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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

THE WESTERNER (1940)

Though he spent much of his career at the top of the Hollywood food chain, William Wyler made his bones helming dozens of low-budget silent Westerns @ Universal for ‘Uncle’ Carl Laemmle. After sound came in, he made just three more (HELL’S HEROES in ’29; this one; THE BIG COUNTRY/’58), all superb, all variously underappreciated, all reveling in an unhurried, but flowing pace and a high comfort level working the landscape that Wyler must have picked up on those early films. This one uses your basic Free-Range Ranchers vs. Homesteaders storyline as scaffolding (much like SHANE/’53), and is saddled with one of producer Sam Goldwyn’s typically ho-hum leading ladies (Doris Davenport). But what makes it special, and it’s very special, is the incredible yin-yang/Laurel & Hardy call-and-response act Wyler, along with scripters Jo Swerling & Niven Busch, worked up for Gary Cooper’s good-guy drifter & Walter Brennan’s not-quite bad-guy Judge Roy Bean. Watching them toss back drinks while making mordant cracks about hanging in a long dialogue scene might have earned Samuel Beckett’s approval. (Timed to a 'T' by Wyler and wonderfully shot, as is the entire film, by Gregg Toland. Check out a little sidle he uses to ‘dolly in’ on Brennan for emphasis.) And Wyler doesn’t skimp elsewhere: a fine dusty fistfight for Coop & Forrest Tucker, a devastating crop fire, and a great theatrical finale where the Judge finally gets to meet his idol, Lily Langtry. Brusquely violent, eccentrically funny, perfectly proportioned story construction (as always with Wyler*), this mid-sized gem ought to be much better known.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cooper got his big break on another Goldwyn Western, THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH/’26, stealing the pic from Ronald Colman & Vilma Banky before director Henry King gets to open the flood gates & flatten half the West.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Credit film critic Terrence Rafferty for noting Wyler’s invariably impeccable story construction.

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