For a while now I have been seeing Burt Lancaster as an actor whose more than just an actor. Every film he’s appeared in he bring an aura of majesty and mystery. As if he’s a legendary figure from the heavens who has graced us with his presence. He was born to be a leading man you could say. Even from his early films he had the ability to leave his mark on the screen, even when he wasn’t present. I’m not so much drawn to his physical presence, more the aura that he creates. His performances were always compelling, even when the script was poor, tearing out its pages and delivering a something far better. Drawing the audience under his spell. Looking over his credits I can see that once he began to really mature as an actor he rarely put a foot wrong. Being it as Wyatt Earp in The Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) to his mesmerizing Oscar-winning performance in Elmer Gantry (1960). He wasn’t afraid to take on challenging material with directors such as John Frankenheimer one of Hollywoods more liberal thinkers. Before forming an interesting working relationship with Luchino Visconti which I really want to see more of. So why all this praise of Lancaster you may ask? I find that as he got older, he too like his work matured to the point that even when he’s on screen for a few minutes in Local Hero (1983) he brings with his something intangible by just being to the screen.
I want to focus my attention to the cult film, The Swimmer (1968) from his back catalogue. On the surface it looks very much like a product of its time. It’s not your standard piece of Hollywood film of the time. With the new wave just getting underway, this could be seen as a conservative attempt to reach a new audience with a familiar face. Lancaster who had been on the screen for just over 20 years had not really shown much sign of aging. When it comes to The Swimmer who can see he’s starting to get a middle-spread, not that it stops him from making s film where his only costume is a pair of trunks. Gone also is the trademark hair, it’s all down and floppy. He’s more concerned with character than his own image, his consideration for his craft has deepened. He’s not acting with his heart on his sleeve, these are the sleeves of the character he’s inhabiting.
The plot is pretty simple really, Ned Merrill (Lancaster) decides to swim his way back home, plotting a loose course across the Connecticut countryside stopping to swim through his neighbors pools. That wouldn’t be most people’s first choice of travel. It does suggest he’s a free-thinker, ready to try something new. Allowing us to make our way through the film, meeting all walks of life on the way. It also better reflects the culture of the time, the free thinkers, opening your mind to new experiences. This is as free as the affluent are going to get, traveling the back way home and having a cheeky splash in a few pools along the way, sounds like fun.
Ned’s idea’s met with bemusement and excitement as he announces his plan, it doesn’t take long for the sun to go behind the clouds. Filled with enthusiasm he begins to the trail, named after his wife, Lucinda who he mentions all the time, as he makes his way back home to her and his daughters playing tennis. He paints a wonderful image of the perfect family life, one that he sells to everyone he meets along the way. First encountering Julie Hooper (Janet Landgard) who he invites to follow him. We learn that she once baby sat his daughters years ago. They have a long association that he hopes he can deepen. Today these scenes play very differently, he’s not just another older guy going for the young innocent girl. In the light of the Weinstein is scandal, the scenes take on a more sinister tone. Thankfully Julie is able to save her self from a fate that too many have fallen for. The classic screen convention of older man and young woman/girl is not allowed to develop, there’s a break to reality, fear enters her mind and the audience allow her to run away.
Already we are seeing a man whose begin to come undone, he can’t control himself. For her she sees a man she once had a crush, now older and full of ideas that don’t make sense to her modern and maturing way of thinking. Ned moves on through garden after garden some visits are longer than others, where we learn more about him, none of it leaves us assured of his past or future. When he comes to an empty pool he can’t just skip it and move on he has to imagine it, everything has to as if he were really swimming. It’s a disturbing scene, joined by Howie Hunsacker (Bill Fiore) who can’t swim is lead with him, taking on a paternal role to the boy, allowing us to see another side to him.
Visually the film is very soft, the vaseline is smudged over the lens at times to create a dreamlike quality to the film, a dream that Ned is creating of the perfect life of the suburban man who we believe has it all, a beautiful wife and children whom he loves dearly. A job in the city and money, everything the middle-class aspire to achieve in life. We have to listen carefully for the cracks to begin to show. The swimmer begins to limp from pool to pool with a memory that fails him, whats happening to the man, has he lost his mind? Every scene after the first stop is constructed to slowly chip away at him mentally and physically to reveal a broken middle-aged man who as we learn by the end of the film hasn’t got it all. In fact his own may not even be his, his wife and children are now just a memory to him, a projection to his friends and neighbors who paint a more realistic image of the modern family, one that could be broken and dysfunctional.
I didn’t know what to expect from The Swimmer, I knew there would be pools, a few parties, but not the revelations along the way. The undoing of the man we thought we knew at the beginning of the film. Where did he come from, we’ll never know for sure. Clearly a vehicle for Lancaster who as much as he is on display doesn’t indulge in that fact. It could easily be re-written as a one-man play that delves into the mind of the modern man who constructs the ideal image he wishes to project, yet it’s those around him who chip away at him to reveal a broken man who crashes back down to reality. I said earlier that this was a product of it’s time, which in part it is, visually. Conceptually it is more relevant now, as we each construct images on social media of ourselves for the world to see. Hoping our audience will buy into the images and lifestyle we are projecting. The challenge that Ned sets himself opens him up to his eventual undoing, behind the profile is a life as anyone else’s.
I thought I understood The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) on my first encounter a few years back. I didn’t give my best review so obviously my understanding wasn’t that informed. You could say John Ford has given us an early revisionist western before we knew what we were getting. Shaking up the genre whilst still very much in the classic form of a stranger coming into town. The first time we see two of the screen most popular actors sharing the screen, James Stewart and John Wayne who equally have made an impact on the genre.
The tale of the shooting of bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) begins in retrospect with the death of Tom Doniphon who ready to be buried. A poorly aged Stewart (Ransom Stoddard) arrives back to the town of Shinbone a senator. Why could he possibly want to be in this town, to pay his last respects to an old man? This is all before the tale is told before the local paper newspaper, eager to know why he and his wife Hallie Stoddard (Vera Miles). The connection becomes clearers as we leave the turn of the century town for a territorial frontier town on the cusp of great things or collapse.
Beginning with the classic hold up on a dark night, masked gun men bring a stagecoach to a stop to rob all of their money. Not counting on the young(er) and eager lawyer (Stewart) packing only the law in the form of books. Using on words as his weapon of choice in a land ruled by the draw of a gun. Laughed at, beaten he is left for dead by Valances men. This is however just he beginning of the legend.
Eventually brought into town by Tom Doniphon the man we have all been waiting for, the anticipation after seeing Wayne’s name in the opening titles has been held back until nearly the first half hour, building up his part after his demise. The legend that is the Duke is larger than life in now iconic dress even in black and white the colour transfer image of his role takes nothing away from the black and white masterpiece of the western genre, instead lifting him to a higher status. His first beaming smile, his presence is known, we are at ease when he is on-screen. The image is engrained on the genre and the legend. Not forgetting the numerous times he says “pilgrim” aimed at the gunless Stoddard meant he was a newcomer to the western, whilst also on a pilgrim of religious reasons, his religion being the law which he wanted to bring out with him. Which develops into both a term of affection towards the stranger and minor insult which only seems to make little difference to the stubborn lawyer.
It’s not just about bringing the dangerously wild cowboy Valance to justice, something that that town Marshall Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is not too interested in doing, instead happier to stuff his face, having the easy life which comes with his position. The political landscape of their region is in a state of change. The unnamed territory could easily fall into the hands of the cattlemen who built it up, or into a state which would allow them to be looked after as a community. The beginning of a proper infrastructure, paid for by taxes that go to the government. Stoddard is a force for change and he doesn’t even know it. With the growing support of Shinbone through education which opens their minds to the possibilities beyond simple gun-play.
With the help of local newspaper-man Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) he builds a position of power and influence that eventually brings him back to Valance and the influence of fear and guns in the town. The showdown must take place in order for a few things to happen. For progress to move forward, for Stoddard to have some self respect and defend himself and make the town safe. This is the moment we have been waiting for, all the build-up and practice is what we sat down for. Its a long drawn out beginning which become a triumph of good over bad as Valance is finally slain down. The legend is born in those few minutes that s last longer than the length of the film. Itself is a construction of all involved, the actors, lighting, special effects and the director, it happened countess times before too and even after.
It’s a short gun battle just a few shots, nothing like as many as those fired in Tombstone, Arizona which actually took place at the OK Corral in 1881. Because it was caught on camera, its adds another dimension, built up by the characters who believe they know what happened, a new man is born after that day. Ready for office even on the foundations of a killing, lawful or not. Not politician today would be brought to office with a criminal record as colourful as his.
Going into full political mode its time to get Shinbone’s territory represented democratically and full Fordian style. Making full use of his stock company of actors he has built up over the years we have a raucous time inside that meeting, characters showing their true colours. It’s rich in people, sound and events. All before the truth of that gunfight is revealed to Stoddard, built on the foundation of a lie, a sacrifice of one mans feelings for another’s. To settle a score that could have gone on for years to come between to equal skilled gunmen. A great man who could have had more gives it all up for the pilgrim who has taken all he’ll ever have.
The legend is sealed between the two of them. only to be revealed to a journalist who in the end doesn’t want to publish that story, which is what it will remain to all of, yet in the west it is a prime example of an event becoming screwed and taking on a life on it’s on. A grand delusion part of a countries image that fought to contain itself and prove to the world that the young nation could set an example, making hard decisions. It’s another myth of conquest, not over a native nation, but good over evil to progress and not regress to never moving forward. Why spoil something that a country has taken into their hearts, becoming part of the fabric. If the truth should be known, don’t share too loudly. Ford is rewriting the western genre as we knew it a creator of myths that could so easily be built up and smashed back down, are they lies, points of view and conjecture, its all of them and the passage of time growing into being part of history, something which Stoddard never escapes from.
- Masterpieces Classics: The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) (thescreenteen.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) (birth-of-a-notion.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) (westernsontheblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- 1962: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford) (cahierspositif.blogspot.co.uk)