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The Shootist

review by Anthony D.

Studio: Paramount

Running Time: 98 minutes

Starring John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Hugh O'Brian, Sheree North

Written by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale

Directed by Don Siegel

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Theatrical Trailer, Documentary

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital Mono, French Dolby Digital Mono, English Closed Captions, English Subtitles, Scene Selection

Released: July 24th, 2001

It seems, in hindsight, that releasing "The Shootist" in the year of our nation's bicentennial was a stroke of luck, or genius. Sure, other films have dealt with the theme of the death of the "Wild West," and have been successful, but none were as fortunate in their timeliness as "The Shootist" finds the final screen appearance of a true American Icon: John Wayne. As I write these words, it occurs to me that there is now an entire generation of Americans who don't know who John Wayne was; and although it was at a time chic to be anti-Wayne, one has to consider the vast legacy of film that he left behind.

"The Shootist" actually opens with a montage of John Wayne clips (in glorious black and white) beginning with a youthful appearance in FOX's widescreen wonder of 1930's "The Big Trail, and culminating with his appearance in Paramount's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." These clips enable us to not only see John Wayne, but to give a definite back-story to the character that he portrays. For "The Shootist" is about the last seven days in the life of a gunslinger, or more aptly, a shootist: a rare breed amongst the men of the west, whose reputation for quick thinking and faster fingers would soon fade from memory as the American West became civilized. This brief montage takes us through thirty years of John Bernard Books life, from the year 1871, up until the present day of the film, 1901. To be precise, January 22, 1901, when the headlines of newspapers still called out the death of England's Queen Victoria. ; thus brilliantly linking the decline of two entire eras: The Victorian Age and that of The Westward Move of Americans.

When we meet John, he is en route to Carson City, but waylaid by an unsuspecting robber who doesn't know that he is trying to steal from the last of the great gunslingers, and promptly faces his own mortality. Books arrives in a town that has its own history with him, for it was in Carson City that he engaged in one of his most famous shoot-outs. But this time, Books is coming to town to seek the advice of homespun doctor, James Stewart, whose second opinion of Books' condition is that he is indeed dying, of a cancer to large to be operable. Stewart compassionately tells him that to cut out the cancer, he's have to entirely gut Books's body. Armed with his trusty guns, and his tasseled cushion (stolen he says, from a whorehouse), Books seeks the comfort of a respectable boarding house to spend his final days.

The house is of course run by a widow woman, the beguiling Lauren Bacall, and her maturing son (Ron Howard). Another of the thematic devices of "The Shootist," the son coming into manhood at the end of an era rings, solidly true. The major device of having such a well-known actor, Wayne, portraying a man dying of cancer, is handled with dignity and pathos, in the knowledge that Wayne himself would pass on, only a few years later - - of lung cancer. Wayne, who knew a good script when he read one, bravely takes on this role; a return to the western genre following two contemporary detective roles in "McQ" and "Brannigan," roles which could have ended his career on the downside.

In "The Shootist," Wayne revels in the return to form, and his performance is a towering achievement. There's none of this wallowing in self-pity often associated with disease-of-the-week movies shown on tv, nor none of the bathos associated with a certain blockbuster about "a girl who died." No, this dying man, will face his illness head-on, and chose to make his death a dignified, quiet affair; that is until the news of the arrival of the famous shootist reaches the towns peoples' ears. As the days drift by, dated on the screen with titles, Books is confronted by a newshound out to make a buck on Books' life story, whether through fact or fiction, family members of those Books had gunned down ("I never killed a man who didn't deserve it" Bools proudly proclaims to the Widow Rodgers), a gunslinger ("You have two ways of leaving this establishment: immediately, or dead.") whose reputation could improve vastly were he the man to kill Books, and old girlfriend who is more harridan than comfort as well as the promises made in the dark and the note of false spring offered on Books' final birthday.

A lot of care went into the making of "The Shootist," from the authenticity of the costumes, set design and overall feeling of the film. What could have been a bathetic weepfest, is handled with every ounce of dignity the subject matter deserves; which is not to say that "The Shootist" is a downer. As much as it deals with the death of a man, it also celebrates the living. There is humor in the script, Henry Morgan deals out a dose of gallows humor when he, as the town's marshal visits Books to force him out of town, and the scenes of the bullheaded battles of communication between Books and the widow are charming in their truthfulness. The suspense element is textured firmly into the film, even as Books is approached by the town undertaker John Carradine in an inspired piece of casting) who eager awaits Books' demise. Subtle touches, script wise and visually re-enforce the central theme: Bacall is given a minor speech about the new-fangled process of dry cleaning; a telephone is in a central position in the boarding house, and though still horse-driven, a trolley car runs on tracks through the center of town. Time has passed John Booker by, but civilization will continue to come to Carson City.

The print used for this presentation has a minor share of grain, even in scenes in bright lighting, and a few noticeable artifacts which never interfere with the film itself. Like many Paramount films, the reds within "The Shootist" are not truly red, but that orange-like tomato red, but they remain stable. Siegel captures the atmosphere of a western winter with aplomb, since it is not only the physical winter his camera is capturing, but the winter of John Books' life. Exterior shots are rightfully cold feeling, even in the presence of sunlight. The spectrum of colors, from the blacks and navies of clothing, to the plush greens (and just how many shades of green are there?) in the Metropole Saloon are striking without being shockingly garish. Wayne's blue eyes are captured in their moments of sadness, humor and romance with believable clarity. A subdued range of colors more than adequately mirrors the emotional sweep of the film's thematic essence. Edge enhancement may be present, but not problematic. I don't believe that a lovelier presentation of "The Shootist" could be possible.

The soundtrack for "The Shootist" is presented with a fitting Dolby Digital mono English track. "The Shootist," unlike the majority of westerns, relies more on dialogue than gunshots; thus the track is quite appropriate. In addition to the English language track, "The Shootist" can be viewed with an alternative French language track. The Closed Captioning provides literal transcriptions of the English dialogue. The dialogue track is clean and precise, with virtually no signs of age or ADR-produced dialogue. The foley tracks present the gunshots with flair, and Elmer Bernstein's short, sweet score is faithfully re-produced.

Spoilers abound in the disc's Special Features, so if you've never seen the film, don't watch either the Original Theatrical Trailer, nor the superb exclusive Documentary before viewing "The Shootist." The two-minutes plus trailer features the final conflict and its outcome, albeit out of context, thus taking suspense away from a finale as wrought as that of "High Noon." The self-congratulatory documentary, though never patronizing, makes a great deal out of how the ending of the source novel was changed for the film, thus insuring that viewers should watch it only after having seen the film. As I watched the trailer, I was struck by the fact that the film's opening sequence of past John Wayne cinematic triumphs are present in the trailer in their original scratchy state, whereas within the film proper, they have been cleaned up drastically. The Documentary, "The Shootist: The Legend Lives On," a brief twenty minute piece, is for all intents and purposes, promotional. This however, is combined with telling interviews of several cast members and crew. It's not hard-hitting, but a nice addition to the feature. Hugh O'Brian is heard from, but an interview featuring Lauren Bacall's comments would have been useful, as her work with Wayne recalls her best work with Bogart. My only complaint is the lack of the exquisite poster designed for the film's release by noted artist Richard Amsel, whose best known posters for Paramount would be The Indiana Jones trilogy of films.

Would "The Shootist" ring true if it had not have been Wayne's final film? I think that Paramount's presentation on this disc would ultimately garner a "Yay" vote. For it is not merely John Wayne's valedictory, it is a Don Siegel western with a glowing supporting cast, each chosen with inspiration, as well as rightness. There is a poignancy, as there always will be, about this particular era in American history, a poignancy which only grows stronger as our own eras briefly unfold. With its fine eye and ear for detail, and a stand-out performance from John Wayne, "The Shootist" proves that a western film has more to offer than blood and guts, this is the one with a heart and a brain, as well as the courage to parlay those attributes into a loving tribute to the men (and the women) who did indeed conquer the west.

(4.5/5 - NOT included in final score)




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