Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Happy Fourth of July. Let's take a moment to think about John Ford.

These two scenes from 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' (1962, supreme masterpiece) impress me as among the greatest moments in all Ford's work. (I'd like to write more some time soon about the character of Peabody, expertly played by Edmond O'Brien.) —


After Doniphon (John Wayne) tells Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) that a man shouldn't drink alone, and proceeds to swig from the brandy, Hallie (Vera Miles) takes it away from him, puts it down. He asks her if it's all right if a man smokes here. She says it's fine. He lifts the oil lamp and lights the cigarette. Still holds it. She stands in the background, right-frame, involved with the cooking, stirring. — In this one shot like a vision, Ford creates an image of opposites in full resonance (thus art exists): the shot contains the promise and the dream of Doniphon's and Hallie's future domestic life together, and foretells that future's impossibility by foreshadowing Doniphon's enraged and drunken destruction of the room he's been building for Hallie, when he hurls an oil lamp (after lighting a smoke) later on in the film. Yes, future joins past and present in constant interplay, tension, exchange in 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' — a "time" emphasized by the many many visual and subtextual comments one can find throughout the film regarding the state of 1962 America.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford, 1962:

But back to the past: At the end of this scene (and following the section I write about below), at the moment Doniphon walks outside, we see an inverse of a "portal shot" from Ford's 'The Searchers' (1956), as Hallie stands framed by the doorway in the (deep-focus) background. From this moment, we know that Wayne's/Doniphon's sought-after future — the womb of "home" — will never reach fruition.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford, 1962:


Before it becomes clear that Hallie is illiterate, and Stoddard promises to teach her to read and write, — she reaches for the book and "bears" it, this full thing that makes her beam. (Shot is Stoddard's p.o.v., although full-on medium-shot.) The composition: Hallie holds the book open, covers facing camera. They are battered (from the earlier assault on Stoddard by Liberty Valance [Lee Marvin] and crew), and sport horizontal bandages that span the covers' surface: the visual effect is of bands of white and dark, alternating. To the upper-left of the book, within the film-frame (left of Hallie's head), in the background, a chalkboard hangs upon which has been marked the "Marshel's" credit — rows of Xs. The number of Xs on the board totals 48.

The unison (I guess I should say "harmony") of the composition figures the American flag in its eventual form that signifies total continental statehood.

(That the Xs/stars-of-the-flag chalked on the board signify "credit" is of no small significance to Ford's contemplation of America — they suggest promise-due, eventual-return... and a tinge of the mercenary, of exploitation...)

Later in the film, we'll read on the blackboard positioned behind Stoddard in the makeshift classroom that "Education is the basis of law and order." — thus the vision of statehood, and the American utopia: liberty true, unperverted and contrary to the name of the film's archvillain — the sham-dream of no-law, "Wild West," inverted myth. (Likewise cf. the image of Lincoln — more harmony now — positioned in the background while Stoddard assists Woody Strode in pronouncing the words: "...all men are created equal." — In some ways, 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' is the sister-film of 'Young Mr. Lincoln' [1939].)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford, 1962:

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford, 1962:

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford, 1962:

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