The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Discussions concerning the ‘best’ of John Ford’s contributions to motion picture history tend to boil down to splitting hairs between his VistaVision, Technicolor extravaganza The Searchers (1956) and the grey melancholy of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Both films saw the prolific director catching up with the revisionist statements being made by western genre contemporaries Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, 1952), George Stevens (Shane, 1953), and Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar, 1954). Though The Searchers is the more visually influential work (its famous doorway shot has been recycled more than any outside of Vertigo’s dolly/zoom), Ford and his actor muse, John Wayne, were merely testing the waters of full-bore revisionism by casting him as an antihero with a vaguely unhappy ending. It’s certainly a referential picture and brimming with social subtext, but doesn’t subvert genre tropes with the same sophistication and naked honesty as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Ford takes chances with his narrative, purposefully relegating Wayne’s archetypal character to the peripherals of the story, and isn’t afraid of exploring complex social and political issues.
Thanks to the efforts of Ford and his contemporaries (including Howard Hawks, of course), westerns (along with other ‘genre movies,’ like sci-fi and horror) became a preferred method for delivering post-WWII political subtext. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proved a particularly influential jumping-off point for younger filmmakers from the oncoming ‘New Hollywood’ revolution to extend the genre well beyond the standards of Stagecoach (1939) or even the relatively revisionist My Darling Clementine (1946). Stretching from the comedic blockbusters, like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), to the nihilistic brutality of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and the surrealistic insanity of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970), late ’60s and early ‘70s westerns owed a substantial debt to Ford’s last great movie. Ford continued making decent movies for almost a decade after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but it was more or less his cumulative word on the subject. Seeing the writing on the wall, John Wayne began revisiting and building upon his postmodern Man Who Shot Liberty Valance character. His efforts to de-romanticize his image culminated in his only Oscar win as Rooster Cogburn in Henry Hathaway’s True Grit (1969).
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance also had a profound effect on Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Leone’s public opinions on Ford’s career were often replete with backhanded compliments about his optimism and naïveté. He endeavored to become the anti-Ford, presuming that his classic Hollywood counterpart had personally shaped many of the romantic clichés that his own spaghettis were railing against (obviously, Leone’s films are rife with blatant visual homages to Ford, especially during Once Upon a Time in the West  and My Name is Nobody ). But he relented in regards to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which he referred to as Ford’s only pessimistic movie. Lee Van Cleef got his part as the secondary lead in For a Few Dollars More (1965), Col. Mortimer, in part because of his supporting appearance in Ford’s film (Lee Marvin, who plays the main villain in charge of Van Cleef, was Leone’s second choice for the role after Henry Fonda) and that single appearance led to a long series of leading roles in other Italian westerns. Among these was Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (1966) – a pseudo companion piece to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where Van Cleef plays a bounty hunter who is seeking political office that discovers the depths of political corruption while searching for a Mexican peasant. Fans of Deadwood might also want to take notice of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s extended town hall meeting sequence, convoluted political processes, and disenchanted ethical arguments.
Somehow, this release marks The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s North American Blu-ray debut. This 1080p, 1.78:1 black & white transfer appears to match the one’s released via Paramount throughout Europe and Australia (the Paramount/WB release privileges are still confusing to me). The dynamic range and detail levels are much more impressive than the overly dark and fuzzy (even for an SD disc) 1.66:1 DVD counterpart. Textures pop nicely, thanks to cinematographer William H. Clothier’s use of wide-angle lenses and, thanks to the evocative, almost noir-ish lighting schemes, there is a wide range of greys and blacks. Unfortunately, there also appears to be a fair amount of computer assisted clean-up here. For the most part, this is welcome. I’m sure the 50 (or so) year-old, 35mm print they were working from had plenty of damage and dirt that needed to be scrubbed to match the standards of the studio’s other catalogue releases (the image stabilization is also nearly perfect). However, there are suspicious artifacts and inconsistencies throughout the transfer. Natural grain levels are softened a bit by DNR and edges are over-sharpened, leading to haloes that are made a little bit worse by the aforementioned DNR. More annoying, some of the defining lines are often smudged into blobby shapes (similar to what happened on Disney’s Sword in the Stone and Oliver and Company discs) and, though the gradations are complex on average, there are some definite banding/posterization issues throughout the transfer. Complaints aside, I assure readers that the moving images don’t look as strange in motion as the stills on this page. I didn’t notice nearly as many issues until I went in to get the screen caps.
Viewers have two English audio choices to pick from. The first is an uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio version of the 5.1 track mixed for older DVD releases. Though the stereo and surround enhancements are tastefully done for the most part, the remix is rife with volume discrepancies and artificial-sounding digital augmentations. The second and more preferable option is the original mono – or at least what they’re claiming is the original mono (there are a couple of effects instances that lead me to suspect it might be a single channel version of the remix) – presented in compressed Dolby Digital 2.0. Assuming it is to original mono (and let’s just do that, because I have no real evidence to the contrary), the compression is disappointing, but not unexpected for a WB or Paramount catalogue release. Cyril J. Mockridge and Alfred Newman’s music, which is mostly relegated to establishing shots and credits, sounds plenty rich on both tracks, but the volume increase is certainly a tick in the remix’s plus column.
Like those European Paramount Blu-ray’s, this one is barebones, which is too bad, because there was a Centennial Collection DVD that included two commentaries and a nearly hour-long documentary.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.