Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

Spoilers, I guess.

No other film seems to capture the divide between the former order of Hollywood aesthetics and the decodifications of the 60s better than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the final consensus masterpiece of John Ford. Though Ford had spent the last two decades teasing apart the myth of the western he defined as much as anyone up through Stagecoach (1939), Liberty Valance is perhaps the most drastic break from aesthetic norms for a director who always seemed to shift into chameleonic formal perfection no matter which project he took on.

Was John Ford’s elegy to the division between high-minded modernism and the social entropy of the old west partly inspired by the sudden break between the misfortunes of Hollywood studios and the concurrent explosion of foreign films in influence and availability? On one hand, that’s tempting to dismiss as a reduction of Ford’s career (which always imagined American progress as existing between the comforts and character of traditions, and the security and freedom from barbarism offered by a self-renewing civilization), but Ford had never personified both sides of that division so starkly and sympathetically as he did through their avatars of John Wayne’s braggart cowboy Tom Doniphon and James Stewart’s uppity lawyer/politician Ransom Stoddard. And the dividing line goes farther than that: Ford it seemed, had mastered classical beauty so thoroughly that he had found the confidence in his picturesque craft to give it all up and shoot soundstages on black and white stock with nary a vista in sight. Though Ford’s ease with cutting, emotive camera placement, and expressive geometric compositions are still there, very few shots have that instant put-this-in-a-picture-frame beauty so typical of the rest of his career. Axis breaks, rapid editing, high contrast photography, a total lack of vistas — there's even a couple jump cuts in there!

On my first viewing of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, no supporting character struck me more thoroughly than Valance himself; it’s been oft-observed that Lee Marvin’s stock casting in vicious, unsparingly violent roles is a sort of reenactment of the grisly horror he saw and perpetrated in World War II, and his performance as Valance has always seemed the most distilled and pure and terrifying of those roles. The specter of fear that follows him everywhere is Ford at his most humanist: the threat of any death is repulsive and fearful to all. That even goes for the death of Valance, whose titular dispatch may be the saddest physical performance of any death in the western genre. It’s a token of Ford’s by-then fully formed humanism that all death, even the death of such an agent of evil, is destructive, for nobody’s existence is more defined and dependent on the threat of Valance than Tom Doniphon, an expression of the John Wayne heroic outlaw character so simple and direct that Wayne complained there was hardly anything to the character at all (exactly!). Doniphon is, more than anything, the counterweight to chaos against Valance, and as soon as Valance is destroyed, so is Doniphon.

But on this viewing the secondary role that shone brightest was Edmond O’Brien’s newspaperman Dutton Peabody, possibly the greatest and most richly performed comic relief character in the Ford canon (which, as any Ford devotee can tell you, is no small nor meanly earned offer of hyperbole). Peabody is a man of immense intelligence and moral fiber whose every instinct and ambition is clipped by his fear of inadequacy and tempered by alcohol, and his fearful ascent from a local word shill to a journalist of influence and integrity is profound and multi-layered enough to carry a great film on its own.

Two of his scenes move me more than any others. First, the scene where Ranse Stoddard reads the front page proof of Peabody’s latest edition of the Shinbone Star, in particular an editorial attacking the influence of the state’s wealthy cattlemen. O’Brien handily steals the scene from Stewart, and as Stoddard exclaims “This is great… it’s just great”, you can see O’Brien’s face move from sheepish fear that he has stepped beyond his place, to surprise and confusion at Stewart’s response, to a deep pride and determination that he carries with him through the rest of the film. A scene that, on paper, is not much more than a cowardly and bumbling editor playing comic astonishment at his newfound competence, strikes home as a man who is being told — after a lifetime of dreaming of it while reading newspapers and Shakespeare — that he is important and his life has meaning. The second moment is in the film’s political climax, after Peabody has advocated at an election for Ransom Stoddard to represent the region’s bid for statehood. After his intense, crowd-pleasing poetics, his opponent mounts a snobbish and withering dismissal of Ranse’s credibility, and Peabody turns to find Stoddard has disappeared. After Stoddard regains his drive — that is, after he learns who really shot Liberty Valance — he re-enters the election through a pair of swinging doors, and as the doors swing, we see for one instant Peabody throwing his arms in the air and joyously crying out “Ranse!"

It is, for me, the most intensely cathartic moment in the movie. Nobody, not even Stoddard or Doniphon, works as hard, loses as much, or has so much at stake in the film as Peabody does. For all the nostalgia and melancholy of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that flash of sheer joy and victory is Ford’s clearest concession that the loss of the old world, as sad as it may be, is necessary to gain a better one.


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