When Senator Ransom Stoddard returns home to Shinbone for the funeral of Tom Doniphon, he recounts to a local newspaper editor the story behind it all. He had come to town many years before, a lawyer by profession. The stage was robbed on its way in by the local ruffian, Liberty Valance, and Stoddard has nothing to his name left save a few law books. He gets a job in the kitchen at the Ericson's restaurant and there meets his future wife, Hallie. The territory is vying for Statehood and Stoddard is selected as a representative over Valance, who continues terrorizing the town. When he destroys the local newspaper office and attacks the editor, Stoddard calls him out, though the conclusion is not quite as straightforward as legend would have it. Written by
Some films are slow to give up their secrets first time round and need some time to elapse before they are revalued. An opportunity to see "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" after a gap of several years turned out to be an unexpectedly rewarding experience. It had never been one of my favourite Ford films; indeed I was always puzzled why many rate it so highly in the canon. Its rather plain black-and-white visuals smack of low production values and it has little of the grand operatic sweep of many of his other Westerns. I can now see that I was rather missing the point: "Liberty Valance" is that rare thing, a chamber Western, a quiet and elegiac reappraisal of the legends of the West made almost at the end of Ford's creative career with "Cheyenne Autumn" the only Western still to come. A U.S. senator played by James Stewart returns with his wife (Vera Miles at her most attractive) to the small Western town, where, as a young man, he tied to set up a law business, to attend the funeral of the man (John Wayne) who saved his life when he tried to rid the community of its villain, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Ford's Westerns had always been the stuff of legend. Now, towards the end of his career, he began to take the legend apart. The hero is not the one who goes on to become one of the town's most illustrious sons but the quiet man who fades into the background. It needs more than idealism to overcome evil, the film seems to be saying, Brute force has to be countered by brute force; moreover, true worth is not always rewarded or recognised by society. It is a bleak message that Ford is giving us. By homing in on character and plot to a far greater extent than usual, he gives us an experience that is often more akin to filmed theatre than cinema. There are unusually long sequences in studio built interiors, the diner, the bar and a theatre where an election adoption meeting is taking place. Outdoor sequences are few and far between. Instead of a large collective enemy such as marauding Indian tribes there is just the one baddy and his pair of sycophants. The pivotal action scene where Liberty Valance receives his just deserts takes place in a dark street and has none of the climactic sense of drama to be found in such shootouts as "My Darling Clementine" of Zinnemann's "High Noon". I can at last see that those very limitations that for so so long prevented me from appreciating "Liberty Valance" give it a sense of concentration and strength that the Western rarely achieves.
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