Cowboy Noir

John Wayne

I hadn’t previously considered western movies as film noir – I always thought of them as crime dramas – until I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance over the holidays, perhaps my third viewing of the 1962 movie. The gloomy shadows, the dark sets, the agony of the characters. And then it struck me: cowboy noir.

But why not? Noir is, after all not a theme as much as an atmosphere. As one reviewer of cowboy noir put it,

Noir is like a disease. Its symptoms are moodiness, despair, guilt, and paranoia… The tropes of the Western—sunlight, open spaces, nature—would seem to immune to the noir disease. But make no mistake, the Western caught the disease. A genre that seemed to be the quintessence of American optimism, a genre that seemed to embody the notion of moral clarity, slowly gave way to darker themes and more neurotic characters.

Yet among his eight films chosen, TMWSLV isn’t to be found. In one IMDB list of 100 western noir films, it squeaks in at number 99. In this one and this one, it doesn’t even rate a listing.

Imogen Sara Smith, writing in Bright Lights film journal, 2009, noted,

…westerns have always encompassed more complexity than the simplistic “oaters” made for children’s matinees,2 and after World War II some westerns took on a new tone, borrowing the themes, plots and look of film noir.

For me, it’s a classic, close the being the classic, western and certainly I think John Ford’s best western. Others differ (The Guardian, for example, doesn’t include it in its list of top Western films). Some dismiss it as a failed attempt. Me, I enjoyed it more this time around than any viewing in the past.

The showdown

It stars some great talent: James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin and Edmund O’Brien, Vera Miles, Andy Devine, with John Carradine, and Lee Van Cleef. And while the plot is perhaps thin, the moral ambiguity makes up for it. The little guy takes on the bully and wins, and in winning becomes the hero on both local and national scales, but that victory is tainted by an ugly truth. It’s almost an anti-western theme.

But then there are those western tropes: the ranchers versus the farmers, the gunfighters, the drunks, the groping towards statehood, the stagecoach holdup, the segregation….

And while the sets under closer examination sometimes seem like cardboard-and-duct tape cut-outs, for the most part their minimalist feel serves a better purpose: they don’t distract from the characters.

Roger Ebert wrote of the film,

There is a purity to the John Ford style. His composition is classical. He arranges his characters within the frame to reflect power dynamics–or sometimes to suggest a balance is changing. His magnificent Western landscapes are always there, but as environment, not travelogue. He films mostly on sets, but we’re not particularly aware.

True, it is uneven in places, and several of the actors push into overacting a few times (Marvin perhaps most often). They act as caricatures of western icons: too good, too noble, too villainous to be quite believable. But then, when seen as a gestalt, it comes together like a morality play.

Lincoln Spector, writing on Bayflicks, said,

What the John Ford western doesn’t have is Monument Valley. Ford went out of his way to avoid anything visually beautiful or epic here. This is a western morality tale set on a soundstage, not the vast expanses of Utah. And on the rare occasions where the films goes on locations, the background looks like an undeveloped part of the Los Angeles basin.
In the end, Ford reminds us that he’s spent his career weaving a mythology, and that while a myth can contain a grain of moral truth, it is always a lie. Rance has carried that lie in his heart for decades, and he will never be free of it.

Now more than 50 years since it was released, Paramount is remaking The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I have my doubts about this. So many remakes fail (think Total Recall and War of the Worlds…). Will Paramount keep the noir-ish lighting and sets? Or make it garish, colourful and overdone? Entertainment Weekly writer, Darren Franich, weighs in on a remake:

The central story arc is a moral fable. Who will defeat the bad man? Will it be the avatar of civilized justice, or the symbol of gun-slinging violence? Variety claims that the project may be set in a non-western setting — 1980s Pennsylvania steel industry, anyone? — and it feels like you could extract the basic Liberty Valance triangle (Evil vs. Two Opposing Kinds Of Good) and embed it in some radical new context.
Where should it be set? I’m inclined to say that the smart play is to aim for a Mexico-US crossover setting — currently a so-hot-right-now setting for exploring the bleak moral borderlands of justice and peace. Hell, with a little nip-tucking, you could just cast the central trio for Sicario. Emily Blunt as the rule-of-law pencil pusher? Benicio Del Toro as the frontier wildman? Jesus, Josh Brolin was born to take all the roles Lee Marvin is too dead to play.

All of which makes me worry for the remake as a candidate for the straight-to-DVD-$5-Walmart-bin category. Which, I suppose has its upside: as a B-film aficionado, I am a frequenter of that bin.

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