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When Legend Becomes Fact: John Ford’s Classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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Westerns are an “indigenous American art form,” romanticizing and nostalgically eulogizing the geographical territory west of the Mississippi before it was “tamed.” Set in eras when the West was wild, rough, and wooly, the major protagonists in Westerns are typically divided into easy-to-identify categories of Good Guy and Bad Guy, complete with white and black hats, respectively, and these protagonists often fall into the most dreadful stereotypes. Law and order, or the lack thereof, is a typical theme, and these films are often set at isolated forts or homesteads, or in small towns that are just beyond the reaches of Eastern “civilization,” towns that have not yet been dramatically changed by the arrival of the railroad. Most Westerns feature “romantic, sweeping frontier landscapes or rugged rural terrain,” all filmed in gorgeous technicolor.

When famed director John Ford decided to make The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a Western adapted from a short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson, and starring John Wayne and James Stewart, Ford chose to shoot the film in black-and-white, and he did so on a Paramount stage-set. Critic David Courson believes that these artistic decisions about location and film choice stemmed from Ford’s fundamentally “re-imagined” vision of the mythic West; a vision that was now “pensive and thoughtful,” according to film critic (Roger Ebert); a vision which, according to fellow Westerns director Sergio Leone, who was influenced by the film, revealed that Ford had “learned about something called pessimism.

James Stewart as Ranse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Whatever the reason for Ford’s newly imagined, more pessimistic vision of the West, his artistic changes were a critical and financial success. The film’s budget was $3.2M, and it earned $8M when it was released. Edith Head’s surprisingly understated costumes were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design (black-and-white), one of the few Westerns ever nominated for this category. With a cast of great stars and loads of marvelous character actors, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a one of the best classic Westerns. Despite its almost claustrophobic setting, the film examines the more expansive issues of frontier independence vs. civilization; social equality of men vs. that of women, children, and non-whites; and legal vs. moral justice vs. common sense, all while doggedly examining the role of myth in both culture and art.

James Stewart as Ranse, and Vera Miles as his wife, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

The film opens with a Senator Ransom (Ranse) Stoddard (James Stewart) returning, unannounced, to the frontier town of Shinbone for a funeral. While he’s there, the local reporters doggedly question the “famous man’s” return to the wilderness, which they believe must have some other purpose than his attending a mere funeral. Senator Stoddard agrees to tell them the story of his past, taking viewers into the flashback that will form the bulk of the film.

Lee Marvin (center) as Liberty Valance, with his gang members, played by Lee Van Cleef (L) and Strother Martin (R ), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Ranse, a young attorney who goes West as a young man, hopes to bring civilization as well as law and order to whatever town he settles in and sets up his legal practice. He’s a greenhorn and a dude with an education, and when the stagecoach is robbed by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, above center) and his gang (Lee Van Cleef (L) and Strother Martin(R), above), the idealistic and naïve Ransom Stoddard is beaten and whipped, almost to death.

John Wayne as Tom Doniphon (Donovan), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

A local rancher, Tom Doniphon (pronounced “Donovan”) (John Wayne) finds the badly injured Ranse and takes him to town for help.

Vera Miles as Hallie, and Woody Strode as Pompey (foreground), Jeanette Nolan as Nora and John Qualen as Peter (background), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

While his injuries are being tended by Hallie (Vera Miles) and her Swedish-immigrant employers Nora (Jeanette Nolan) and Peter (John Qualen), Ranse urges them to send for the local Marshal (Andy Devine, below L) so that Valance can be arrested.

Andy Devine as the Marshal, and Woody Strode as Pompey, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Everyone present, but most notably Tom, tells Ranse that Liberty Valance has no respect for the law, understanding only violence, brute force, and retaliation, but Ranse refuses to listen, insisting that he can get justice for his injuries and the stagecoach attack.

James Stewart as Ranse, and Vera Miles as Hallie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Without any money, Ranse is forced to accept the hospitality of the restauranterus Nora and Peter, so he does kitchen chores to repay them for lodging and meals. When Ranse learns that waitress Hallie can neither read nor write, he offers to teach her — and anyone else who wishes to learn.

Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, and Lee Marvin (L-R) as Liberty and his gang The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Then Liberty Valance and his gang come into the restaurant, mocking the apron-wearing “dude” Ranse, and setting up a violent confrontation among Ranse, Liberty, Tom, and the newspaper editor Peabody (Edmond O’Brien).

James Stewart as Ranse, Edmond O’Brien as Peabody, and John Wayne as Tom, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

As a sort of unofficial protector of the townspeople due to his own shooting skills, which are at least equal to those of Liberty Valance, Tom teaches Ranse to shoot, expecting that Ranse will be able to defend himself against the notorious Valance.

John Wayne as Tom, and James Stewart as Ranse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Meanwhile, Hallie, who is being courted by Tom, begins to have feelings for Ranse as well as for Tom, setting up yet another arena for disaster and tragedy in Shinbone. To make matters even worse, the Territory in which Shinbone is located wants to be granted Statehood, to help protect itself against the cattle barons, who have apparently hired the notorious Liberty Valance to sabotage the town’s efforts.

James Stewart as Ranse, Lee Marvin as Liberty, and John Wayne as Tom, (with Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin as Liberty’s gang, background), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

The initial conflict among Ranse, Liberty, and Tom intensifies and becomes political, endangering not only Ranse’s life but the physical safety and the lives of everyone who has befriended him in the town. Liberty Valance is not going to step aside without a gunfight, and Ranse, who’s not much of a shootist, is the man in Liberty’s sights.

Star-studded entertainment, with just enough humor to keep the film a drama without turning it into a tragedy, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) or purchase from Amazon (free with a 7-day Starz subscription), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu, and is always free for Starz subscribers.

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If You Dance with the Devil: 8MM (Eight Millimeter), the Film

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Crime films, frequently inspired by crime fiction, concentrates on criminals, their crimes, and (sometimes) on the detection of those crimes. The famed Noir films of the 1940s and 1950s, such as The Killers and Double Indemnity, feature psychologically complex, morally dubious, and world-weary male protagonists who are unable to escape their pasts, even if they did not actually commit any crimes. Contemporary crime films, whether drama like The Usual Suspects and The Godfather, or a dark comedy like In Bruges — all of which were Oscar-winners — often feature protagonists who are hardened criminals themselves. Viewers are sometimes outraged by such sympathetic portrayals of criminals, as some audience members were when they saw Abel Ferrara’s King of New York, in which the protagonist Frank White, played by Christopher Walken, insists to the detectives pursuing him that he is “just a businessman.”

The 1999 crime film 8MM (Eight Millimeter), directed by Joel Schumacher from a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven), doesn’t present viewers with an already world-weary protagonist who is unable to escape his morally dubious past, nor with morally ambiguous criminals. In 8MM, the protagonist is initially a nice guy just trying to make a good living for him and his family, and the bad guys are really terribly bad bad guys, although they have some great lines. This crime film concentrates instead on its male protagonist, a private investigator searching for a missing teenage girl, as he descends into the dark world of underground, illegal pornography, only to dissolve into violence and criminal acts himself.

Nicholas Cage as Tom Welles, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Tom Welles (Nicholas Cage, in his best dramatic role) lives with his wife Amy (Catherine Keener) and their baby daughter in a totally suburban, midwest neighborhood, from where he runs his home-based “surveillance” business, i.e., private investigations.

Catherine Keener, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

For some reason never clearly explained, the Welles family is having a difficult time financially, despite his steady employment taking photos of adulterous spouses and other misbehaving family members.

Enter wealthy, wheelchair-bound Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter), who has discovered something horrific in her late husband’s safe: an 8mm film that seems to portray a young girl being murdered. Though Welles reassures Widow Christian that “snuff films” — illegal pornographic films where someone is actually killed for the express purpose of the viewers’ sexual titillation — are more an “urban legend” and are usually faked, she offers unlimited funds to prove that the film is fake and the girl still alive. Welles explains that if he treats the girl as a “missing person,” he could gain more access to her identity, family, and whereabouts.

Though the family lawyer Longdale (Anthony Heald) is present at this initial meeting and has already seen the film in question, Welles tells Widow Christian that he will deal directly with her, and only with her. Welles believes that the money he earns proving this horrific “snuff film” is fake will enable him and his family to live comfortably and “happily ever after.”

Mother, Janet (Amy Morton) and Welles (Nicholas Cage) in runaway daughter’s room, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Unfortunately, this is not a fairy tale, and the illegal porn film leads Welles into the desolate and horrifying world of runaway and abducted children. Once he identifies the girl in the film as Mary Anne Mathews (Jenny Powell), who left home after a fight with her still-grieving mother Janet (Amy Morton), he is able to track Mary Anne’s movements. When he finds her abandoned suitcase in a shelter, Tom begins to suspect that Mary Anne, who wanted to be a film star, may have ended up a victim of the porn industry.

Not the legitimate porn industry, however: the illegal one, where people in the films are actually raped, severely assaulted against their will, and sometimes, apparently, killed.

Joaquin Phoenix as Max, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

In an adult film rental / bookstore, complete with “battery-operated vaginas,” Tom meets the wise-cracking cashier Max (Joaquin Phoenix), who once aspired to be a musician but lost his band, and who reads Capote’s In Cold Blood at work by disguising the book with the cover of another, sleazier work. Max is quick-witted and intelligent, and because Tom looks so much like a law enforcement officer, he quickly learns that it would be impossible for him to learn anything about the darker side of the porn industry without Max’s help.

Nicholas Cage as Welles, and Joaquin Phoenix as Max, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Even with Max at his side, however, Welles begins to learn just how dangerous the illegal porn industry is: the two are constantly assaulted and threatened with death themselves as they attempt to find “snuff films.”

James Gandolfini as Eddie, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

When Welles finds a sleazy talent scout, Eddie (James Gandolfini), who seems to recognize the missing Mary Anne from a photograph but who denies knowing her, Welles goes after Eddie by insinuating that he knows what Eddie and his pals did to the girl.

Peter Stormare as Dino Velvet, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Eddie leads Welles and Max, now going by the code-name “Max California,” to New York and to an infamous illegal pornographer Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare). Velvet makes unique films for private viewing for healthy commissions, and his films always include the hooded man known as “Machine” (Chris Bauer), who appears in the 8mm film found in Mr. Christian’s safe and who seems to have killed the missing girl.

Chris Bauer as Machine, and Peter Stormare as Dino Velvet, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

In increasingly dark, sordid, and haunting environs, Welles pursues the missing girl and the men who made the purported “snuff film.” Plunging ever deeper into the dark world of illegal pornography, drifting away from his wife, daughter, and the mundane security of his former life, Welles is changed in ways he could not have imagined. The closer he gets to discovering the truth about the missing girl and disturbing film, the more endangered he is himself, as is everyone connected with him, including his “partner” Max, as well as Welles’ wife and baby daughter.

Many critics felt Cage was “miscast” as Welles, and most professional reviewers disliked 8MM intensely, accusing it of being “nearly as creepy, sleazy, and manipulative as the pornographic films it… condemns” or of being “a relentlessly murky odyssey… [emerging] as a secondhand Seven” (the same screenwriter wrote both films). Janet Maslin of the New York Times found Cage’s character “unrelievedly drab,” but added that “[though the film] includes profanity, partial nudity and ugly violence, its depictions of pornography are “relatively discreet.

Roger Ebert was one of the few professional reviewers who actually admired 8MM, writing that it “raises moral questions that the audience has to deal with, one way or another,” making 8MM a “real film

that deals with the materials of violent exploitation films, but in a non-pornographic way; it would rather horrify than thrill… It is a real film. Not a slick exploitation exercise with all the trappings of depravity but none of the consequences. Not a film where moral issues are forgotten in the excitement of an action climax.

Intense and edgy, 8 MM, is not a film for the faint-hearted. Though the film never graphically portrays the pornographic aspects of its subject matter, the disintegration of its protagonist from quiet and respected family man into desperate and violent avenger is disturbing: it may be uncomfortable for some viewers. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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