The Haunting Past (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962)

Man_Who_Shot_Liberty_Valance_PosterSenator Ransom Stoddard and his wife have come back to their home town to pay respects to his late friend Tom Doniphon. Some wonder why a famous senator is attending the funeral of a man who seems not to really be of any note.

A persistent reporter convinces the reluctant senator to give him an interview.  Stoddard made his name by killing the notorious Liberty Valance years earlier. But there is a dark secret hidden away and Stoddard is ready to put it on the record.

Buoyed by strong performances from Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, the Man Who shot Liberty Valance explores living a life on the foundation of a lie.  Stewart’s Stoddard carries guilt over the circumstances involving Tom and Valance.

Valance is a pretty straight forward thug who wants to amass power, the film makes no real effort to get the audience on his side.  You see Stoddard’s actions as fairly heroic, but information he learns later eats away at him as the years go by.

This is a terrific film and a classic of the genre. I say this as one who has never been a huge fan of John Wayne.  Admittedly, some of that is annoyance with narratives about “where have the real men gone”. But I appreciate Wayne in this film.  Tom is a sympathetic character, who finds Stoddard, in some ways, really interfered with his life.

A Looooong Time Ago (Once Upon a Time In the West, 1968)

Once_Upon_a_Time_West_PosterOnce Upon a Time In the West specializes in a big trait of Sergio Leone’s work…patience. The film opens with a scene of three men waiting for a train to arrive.  Everything is quiet, with hardly a word spoken.  Only the sounds of a rickety windmill and water dripping onto a hat fill the soundscape.  The three men’s motives uncertain.  And we wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And it is amazing.  This could, and frankly, should be a terribly dull sequence…but the tension keeps building until the train arrives.  And all we see is a man toss a bag off and the train moves on…but it is the reveal of what waits behind the train.  We see a lone man standing before the other three.  In a great bit of snappy dialog, the stranger notes they only brought three horses.  One of the thugs laughs and says they are a horse short.  After a pause, the man replies “You brought two horses two many.”

Once Upon a Time in the West follows  the story of a young woman named Jill.  She has arrived to be with her new husband and his children, only to discover on arrival the an and his children have been murdered.  A railroad baron and his associate want her land, but two men have stepped in to challenge the crooked men. Cheyenne and “Harmonica” have different reasons for coming to town, but they unite to help Jill (while fulfilling their own plans).

Leone knows how to do an introduction.  With Robard’s Cheyenne, he goes for a humorous introduction.  We see Jill in a Catina talking with the owner, when they are interrupted by the sound of a gunfight.  We never see it, only hear it, and it’s comic effect hits home as Cheyenne walks through the door full of swagger.  In the same scene, we see a shot of Harmonica (Charles Bronson) sitting in the corner.  There is a swinging lamp and the light and shadow dance across Bronson’s face poetically.

Henry Fonda’s villainous Frank (a gang leader who has adapted to the business world of the railroad barons) is charming and frightening.  Claudia Cardinale is lovely in every scene, but it is not simply her beauty that the character brings to the table.  She is a strong and dominant force in the film.

So many things that seem like they would have been fine as simple character affectations actually have deeper meaning and connections. We never learn Harmonica’s name, instead, when Frank grills him for who he is, he replies with the names of men Frank has killed.  And his harmonica playing has a dark twist added.

Ennio Morricone produces another wonderful soundtrack.  Harmonic’s playing is woven into it and it is some of the simplest and most haunted sounds you will ever hear.

The film is long, and I get why some find it to slow moving…but to me, this is part of what makes it such a rewarding viewing experience.  Leone gives you the opportunity to soak in the environment.  It is a film worthy of the term “Classic Western”.

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