The Shootist - (1976)
When it comes to who was chosen to helm John Wayne’s final western/film, Don Siegel is a bit of an odd choice. While Siegel was one of the best genre filmmakers who ever lived, and during his career he made his share of westerns, he didn’t make nearly as many his closest contemporaries Aldrich, Karlson, Fuller, Witney, Jack Arnold, and Gordon Douglas, nor did he make them as good. In fact if it wasn’t for the inclusion of his Elvis Presley western “Flaming Star” (a truly great fifties western, and maybe the most brutally violent American western of its era), his western filmography wouldn’t be impressive at all. His first western, the Audie Murphy quickie, “The Duel at Silver Creek”, is a very well conceived and executed picture, as well as being obviously a Siegel picture. One of Siegel’s most interesting story telling tactics is audience misdirection. It’s in his first film “The Verdict”, “Flaming Star”, “Charley Varrick”, even in his Burt Reynolds caper comedy “Rough Cut”. And it’s used to dramatic effect in “The Duel of Silver Creek”. Within the films first twelve minutes Faith Domergue is introduced as the least interesting character in a fifties western, the pretty lady love interest of the sheriff (complete with silk dress, fancy hat, and parasol). Only to shockingly revel that Miss Domergue is in cahoots with films villainous claim jumpers by strangling a wounded man to death. This sudden dramatic revelation snaps your attention into focus for the rest of the picture. It also colors your perception of, not only Miss Domergue, but practically every character she comes in contact with, especially the stuck on her sheriff (Stephen McNally), who from that moment on looks like a complete fool. And while the film has it’s silly moments – usually involving a ridiculous character named Johnny Sombrero (Eugene Iglesias) – aside from señor Sombrero, the films villains aren’t a joke. One of my favorite heavies of the era, the Bogart like Gerald Mohr (check him out as the villain in the William Witney and John English serial “Jungle Girl”. His Cheshire Cat smile hides a shark bite), leads an evil bunch of claim jumpers, dirty dogs who force gold prospectors to sign over their claims at the barrel of a gun, then savagely murders them. There’s even a faint hint of the Ku Klux Klan about the jumpers, since some of them are respected members of the community, they operate a bit like a secret society. It’s definitely a fun Audie Murphy western of that Universal period, but it’s not the class act. Those bragging rights belong to Jack Arnold and his Murphy mystery western “No Name on the Bullet” (Siegel did two films with Audie Murphy and considered casting him as Scorpio in “Dirty Harry”).
His last western before “The Shootist” was the least of his Eastwood collaborations, the wannabe spaghetti western “Two Mules for Sister Sara” which paired Clint with a very funny Shirley MacLaine (easily the best thing in the film, aside from a really memorable Ennio Morricone score). While the photography by legendary Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa ended Siegel’s shitty looking TV quality slump that had effected his work for his last six movies, the flick is still a half-hearted half-assed attempt to do a Corbucci like western, mixed in with a bit of “The African Queen” style battle of the sexes.
When it’s just Eastwood & MacLaine out in the desert by themselves, the film is lightly amusing. But its lack of commitment, mediocre premise, script, action, and outcome, not to mention Eastwood’s silly looking leather hat ultimately do it in. Fact of the matter, after “Flaming Star”, Siegel’s best western is his TV movie “Stranger On The Run”. Which even though it has the Universal TV look of a “The Virginian” episode, it has, after Andy Robinson’s performance as Scorpio in “Dirty Harry”, the best performance in a Siegel film. Michael Parks as corrupt, walrus mustached sheriff Vince McKay.
Which brings us to “The Shootist”. There’s nothing in “The Shootist” you haven’t seen done many times before and done better. Including a few years earlier by Richard Fleischer in “The Spikes Gang” ( which also shares young actor Ron Howard), and a few years later by Lamont Johnson in “Cattle Annie & Little Britches”. But what you haven’t seen before is a dying John Wayne give his last performance. And its Wayne’s performance, and the performances of some of the surrounding characters (Howard, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan, and Sheree North) that make “The Shootist”, not the classic it wants to be, but memorable nonetheless. The film really only has one purpose, to be a cinematic eulogy to Wayne’s career (“On Golden Pond” served the same function for Henry Fonda). Not only is that a dubious reason to make a film, the maudliness inherently involved in such an endeavor, seems a dishonorable pursuit for any serious artist (though there are some successful examples, Peter Bogdanovich’s swan song to Boris Karloff “Targets” being one of them). But as suspicious as I am when a director tries to tug on my heartstrings, even I think John Wayne ending his career with “Rooster Cogburn & The Lady” would be a damn shame. The fact that “The Shootist” is a good film at all, is all due to Wayne, which in it’s own way, is perfectly fitting for the big man. Like many a star at the twilight of their career, who have actually managed to remain stars, the last ten years of their career usually falls into a pattern: Geriatric versions of the movies that they use to make, usually featuring a few young performers, and many familiar faces from the old days. Usually directed by one or two directors that the aging star is comfortable with. This describes the last ten years of Bob Hope’s movie career, Jerry Lewis’ twilight starring career, Glenn Ford’s last decade staring in westerns, and Charles Bronson’s last ten years at Cannon Pictures. And this describes Wayne’s last decade to a tee. Aside from crazy experiments like “McQ” (no good, but I kinda like it anyway, if for nothing else that amazing gun that McQ shoots), and “Brannigan” (silly, but that’s what’s enjoyable about it), during the last decade of John Wayne’s career he made John Wayne movies.
Well, didn’t he always, I hear you ask. Well yeah, but not like in the seventies. “Chisum”, “Big Jake”, “Rio Lobo”, ” Cahill: U.S. Marshal” and “The Train Robbers” didn’t need titles, even as generic as those titles were. They could of just been issued numbers, Andrew McLaglen Wayne western number 4, Burt Kennedy Wayne western number 3, Howard Hawks “Rio Bravo” redo number 3.
Now while I’m being a smart ass, these pictures are all pretty watchable. Compared to the last ten years of Bob Hope’s movie career, they’re one classic after another. “Cahill” is pretty solid, “The Train Robbers” is so light it’s barley a movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s not amusing, and “Big Jake ” is downright good. But they are what they are, a last decade John Wayne western. Whether his name is Cahill, Jake McCandles, John Chisum, or John T. Chance the third, Wayne is the same, his costumes are the same, and the people acting in the scenes with Wayne are the same. With two exceptions, Mark Rydell’s “The Cowboys” and Siegel’s “The Shootist”.
And just the sheer fact that with these two films Wayne breaks the mold, makes them kind of exciting. They’re not John Wayne movies but real movies (shades of Siegel’s work with Elvis). He’s not Cahill, or Chisum or McLintock, which is to say he’s not just the persona that the actor has grown into, he’s a character. Watching “The Cowboys” again, I was surprised how old he played the character (though apparently nobody could talk him out of that rug he wore). Even his wife didn’t look like a Maureen O’ Hara or a Yvonne De Carlo type, but a worn out old lady. And when he’s killed, by Bruce Dern playing a character named Long Hair (Hippy), with the film having twenty minutes to go, you’re flabbergasted. Now of the two “The Cowboys” is the better movie, and is better directed (when we showed it recently at The New Beverly a very old Mark Rydell with his kids and grandkids showed up to watch it). But “The Shootist” is by far the better performance. It’s a little funny, while Wayne preferred working with the same group of guys, McLaglen, Kennedy, Hathaway, Hawks, George Sherman, when he worked outside of the regular corral, he seemed to respect the directors more. He gave a different kind of performance, he didn’t try and direct the picture (like apparently he did with Andy & Burt), he didn’t just act with the usual suspects (Ben Johnson, Forrest Tucker, Maureen O’Hara, his son, Robert Mitchum’s son), and he really seemed to care.
So basically Don Siegel’s job was to not be Burt Kennedy. Well he wasn’t and he cast the film well, but he wasn’t Don Siegel either. There’s a sense of vision to “The Cowboys”. The movie isn’t really all that, but Rydell thinks it is, and by the time the children bust open that box of weapons to kill that basterd Dern, you agree. Other then your last time watching John Wayne, “The Shootist” is so devoid of vision the credits could have been printed in Braille. Siegel doesn’t even do what Siegel does best action (aka violence). Almost all of Wayne’s movies of this time introduce the big man to the picture by having him take out some big mouth minor heavy, with a witty sarcastic line, a faster then you draw, or one of Wayne’s wild haymaker punches. And all of them are better then the one that starts “The Shootist” (“Big Jake” is the best of them, “Not you, you scare me”). And the final climatic shoot out with Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brian, and Bill MCKinney is awful (the worst staged action of Siegel’s career), and it doesn’t make a lick of sense. About the only Siegel-like talent that Don demonstrates other then the casting and directing of actors (not to imply that’s nothing), is his talent at directing comedy scenes inside of his action movies (“Coogan’s Bluff” & “Dirty Harry”). Wayne naturally gets every laugh he wants. Harry Morgan is a hoot and a half (he gets the movies biggest laughs), and Siegel regular Sheree North shares one of Wayne’s best scenes of the last decade of his career as a former flame with an agenda. And maybe the only genuine Siegel touch in the whole film is the entrance of hillbilly mad dog killer Richard Boone, riding a fancy horseless carriage (a car). A dandifying touch that’s pure Siegel (by this time in Wayne’s career, Richard Boone was the only actor left on earth who could threaten The Duke, and he and the audience could take it seriously). Unfortunately, any time anyone gets any comic juices flowing, Lauren Bacall shows up and throws a wet blanket on the scene (Bacall wears a hair bun like its a chastity belt). Still Siegel guided Wayne through not only his last western, but if not his best performance, maybe his most dignified. And The Duke ending his long reign with dignity (least we forget “Rooster Cogburn & the Lady”), what more can you ask?
Is “The Shootist” good? Well, let’s just say, it’s good enough.