Thursday, March 11, 2010

1962: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford)

1962: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford)
I have a thing for great directors' later works.  I love Dreyer's Gertrud, Bresson's L'argent, even John Huston's The Dead (and the list could go on).  There's an element of spring cleaning that occurs in these later works.  A director looks at their tools and gets rid of all but the most essential.  

I still have a good many Ford films to see, but I've always felt that Ford could take an unusually "spare" eye to landscape.  Meanwhile, to avoid being too minimal, too abstract, Ford would often counter with frames of hundreds of people conversing, battling, or whatever the film might demand.  Valance is the first of Ford films I have seen that keeps everything from the landscapes to the interiors a little more stripped down.  I like the austerity of it and the uncluttered nature of it all.  

I guess I'm also a formalist since certain stylistic elements of filmmaking can singlehandedly determine whether I care for a film. The way that Ford shoots the titular scene is among the most formally solid and brilliantly executed moments I have ever seen.

I love Ford's humanity in the film, but that's not what I love about Valance the most.  What I truly love here is kicking back with a master director as they share a little of the distilled stuff.  

Other contenders for 1962: I still have a number of things to see from this year.  These include:  Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker, Blake Edwards' Days of Wine and Roses, Tony Richardson's Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Forough Farrokhzad's The House Is Black, Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, Yasujiro Ozu's An Autumn Afternoon, Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light, Alberto Lattuada's Mafioso, Robert Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc, J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear, and Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird.  At some point, I need to revisit Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country, Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water, and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos as none of them impacted me on first viewing like I would have expected.  I also need to re-watch Jean Renoir's The Elusive Corporal and John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate as it's been too long since I saw either to know where they'd place on this list.  But I really like Stanley Kubrick's Lolita.  I love David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, Howard Hawks' Hatari!, and Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood. Meanwhile, my closest runner-up is Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre Sa Vie.

4/26/11 I watched Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light.  Although Bergman's religious obsessions are far from my own chief concerns, I did really connect to the previous film in his trilogy, Through a Glass Darkly.  This one though moved me far less.  It felt heavily talky, visually claustrophobic, and even a bit forced narratively.  Its major reputation was a bit lost on me.  

4/30/11 I watched Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker.  Heavy and unsettling as it is moving and real.  Patty Duke's performance surely must go down as one of the greatest child performances in the history of the medium.  Penn demonstrates a willingness to take on an extremely difficult subject head-on and to go all the way with it.  Even though cinematically I might have wanted some things done differently, Penn really delivers with the emotional elements.  

5/2/11 I watched Alberto Lattuada's Mafioso.  I've long known this as one of Scorsese's favorites, and it certainly doesn't disappoint.  But it doesn't meet expectations either.  There's far less violence than one would imagine.  The tone more often resembles a vivacious and sunny foreign film than a somber and serious-minded noir.  And Lattuada shows an unexpected assertiveness with his editing, movement of the camera, and ability to juggle different genres.  Lattuada also knows how to make great use of music to heighten the action (the jazz leading up to the barbershop sequence) and has no problem leaving the viewer with a great, big lump in his throat.  

5/3/11 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's An Autumn Afternoon.  Another strong film from Ozu.  Ozu seems like he was such a peaceful person, and his films move in a way that's as soft and gentle as anything I've ever seen in the medium.  This one is not as quite as perfect to me.  A couple of the acting and music cues seem slightly unsubtle.  But it's still a deep, engaged work, this time dealing with the emptiness that follows the marriage of one's children.  

5/9/11 I watched Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.  Dated now and feeling badly disjointed, in the Richard Lester style.  It still holds some power in its Tom Courtenay performance and unexpected ending. 

5/10/11 I watched Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird.  There is much to recommend here.  The movie captures the phobias and rather unjustified fears that come with childhood.  It also has a nice, surprising warmth and humanity that explains much of its lasting reputation.  The filmmaking is a bit uninspired, for the most part.  But Bernstein delivers musically a score of real strength and atmosphere.  

5/11/11 I watched Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  Aldrich keeps the drama and intensity wound incredibly tight. And the result is disturbing, but I liked it more than I expected.  There are moments that remind one of Aldrich's ability and that he was able to deliver one of the great noirs, Kiss Me Deadly.

5/24/11 I watched Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel.  I can't say that I necessarily understand all that Bunuel is saying with this one. But nonetheless, I feel comfortable saying it's too claustrophobic, morbid, and lifeless to grab me fully.  

9/21/13 I watched Vincente Minnelli's Two Weeks in Another Town.  So much of the film is mature, daringly dark, modern, and full of interesting feelings about Hollywood.  And maybe the tacked-on happy ending is part of that commentary, but it feels unsatisfying when compared to the rest of work.  Highlights include the incredible elevator shot and what feels like a very subtle use of slo-mo as Douglas, his ex, and her new man ride up together.  

11/10/13 I watched Agnes Varda's Cleo de 5 a 7.  More masterful than I remember from my first viewing more than twenty years ago, Varda's work separates itself from many of the early New Wave films by eschewing genre and delivering a film with a focus entirely on character.  Varda's camera glides and records capturing a realness of faces and of Paris.  And what we are left with is, as a capsule of its time, a film as valuable as Breathless, 400 Blows, and any of the other key Vague work from the early sixties.  

8/2/14 I watched Robert Bresson's Proces de Jeanne d'Arc.  One of the few films by the director that I had never seen and yet another reminder of his brilliance, uniqueness and above all clarity of approach.  Bresson is a master of restraint and finding small stylistic touches that add such interesting rhythm to his work, like the repetition of an eyehole and visitors peering through it to comment on  Joan.  Bresson is the Thelonious Monk of cinema or Monk the Bresson of music.  This work may lack some of the transcendence or full blown poetry of some of Bresson's other films - its subject matter and approach almost prevent it from the latter - but it is still a great film by one of the medium's five or ten greatest practitioners.  

9/21/14 I watched Dino Risi's Il Sorpasso.  It is amazing to step back and see the New Wave for what it was not only in France but as it touched Italy, England, Czech Republic and across the world.  What was it?  It was about championing the young over the old, the free over the responsible, the city over the country and beauty over decay.  This film is a great example of what it looked like in Italy in 1962 even if I still prefer how the French did it and particularly Godard, Truffaut, Demy, Rohmer, Rivette and Chabrol.  

2/9/17 I watched Terrence Young's Dr. No.  Connery looks great and immediately announces himself as one of cinema's most entertaining icons.  But the plot of this one is a little weak and very little of it rises to the level of the very best Bond.  

10/29/17 I watched Jacques Rozier's Adieu Philippine.  I watched a version on YouTube without subtitles so was unable to catch every word.  But, the film feels like the male version of Jules et Jim, or in other words, one male and two females.  I don't know Rozier's cinema yet but if this film is any indication he has the New Wave's keen interest and eye in youth, female beauty and the sea.  

10/27/18 I watched Jean Rouch's La punition.  Rouch stays in the streets of Paris and poetically captures a day in the life of a young Parisian girl during her formative years.  Most interesting are the last five minutes as the film shifts tone and becomes an expressionistic rumination. 

9/7/19 I watched J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear.  The first half was pretty unaffecting but Thompson shows some talent as he builds to the drama of the last thirty or so minutes.  Not top shelf noir in my book but still several great passages that are worth a watch.

3/27/20 I watched Blake Edwards' Experiment in Terror.  Until now, I thought Edwards was a filmmaker who was pretty adept at making light, entertaining trifles.  But this film proves he could also do dark and moody when he set out to.  I could feel the New Wave's influence as Edwards does an extraordinary job capturing authentic San Francisco streets and homes and venues.  An ignored film from this period that deserves a much larger reputation. 

10/24/21 I watched Jean Renoir's Le caporal epingle.  Renoir's second to last feature revisits some of the same subject matter as La Grande Illusion but perhaps due to the Nouvelle Vague's influence takes on a more playful tone.  There are several wonderful scenes and Renoir's ability with actors is very evident but it never comes together fully like some of my favorite work by the French master.  

8/8/22 I watched Eric Rohmer's The Sign of Leo.  What is most striking is how different it feels from most of the rest of his work.  Whereas most of his movies focus on intereaction and long conversations between characters, this film mostly follows one character's greater and greater descent into isolation and despair.  In this way, it feels the most like Italian Neorealism.  I would argue that it's a director still in search of his strengths and his style while others praise it as one of the director's great works.

1/18/23 I rewatched Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country.  Timing is a critical part of appreciating certain works of art.  Sometimes you discover them when you're too young, sometimes when you're too old, and sometimes the timing is just right.  I have probably watched this early Peckinpah western 2 or 3 other times, never quite clicking it with like some of my peers.  But this time it was different.  As can be expected with Peckinpah, it takes you into some dark, uncomfortable places (Elsa's wedding night!)  What's less expected are the final minutes, the depth of humanity of Peckinpah's characters and the weight Peckinpah is finally able to leave you with as he pays tribute to the slow disappearance of a certain kind of man in a certain kind of world.  


  1. My Own #1 Film of 1962:

    The Exterminating Angel (Bunuel; Spain)


    An Autumn Afternoon (Ozu; Japan)
    L'Eclisse (Antonioni; Italy)
    Lawrence of Arabia (Lean; UK)
    La Jetee (Marker; France)
    Lolita (Kubrick)
    Winter Light (Bergman; Sweden)
    Vivre sa Vie (Godard; France)
    The Wanderer's Notebook (Naruse; Japan)
    Carnival of Souls (Harvey)
    To Kill A Mockingbird (Mulligan)
    Ivan's Childhood (Tarkovsky; Russia)
    The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (Richardson; UK)
    The Music Man (da Costa)
    The Miracle Worker (Penn)
    Knife in the Water (Polanski; Poland)
    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford)
    Le Doulos (Melville; France)
    Harakiri (Kobayashi; Japan)
    Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Aldrich)
    Ride the High Country (Peckinpah)

    Bunuel's existential, satiric masterpiece stands as one of his greatest works, and it's justly one of his most discussed as well. It deserves mention among the masterworks of world cinema, and in a crowded field it edges out some other magisterial titles, like those by Ozu, Lean,Bergman, Naruse, Mellville et al. Who could argue with that Ford title you adore, as it's one of the genre's most entertaining offerings, and one of the master's last truly great films.

  2. Sam, I really want to see this Bunuel and plan to do so pretty soon. I know it's got a huge reputation!

    Thanks for the words on VALANCE. I completely agree.

    I have LA JETEE on 1964 so will revisit that. And I like L'ECLISSE although a little less the other films I mentioned.

    Thanks, Sam. Always instructive and awesome to hear from you!

  3. Nice write up Jeffrey. Arguably Ford’s last great masterpiece! 1962 was a great year (By the way, R.D. Finch over at The Movie Projector, recently did a series of articles making claim for the greatness of this year. For me I am going with “The Manchurian Candidate”, arguably John Frankenheimer best film and one of Frank Sinatra’s best performances with a great script by George Axelrod. I am also very fond of Ford’s film, Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, a great film by one of my favorite directors, Cape Fear, Jules and Jim, well the list just goes on. Still need to catch Mafioso, The Exterminating Angel and a few others.

    #1 The Manchurian Candidate

    Cape Fear
    Days of Wine and Roses
    Lawrence of Arabia
    Jules and Jim
    The Miracle Worker
    Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
    Knife in the Water
    Ride the High Country

  4. John, thanks so much for the words! I completely agree that this was yet another stellar year. And I still have much to see.

    I had JULES ET JIM on my 1961 post, just so you know. And I look forward to re-watching THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, as well as seeing for the first time some of the others on your list.

    Thanks, John. Always great to hear from you!

  5. Well, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of my favorite films (and my namesake), but I'd probably take Ride The High Country over it, which is, after Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, probably my favorite Peckinpah film. All due respect to Melville, Lean, Bunuel, etc though. In some circles '62 is called the new '39, and it's not hard to see why.

  6. Thanks, Doniphon! Always great to hear from you. I definitely owe RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY a revisit at some point. It's always been one that has missed me a little for some reason.

    Thanks again!

  7. I LOVE The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance but I can't quite pick it because I have to go with a personal favorite... the little-seen (although thanks to Criterion, readily available) MAFIOSO. It's the only movie I've ever seen from Alberto Lattuada and I think it's a masterpiece. It's part dark comedy, part deadly serious gangster film, and it is photographed beautifully in Sicily. I can't speak highly enough of it. I don't know many people that responded to it as strongly as I have, but it's one of the best "blind buys" that I've ever made.

  8. Jeffrey, I'd definitely rank Liberty Valance among my favorites of this great year. After Dave's post on Le Doulos I don't really need to add my own recommendation that you check it out again. For a long time I've stuck with Lawrence as my favorite of 1962 but lately I feel quite strongly about Kobayashi's Harakiri, which became one of my favorite samurai films in one viewing, as well as the Italian four-parter (Monicelli, Fellini, Visconti, De Sica) Boccacio 70 and Jacopetti & Prosperi's landmark Mondo Cane. But every film mentioned so far here can have a case made for it; the year is that good.

  9. Dave, in 2007, the Centre Pompidou in Paris did this massive Scorsese retrospective. They showed all of his films plus asked him to choose about fifteen of his favorite films. MAFIOSO was one of the fifteen. I haven't seen it yet, but it's been on my radar ever since. I will rectify this soon.

    Always great to hear from you. Thanks, Dave!

  10. Samuel, you're totally right, I need to revisit LE DOULOS. I definitely will.

    You mention another three films I still need to see: HARAKIRI, BOCCACIO 70, and MONDO CANE.

    You're absolutely right, this is a very strong year. Thanks, Samuel. Always great to have your perspective!

  11. I unfortunately haven't seen this Ford yet, so I can't comment on that, but I'll talk about some of my own favorites from this year.

    Hatari! (so glad to see you mention this oft-overlooked but wonderfully fun Hawks/Wayne flick)
    Lolita (one of my fave Kubricks, actually, so funny)
    Vivre sa vie (a classic)
    Advise & Consent (part of Preminger's great run of masterful epics)
    La jetée (poetic, haunting, utterly original)
    The Exterminating Angel (one of Bunuel's best)
    Winter Light (stark, philosophical Bergman)
    Ride the High Country (brilliant self-aware Western)
    L'eclisse (a classic of course)

    Damn, that's a strong year. What a lineup of masterpieces. I should admit, also, that I've never really warmed up to Jules and Jim, and Truffaut remains the sole New Wave director who doesn't really do much for me.

    But my absolute favorite from this year: Ermanno Olmi's stunning, beautifully photographed, quietly moving I Fidanzati, which I'm really sad to see omitted from a discussion of this year. It's a gorgeous film.

  12. Ed, great to hear from you! I haven't seen the Preminger you mention. And I unfortunately have never seen the Olmi film that you highlight. I definitely want to do something about that. It sounds fantastic.

    Thanks, Ed. Always a treat to have you here!