Tuesday, 9 March 2010

My 10 Favourite Films – Part 2: Hollywood's West, Wild and Wilder

It was a tough choice between ‘new wave’ Westerns such as a Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (if this was a list of Favourite First 20mins of a Film, that would win) or The Missouri Breaks, but I opted for a late classic-era treasure, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The other big contender was The Searchers, of course.
   There are three main duels going on in here...between who is the lead (James Stewart or John Wayne?), the gunman and the attorney to see who wins the woman’s heart, and the Old West survival-of-the-quickest scenario and the new, civilised, democratic world. To this day, it’s hard to tell which triumphed. Some would say America still lives by the gun, and every soldier abroad is somehow John Wayne, reinforcing law by violence. There is no law in Shinbone. Does that make Liberty Valance a tyrant with a weapon of destruction slung around his waist...?
   Stewart as ransom Stoddard finally gets a ticket to Washington, partly on the back of his supposed bravery in the face of evil. As with Hollywood, the legend, not the fact, gets promoted.
   Wayne as Tom Doniphon is at his best, berating the ‘Pilgrim’ for his naive idealism and ultimately applying the only law he knows to save him. In Shinbone (the world?) there’s still a place for law reinforced by the bullet as opposed to the book. But for Doniphon, there is no glory and there is no domestic bliss at the end of the dusty, blood-soaked trail, only loneliness until death.

Another vision of the American West comes in the form of No Country For Old Men, New Mexico rendered majestic and menacing by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Here a wounded dog trailing blood leads Llewelyn Moss into a shortened life of violence, all for money, that old lure. It leads him into the path of Anton Shigurh, the psycho who allows people to live or die by the spin of a coin, as demonstrated in the gas station scene, just one of the brilliant episodes in what must surely be the bleakest of Oscar-winners.
   Tommy Lee Jones was born to play the world-weary sheriff for whom the seemingly random, modern way of death is beyond his comprehension. Other Coen Brothers vied for inclusion in my list of favourites but I’m compelled to keep on returning to this, just as Moss had to go back to the scene of the shoot-out.
Elements of Film Noir creep into a lot of the Coen Brothers’ work (especially The Man Who Wasn’t There, their ultimate homage) but amongst all the examples of the real thing I’ve chosen Double Indemnity. It’s from James M. Cain’s novel, adapted by Raymond Chandler, directed by Billy Wilder and acted to perfection by Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. When such elements are fused, the result is unbeatable. Stanwyck may not have been the most beautiful female lead, but here she plays the sexual predator in magnificent defiance of the Hays Code that wished to neuter Hollywood at the time.
   Chandler naturally soaks the script with his special brand of intoxicating wit, innuendo and cynicism. It was nominated for several Oscars and received none, but time has revealed just what the judges couldn’t see; namely, that this is one of Hollywood’s greatest creations.

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