet in the middle of the street to settle their differences. Typically they are gunfighters of renown, somehow having killed dozens of people with little to no consequence - unless they happen to where the black hat, that is, so that the audience knows what's coming to them in the end. What Liberty Valance asks, though, is about where all these legends come from.
Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) returns to his wife Hallie's (Vera Miles) hometown of Shinbone to pay respects to their friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The Shinbone Star is excited to have someone of such repute visit the town and, after some coaxing, Stoddard reluctantly relays the tale of how he came to Shinbone right out of law school in order to set up practice, only to be robbed of all he had on the way by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang.
While recuperating in her parents' restaurant Stoddard befriends Hallie as well as her suitor, Tom, who warns Ransom that he better learn how to use a gun as Valance won't be done with him. Eventually the lawyer sets up his practice out of the offices of the Shinbone Star, run by Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien) and, as statehood nears, becomes a popular delegate choice for the convention. Valance, working for cattlemen trying to prevent statehood when he is not robbing stagecoaches, attempts to intimidate the farmers and citizens of the town to vote against the measure, eventually calling Stoddard out. Never a coward, Stoddard complies, and manages to become a hero - though it turns out there is more to the story.
Although Wayne was prominently billed on marquees he was the main supporting actor, with James Stewart in the lead. Wayne's ego did get bruised but he, despite originally having doubts on how to play Tom Doniphon, still puts forth one of his best performances. Stewart is dependable as always, since he could pretty much shine in any movie he was placed in. This was Marvin's second film with Wayne, having previously worked with him in The Comancheros, and Marvin gets to play one of his best villain roles, sneering and chewing scenery whenever possible. Edmund O'Brien as the perpetually inebriated Peabody provides both some pathos and some needed humor, while unfortunately Andy Devine's portrayal of cowardly Marshal Link Appleyard can grate a bit. In the latter it's a case of playing the role too well, as Appleyard may have a kind heart but has no business wearing a badge.
While Ford was known for his grand location filming, often using Monument Valley as a backdrop, Liberty Valance was filmed mainly on backlots and soundstages. It was also in black and white, where Ford had been using Technicolor for the longest time. Part of it was budget reasons, but it also helped hide some of the stagey look as well as the fact that many of the actors were too old for the roles they played in flashback. Turns out it was the right choice since Ford knew how to work in both mediums with success and Dorothy M. Johnson's story is good enough to ignore such particulars. However, it still does feel a bit claustrophobic for a Ford film.
The black and white probably also helped Ford get away with a bit more violence than he would have in the past. The Hays Code was loosening, especially since Psycho, but blood in black and white didn't seem to have the same startling effect as it did in color. Also, it didn't look as fake at the time as it often did in color, as chocolate syrup could look a lot more realistic than the dayglo red used by Hammer and American International.
Ford had a few more movies in him, including a segment for How the West Was Won, but this is the last outright classic western film he made before retiring. Wayne was already suffering from lung cancer at the time, although it had not yet been diagnosed, while Lee Marvin and Lee Van Cleef (who plays one of Valance's henchmen) had major careers ahead of them. As for Stewart, his career was winding down, and though he would play small parts and do voice over work, he was nearing semi-retirement at the time. There were still some great roles for John Wayne ahead - True Grit especially comes to mind - but those were influenced by the changing times. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance marked what would be the beginning of the end for the western as it had been known.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Time: 123 minutes
Starring: James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles
Director: John Ford