Plot. At the heart of the film is the friendship that grows between Bean and the drifter, Cole Harden. When the jury finds him guilty, Bean sentences him to hang, then suspends the sentence when Harden says he can produce a lock of Lily’s hair. The two actors get many scenes together in the film, and they are a genuine pleasure.
Meanwhile, there’s a range war going on between cattlemen and a community of homesteaders busy putting up fences. Bean sides with the cattlemen and Harden tries to be a peacemaker, but to no avail. He stops an armed confrontation between the settlers and Bean, but he can’t stop the cattlemen from setting fire to the settlers’ crops and farmsteads.
Romance runs a respectable third among the storylines as a homesteader’s daughter (Doris Davenport) attempts to rein in drifter Harden. She wants him to settle down proper; he wants a lock of her hair. The one of Lily’s he’s promised to give to Bean is, of course, a fiction.
|Judge Roy Bean|
Much of the film was shot on location, near Tucson, and the ramshackle town, the desert and mountains give the film a nicely realistic feel. The effect is heightened by Gregg Toland’s black and white photography, which captures dramatic skies and is often in deep focus.
There’s a remarkable fistfight between Cooper and one of the homesteaders, which is played in almost complete silence, just the sound of body blows. As the two men trade punches, they stir up a cloud of dust. Finally the camera focuses on the shadows of the two men on the ground, until one of them drops into the frame, beaten.
Cooper, in a later scene, shows the marks of the fight on his face. Then he gets painfully into his saddle, acknowledging that a man who’s been in a fight will have some aches from it afterwards. Knocked from his horse in another scene, he walks stiffly with a limp when he finally gets back on his feet.
There’s dust and dirt aplenty in some scenes. The actors’ clothes and hats are often thick with dust. The streets of town show the marks of much use, with bits of trash and what could very well be horseshit.
Besides Cooper’s 1940s-era red-tag Levi’s, lapses in verisimilitude come mostly with the “homesteaders,” and I put that in quotes because I believe there was never any federally administered homesteading in Texas. The roomy log house where some scenes take place seems lavishly furnished for dirt farmers who’d only recently arrived.
Wrapping up. This film is a must-see for Walter Brennan fans. In his mid-forties when the film was made, he already has the gravelly old-man’s voice and ragged beard that were his trademarks. In many ways, the film is his, and he received a well-deserved Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance. Also in the cast are Chill Wills and (briefly) Dana Andrews, both early in their screen careers.
Jo Swerling and Niven Busch get credit for the screenplay, which was based on a story by Stuart N. Lake. Busch’s script for the noir western Pursued (1947) was previously reviewed here. Lake wrote a biography of Wyatt Earp, on which My Darling Clementine (1946) was based, and he provided the story for Winchester ’73 (1950).
The Westerner is available at netflix and amazon. Overlooked Movies is a much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Cornell Woolrich, Waltz Into Darkness (1947)