Directed by William Wyler
Written by Niven Busch, Jo Swerling, Stuart N. Lake, W.R. Burnett, Lillian Hellman, and Oliver La Farge
William Wyler's The Westerner is, on the one hand, a movie about a savage piece of land on the edge of the frontier, dominated by roaming ranchers who have, in the place of law, pledged their allegiance to the clownish despotism of a self-appointed "judge," Roy Bean (Walter Brennan). Bean holds court in his saloon, using his best customers as his jurors, and, naturally, Bean tends to take his rancher constituency's side of things at the expense of the more recent settlers who've acquired legal claim to the rangelands and have a pressing need to grow food on it so that they don't starve. We see this conflict in action right at the beginning, as a gang of ranchers knock down the settlers' fences to make way for the stream of cattle, whereupon a clutch of settlers take up arms in defense, and one of the settlers accidentally shoots a cow instead of the man he was aiming at. We also see Bean's sense of justice in action when he opines that it's a shame that settlers are such poor shots, since it wouldn't have been nearly as bad of a crime to shoot the man, but killing a head of cattle is definitely a hanging offense, sentence to be carried out immediately.
The judge's next case is Cole Harden's (Gary Cooper). Brought bound into this unincorporated collection of buildings the locals have taken to calling "Vinegaroon," Cole's accused, tried, and convicted—over the course of about twenty minutes—of horse thievery, on account of the apparently stolen horse he'd unwittingly purchased, which, you guessed it, is also a hanging offense. It's only through quick-thinking and the application of some Cooperesque charm that Cole survives with a suspended sentence, though having a friend in Bean is almost as bad as having him as an enemy, especially as Cole winds up finding another reason to hang around Vinegaroon (so to speak) in the person of Jane-Ellen Matthews (Doris Davenport). She's the daughter of a settler, and Cole takes on her cause, attempting to finagle a rapprochement between rancher and settler that takes advantage of Bean's curious fascination, but doesn't get him, Bean, or Jane-Ellen murdered in the process.
William Wyler's The Westerner is, on the other hand, a quirky comedy about Roy Bean's weird obsession with actress Lillie Langtry (eventually played by Lilian Bond, though given what a structuring absence she is and how symbolic she must be of something-or-other here, I think it was ill-advised she was played by anyone), and about how Bean is a complete fucking moron who will eagerly believe any old saddle tramp who tells him that he's best buddies with a world-famous Englishwoman. Cole drops hints that he might even be Langtry's lover, piquing Bean's prurient interest, and remarks that he'd be happy to deliver unto the smitten judge a prized lock of Langtry's hair from his belongings in El Paso, unless something kept him from doing so, like, say, being hanged from the neck until dead. And therefore The Westerner is about how Bean and Cole sit around for long, long scenes and discuss their respectively fictive and parasocial relationships with a famous person that even a viewer in 1940 might've needed to look up on their equivalent of Wikipedia ("encyclo"-something, I think) to be sure she really existed.
The problem, then, is that William Wyler's The Westerner (which is also fully six screenwriters' The Westerner, their number including an uncredited—and entirely invisible—Lillian Hellman) never stops being both of these things, and every time you'd think they could mutually reinforce one another, the latter almost exclusively undercuts (and trivializes) the former.
Also, and it's a minor point, but The Westerner is called "The Westerner," and I defy you to come up with a worse title. It's not even that I think it's an inherently bad name for some other Western—I might narrow my eyes at it, but there's every possibility that, say, Man of the West (another Cooper, natch) may actually earn the right to be called "Man of the West." But "The Westerner" is a terrible name for a silly, idiosyncratic curio like this, that never once feels like it's grasping for that kind of iconic genre significance, and in the event it ever gets hold of such a thing anyway, it's because it was probably just harder to make a classic-era A-Western that didn't feel iconic and significant than it was to make one that did.
There are things to like about The Westerner regardless—I'm aware that it's accorded the status of a minor classic, so I'd hope there were—chief among them Cooper, whose lanky tallness served many a Western as its hero, and while the man looks great on a horse, the value he brings to The Westerner specifically is more easily traced to his comedies and romances (indeed, his romantic comedies, often as regards Jane-Ellen, but his rapport with Brennan is so consistently flirtatious that I think Wyler must have emphasized it on purpose, like, for example, when Cole and Judge Bean challenge each other to down a mugfull of a "liquor" that we've previously seen literally corrode the judge's bartop, only to wake up in Bean's arms in his bed—though if you're looking for Western homoeroticism that's in any sense erotic, you're probably out of luck, as I somehow don't see this coupling appealing to many beyond the cowboy/grizzled prospector fetish set, if that in fact exists).
In the former capacity, anyway, Cooper embraces the sheer larkiness of the script, essaying a character so nakedly disingenuous that nearly the entire performance feels like an aside to the audience, a collection of constantly darting eyes and body language that concludes every line with an unvoiced, "Yeah, that's the ticket..." This was never the only way to play this role, but while it may be the best, the script isn't consistent enough to totally support it, either. (It's as liable to seize on boilerplate Western cliché as anything else: when Cole's accused by a settler of being a liar and sneak, you'd think Cole would have the decency to admit after an intense stare-off that this is extremely true, but it's followed by the guys boringly knocking each other around for a couple of minutes instead.) But Cooper's at least trying to spin the screenplay's most obvious weaknesses into strengths, even if he does this by effectively just transferring the whole film's storytelling mode from "failed drama" to "vaguely functional comedy."
Cooper's frequent co-star Brennan, in their third of eight collaborations, is more than happy to play along. It's where The Westerner starts getting into trouble, since while Cooper maintains a certain sharpness to his bamboozling hero, Brennan's performance (Oscar-winning performance!) is almost entirely swallowed up by frivolousness. Perhaps it represented some sort of challenge by Wyler to himself to make the comic relief drunk a credible villain, but The Westerner's Bean is so loosely-assembled as a character, rendered as such a two-dimensional idea of a comic Kurtzian figure, that you could never imagine what past could have actually created him. Which is insane, considering Judge Roy Bean was real, and probably more of a psychopathic shithead than he is even in a movie where he's the bad guy, although the movie also imputes more cruelty to him than was the case (he only sentenced two people to hang in his entire tenure, and The Westerner has him sentence two people to hang in the same morning). Even the legitimate historical detail of a failed lynching that left Bean with a permanent crick in the neck comes off more like a bit than backstory.
It doesn't quite work. For starters, The Westerner just isn't funny, in part because it typically approaches what should be, if it be comedy at all, dark comedy, with all the frothiness of a screwball farce. Cooper's at least good enough that I could smirk in recognition at things that have the shape of jokes, but I laughed at precious few of them. To the extent the movie does work, it obviously works better when Brennan isn't just goofing off with Cooper or, in fact, not onscreen at all, and his henchmen are doing dirty deeds on his behalf; there come several points where it starts to look like it's finally getting itself on track—and it pays off with some good, tense scenes when it does!—like when Jane-Ellen's settler neighbor Wade (Forrest Tucker) organizes a militia to take on Bean's tyranny, and Cole has to deescalate the situation before everybody gets themselves killed, or when Bean forgets his various blithe promises to Cole and has his ranchers burn the hated settlers out entirely.
The latter even starts to impress cinematically, and maybe it's not too late for this movie directed by William Wyler and shot by Gregg Toland—that up till now hasn't exactly been badly put-together, but in conversational scenes frequently feels like the pair wished it could be in deep focus, whether they had the lenses on hand or not—to find some powerful, mythic-feeling imagery, with Wyler setting fire to a whole outdoor set, and Toland and editor Dan Mandell dropping in some gorgeous silhouettes of fleeing humans against the flames of a burning cornfield. But even these are marred by editorial choppiness (evidently hard-to-pull-off, those "gorgeous silhouettes" are best measured in the tenths of seconds), and rear-projected shots that feel like they've been dropped in from another universe. Wyler and Toland eventually find one very weighty deep focus visual that actually lands, in the form of Cole and Jane-Ellen standing sullenly in the starkness of a devastated field over her father's grave, each piece of the composition boxed up by broken cornstalks in the foreground, and Cooper is thrown into a narratively-loaded shadow that probably should not, "realistically," be there. You'd think that this must mean the movie's gotten on track, as it could have nothing left except severity and violence.
But just like every other time before, The Westerner pivots right back to Bean's goofy crush, probably even quicker than it had the previous two or three times this happened; there's a nice lull in the second act where you can imagine that they just needed a plot device to get things kicked off and, for almost twenty minutes maybe, the story doesn't entirely revolve around a lock of hair that doesn't exist. It's so insistent about this Goddamn lock of hair that it has to be a metaphor (and literary-feeling metaphors, after all, are a fixture in Wyler's filmography), but it's certainly not one that actually resolves itself into any particular meaning at any point in The Westerner's whole 100 minutes. But then The Westerner plausibly feels like a screenplay that started with a conclusion and worked backward, not necessarily very diligently (or, given the number of writers, too diligently, but at cross-purposes), and without wishing to spoil things about this 81 year old film, that conclusion manages to bring the real Lillie Langtry into the picture in a small but crucial way, in the process doing the same thing with its villain that the movie's been doing all along with its sense of humor—that is, gesture at something that you instantly recognize could easily be moving and poignant in another context, like the comic situations in another context might be funny, but in this context, isn't.
Still: it doesn't do to ignore The Westerner's own, historical context. Cooper only even did the movie under threat of legal action from Samuel Goldwyn, because as soon as he saw that Brennan had been cast as Judge Bean, he thought Cole could only be a minor supporting character, which suggests how Bean's reputation must've been laundered via popular Western mythmaking over the previous forty years, since Cooper apparently couldn't imagine a movie about Bean where Bean was the clearly-cut antagonist. So it's hard not to wonder if The Westerner represented a more abrasive side of Wyler, offering a theoretically-humane portrayal of a famous real-life personage that also makes it abundantly clear he was vile and deserving of worse than his real-life fate of passing away peacefully, even if, as a legend, he also deserved something more interesting than dying in bed. And there's something to that, on paper. But onscreen, The Westerner spends its whole time falling apart.
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