Sunday, June 12, 2011

Shootout at High Noon: The Shootist

The Shootist (1976, Don Siegal)
Some things happen for a reason and others at random. Having not been around in 1979, one can only assume what the reactions were among film buffs and in particular great admirers of the western genre when the one and only John Wayne passed away. I wonder if on that day people considered that a piece of the western genre died along with him, for he was so iconic a figure for a number of decades. It seems eerily ironic that not only was the famous actor’s final performance in Don Siegal’s The Shootist only from a few years prior in 1976, but that in the film he portrayed an aging U.S. Marshall whose days of ambitious heroics are long behind once he learns that he is dying of cancer. It feels wrong to say that all these little puzzle pieces, both real and fictional, feel into place, and so let us merely come to agree that fate has a strange way of pulling the strings. 

To be plain and honest, there is not much a plot synopsis to offer. In the past Between the Seats reviews have been guilty of revealing too many juicy details to the plots of the films discussed, especially when it came to story summaries. In the case of The Shootist, I feel as though little needs to be said about the plot in this paragraph. A more proper way to approach the article would be to directly head into the usual opinion piece and analysis. For those really wanting to know what the film is about before taking a chance on it, the story centers on an aging and sick the U.S. Marshall character mentioned above, J.B. Books played by John Wayne, who arrives in town for one final diagnostic just to cement the fact that he has cancer. Once the verdict is out, he heads off to an inn managed by Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), where he spends his final days on this earth.
Don Siegal (whose name appears like a signature in the movie’s opening credits) opens The Shootist in a uniquely cinematic manner. A young adult named Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard), son of the inn’s caretaker, is narrating some of his recollections and feelings towards the late, controversial J.B. Books.  Rather than depict newly created flashback sequences that showcase Books’ earlier skill and bravado, the filmmakers choose to delve into the archives and retrieve actual scenes from previous John Wayne pictures, pretending that each event really happened in the movie world of The Shootist.  In that sense, the movie immediately makes a statement about not only the central figure in the story, but the legendary actor playing the role too. The two parts are melded together to make a single entity. The story is about an old Marshall and an old John Wayne, lending the picture with a rather strong ‘meta’ feeling. Wayne himself was old at the time and obviously was no longer the man he once was. The casting of Wayne is therefore very ‘à propos.’ The words ‘John Wayne’ and ‘western’ go hand in hand like peanut butter and chocolate, so having a story in which an aging, weaker than usual Wayne is playing an aging, weaker than usual and cancer stricken gunman rings powerfully. Some might liken the strategy to stunt casting, but it works far too well for such a label to fit. 

Which brings us to the actor at the center of it all: John Wayne. Often depicted and remembered by many as a courageous, no-nonsense gunslinger who represented some of the very best aspects of the strong American way, Wayne is giving a completely different role in The Shootist. This is a man who must come to terms with his own mortality. When in a gun fight, there is always a way to win out the day, and therefore while bravery is a requirement (which not all men have), if one is well equipped technically and mentally, there is always a fighting chance for survival. Now the enemy is different. It is an all encompassing enemy who cannot be defeated. Even in this day and age cancer is difficult to predict and even more so to vanquish. Back then, at the turn of the century when this story takes place, cancer is the ultimate kiss of death. When Books’ doctor acquaintance, played wonderfully by James Stewart, confirms the man’s fears, there is a genuine sense of dread which suddenly drops onto the scene, suffocating the atmosphere.  Later on, when the Stewart character describes in uncomfortable detail the symptoms and most plausible physical experiences Book’s will have to live through as the days turn into weeks and his illness takes over, something frightening and at the same time amazing happens: John Wayne suddenly looks like a mortal man. There is a brilliant moment when Stewart subtly suggests that the protagonist should contemplate suicide before his physical and mental state become unbearable, Books does not have any pithy comeback. Bravery in face of a human enemy is one thing, especially when equipped with a trusty pistol, but bravery in the face of unshakable cancer is an entirely different matter. The character’s mortality consequently plays a major role in dictating how the actor is to play the part. Wayne, while not entirely relinquishing his old smarmy and snappy (in the good sense) ways, is far more subdued and touching than in a lot of his previous roles. For a presence as towering as John Wayne to be reduced to a state of modesty, it is a testament to his acting ability and yet another reminder of the sheer talent, as a performer and not just a personality, that he possessed.
Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard back him up nicely, with some special mention going to the former. Her role as Bond Rogers is made all the more fitting when it is revealed that her own husband died one year ago. She has already lived through one dramatic period with a person close to her dying and now, faced with another, is confronted with ambivalent feelings towards Book’s presence. Her disdain for 'gunmen,' as she calls them, prevents her from responding to the man’s charms at first. As the days go by he displays a gentler and more modest nature. Whether this is of because of what he truly is when not shooting people down or if it is in fact because of the cancer bringing him to a more serene state is besides the point. They never truly become good friends, with limited amount of time before Books’ death and personal opinions getting in the way, but the sweet appreciation for each other’s company which does blossom feels just as satisfying. Bacall is perfect in this role.

Is The Shootist a perfect film? No it is not. There is a final showdown in a saloon (where else?) between Books and three men who, for various reasons, would like nothing better than to be the ones who finally shot and killed the infamous U.S. Marshall. What is odd about the inclusion of this finale is not only how it ends, which I will not spoil but suffice to say that I found rather cheap, but equally the lack of any sort of build towards this climactic clash. In a better world, Don Siegal would have left the story to take place at Mrs. Rogers’ inn, with the wonderful character piece involving Books, Bond and Gillom filling the entire running time. The sudden turn the film takes into classic western territory with a shootout in a saloon, one that is not filmed very well in how it lacks any sort of creativity and dynamism, comes as a disappointment.
An excellent and pertinent final performance from John Wayne makes what would have been a good film into a great one. Even great films can have flaws, which is the case here with The Shootist, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. Definitely watch it if you get the chance.

Done Here? Find out if Bill misses John Wayne in his review of The Shootist over at his Movie Emporium.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I was completely on board with what you were saying until you got to the shootout. I'd be pleased as pie if you could elaborate on that part of your review a little, especially since I think it's the only area where we really differ.

edgarchaput said...

@Well, in your review you stated your feelings about how Wayne goes out (shot in the back) and how it felt like the only way to kill a man of his stature. I thought it felt cheap to me (I couldn't figure out how or why the barman wanted to kill Wayne anyways). I also felt that the way Wayne dispatches his three foes in the saloon was really unexciting. They all went down in pretty stupid ways, especially the younger one, who just decides (like it's a freaking brilliant idea) to stick his head out to see where Wayne is. Come on guy...