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Posts Tagged ‘Vera Miles’

There’s a school of thought which suggests that the western genre was essentially a wholesome, thoughtful and sincere vehicle for examining the nature of the American national psyche, until Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood came along and perverted it into something cynical, nihilistic and obsessed with hollow slaughter. I think this is overly simplistic: darkness crept into the West years before the spaghetti western came into vogue, allowed in by some of the genre’s most celebrated home-grown exponents.

John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) arriving by train in the town of Shinbone, presumably some time around the turn of the century (the film is deliberately coy about the times and places involved, for this is in a sense the story of the entirety of the American frontier). Stoddard is one of America’s leading politicians and a very significant figure; his unexpected arrival causes a stir. What has brought him back to the town where he first became famous?

Journalists gather, but Stoddard and Hallie are more interested in catching up with old acquaintances: retired marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) and lowly ranch-hand Pompey (Woody Strode) chief amongst them. There is an air of inescapable melancholy and regret in the air, of things long-buried being uncovered, all connected to the reason for the Stoddards’ visit: to attend the funeral of washed-up town drunk Tom Doniphon (who, when he eventually appears in the flashback which makes up the bulk of the film, is played by John Wayne). But why?

Stoddard, with the air of a man finally getting something off his chest, tells the tale. The scene changes to many years earlier: Stoddard is travelling to Shinbone by stagecoach, a freshly-qualified lawyer. However, the coach is ambushed by the notorious local bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his men, and Stoddard is badly beaten when he resists. What’s left of him is hauled into town by Doniphon and his servant Pompey, and he’s taken in by the family running the local saloon. He’s nursed back to health by their daughter, Hallie, which Doniphon is a bit disgruntled about (he has plans of the marryin’ kind which involve her).

Stoddard is determined to see Valance brought to justice, which Doniphon roundly ridicules him for: law books mean nothing here, compared to the authority of a gun barrel. If Stoddard wants to stop Valance, he’s going to have to kill him, law or no law. Stoddard is appalled by the prospect (to say nothing of the fact he’s useless with a gun). Meanwhile, tensions are growing between Doniphon and the lawyer, as Stoddard grows closer to Hallie, teaching her to read and write in his capacity as the town’s new schoolteacher.

The lack of law and order in Shinbone is partly due to the territory not having been given statehood yet, which Stoddard and the town dignitaries would like to see happen – but the powerful local cattle barons want to see things stay as they are, and retain Valance to ensure this happens. Stoddard finds himself inevitably heading for a confrontation with the gunman – but, even with Doniphon’s tuition, can he possibly have a chance?

There’s certainly more of a drama than a traditional western about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and perhaps a fair bit of a romance, too: a big portion of the plot revolves around the love triangle between Doniphon, Hallie and Stoddard. The fashion in which this resolves is one of the bittersweet elements which runs through the movie; there is something profoundly melancholy and wistful about the framing scenes that bookend it. The Stoddards reflect on the changes that the railroad and modern technology have brought to the town, rather ambivalently. ‘The desert’s still the same,’ offers Appleyard, rather dismally.

Perhaps, then, this is the story of how the west was lost – or, at least, tamed, if that isn’t the same thing. It’s about the creation of civilisation and society about of anarchy, on one level, a place where men like Stoddard can prosper, but not – it’s implied – ones like Tom Doniphon or Liberty Valance himself.  What’s telling is that it’s suggested that Doniphon has much more more in common with Valance than with Stoddard – neither man has much time for rules or finer points of behaviour, being ferocious individualists, and if Doniphon is a ‘better’ man than Valance, that’s simply due to his essential character rather than any kind of sense of moral obligation.

That this is put across so effectively is mainly due to Ford’s casting, which is both brilliant and obvious: Wayne is playing his usual monolithic rugged individualist, verging on self-parody by this point: by his own admission, a very tough, unreconstructed alpha male. You can’t imagine him playing Stoddard any more than James Stewart playing Doniphon: like Hitchcock and many other directors, Ford recognised Stewart’s genius for playing flawed, human heroes, and that’s what he does here. (We should probably note the irony that in real life, Stewart was a decorated war veteran, while Wayne was acutely self-conscious about his own lack of military service.) In many ways the film is much more about the conflict between Doniphon and Stoddard than either man’s clash with Valance himself (and, as noted, Doniphon and Valance are in many respects mirrors of each other).

In the end, of course, Valance is shot and a bright future for the west is assured – but this, like most of the film, is couched in numerous levels of irony and ambiguity. The film does romanticise the old west, but not without qualification; it suggests that the old west, with its heroes in white hats and virtue always naturally triumphant, is a myth, with little grounding in truth – in this respect it to some extent anticipates Unforgiven, and many other revisionist westerns. But it also suggests the myth is a necessary one for America’s sense of itself to endure. In this respect The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a surprisingly dark and complex film – amongst other things, suggesting that dark and ruthless acts, carried out in secret, are necessary for civilisation to thrive – but it is also a touching and surprisingly moving portrait of the central characters and their relationship. A serious film about complicated ideas, and real emotions; one of the great American westerns, I think, and a harbinger of the genre’s future.

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A couple of years ago I signed up for an online course on narrative structure and plotting, with the idea of redrafting the results of my most recent dabbling with NaNoWriMo. Well, needless to say it was not a great success; the successful and published author running the thing tore it to pieces, thought all the things which I liked and made it distinctive were horribly ill-conceived, and basically assured me it was No Good. I haven’t written any substantial fiction since, to be honest, because what I came away with was a deep sense that I do not have any affinity for narrative structure.

We discussed this (narrative structure, not my own hopelessness) now-and-then on the course and one of the stories which came up fairly often was the movie version of Psycho, directed (but of course) by Alfred Hitchcock and released in 1960. One of the things this film is notorious for is the way in which it cheerfully takes a knife to many of the established tenets of narrative form – it’ll be quite hard to talk about this in detail without spoiling the plot, but surely everyone knows more-or-less what Psycho is about by now, don’t they?

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Janet Leigh (the only performer to appear in three films on the AFI’s Hundred Best Movies list, and also Night of the Lepus) plays Marion Crane, a Phoenix office worker who is unhappy with her lot in life. All her pleasure comes from her illicit liaison with a small-time businessman from California, and they can’t marry due to his sizeable debts. However, when unusual events at work leave her momentarily holding $40,000 of someone else’s money, she thinks she spies an opportunity to make a change in her life, and hits the road with her ill-gotten gains…

It is perhaps indicative of what makes Psycho so unusual that one can summarise the opening twenty or thirty minutes of plot in considerable detail without really giving away what the film is actually about. Certainly, this was one of the things that my structure tutor took grave exception to – a competently-shaped narrative indicates from the very beginning exactly what kind of story it is going to be, thus setting up audience expectations. (A good example of this would be the opening of Predator, which opens with a shot of a spacecraft approaching Earth before launching into what looks like a straightforward jungle action movie.) It occurs to me this is very similar to the concept of musical key – the first note played establishing the parameters of everything that is to follow.

If we’re going to stick with this musical metaphor, then Psycho is an unbalanced, atonal work, because what initially looks like it’s going to be some sort of torrid melodrama suddenly transforms into a vicious horror movie with virtually no warning being given (although the fact that Leigh, the apparent protagonist, has the ‘and’ slot in the credits  could be construed as giving the game away). The transition has the potential to be joltingly odd and alienating for the audience, especially as it accompanies a shift in the focus of the film from one character being central to another, and it’s a mark of Hitchcock’s skill that this is as deftly handled as it is.

And this is not a transition which is derived from Robert Bloch’s original novel, either, which is fascinatingly different from the film in many ways. Most notably, it adheres much more closely to the ‘establishing key’ theory that my tutor was so fond of – Norman Bates and his mother appear in the opening chapters of the book, much earlier than they do in the movie (although this is partly due to the nature of film as a medium: showing us a scene from Norman’s point of view gives Bloch many more options for misdirection than is the case in a more objective movie scene). The novel is also much more upfront about being a horror story, with the viewer being invited to assume at one point that Mother is actually some sort of undead creature conjured up by Norman (more misdirection by the author, though I suppose on some level it’s symbolically true).

Psycho‘s weirdness goes beyond this, of course, partly tying into the darker aspects of the storyline – the two most fully-developed, arguably most sympathetic characters are both morally highly suspect, while the putative ‘good guys’, Sam and Lila, are almost minor characters, scarcely more than two-dimensional figures. The degree to which the film invites you to identify with the dark side is significant: Norman is a voyeur, and so implicitly is Hitchcock’s camera, from the opening where it lazily swoops over downtown Phoenix until finally selecting a window through which to peer.

Hitchcock’s skill is, of course, consummate, but also essential to the success of the undertaking is Bernard Herrmann’s score – not just the manic strings underscoring the title sequence and recurring throughout the early section of the film, but the slower, more ominous cues later on. Is it perfect? Well, certainly not to a modern audience – at the screening I recently attended there was some sniggering at a key revelation during the climax, and a lot of amusement at the rather talky closing scene where Simon Oakland comes on and theatrically explains to the audience just what’s been happening.

However, the success of this film is, of course, considerable – both financially and in terms of its influence. None of the various sequels and remakes are particularly distinguished, to be true, but the film itself is genuinely iconic in terms of both its visuals – the brooding Bates house, for example – and specific sequences – most obviously the plumbing-based interlude. It’s possible that its artistic success may in fact be due to the fact it plays fast and loose with traditional structure, thus alienating and unsettling the audience, and if so then this can only work because Psycho is, at heart, essentially a horror movie, where this is the intended effect. The fact that it’s the great horror movie that no-one really thinks of as a horror movie says more about sniffy attitudes to the genre than Psycho itself.

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