Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Westerner (1940)

There are laugh-out-loud moments in this often-comic film about Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan) and an accused horse thief (Gary Cooper), a drifter who claims to have met Lily Langtry. From the details, you can tell the screenwriters did some homework, but they have not let facts get in the way of a good story.

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
Action and realism. Besides a shootout and a hanging at the opening of the film, a couple fistfights, the fire, a chase on horseback, a gunfight in a theater, and several additional fatalities, the film is fairly low-keyed. Director William Wyler paces the dialogue slowly to linger on reaction shots, which Brennan and Cooper produce with relish.

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.

Sources: imdb.com 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Cornell Woolrich, Waltz Into Darkness (1947)

8 comments:

  1. I see from my notes in Brian Garfield's WESTERN FILM that I've seen this movie three times over the years. This early "A" western along with STAGECOACH and a couple other movies broke the B-western strangle hold that had existed all through the 1930's.

    Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan made a great combination.

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  2. I've heard of this movie but didn't know it was about Judge Roy Bean.

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  3. I enjoyed the heck out of this movie even though its been a long time since I saw it. The picture of Judge Bean looks like Wilford Brimley.

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  4. Haven't seen this one, but I always enjoyed Walter Brennan's scene-stealing parts in Red River and Rio Bravo. Both he and George 'Gabby' Hayes seemed to make a career out of playing characters much older than their actual ages.

    No homesteading in Texas? Wow...fact-check time. I'd better make sure I haven't put any fictional ones there by mistake.

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  5. Off-topic. Waltz Into Darkness has sat on my shelves unread for a million years. Waiting for your thoughts on it.

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  6. Walker, I hadn't thought of it, but a side-by-side comparison of the two as mold-breaking A films would be interesting.

    Charles, it was a surprise to me, too.

    Oscar, Wilford would make a great Roy Bean.

    Elisabeth, he appears in some early films in other roles, sometimes villains, and there's no resemblance at all to Gabby.

    Patti, I've finished it and just need a couple hours to get my thoughts down before they drift away into the ether.

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  7. I cant remember when I first saw this film. Years ago, I was young then! This film, is what got me into Pro Photography!!
    The dark brooding skies, (achieved with Red filter) and the extreme focus lengths, allowed, well for me it did, the vastness of the west to be captured.
    I was always impressed by Brennan! Cooper? Fab!

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  8. Cheyenne, I can easily see how this film could get someone turned on to photography. The western PURSUED from later in the 1940s has a similar effect.

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