Imagine you’re a studio executive and it’s 1961. The pitch comes in: How about a western directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. Sound pretty good? Nah.
Incredibly, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was a black-sheep project, made only because of Wayne’s clout.
Paramount declined to green-light the movie, even with its great stars.
John Ford, the argument went, was a tired old western director. The “Liberty Valance” story of a tenderfoot lawyer who mans up and faces down the West’s meanest outlaw sounded like another lukewarm popcorn movie. Westerns were on the way out, anyway.
Even upon release, “Liberty Valance” was shooting blanks. DVD commentator Peter Bogdanovich recalls going to a New York screening where only four people bothered to show up. I remember seeing it in ’62 at a rundown drive-in.
Today, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” generally is regarded as the last great John Ford western. It made a star of Lee Marvin, whose sadistic thug Valance is among the iconic villains of the western genre. Ford fans find its elegiac tone a touching and elegant farewell from the master filmmaker.
But some reasonable folks remain unimpressed with the film. They make a pretty good case.
Instead of the Technicolor sweep of his latter Monument Valley films, “Liberty Valance” was shot on sound stages, in black and white. The movie brings to mind a terrific episode of “Gunsmoke,” not a Ford-Wayne picture like “The Searchers.” The movie talks too much and runs on too long. The characters are mostly stereotypical. The writing clunks and clangs at times. Its famous punch line doesn’t amount to much.
In the end, though, lives on as an American classic, one driven by a wise and mythic story that’s big enough to fill John Ford’s canvas.
Paramount Home Entertainment has released “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” in a double-disc edition that’s part of its excellent “Centennial Collection.” The widescreen picture (1.85:1) is mostly free of wear and is gorgeous in its film noir-inspired night scenes — one reason Ford shot in b&w. The audio has been mixed to 5.1. Dialog is clear.
The DVD set includes two feature-length commentaries, by Ford pal Bogdanovich and the director’s biographer grandson Dan Ford. Both share their archival audio recordings made with the director and stars.
A seven-part making-of feature runs about an hour. It includes Dan Ford, Bogdanovich, the critics Molly Haskell and Richard Schickel, and a few other Ford watchers. The “Liberty Valance” backstory is fascinating and the docu does a decent job in telling it.
The archival recordings also accompany selected scenes from the movie, although the connection isn’t always obvious. The Jimmy Stewart recordings are clear, unlike the tapes of Ford and actor Marvin that are so muffled they’re hardly worth the trouble.
“There was a tension on the set, but it was a good tension,” Stewart recalled. “People just didn’t know what was going to happen (with director Ford.)” Much of the movie was “planned improvisation,” the actor said. “(Ford) didn’t have much respect for the written word.”
Critic Schickel, one of the DVD set’s talking heads, notes that the movie has “an unusually adult way of looking at life. … It’s much more European in many respects.” He calls “Liberty Valance” a “haunted movie.”
That’s largely based on the movie’s bookend scenes of the unlikely hero (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife (Vera Miles) returning to the western town where they met all those years ago.
The tenderfoot lawyer has become a venerated governor and a senator, but everyone knows him as the man who killed Liberty Valance. He tells his side of the story to a local newspaperman, who isn’t all that interested in the final estimation.
The old couple is in town for the funeral of the John Wayne character, who died alone after losing the woman he loved (Miles) to the future senator, whose life he saved. They look upon the simple casket of their friend and sense the death of the West they knew. The senator and his lady are not far behind.
Lee Marvin went on to spoof his Liberty Valance character in the wonderful western comedy “Cat Ballou” with Jane Fonda, one of my favorite comedies. He won an Oscar for the dual roles. Unfortunately, that Sony DVD is almost a decade old, nothing a Blu-ray special edition wouldn’t cure.