Centennial Collection

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, Ken Murray
Director:  John Ford
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  123 Minutes
Release Date:  May 19, 2009

“This is the West, sir.   When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Film ****

When the Honorable Senator Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) makes his way through the tiny Western town of Shinbone, it’s big news, and the press wants to know:  what brings him there?  A major political event?  No.  The answer is a funeral for a man whose name is hardly remembered.  And as the keen reporters listen in, Stoddard tells the tale of an idealistic young lawyer, a cool and noble gunslinger, and the outlaw that changed the course of both of their lives.

The film is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  The director is John Ford, who, along with co-star Wayne, created some of the genre’s most beloved and lasting pictures, from Stagecoach to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to The Searchers.   Though willing to pigeonhole himself as just a maker of Westerns, the truth is, Ford had a wide and extensive knowledge of cinematic vocabulary.  The Western may have been his domain, but he was the man who first helped established the rules of the genre, then later, with his experimentation, helped break them down.

Liberty Valance is a prime example.  It plays like any good Western film.  The good guys and the bad guys are clearly defined.  There are themes of honor and courage at play.  The key scene is a man to man showdown.  Yet, stylistically, there are aspects that tend to bring the feel of the movie beyond the scope of the story.  Shot in black and white, there are visual elements of film noir here, including making shadows an important part of the imagery and narrative, and under Ford’s direction, it doesn’t seem out of place.

Why is that?  Well, apart from the tradition Western film values I’ve mentioned, there is a hint of something darker.  This is more than a simple tale of good versus evil.  It’s the story of two men who meet outside the small town of Shinbone, and later, almost seem to fight over the soul of that town.  Stoddard is the idealistic lawyer who comes into town carrying not a gun, but law books, along with a belief that the civilized world of law and democracy is more powerful than the way of the gun.  He is challenged immediately before ever entering Shinbone by the renegade outlaw, Liberty Valance (Marvin).  Valance not only robs, humiliates, and beats him near to death, but makes a point of tearing up one of his law books in front of him.

Shinbone is a town that lives in fear of Valance, all except one man, Tom Doniphon (Wayne).  The comical but ineffective marshal (Devine), like everyone else, is too scared to confront the vicious, bullying Valance.  And while Stoddard tries to make the townsfolk stand tall and walk proud by teaching them to read, write, and understand the ways of law and order, Valance continues his reign of fear and terror over them, personally challenging Stoddard to make an example of him.

Which is where the element of film noir comes in.  When it comes down to a shootout between Stoddard and Valance, as I said, it’s more than good guy against bad guy.  In a sense, Valance has already won.  Stoddard, who embraced the law above everything and rejected lawlessness so much that he refused to even carry a gun, loses a part of himself when he agrees to the fight.  Whether he lives or dies in the showdown, a part of him is already dead, a fact that seems visualized by Ford’s deliberate choice to go against the norm of showing a gunfight in the bright, sweaty heat of midday and putting it in the dead of night, where shadows loom over everything and faces and figures emerge from and move into total blackness.

But long before we get to the inevitable battle, Ford had been toying with expressionistic lights and darks.  Shadows were not only visually interesting, they accentuated the narrative.  When the news publisher Dutton Peabody (O’Brien) blows out his light, it leaves nothing but his huge shadow on the back wall.  Later, this scene is repeated in reverse as he lights his lantern…and while we recognize the visual motif, this time, Ford has a surprise in store for us.

Of course, one need not analyze Liberty Valance so closely to enjoy it.  At its heart is good old fashioned and entertaining storytelling, let by two great stars in Stewart and Wayne (who, in the dénouement, shows off some of his strongest mettle as an actor), and a wonderful supporting cast including the hilarious Andy Devine, the lovely Vera Miles, and the potently diabolical work of Lee Marvin as Valance.

It’s a film that succeeds as a great Western, to be sure.  But Ford’s willingness to take risks with the genre makes it greater still as a picture that succeeds outside the boundaries of the Western.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a masterpiece no matter how you categorize it.

Video ****

Wow!  Kudos to Paramount for delivering one of THE very best transfers I’ve seen on DVD for a classic black and white film.  The image quality is stunning throughout, starting with the opening credits set against a wood grain background…the wood is so detailed, you can almost feel the ridges.   From beginning to end, Ford’s images are beautifully tended to.  The blacks are deep, the whites are pure, the range of grayscale is wide, providing for incredible contrast and detail, shot after shot.  The lighting is extreme, but no matter how shadowy the scenes become, there is never a loss of integrity, nor any sign of grain, compression or breakup.  When images move from shadow to light, the transitions are smooth and effective.   This is as perfect as a classic film can get.

Audio ***

In addition to a restored mono soundtrack, this disc is equipped with a new 5.1 remix that’s quite good.  The sound is a little more open, as musical cues orchestrate across all open channels, with occasional bits of reverb noticeable from the rear stage.   Certain sounds, like the galloping of horses off screen, make even better use of discreet channel capabilities and suggesting the presence of characters we don’t yet see.  The dialogue is full sounding and very clear…nothing about this soundtrack gives away its true age.  Most impressive!

Features ****

Paramount has pulled out all the stops for this double disc Centennial Collection release.  The first disc boasts a terrific commentary track from filmmaker and fan Peter Bogdanovich, which also features some archival recordings of both John Ford and Jimmy Stewart.  A selected scene commentary with an introduction from Dan Ford also features vintage recordings of John Ford and Jimmy Stewart, as well as Lee Marvin.

The second disc has an extensive 7 part documentary "The Size of Legends, The Soul of Myth", along with the original trailer and publicity galleries.


James Stewart and John Wayne ignite the screen, but it’s John Ford’s sense of cinema that really makes The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance a classic and stylistic Western.  With this flawless and beautiful transfer from Paramount on a well-packaged DVD, this is one all movie lovers should check out.

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