Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Film Review: THE SHOOTIST (1976, Don Siegel)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: John Wayne, Ron Howard, Jimmy Stewart, Lauren Bacall, John Carradine, Scatman Crothers, Richard Boone (HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL).
Tag-lines: "He's got to face a gunfight once more to live up to his legend once more. To win just one more time.
Best one-liner: "Put it in a nutshell? You couldn't put it in a barrel without a bottom. You're the longest winded bastard I've ever known."

Art imitates death. Portrait of an aging gunfighter: J.B. Books. A shootist. A legend. Diagnosed with a cancer, eating him alive from within. The laundanum offers less and less respite each day. Yet, not content to let him die on his own terms, everyone wants to carve out one final piece before he's in the grave. And we're not simply talking about vengeful outlaws who want one last shot at his hide- we're talking an undertaker who wants to sell tickets to the funeral (with a cameo by John Carradine), an old flame who wants a book deal, a crooked newspaperman with an agenda, an endless parade of yahoos who want the last 'fill-in-the-blank' J.B. Books ever used/owned/had. It's the same pack of scavengers who one hundred years later operates tabloids, Lifetime movies, and the like. And, hell, John Waters has always said that the final indignity suffered by the famous is the mortician having sex with your corpse...

Well, regardless, Mr. Books is played by Marion Robert Morrison, better known to the public as one 'John Wayne.' A man similarly diagnosed with cancer, and undoubtedly no stranger to the hordes of ragpickers primed to take away one last piece of the legend for themselves. But it's not an entirely morbid universe that Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY, THE BEGUILED, THE KILLERS) creates here.

As a kindly widow and her naive son (Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard) have excellent chemistry with Wayne and greatly aid the film in building a real emotional framework. Jimmy Stewart appears in a near-cameo role (which provides a great A MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE reference), and is, as always, sweetly captivating, but here he appears so feeble and hard-of-hearing that it's vaguely distressing to watch (which I suppose helps the film's aims).

Like so many Westerns, it all ends on a gunfight, but the stakes are so high and the reality so heightened, that the final scenes (and shots) truly resonate long after the film has ended.
A great last act and a fitting swansong for The Duke. Five stars.

-Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Short but concise. My favorite Duke film. Amazing that he was so ill it almost was never finished. Did you catch the patriotic symbolism that Duke put in at the very end? In all these years, I believe I may have been the only one to see it, (I was getting ready to sketch it). Amazing. Anyway, sent you a book review request based on this article. Hope you get it. KEITH

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for stopping by! It's been a while since I've seen it, so I can't quite recall the symbolism you refer to– refresh my memory?