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Craig's Movie Club
Film/Video Reviews
Western

Films of the American West reviewed with a discerning eye.


High Noon (1952)

Gary Cooper is terrific in High Noon, a story of a man alone with his courage. Right after his marriage to his new wife, news comes that an old enemy of Will Kane's (Cooper) is coming to town to settle an old score. So, instead of going on his honeymoon, Kane decides to stay in town, intending on getting help to defend against the man and his three goons.

But everyone turns him down, and the more people back out, the harder it is to get help. Even a man who had volunteered, upon finding there was no one else to assist, crawls back home to his wife and kids. Kane is left to defend the town alone against four men who mean for him to die. Not that you ever wonder if he'll triumph, but the film is very suspenseful when it comes time for the showdown.

The story is presented in "real time" and there are clocks all over town to let you know how long until "high noon." The suspense builds as the minutes tick away.

Another problem Will has is that his new wife (Grace Kelly) is a converted Quaker, and is therefore against violence in any form; so she does not support his decision to stay and fight, hoping he will at last choose to leave with her.

Cooper is wonderful and deserved his Academy Award for this role, as he shows us the myriad emotions that a man deserted by his friends and faced with his imminent death experiences. In a probable first for a western, he even lays his head down and cries at one point in despair. And throughout the film he wears a mixed expression of worry, anger, and defiance.

My one beef with High Noon is the ending. There is all this drawn-out suspense building throughout the film and after the gunfight is over, the film ends too quickly. There is no chance for us to assimilate what has happened or to be relieved at its outcome. I felt jarred and wanted a bit of a tie-up with the events. We should have at least been able to see him ride off in the coach for a while before the 'The End' jumped up at us.

So, I remove one star for the ending, but then add it back for Gary Cooper's amazing performance of a real human being, not a caricature of a western hero. A really excellent experience on the whole.




Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

"Keep your lovin' brother happy."

By the time we reach the end of Once Upon a Time in the West, hear Henry Fonda utter these intensely powerful words, and discover the meaning behind a long-awaited revenge, we have been taken on a long, leisurely carriage ride through western folklore.

Who would have guessed that an Italian would make the best cinema of the American West? But Sergio Leone was that man. With his "Man with No Name" trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), he made a star of Clint Eastwood and presented a vision that none had seen before and that has yet to be matched.

And then he topped himself. Once Upon a Time in the West is undoubtedly the finest western ever made. All the trademarks are here: the beautiful, expansive landscapes; the extreme close-ups; the nameless hero; the operatic score by Ennio Morricone (with motifs for each character). But somehow they all come together as if for the first time, as if all that came before was simply rehearsal.

From a story by the Italian triple-threat of Leone, Dario Argento (Suspiria), and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, Last Tango in Paris), Leone and Sergio Donati fashioned a screenplay that typifies and transcends the genre.

But the plot is less important than the style. Leone's love for the genre is apparent in how he lets the scenes flow at their own speed, never hurrying, never forcing them to a conclusion. The languid pacing makes for a much longer film (it clocks in at three hours), but also one much more emotionally real. It gives us time to really experience what we're seeing: a film about the West made by one of its biggest fans.




The Shootist (1976)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form in The Green Man Review.

Watching John Wayne's last film, The Shootist, is an emotional experience. While it is definitely one of Wayne's finest performances, the parallels between the lives and deaths of the main character and this actor are many.

Wayne plays John Bernard Books, outlaw and legend. Books comes to see his old friend Doc Hostetler (James Stewart -- another legend of this genre and Wayne's costar in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) to get a second opinion. Hostetler confirms another doctor's diagnosis--that of cancer. The poignancy of this moment lies in Stewart's delivery, the pain visible in his eyes. Wayne had already lost a lung to cancer and would die of it three years later.

Books decides to stay in town--to die there--and asks Doc where he can get a room. He recommends Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), a recent widow and owner of a boarding house. Fearing his notoriety will preclude his getting a room, Books tells her his name is "William Hickok." Mrs. Rogers' son, Gillom (Ron Howard), discovers Books' true identity from his saddle, then explains, "'Wild Bill' Hickok was shot before I was born." Books is a hero to young Gillom, who yearns to be a gunfighter. After a shooting lesson in which Gillom's shooting equals Books', the older man tries to teach the younger that his life is not for everyone:

"It's not always being fast or even accurate that counts, it's being willing. I found out early that most men, regardless of cause or need, aren't willing. They blink an eye or draw a breath before they pull the trigger--and I won't."
Meanwhile, news has spread about the town's newest resident, and it seems that everyone wants to be the one to do him in--including the town's sheriff (Harry Morgan), who puts gives out the film's most darkly humorous lines when expressing his death wish for Books. As time draws short, Books gets closer to a decision. If he is going to die, he is going to do it as he lived--his way.

I've never been a fan of John Wayne's films, but I am in awe of his naturalness. Every word sounds real, as if from his own thoughts. Other actors yearn to reach the level of realism that was Wayne's primary talent. Howard in particular shows real ability -- holding his own with two screen legends, often stealing the scenes in which he appears. His final scene in the saloon is awe-inspiring because of the expression in his eyes. Director Don Siegel has assembled a classic cast for a classic statement about the state of Western movies in general, and about Wayne's career in particular. John Books is a man at the end of his career, and so was John Wayne.

The Shootist is a fine cap for the long and lasting career of an actor who was lucky enough to have his talents displayed by fine directors with his particular type of story to tell... and fortunate enough to live in a time when those stories wanted to be heard.





  • ...more to come...

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