In this entry in the Shootout At High Noon Marathon a legend takes his final bow!
Screenplay By: Scott Hale & Miles Hood Swarthout
Directed By: Don Siegel
*I don’t like ever saying this, but I do spoil the heck out of this movie right from the opening paragraph, you have been warned!*
It’s fitting that the greatest gunslinger of them all has to be shot in the back to be taken down. I don’t know if I want to live in a universe where John Wayne meets his end straight up, it just wouldn’t seem right. Wayne is a legend and a mythic figure and it would have made sense for him to go out in glorious fashion. With a dramatic score bubbling under the surface, cameras swooping to and fro to build tension, and the Duke getting in one last great utterance before his time is up. But that’s not the way it happens in The Shootist, and when the greatest legend the West ever knew finally does meet his maker it’s done in straight forward fashion, but in a way that is unexpected.
Don Siegel takes on the end of a legend in as economical of a fashion as is humanly possible. There’s only one or two instances where he uses a bit of dramatic camera movement. He cuts straight to the chase with his direction, his camera is not the focus. The characters, the setting, their words, and what will happen at the end are the focus. Mr. Siegel guides you through his story, he knows he is not the reason we are here and thus he doesn’t intrude and take away from the enormity of what we will eventually see. I can’t tell you how much I wish other filmmakers would take a cue from Mr. Siegel. There’s nothing wrong with taking control of a film and putting your stamp on it, but there’s also nothing wrong with stepping back and letting your tale be told like Mr. Siegel did in The Shootist.
Then there is the performance of John Wayne, and his final film may be his best performance of all. The Duke has a knowing gait to his step in The Shootist. Not only does his character know he is near his end, but I got the sense that John Wayne knew he was near the end as well. The Shootist is a man looking back at a great life, a life full of tremendous achievements, failures, and mistakes. This can be applied to either the Duke or the character of J.B. Books, The Shootist is a touching Western as well as a subtle exercise in meta storytelling.
At the end of The Shootist there is a moment when Ron Howard, as Gillom Rogers, throws away Books’ gun and walks away from the carnage that Books wrought. This moment can be viewed as very simple, Books has shown Gillom that his way is not the way to go with his life. But, as Gillom stumbles away from the saloon Mr. Siegel decides to employ a distorted view with his camera. This is an important application of camera technique by Mr. Siegel, it makes Gillom’s steps away from the dead Books stand out even more. Mr. Siegel is highlighting the disoriented state of Gillom to put us in his place. We have just witnessed a legend be cut down and our state should mirror that of Gillom. I don’t know about anyone who will read this, but when I saw the Duke go down for the first time I was in a state of complete shock.
The Shootist isn’t the Western to end all Westerns. It isn’t a flashy movie, or a movie with a point that it needs to make. What The Shootist ends up as is a solidly made film that reaches tremendous heights because of its star and a reflection on a career and a legacy. Something like The Shootist rarely happens, I can’t think of a film off hand that has perfectly captured the meaning an actor carried within people like The Shootist did with John Wayne. The Shootist brought us the death of a legend, but it let him go out in his own unique way. Not only that, but he went out in a great movie and left the world of cinema with one more great example of why he became such a legend.
Read what Edgar had to say at Between The Seats.