High Noon Blu-ray Review

Small, compact, and brimming with suspense, High Noon feels nothing like the other A westerns of the post-war period–epic movies like Red River, My Darling Clementine, and The Searchers. With its 85-minute runtime and looks-like-every-other-western sets, it feels more like the forgettable B oaters Hollywood was cranking out weekly in those days.

But unlike those cheapies, it had an expensive cast (headed by Gary Cooper), a talented director in Fred Zinnemann, and a crackerjack screenplay by Carl Foreman. With all that talent, it stands out as one of the best westerns of the 1950s–and one of the most controversial.

The plot is simple enough. On his last day on the job, which is also his wedding day, Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) discovers that murderer Frank Miller will arrive on the noon train to murder Kane. Miller’s three buddies are waiting at the train station already.

Against the wishes of his new wife, a Quaker and pacifistic (a not-yet famous Grace Kelly), he sets out to line up a posse to take care of the bad guys. But one by one, his so-called friends turn away from him, leaving him to face four killers on his own.

Westerns always celebrate courage, but Cooper’s Kane feels more courageous than most. He’s facing almost certain death. Everyone tells him to run away. He’s terrified and comes close to crying (Cooper won an Oscar for the performance). But he still does what he has to do.

This is a very self-contained film in something very close to real time. The story appears to take place in something very close to the film’s 85-minute runtime.

At the time Foreman was writing High Noon, he knew it was only a matter of time before he would be blacklisted from Hollywood for his left-wing activities. He assumed, correctly it turned out, that High Noon would be the last film he’d be able to put his name on for some time. The story of a man insisting on doing the right thing, and having his friends turn on him for it, would have meant a lot to an ex-Communist working in Hollywood in the early 1950s.

Not everyone approved of High Noon, and many still object to it. Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo (an even better western, where the marshal refuses help from the citizens) as an answer to High Noon. And Samuel Fuller’s 40 Guns ends in a scene that is similar to–yet shockingly different from–High Noon’s climax.

How It Looks

Shot in 35mm black and white, High Noon recently received a 4K digital restoration. Olive Films presents this new restoration in a glorious 1080p Blu-ray, pillarboxed to the appropriate 1.37×1 aspect ratio.

I’ve never seen it look this good–and I’ve seen it in 35mm. The detail is absolutely amazing. You can see wood grain even in the long shots. And when you can’t see the wood grain, it’s because you can see the film grain.

The grayscale isn’t all that great. But High Noon never really had much of a grayscale, even on film. That was apparently intentional.

How It Sounds

Olive presents High Noon’s original mono soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio. The sound is as good as it should be for a low-budget film from 1952.

And the Extras

Olive Films built a reputation on licensing classic films and releasing them with good transfers but no extras. This release of High Noon marks the new Olive Signature series, with extras.

  • A Ticking Clock: 6 minutes; 1080p. Academy Award Nominee Mark Goldblatt (The Terminator) discusses the movie’s real-time structure and the use of clocks. Fascinating and too short.
  • A Stanley Kramer Production: 14 minutes; 1080p. Michael Schlesinger talks about High Noon’s producer, who would soon be a major director. It’s a quick overview of his career, from someone who loves It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World far more than I do.
  • Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon: 9 minutes; 1080p. Larry Ceplair, author of The Inquisition in Hollywood,
    talks about the blacklist and Foreman in particular. Blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein adds additional insight.
  • Oscars and Ulcers: The Production History of High Noon: 12 minutes; 1080p. This visual essay covers the making of the film, the blacklist issue, and Gary Cooper’s involvement. Until I saw this, I had no idea that Poland’s anti-Communist Solidarity movement used an image from High Noon in a poster.
  • Uncitizened Kane: Essay by Sight & Sound editor Nick James. You can read this article on your TV screen via the disc, or on the printed booklet that comes in the package. I read it from the booklet. It’s worth reading.
  • Theatrical trailer

This disc is available now.

Strauss, Powell, Leone, and Eastwood: Sunday evening at the Pacific Film Archive

I really wish the Pacific Film Archive allowed eating. When you go to two movies, the first starting at 5:00, hunger can become a problem.

And yet I managed it Sunday afternoon/evening. I saw two very different movies, both by filmmakers I respect. Both were in scope, and presented in 35mm prints.

Other than that, they were entirely different.


This is an Archer production, meaning it was written and directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell. Their work includes Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and one of my all-time favorites, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, you know what I’m talking about. [Note: I corrected this paragraph on November 20, 2016.]

But this is as far from Carol Reed’s location-shot, noir Vienna as Goodfellas is to Singin’ in the Rain. Oh…Rosalinda was shot entirely on London soundstages, and makes no attempt to look realistic. The sets often appear to be from a stage production.

And that’s absolutely appropriate for this light-as-a-feather musical comedy about adultery and mistaken identity. Yes, the movie entertains, but the absolute refusal to take anything seriously has an alienating effect. Sometimes doing something new and daring doesn’t work.

This was Pressburger and Powell’s first widescreen movie, shot in Cinemascope. They clearly had fun with the wide aspect ratio, but that’s pretty much all they do with it. They rarely use it to tell us something about the place or characters.

I give it a B.

The PFA screened a rare, imported 35mm print in very good condition. With the beautiful music, I often wished that they could have presented it with the original four-track stereo mix (a standard for Cinemescope in 1955). Alas, even if such a print survives, I doubt the PFA had the out-of-date equipment to play it.

Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby introduced the film. She told us that next Saturday, David Thomson (who curated the Vienna series) will give a 4:30 lecture before the 5:30 screening of Lola Montez, that the Stanford will soon have its own Thomson-involved Vienna series, and that the PFA has a Pressberger/Powell coming up later this year.

A Fistful of Dollars

I first saw Sergio Leone’s rip-off of Yojimbo on Laserdisc in the early 1990’s. I thought it was a weak Xerox copy of the original. Now that I have seen it again, this time in 35mm on the big screen, my opinion has changed. It’s a pretty good but inferior variation of the original.

This was Leone’s second film as a director, and his first western. More than any other individual movie, it created the so-called spaghetti western trend.

The story is almost identical to Kurosawa’s original. A lone man, incredibly talented at killing, wanders into a small down in the middle of nowhere. The town is torn apart between rival gangs, so the lone man offers his services to one gang and then the other, playing them against each other. Most of the characters and many of the scenes have exact analogs in the original.

But this time, it’s set in northern Mexico. No one has a sword, and everybody has a gun. Eastwood’s Man with No Name shoots and kills four men in what feels like a second.

A Fistful of Dollars provides reasonable entertainment, mixing action, suspense and comedy. Leone doesn’t sermonize like Kurosawa, which may be a good thing.

The 35mm print has some specks—especially at the beginning and end of reels. It was quite grainy, and always has been. You have to expect that from a 1960s film shot in the small-frame/widescreen Techniscope format. But otherwise, it looked fine.

Chronologically, A Fistful of Dollars sits between the Kurosawa masterpiece that inspired it, and Leone’s later masterpieces. In quality, it sits well below either of them, but offers a promise of better work to come. I give it a B.

Johnny Guitar Blu-ray review

This is my second Olive Films Women’s History Month Blu-ray review. The first was Baby It’s You.

Nicolas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, released in 1954,
has to be the weirdest western made before Blazing Saddles. Stagy and talkie, it’s filled with outrageous dialog and fanciful names (Johnny Guitar, the Dancin’ Kid). The women behave like men in a conventional western, and the men act kind of like traditional women.

Sterling Hayden plays the title character, but the real hero is Vienna (Joan Crawford), the owner of a saloon in the middle of nowhere. She knows that the train will go right through her property and eventually make her rich.

Make no mistake about it; Vienna is the boss. She expects total obedience from her employees (all male). She orders one to keep spinning the roulette wheel, even though there are no customers, “because I like it.”

But Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) hates Vienna and wants her out of town or, better yet, dead. They’re both businesswomen, and they both carry guns. The very wealthy Emma wants to own Vienna’s soon-to-be-valuable business, but their personal hate seems to go beyond that. The film never explains why.

Many people see a lesbian subtext here, based on the stereotype that a very strong woman must be gay. McCambridge plays Emma in a very butch style. Perhaps she hates Vienna because she can’t have her.

Vienna has clearly slept around. Johnny is a former lover of hers, returning after years, and he still pines for her. “How many men have you forgotten” he asks. She responds “As many women as you’ve remembered.” He begs her to lie: “Tell me you still love me like I love you.”

Not that Johnny Guitar is a nobody. Not only does he play a mean guitar, but he has all the western hero virtues. He’s good with his fists and, if need be, fast with a gun. But he also deflects a fight by waxing philosophically. “You know, some men got the craving for gold and silver. Others need lotsa’ land, with herds of cattle. And then there’s those that got the weakness for whiskey, and for women. When you boil it all down, what does a man really need? Just a smoke and a cup of coffee.”

For much of the movie, Emma leads a lynch party out to hang Vienna. They’re coming from a funeral–an excuse to have them all wearing black. She’s the only woman in the group, and the men in the mob slowly turn away for her thirst for violence–a reversal of the usual western rules, where the women try unsuccessfully to stop the killings.

The cheapskate Republic Pictures made Johnny Guitar. The company was willing to pay for a strong supporting cast, which includes Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine, and John Carradine. But the film is marred by cheap production methods. Exterior backgrounds are often obviously painted. Shots don’t always match. One scene cuts back and forth between location shots filmed in bright daylight and soundstage work with a studio-created sunset.

Johnny Guitar is about as realistic as an opera. But like an opera, the stylization is part of the art. Philip Yordan’s screenplay (based on Roy Chanslor’s novel) and Ray’s direction make it something strange, unusual, fun, and just possibly great.

How It Looks

The film’s credits tell us that Johnny Guitar is in “Trucolor by Consolidated.” According to Wikipedia, it was actually shot on Kodak’s then-new Eastman Color Negative stock.

Olive’s AVC 1080p transfer is pillar-boxed to the pre-widescreen 1.37 aspect ratio. Whether that’s the optimum ratio for Johnny Guitar is difficult to say. It’s certainly one of the right aspect ratios. Non-Cinemascope films from 1954 were shot with the knowledge that they’d be shown in all sorts of shapes. This video about On the Waterfront (also from 1954) explains the issues. Personally, I think the film would have looked better cropped to 1.66.

Aside from aspect ratio issues, I found the transfer disappointing. At times it looked soft. I saw digital artifacts at least once. Most of the time it was acceptable, and occasionally very good. Considering the cheap production values and the early use of color film (which was very unstable in those days), I suspect that Olive did not have great sources to work from.

That may change soon. Park Circus has a new 4K restoration.

How It Sounds

Olive replicates the original mono soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. No complaints.

And the Extras

Introduction by Martin Scorsese: 3 minutes. 480i. The great director clearly loves what he calls “one of cinema’s great operatic works.” Among other things, he talks about the film’s influence on the young, French film critics who would soon become filmmakers and create the New Wave.

A+ list: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (and Lawrence of Arabia)

I visited the Castro Sunday afternoon to see my all-time favorite Robert Altman film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller. (It was on a double bill with the Woody Guthrie biopic, Bound for Glory, which I saw long ago and didn’t care for. I skipped it this time.)

For its daring rethinking of the western genre, it’s atmospheric photography, and it’s sad tale, McCabe and Mrs. Miller earns an A+, a grade I give only to masterpieces, at least twenty years old, that I have loved for years if not decades. For other films that made the grade, see my A+ List Table of Contents.

But before we go on to McCabe and Mrs. Miller, I’d like to point out another film on my A+ list, Lawrence of Arabia. I won’t discuss it here, because you can read my thoughts on this classic elsewhere.

On to the main feature:

McCabe and Mrs. Miller‘s plot sounds like a western cliché: A lone rider with a rep as a gunfighter comes into town. He launches a peaceful business. But when a big, criminal-run organization wants to take over his now-successful company, he refuses. So the organization sends three hired guns to kill him.

But that’s a very poor description of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. And not only because the peaceful business he creates is a whorehouse.

Robert Altman’s best film is a beautiful, sad tone poem of a lost town growing up in the middle of nowhere. The town’s name, Presbyterian Church, suggests a reach for community and respectable civilization. But communities have outcasts, and respectable civilization is always questionable.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) doesn’t seem like a western hero. He wears a derby. Despite his rep, he seems fearful and inept around violence. Rather than being strong and silent, he talks to himself–all the time.

And he knows nothing about running a whorehouse. He’s a hopeless amateur who doesn’t understand how to keep his “chippies” safe from the customers and the customers safe from the chippies. And everyone safe from the clap.

And that’s where Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) comes in. She’s smart, she’s an experienced prostitute, and she knows the business. She turns his pathetic line of tents into “a proper sportin’ house,” as she says in her English accent.

They enjoy a successful partnership, but neither will acknowledge to the other that they’re also falling in love. And Miller is sadly aware of the fact that McCabe is an idiot. Don’t expect a happy ending.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller is one of the best photographed films ever. Altman may be the film’s director and auteur, but cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond made it a masterpiece. And not only for the golden and yet dirty glow that permeates all of the interiors. Zsigmond diffused much of the film, creating a world where people can’t always see clearly. His lenses (most of them long to isolate one person from everyone else) capture the weather so well you feel it. This is a western that starts in a rainstorm and ends in blizzard, with plenty of mud in between.

As with so much of Zsigmond’s work in the 1970s, McCabe and Mrs. Miller was shot in Panavision. He was a master of the format, and could do wonders with the anamorphic lenses that were the heart of the process.

But Zsigmond’s photography isn’t the only tool Altman used to make us not just know but feel the town. He shot the film in sequence, as the picture’s main set–the town of Presbyterian Church–was built. The builders, in period clothes and using period tools, became extras. As the town slowly fills itself in, unrest and full conflict erupts around what sort of town it will be. But that’s only background to the story of the title characters.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller uses music sparingly and beautifully. A handful of Leonard Cohen songs come up on the soundtrack–a cliché at the time,
but one that works well in this particular movie. They catch the inevitable sadness of the film. It helps that they’re all quiet, acoustic folk songs, and that none of them were hits. Most of the other music in the film comes from characters onscreen playing instruments.

The late 60s and early 70s saw several revisionist westerns, including Little Big Man and The Wild Bunch. But Robert Altman, Vilmos Zsigmond, Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and many others created the best of them all. This one haunts you.

The Revenant and Dolby Atmos

I attended a special screening at Dolby Labs Thursday night of The Revenant, where the movie’s Oscar-nominated audio mix could be played back in the full glory of Dolby Atmos. I’ll tell you about The Revenant, and also about Atmos.

In that difficult-to-find point where cinema technology merges into cinema art, The Revenant feels like a masterpiece. Emmanuel Lubezki’s outdoor cinematography, augmented by a team of CGI specialists, goes beyond spectacular. The natural landscapes inspire not only with their beauty, but with their cruel indifference to the tiny humans trying to survive them. The many action sequences are staged are executed to horrific and suspenseful perfection. The film is gruesome, but appropriately so.

By the way, The Revenant was shot digitally. Considering how good it looks, the arguments for shooting on film are getting weaker and weaker.

But the screenplay by Mark L. Smith and director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, Babel) has serious problems. It emphasizes revenge too much. Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist experiences so many unpleasant and potentially lethal disasters that I found myself thinking “Not again” at least twice (which wouldn’t be so bad if the film wasn’t so serious). And the final fight with the main bad guy (Tom Hardy) goes on too long.

DiCaprio plays early 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass (a real person; the screenplay is loosely based on a Michael Punke novel which was based on actual events). A bear attack leaves him all but dead. His companions figure that they can’t take him with them or safely wait for him to die, so they desert him. Glass crawls, limps, walks, rides, and fights his way back to the fort that’s as close as they get to civilization.

Of course there has to be a villain. Hardy’s John Fitzgerald is mean, cruel, greedy, cowardly, and racist. He murders Glass’ half-breed son while a helpless Glass watches. Fitzgerald lies to others so that they leave Glass unattended. Now our hero doesn’t just want to survive; he wants revenge. (None of this is in the historical record.)

The scene with the bear, which is done with long takes rather than the usual quick cutting, works about as well as it possibly could without letting a real bear maul a real Leonardo DiCaprio. The bear is CGI, of course, but the result is far more believable and effective than the traditional method of quick cutting between a real bear and an actor fighting a puppet.

Scene by scene, with few exceptions, The Revenant works beautifully. But as a whole, it’s not quite right. I give it a B+.

Dolby Atmos technology provides an exceptionally immersive audio experience where a sound can come from pretty much anywhere. I describe it in more detail in this TechHive article.

According to Dolby, only five commercial Bay Area screens have Atmos, and none of them are near me. I’ve experienced it only as invited press at Dolby Labs. And up until Thursday, I’d only experienced it in brief demos. This was my first time listening to Atmos with a complete feature film.

It performed as advertised. I heard sounds from all over the place, without any sense that they were coming from this or that wall-mounted speaker. On more than one occasion, I thought I heard someone talking or coughing in the audience, only to realize that it was part of the soundtrack.

But the thickly-layered sound mix tended to get in the way of the story. It was distracting, and sometimes made dialog difficult to understand (especially from Tom Hardy). Maybe it was just this mix. Perhaps someone was overusing this new toy. Or maybe I just need to get used to a new gimmick before I can adjust to it and get lost in the movie. Immersive sound can be great, but at some point, the audience needs to concentrate on the screen in front of them.

Catching The Hateful Eight in 70mm

I’m not one of those cinephiles who sees the digital transition as the end of cinema. Far from it. I respect the practical and even the aesthetic advantages of shooting digitally. And as a general rule (there are exceptions), I rather see a movie projected off a DCP than a 35mm print–and that includes classics that were filmed before most people knew what the word digital meant.

But Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, The Hateful Eight, is the best argument I’ve yet seen for sticking with physical film. Shot in the large and super-wide Ultra Panavision 70 format (the first film shot that way in almost 50 years), it looks outstanding when projected in 70mm. Not only do you see fine details rarely visible on a big screen, but those details have a hue that adds considerable emotional impact.

It helps greatly that this ambitious western is Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown–maybe even his best since Pulp Fiction.

But it’s a shame that The Hateful Eight came out while Star Wars: The Force Awakens still controls every first-run theater in the world. My wife and I saw it Sunday at Oakland’s Grand Lake theater, the only place in the East Bay screening it in 70mm. But they couldn’t screen it in their really big, downstairs, main theater.

The Grand Lake’s main, downstairs auditorium, where they’re not screening The Hateful Eight

Instead they showed it upstairs in the former balcony. The screen is reasonably large, but not huge. But at least it has a curtain–a real necessity for a roadshow presentation.

Of course The Hateful Eight isn’t a real roadshow. If it was, it would play on only one screen per major metropolitan area, at high prices and with reserved seats. People in rural areas or looking for a discount would have to wait months–sometimes even years–to see it.

Tarantino has done quite a bit to make the 70mm version of The Hateful Eight feel like a roadshow. It starts with an overture. There’s an intermission, and an entr’acte (intermission music) to bring you back into the story. The movie runs a little over three hours.

This is not the sort of movie that got the roadshow treatment in the 1950s and 60s. It lacks spectacular sets, masses of extras, and historical sweep. Yes, there’s some beautiful outdoor scenery, and Ultra Panavision 70 captures it magnificently. But most of the film is set in a single, darkly-lit, one-room building. It is, to a large degree, a chamber drama.

Yet even that one dim set works better thanks to the greater detail and width created by Ultra Panavision 70. The flickering light from the various fires and oil lamps bring on an urgency that wouldn’t have been there in digital or 35mm. The lens can encompass several actors, at different distances from the camera, with full detail on each face. When cinematographer Robert Richardson shows us a close-up–usually of Samuel L. Jackson–we feel like we could swim in his eyes. And when you consider that he’s both a cold-hearted killer and the closest The Hateful Eight has to a hero, that’s pretty scary.

Jackson played one of two bounty hunters trying to get their catches to town so they can collect, but now trapped by a blizzard in a store and stagecoach stop in the middle of nowhere. Jackson’s catches are all dead–easier to ship them that way. But the other bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) is shipping living cargo–a notorious killer played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (it’s so good to see her again, this time as a psychopath). Of course there are five other people trapped in that store, and pretty much everyone is trigger happy.

The film occasionally reminded me of my all-time favorite western, John Ford’s Stagecoach. That film also had eight very different people thrown together in a difficult, pioneering situation. And as with Stagecoach, some of the people are still fighting the Civil War years after it was over.

But this is Tarantino, not Ford, so I don’t think I’m spoiling much by telling you that the film eventually turns into a bloodbath. (Believe me, I’m holding back on some real spoilers, and there are plenty.) The over-the-top violence goes from shocking to gross to funny to disgusting to just barely skirting the edge of too much. Many people will consider it too much.

My biggest complaint: Part II contains some narration, spoken by Tarantino himself. His voice was flat and uninteresting. He should have hired a better narrator.

I’m giving The Hateful Eight an A, at least if you see it in 70mm. And yet I strongly suspect that it would look just as good in a 4K DCP. Let the 70mm print run three times a day for two weeks, and the DCP (which doesn’t wear out) will definitely look better.

The A+ List: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at the Pacific Film Archive

Sunday night, I attended a screening at the Pacific Film Archive of one of my favorite western’s, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–another film on my A+ list [URL changed 12/14/2015] of movies that I’ve loved dearly for decades.

The PFA screened it as part of the series Cinema According to Víctor Erice.

In his last masterpiece, John Ford summed up the myth of the American west that he had weaved into the fabric of his long career. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance plays almost all the tropes of a Ford western–the drunk doctor, the dead man’s hand, the shootout, and the conflict between the wilderness and civilization. But this time around, we know it’s a myth. Ford knows it’s a myth. And even the protagonist knows that this isn’t the true story.

In Liberty Valance¸ Ford and his screenwriters (James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck) split the conventional western hero into two men, neither of which is complete without the other.

The most important of these, the character through whom we see the film, is Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart)–an idealistic young lawyer newly arrived in the west. Rance, as his friends call him, has none of the skills we associate with western heroes. He can’t shoot a gun or ride a horse. But he knows right from wrong, objects to the macho posturing around him, and in the end proves braver than anyone.

Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) has all the skills that Rance lacks. He’s the toughest guy around. He’s basically descent, in that he’s not a criminal and will occasionally help people in need. He pretty well fits Winston Churchill’s description of America: You can count on him to do the right thing–after he’s tried everything else.

Let’s consider those names. Who would name their newborn son Ransom? And the shortened version of his name suggests rancid. As the story unfolds, and we learn that he’s been living a lie for decades, we can see how the guilt from that lie has rotted him, making the word appropriate. And the name Doniphon sounds like a mispronunciation of Donovan–as if something is just not right.

And then there’s the name Liberty Valance. Why give the movie’s villain a name that suggests a swashbuckling hero? Especially this villain. As played by a not-quite-yet famous Lee Marvin, he’s one of the craziest, most sadistic thugs ever to grace an American western. Everyone except Tom is terrified of him.

Of course if Tom was sheriff, or just civic-minded, Valance would be dead or in jail. But Tom isn’t interested in any battles but his own, and town marshal Link Appleyard (another strange name; played by Andy Devine) seems only interested in saving his own hide. It’s absurd that this broad comic character would have a position of power, and it’s never explained. But the story requires an ineffectual sheriff, and making him funny helps us accept the absurdity.

Ford fills the town of Shinbone with memorable characters. Consider Dutton Peabody (an almost unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien) as the talkative, muck-raking, Shakespeare-quoting, yet alcoholic newspaper man. Or Tom’s handyman Pompey (Woody Strode)–apparently the only African-American in town. Dignified and uneducated, he bears the weight of entranced racism, eating dinner in the restaurant’s kitchen rather than the dining room.

I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance four or five times before I realized that Tom Doniphon is an alcoholic. We don’t see him drunk until quite late in the film. But twice, people who know him well go out of their way to keep alcohol from touching his lips. What’s more, we learn early on that he died penniless.

That’s not a spoiler. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens decades after the main action., when Senator Stoddard and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles as the film’s ingénue) return to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Most of the film is a flashback–an old man’s memory of his youth.

And what a memory it is. The film has two severe beatings, a political convention, a showdown in a frontier restaurant, and a one-room classroom scene where men, women, and children–black, white, and Mexican-American–learn about democracy.

What the John Ford western doesn’t have is Monument Valley. Ford went out of his way to avoid anything visually beautiful or epic here. This is a western morality tale set on a soundstage, not the vast expanses of Utah. And on the rare occasions where the films goes on locations, the background looks like an undeveloped part of the Los Angeles basin.

In the end, Ford reminds us that he’s spent his career weaving a mythology, and that while a myth can contain a grain of moral truth, it is always a lie. Rance has carried that lie in his heart for decades, and he will never be free of it.

Unlike Rance, Ford was able to expose that lie, and even to some degree validate it. He would make four other films after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but he never made another masterpiece.

Up until Sunday night, it had been more than 30 years since I last saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on the big screen. Although it’s not a visually beautiful film, it was still a major improvement over my DVD. I could enjoy the details of the town. And the audience laughed and gasped in all the right places.

The 35mm print, supplied by Paramount, was serviceable but disappointing. Some scenes were washed out, and much of it was scratched. I can only hope that Paramount will one day take the time to restore it properly.

After the movie, I hung around with other members of the audience and discussed the movie. We all agreed that the PFA should show more westerns.