Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Shootist (1976) ****1/2

“I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same of them.” This is the memorable credo of J.B. Books, the gunfighter played by John Wayne in his last film, which happens to be one of the best westerns ever made.

As the tale begins, Books is diagnosed with cancer, with only a few weeks left to live. His physician, Dr. Hostetler (Jimmie Stewart), explains that the end will be very painful, not relieved even by the laudanum he prescribes. He wraps up this grim prognosis with the advice, “I would not die such a death...if I were as brave as you.” With this heavy weight on his shoulders, Books finds himself a room in a boarding house and settles in to die as peacefully and anonymously as he can. Unfortunately, Books's fame precedes him, and soon every hard case in town is out for a chance to kill the famous gunfighter.

Until I saw “The Shootist,” I thought that “True Grit” was John Wayne's best film, but I think “The Shootist” may be better. This was Wayne's last film, and he had already lost a lung to cancer. He was perfectly suited to play ”a dying man, afraid of the dark.” Wayne's gift to the film is that he underplays it, saying as much with silence or with his eyes as he does with words. The movie starts with a history of the Books character, using footage from old John Wayne movies to depict his many gunfights. After that footage it is fittingly shocking to see the wrecked, old gunfighter limping into Dr. Hostetler's office, clutching the pillow he has to sit on. Many fans may prefer to remember Wayne as the strapping, young hero of those earlier films, but I think he is beautiful in his age and infirmity, facing a grimmer enemy than any gunman.

“The Shootist” is great, but it is not a perfect film. Ron Howard gives an okay performance as a young man enamored of gunfighters and tough guys, who ultimately learns that violence is not the answer. That storyline is just a little trite. The other weak link in the movie is Harry Morgan, who plays the town marshal who wants Books gone. His character doesn't actually make a lot of sense, and neither does Morgan's performance.

Otherwise, the film is a catalog of great performances. Stewart's Dr. Hostetler is perfect. Laren Bacall is stunning as Bond, the widow who runs the boarding house. With her steely eyes and manner, she matches Wayne scene by scene. Even lesser roles are played by talented actors, such as Hugh O'Brien as the gambler Pulford, and Bill McKinney, who plays Jay Cobb with the perfect mix of meanness and cowardice. According to the the making-of documentary on the dvd, casting this film was easy. Everyone in Hollywood wanted a chance to be in what could be John Wayne's last movie. I am envious of Wayne. Not many people are lucky enough to have their last work turn out to be their best.

4.5 stars out of 5

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