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Tag Archives: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

2013: The Year of the Ford

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On one level, every year is the “Year of the Ford” in the Smith household. I am, after all, watching his movies all of the time, both for my own pleasure and in classes that I’m teaching. I’ve shown more films by John Ford, and in a greater variety of film studies classes (Intro to Film, Film and Society, Perspectives on Film, World of Cinema, etc.), than any other director. In less than five years I’ve managed to screen seven Ford features: Stagecoach (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); and this is not to mention that I also frequently show Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary feature Directed By John Ford in full — as well as clips from various other Ford films, including 3 Bad Men (1926), The Informer (1935) and The Battle of Midway (1942). My insistence on teaching Ford is in part because his very name seems synonymous with the American cinema — in much the same way that William Faulkner might be said to be synonymous with American literature or Bob Dylan synonymous with American music. (I’ll never forget how intensely gratifying it was to hear a young Korean student say she felt she was able to “understand America better” after watching Ford’s movies in my class.) Yet, even given my Ford-o-philia, 2013 was something special.

The year began on a sour note for some Ford aficionados when Quentin Tarantino repeatedly badmouthed Ford’s movies for their supposed “racism” to anyone who would listen (including Charlie Rose and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) while traveling around the world to promote his presumably more enlightened Django Unchained. Fortunately, Ford soon received the most eloquent defense his admirers could have hoped for in the form of a Film Comment rebuttal from the great Kent Jones. Then, in the following months, the world was reminded of the maestro’s continued relevance when four of what I would argue are among his five best movies were released on Blu-ray for the first time: How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man, The Sun Shines Bright and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (Ford’s other best movie, The Searchers, was released on Blu-ray years ago.) Incredibly, none of these titles were released together as part of any sort of Ford-themed package or box-set deal. Instead they were dropped, coincidentally and separately, by three different labels: 20th Century Fox, Olive Films and Paramount UK. TCM and Sony also teamed up to release the “John Ford Columbia Films Collection” box set but the five titles included there were made available on DVD only (and as much as I welcome the digital debuts of such underrated gems as The Whole Town’s Talking and Gideon’s Day, I passed on this set because I no longer purchase DVD-only releases). Finally, 2013 also saw the very welcome DVD release of the recently rediscovered Ford silent Upstream (included on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s “Treasures New Zealand” anthology). The rest of this post, however, will be devoted to the four new Ford Blu-ray titles that rocked my world in 2013.

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How Green Was My Valley is my second favorite Ford film and my favorite of his non-westerns. I am also fond of stating that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences correctly named it the Best Picture of 1941 over Citizen Kane, with which it curiously shares a flashback structure and a “subjectivity of memory” theme. This beautiful, melancholy story of one family’s disintegration in a turn-of-the-20th century mining town in Wales (though Ford was clearly thinking of Ireland) is set against the backdrop of union struggles and was one of the director’s most personal films. In it, he presents a vision of an idealized family life, the kind that he personally never knew (where Donald Crisp presides with benign authority over a brood of dutiful, mostly male offspring), and offers a stirring illustration of his Catholic belief that one’s physical death is not “the end.” Yet the film’s obsessive focus on the inevitability of change simultaneously marks it as one of Ford’s most pessimistic works. How Green Was My Valley has amazing deep-focus cinematography courtesy of the great D.P. Arthur Miller, a poignant Alfred Newman score and a star-making performance by the lovely Maureen O’Hara (working with Ford for the first of many times). Fox’s Blu-ray, which I reviewed at length back in February, is perfect.

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The Quiet Man is the most impressive of the new batch of Ford Blu-rays, not only because it looks and sounds incredible but also because it represents the most dramatic upgrade over all of the film’s previous home video incarnations. This movie has never looked good on VHS or DVD, the old video transfers of which were soft and blurry and sported sadly faded color (a particularly offensive crime since Ford insisted on shooting in Technicolor, the premiere color process of the day, over the objections of Republic Pictures boss Herbert Yates, who had patented his own color process — the cheaper and more lurid TruColor). So Olive Films did the world a huge favor by taking Ford’s single most personal film (and the only passionate love story he ever directed) and restoring it to something approximating its original luster. This new version boasts a high-definition transfer and remaster of the original camera negative and the results are glorious: primary colors (especially greens and reds) are vibrant and saturated: when John Wayne’s Sean Thornton first spies Maureen O’Hara’s flame-haired Mary Kate Danaher walking barefoot in an impossibly green grassy field, he wonders aloud “Is that real? She couldn’t be.” I said the same thing when I first watched this Blu-ray.

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In contrast to How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man, both of which are popular classics beloved by many casual movie fans, The Sun Shines Bright has always been the Ford-lover’s Ford movie. A remake of the director’s own Judge Priest (1934), a Will Rogers vehicle that remains a great film in its own right, this 1953 version similarly blends comedy and tragedy in a story of racial intolerance set in post-Civil War Kentucky. But it also daringly restores the incendiary lynching scene that censors ordered to be cut from the original, which was Ford’s acknowledged reason for revisiting the material to begin with. While the film may have looked deliberately old-fashioned by the standards of the early Fifties, this beautiful slice of Americana, and its impassioned plea for tolerance, looks positively ahead of our time today — Stepin Fetchit and all. Again, this is a terrific transfer courtesy of Olive Films: the original black-and-white cinematography comes across as satisfyingly film-like, showing admirable depth and grain, and the DTS-HD rendering of the mono soundtrack is likewise subtly awesome. Both Victor Young’s score and the crisp sound design (notably the rhythmic sound of marching feet in the back-to-back processions that serve as the movie’s double-climax) make a big impression.

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1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was Ford’s last great western — and the first of many great movies belonging to a subgenre concerning “aging cowboys” (followed swiftly by Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country). As the West is on the brink of being “settled,” the way of the gun (John Wayne) must cede to the rule of the law (Jimmy Stewart). While Ford sees this progress as being both inevitable and right, it is obvious that his heart belongs more with Wayne’s rancher-character, Tom Doniphan, and that he mourns the passing of the era when men like Doniphan existed, which turns the whole thing into a complex and ironic tragedy. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is in many ways Ford’s magnum opus (with explicit nods to earlier classics like Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln) and Paramount UK’s hi-def transfer does this masterpiece proud. It bests Paramount’s very good previous DVD in terms of image and sound — boasting a robust new 5.1 mix in the latter area. One does wonder why Paramount U.S. hasn’t yet bothered to release the same title although given that the U.K. edition is region-free (and can thus be played on any Blu-ray player worldwide), the cost of international shipping isn’t too much of a price to pay for a release this essential.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance also, of course, contains some of the most important dialogue Ford ever directed: “This is the west, sir. When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.” These lines, delivered by a newspaper editor to Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard, have frequently been misunderstood — including by Steven Spielberg in the pages of Time magazine — as somehow being an argument in favor of the importance of inspirational “heroes and legends.” I would argue that they actually play out on screen as a sad reminder that official histories are often tragically incorrect. Fortunately, in 2013, John Ford’s own legend has been solidified more than ever due to the magnificent Blu-ray releases of four of his most timeless works. I am jealous of anyone who gets to see them in such pristine form for the first time.

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Top 25 Films of the 1960s

25. L’amour Fou (Rivette, France, 1969)

A highpoint of both the French New Wave and the history of improvisational filmmaking, Jacques Rivette’s four hour plus opus charts the construction of a play (Racine’s Andromaque) as well as the disintegration of a marriage (that of the play’s director), alternating between 35mm and 16mm film stocks. As the film progresses and the cross-cutting slowly, inexorably achieves a terrifying velocity, L’amour Fou fully justifies Pauline Kael’s description as an “intellectual horror film.” The climactic orgy of sex and destruction has to be seen to be believed.

24. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960)

23. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, France, 1966)

22. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968)

21. My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, France, 1968)

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20. The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, Germany, 1968)

19. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962)

18. Boy (Oshima, Japan, 1969)

17. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Rossellini, France/Italy, 1966)

16. Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, France/Italy, 1961)

Alain Resnais followed up Hiroshima, Mon Amour by expanding on its innovative formal structure to create this audacious, intellectual “puzzle film.” A man and a woman (again unnamed) meet at the title resort where he attempts to convince her, against her protests, they had met and had an affair the previous year. As Marienbad progresses, we can never be sure if we are watching flashbacks, false memories or fantasies – or even which character might own them. Don’t let its reputation as a “cold,” “impenetrable” film deter you; there are many points of entry into this masterpiece, including the extraordinarily beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the sly humor of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script and a great lead performance by the regal Delphine Seyrig.

15. A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, Japan, 1965)

14. Army of Shadows (Melville, France, 1969)

13. The Arch (Tang, Hong Kong, 1969)

Cecille Tang’s masterpiece is often cited as Hong Kong’s first “art film” and indeed in terms of style this ascetic Ming dynasty period piece often feels like the Chinese equivalent of Andrei Rublev. Madame Tung (Lisa Lu) is a schoolteacher and widow asked by the government to provide room and board to cavalry Captain Yang (Roy Chiao) who arrives in her small farming village to protect the harvest from bandits. Both Madame Tung and her adolescent daughter develop feelings for the Captain during his stay in a quietly devastating romantic tragedy marked by minimalistic dialogue and haunting, austere black and white cinematography courtesy of Satyajit Ray’s regular director of photography Subrata Mitra.

12. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, Italy, 1964)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s best-loved film is this unorthodox but reverential version of the Christ story in which the life of Jesus (hauntingly portrayed by non-actor Enrique Irazoqui) is told in straightforward, realistic fashion – from his birth in Bethlehem to his revolutionary political teachings to his crucifixion, death and resurrection at Golgotha. Some critics have detected a Marxist slant to Pasolini’s take yet this is a movie virtually anyone, even the Pope, could love. The impressively eclectic soundtrack features Bach, Mahalia Jackson and Blind Willie Johnson.

11. 8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963)

Life imitates art and art imitates life in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, a thinly-disguised autobiographical study of a movie director (Mastroianni again) fighting “director’s block.” Guido Anselmi struggles to complete his latest film, a science fiction epic, as fantasies, dreams and childhood memories collide (most of which pertain to Guido’s struggles with religion and/or women). Fellini never again recaptured the greatness on display here (even though he repeatedly mined similar subject matter) but as far as career peaks go, 8 1/2, quite simply one of the most influential movies ever, remains a dizzying high.

10. Charulata (Ray, India, 1964)

My favorite Satyajit Ray film is this 1964 masterpiece, the title of which is sometimes translated as The Lonely Wife. It tells the story of Charu, a housewife with an interest in literature, whose wealthy husband is preoccupied with his business of running an English language newspaper. The husband’s younger brother comes to visit and forms an instant intellectual bond with Charu that threatens to turn into something more serious. The psychology and emotions of the characters are vividly captured by both a flawless cast of performers as well as Ray’s atypically daring use of film form (i.e., camerawork, editing and even optical effects) that suggests the influence of the French New Wave; highlights include the impressionistic swing set scene and the unforgettable final freeze frame.

9. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the definitive “spaghetti western,” a popular subgenre of American-set westerns made in Europe, usually Spain, by a typically Italian cast and crew. This is the third installment of a trilogy (preceded by A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, both of which also starred Clint Eastwood) but this Hollywood co-production works perfectly as a stand-alone film. The plot concerns the misadventures of the title trio, all of whom are in search of $200,000 in buried gold, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Director Sergio Leone’s “operatic” visual style combines with Ennio Morricone’s legendarily innovative score to lend The Good, the Bad and the Ugly a singular tone that is at once comical, cartoonish and, in Dave Kehr’s astute phrase, “inexplicably moving.”

8. The Leopard (Visconti, Italy, 1963)

Few directors have been as adept at capturing physical beauty as Luchino Visconti and The Leopard is his most beautiful and perfectly realized film. Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s equally great novel, Visconti’s movie tells the story of Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (a fittingly regal and masculine Burt Lancaster) who maneuvers through the political tumult of 1860s Sicily, which includes marrying his revolutionary-minded nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) to the beautiful, newly upper-class Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). The Leopard‘s climactic ball scene, a virtually non-narrative 40 minute visual feast, is one of the glories of the film medium. The Criterion Collection’s blu-ray release of this title single-handedly justifies the purchase of a blu-ray player.

7. Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961)

6. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960)

A woman, Anna, mysteriously disappears while on a yachting trip with friends. The missing woman’s lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), spend the remainder of the movie looking for her but their search merely becomes the pretext for a love affair as they promptly proceed to forget about her. L’avventura‘s slow pace and lack of narrative resolution have driven many viewers up the wall (including me the first time I saw it) but Michelangelo Antonioni’s stately compositions and underlying philosophical themes have a power as awesome and mysterious as the ocean he so lovingly photographs in the film’s majestic first third. L’avventura‘s 1960 Cannes premiere was one of cinema’s game-changing moments.

5. Le Mepris (Godard, France/Italy, 1963)

The best movie ever made about making a movie (and no, I’m not forgetting 8 1/2), Jean-Luc Godard’s colorful, Italian-shot fantasia stars Michel Piccoli as a beleaguered screenwriter, Brigitte Bardot as his trophy wife, Jack Palance as a blowhard American producer and the great director Fritz Lang as himself, all of whom collide on an unlikely film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Add in a magisterial score by George Delerue, one of the greatest ever written, and the end result is Godard’s finest early work.

4. Chimes at Midnight (Welles, Spain/Italy, 1965)

3. Playtime (Tati, France, 1967)

Jacques Tati achieved perfection with this 1967 masterpiece, the pinnacle of his career. The great director put the largest budget he ever had to work with to good use, constructing enormous steel-and-glass skyscraper sets in order to suggest a futuristic Paris. Inside of this city of encroaching globalization (before the term “globalization” even existed), Tati’s characters — including Monsieur Hulot in a diminished role — bounce around like human pinballs. Shot in deep focus 70mm, the intricate jokes on display take place in the foreground, middleground and background of the frame, and often occur simultaneously, resulting in a film that demands to be seen many times in order to be fully appreciated — even though watching it for the first time is as easy as breathing. To see Playtime projected in 70mm is one of the glories of moviegoing. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film’s most eloquent defender has perceptively asked, “What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?”

2. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s austere, epic biopic of the famed 15th century icon painter is for my money the greatest movie ever made about the life of an artist. Told in vignette fashion, Tarkovsky depicts Rublev’s story against the turbulent backdrop of medieval Russia during the Tatar invasions. The highlight is the climactic sequence where Rublev, who has sworn a vow of silence in protest of the horrors he has seen, witnesses a boy oversee the arduous process of casting a giant bell. The boy saves himself from execution by successfully casting the bell in spite of the fact that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. At the conclusion of this awe-inspiring 30 minute scene, the depiction of a miracle that comes off as a miracle of filmmaking, Rublev is inspired not only to speak again but to continue painting and to go on and create his greatest works.

1. Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)

Carl Dreyer’s final film is an adaptation of Hjalmar Soderberg’s 1906 play of the same title and its deceptively theatrical character is also reminiscent of Ibsen (a protoypical feminist heroine) and Strindberg (the eternal conflict between men and women). But there are few films as truly and wonderfully cinematic as Gertrud, whose unique qualities of stillness, slowness and whiteness are perfectly suited to capturing the title character’s near-religious view of romantic love as an uncompromising ideal. A lot of men seem to love Gertrud but none love her as much as she requires and so she chooses to live alone – without regrets. Unforgettable for its use of long takes (one of which clocks in at 10 minutes) and Nina Pens Rode’s luminous lead performance.


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