Sunday, July 12, 2009
Looking around the net, I can tell that I’m definitely not the first person to link Clint Eastwood’s GRAN TORINO with THE SHOOTIST, the last film John Wayne ever made, but the point still seems worth making. We can’t say for certain at this point that TORINO will be the final acting appearance by Eastwood (after all, that seemed to be the case before) but it certainly seems like a possibility and it definitely seems designed as such in how it plays as a sort of final summation of him as a screen persona. There’s no way to know if Wayne approached THE SHOOTIST, released in 1976 with the idea that it would be his ‘final’ film but considering the parallels that could be made between the lead character of that film and his own health problems which were certainly common knowledge, it’s not too much of a stretch (he eventually succumbed to cancer in 1979). Directed by Don Siegel, THE SHOOTIST opens with clips from past Wayne films which are presented as glimpses of the film’s lead character in his younger days (a little like Soderbergh’s THE LIMEY) but there’s not a person who will ever see this film who won’t know what this footage really is. It gives the impression that the movie is pretty much implying that all John Wayne films are pretty much one big film and this is pretty much the end of the story. I don’t know if there’s much to THE SHOOTIST beyond this one simple notion but, in the film’s defense, it doesn’t really try to pretend that there is either.
January, 1901. Legendary gunfighter J.B. Books (Wayne) makes his way to Carson City, Nevada to see old friend Doc Hostetler (none other than James Stewart, coming in for a few scenes) to learn the cause of some pain he’s been feeling. It doesn’t take long before Hostetler tells Books the bad news, that he has “a cancer” and it’s not going to be very long until the end, either. Seeking a place to wait things out until the end, Books rents a room from the widow Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her son Gillom (Ron Howard). He tries to keep things quiet, not even giving his real name, but it doesn’t take long until not only is his presence known, but of how little time he has and certain people are determined to settle and score once and for all.
Some westerns might be about waiting for a gunman to arrive on the next train. THE SHOOTIST, on the other hand, is just about waiting for death to come (yup, I know how to pick my fun Saturday night viewing). All the signs that the future is coming are everywhere in Carson City—telephone wires, horseless carriages, even a Coca-Cola sign is seen, signaling how much the lead character’s time has already passed and THE SHOOTIST is basically a funeral dirge for one of the most legendary stars in the history of Hollywood and that’s really all it is. In addition to Bacall and Stewart a number of other famous faces turn up in roles including Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Hugh O’Brian, Scatman Crothers, Bill McKinney and Sheree North as if to say farewell. Considering that THE SHOOTIST consists of not much more than waiting around for the end, it’s not exactly dull—the charisma of Wayne and a few of the other actors help with that—but even with Don Siegel directing it’s a flat-looking picture that resembles a movie made for television back in the seventies with very little oomph of any kind. It’s visually and dramatically static to the point that it’s not difficult, with a few tweaks, to imagine the entire script presented on live telelvision back in the fifties. There’s some location work done in Nevada—the book it’s based on was set in El Paso, but the more wintery setting of the film was a good choice—but most of it looks to be shot on the backlot in Burbank (the layout of the town square is familiar to anyone who’s seen stuff shot there) and there’s a simplicity to the production which feels like it was done to accommodate Wayne as much as possible. There’s not much action, very little humor (except for Harry Morgan’s Marshal, thrilled that this famous gunfighter isn’t going to be a threat) and not even much of a plot either—just John Wayne hanging around with a bunch of people pretending that there’s actually a movie here, not just a monument erected all around him.
Parallels to GRAN TORINO are pretty clear—the lead character’s approach towards the climax is certainly similar as is Wayne’s relationship with the boy played by Ron Howard, though TORINO managed to make the film more about the younger character which helped focus that story (for the record, I like that film quite a bit—watching THE SHOOTIST, I like it even more now). More surprising are a few similarities to UNFORGIVEN—Books is described as a “a notorious individual, utterly lacking in character or decency” by Bacall’s character and there’s even a scene where he has to deal with a news reporter played by Richard Lenz, interested in telling his story which certainly recalls Saul Rubinek’s writer (‘of letters and such?’) in the Eastwood film. There’s talk of Books brooding over how he feels about having killed so many people but it just feels like sentimental homilies as opposed to whatever is eating up Eastwood’s William Munny from the inside in the 1992 film. The script for UNFORGIVEN was written years before it was actually filmed I can’t help but wonder if part of the inspiration for the screenplay by David Webb Peoples was to craft a version of this story that would really examine the nature of such a character, as opposed to simply being about what a legend John Wayne (or Clint Eastwood, or whomever) is. This makes me wonder what a version of UNFORGIVEN starring Wayne made in the mid-60s would have been like but I can’t quite imagine Wayne confronted with a girl offering him a ‘free one’ like Anna Thomson offers Eastwood. (How many films better than UNFORGIVEN have there been in the past twenty years? Not very many, I’d say. I once met Peoples but didn’t tell him how much I love it. I regret that now.) As funeral dirges go, THE SHOOTIST isn’t bad but it still feels unfortunate that it didn’t try to be something other than a tribute to its star.
In spite of the flatness of the visual style (which seems to prove how wrong anyone who criticizes Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE for the same thing really is) it could be argued by someone that it doesn’t matter considering that the film is really about Wayne as cinema icon starring in a western one last time. It may not be a great performance—the basic material doesn’t really allow for that—but it is an affecting one and he works very well in the frame with each of the other actors, even at time coming off as generous to them. As if to act as a contrast, Lauren Bacall doesn’t seem at all interested in playing her role as a figure of Hollywood history. Instead she’s completely present, totally committed to the character and in that sense she brings much of the dramatic power that the story, independent from John Wayne, actually has. Among the other familiar faces that turn up, John Carradine as the local undertaker is very enjoyable in what is pretty much the John Carradine role and Sheree North is particularly good in one long scene with Wayne as a former conquest who shows up for reasons he isn’t aware of at first. Playing a role that should be more of the center of the film, Ron Howard was never the weightiest of dramatic actors and his basic likeability only gets him so far (you can’t buy Ron Howard taking an experienced swig of whiskey, that’s just never going to happen) but his casting here still seems important, as if the likes of Wayne and Stewart are passing the torch along to the next generation, somebody who’s going to direct the latter-day equivalents of their starring vehicles with people like Tom Hanks and Russell Crowe. Thinking about what lay in his career’s future, I kept imagining him paying more attention to how the film was being put together by Siegel than ever thinking about his character.
As a film, there’s not much to say about THE SHOOTIST. It’s visually bland, dramatically inert and ultimately not very much happens. But there is the feeling of it being the ultimate, no fooling, this is the final hurrah, last gasp of any element of the old studio system, coming fourteen years after the release of John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, also with Wayne and Stewart, which Peter Bogdanovich has pegged as representing the final film of Hollywood’s golden age. Ford died in 1973 and Howard Hawks, Wayne’s other favorite director, was at this point just a year away from dying himself. But here we still have Wayne in a film that is about nothing more than his star power and what that means. How many other Hollywood legends have appeared in what was such an obviously symbolic ‘final’ film? It doesn’t make it any better than it is, but it still seems significant and the genuine desire to celebrate every single step the actor takes across the screen got to me at a certain point. As he gets on a streetcar near the very end to head for his appointment with destiny he greets a pretty young girl (Melody Thomas Scott, also in Siegel’s THE BEGUILED, among other credits) sitting across from him with a “Good morning.” She then replies with all the naiveté in the world, “Morning, sir. Isn’t it a beautiful day?” and so help me, the absolute, unabashed sweetness of what she says made me tear up a little. There’s of course a shootout climax which follows but as Wayne replies, “It sure is,” knowing that this just may be the last peaceful moment that he’ll ever experience in this lifetime, I could almost have shut the DVD off right there. In some ways, that’s how we want to remember the legends of Hollywood that we love in the end, whatever else we know about their politics or anything else. For just a moment, everything is calm and their place in history is just what it is supposed to be. THE SHOOTIST probably didn’t affect that place very much one way or the other, but taken as the postscript to a career that it is it still feels like it matters even if only in a small way.