Wednesday, December 10, 2008

John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962)


Fred Camper cites it frequently among the great masterpieces of Hollywood. Tag Gallagher says it is "John Ford at its apex" and cites it among the important works in Ford's "Transcendence" period. I can't imagine a better publicity for a movie.

Many things have been said about it so I'll just note a few things I found interesting.


1. Dutton Peabody reciting Henry V

When he notices he hasn't any alcohol left, Dutton Peabody looks at his empty bottle and says "No courage left?". Then he adds, "Have we credit? That is the question, have we credit?" obviously referring to Hamlet. A few moments later, he recites, incorrectly, the last four lines of the following from Shakespeare's Henry V (Act 4, Scene 3).

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

In his book
, Tag Gallagher writes that if Rossellini made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance he would have titled it America Year Zero. There is truly the feeling of momenteous historical change happening right in front of our eyes.


2. Two non-invisible cuts

Nothing seems invisible at Ford anymore but there are two cuts that stand out because they clearly break the known rules of Hollywood editing. And it is interesting that these happen in very similar circumstances in the film and within a few minutes of each other.

In both cases, Ranse leaves Hallie and Link alone. Just at the moment Ranse is leaving the frame, Ford cuts to a shot just a little closer. It expresses a strong connection between Link and Hallie (and Pompey, in the second one), a silent communication which doesn't happen when Ranse is around. We have not seen Tom Doniphon yet but all the arrows already point to him, and to his tragic life.






3. About lighting

An example of non-realistic, expressive lighting. When Hallie looks back in anger, her face is lit in darker tones. Tom tells her "you look mighty pretty when she you get mad", we cut back to Hallie again, her face brighter.



4. Words

In his book, Tag Gallagher expresses really well the dichotomy between word & liberty in the film.

The following is an important point because here Ton Doniphon makes his most pompous statement in the film where his shattered ego will become the main drama. Which is partly why Ford needs to reframe the action: Notice the silence that comes after such a statement, it's as if a God has spoken and there is nothing to add to it. I love the little "silent-film" that follows, a great play on depth-of-field.



5. A sense of intuition

Ranse wakes up ans says, "I've got something to do!", before he knows what it is...



6. Fire-light

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” has beautiful lighting, especially in the alternately mournful, ceremonial, and nightmarish night-time sequences. On the other hand, the lighting during the day is fairly even, but there are many moments when this isn’t so: the passage of the train over a hill with long, monolithic shadows cast across its slope; Hally sadly walking around Stoddard’s empty classroom as particles of light sift in from the windows off-screen right; Doniphon setting afire his cabin in a horrifically immediate sequence where Ford’s camera dissolves the proscenium he’s set up throughout the rest of the film by bringing us into this enclosed, three-dimensional space, a perspectival transition accentuated by Doniphon almost assailing the camera, if I remember correctly.
- Edo Choi on Dave Kehr's blog. (Click here for the specific comment.)


5. The last shot


The last shot: the black "THE END" appears, over the image, slowly. The camera is shaking while the train is moving right and left. This shaky camera goes against the whole style of the film, which is why it works, the feeling it leaves is one of a fragile universe... Very similar to what Ford achieved throughout the whole film by his editing.

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