Friday, 25 June 2010

No.40 : The Shootist

This turned out to be John Wayne’s last film and fittingly he plays an aged gun slinger trying to live out his last days as the old west gives way to new fangled inventions and values.

Wayne plays JB Brooks a notorious killing machine who returns home to Carson City for a check up at Jimmy Stewart’s medical practice. After checking his trap door a grim diagnosis is given - he has cancer and a matter of days to live. After being given a bottle of dope by the Doc, Wayne heads off for some digs and manages to find a bed at Lauren Bacall’s B&B.

Becall is your stereotyped western widow with lots of huffing and disapproval of our man’s antics and language. She has an impressionable son in the shape of Ron Howard and quickly worries that the boy’s idolisation of Wayne can’t lead to anything good. Despite of his hopes of lying low, Wayne’s presence hasn’t gone unnoticed and pretty soon every man and his dog is at the door trying to turn a buck off his notoriety.

After booting out a newspaper man and biographer Wayne soon sorts out other conmen in the shape of the undertaker and Scatman Crothers’ horse trader. He realises that other less soft people may be on their way to settle some old scores and readies himself for one last show down. After shooting two night time assassins and wrecking the guest house, all of Becall’s other tenants move out leaving our happy trio a few days together before the inevitable blood bath. As the brigands descend on the town will Wayne get his wish of a quiet death or will he go down all guns blazing?

Most of what I’d heard about this film wasn’t true - Wayne didn’t have cancer throughout shooting (he did die of cancer 3 years later) and the film wasn’t specifically written for him as a swan song to a career in westerns - he was seemingly fifth choice for the lead. This misinformation sits well with the film however which deals with the difference between the legend and the man. Despite the locals all living in fear of Wayne, he is in reality a scared old man waiting to die.

The film opens in black and white with clips of old Wayne films showing him (and his character here) as a young man before dissolving into colour for the present day. The sets are well done with things like the horse drawn trolley car a good indicator that the wild west days are falling away. The film is set in the week following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the ‘end of an era’ feel permeates throughout.

Wayne has never been a favourite of mine but he does well in this role, showing just enough humility beneath his gruff exterior. It was fun to see him paired up with James Stewart although the latter’s performance is little more than a cameo followed by a wordless appearance at the end. Becall is good value as the spirited widow although I didn’t really buy the transformation in her affections for the potty mouthed hell raiser.

Ron Howard was OK as the impressionable lad although you are still thinking ‘Happy Days’ throughout. He didn’t ring true when he was swigging the booze but when he was doing his ‘can I mister, can I?’ routine he was fine. Of the bit parts John Carradine hammed it up big style as the undertaker and Scatman was good fun as the horse trader with an early eye for celebrity memorabilia.

The film runs a pretty straight narrative and there are no real surprises. It is good fun however and great to see some genuine Hollywood legends strut their stuff for one last time. The gun play and action is a bit low key but the characters are great and it’s well worth shooting down the DVD shop for. Or just download it - I don’t care.

THE Tag Line : Bang, Bang - I’m Dead 75%

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