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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

THE WESTERNER -- Movie Review by Porfle

Several filmmakers have tried their hand at bringing the legendary Judge Roy Bean to the screen, with such familiar faces as Paul Newman, Ned Beatty, Edgar Buchanan, Victory Jory, and Jack Palance tackling the role on the big and small screens. 

With THE WESTERNER (1940), director William Wyler (THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES) gives us one of the most unusual takes on Bean in the form of a 46-year-old Walter Brennan, a brilliant character actor who plays the judge as a likably funny oddball one moment, a dangerous and unpredictable sociopath the next. 

Brennan's Roy Bean has set himself up as a fake judge whose courthouse is his own saloon with a jury pool made up of drunken, poker-playing cattlemen.  All of them are at war with the homesteaders in the area who fence off the range for their crops, a crime Bean often punishes with hanging.  Into this volatile culture clash rides Cole Harden (Gary Cooper), a saddle bum accused of horse theft who only escapes the hangman's noose by pretending to be a friend of Bean's most fervent fantasy woman, famed British beauty Lily Langtry.

With the promise of a lock of Langtry's hair--which he, of course, doesn't have--Cole not only cheats death but becomes an unlikely friend to the wildly unstable Bean.  But his allegiances are mixed when he also befriends a spirited young farm woman named Jane Ellen (Doris Davenport) who lives with her father and takes the lead in trying to rally her fellow homesteaders against the often bloody onslaught of the cattlemen. 

Naturally, romance blossoms between Cole and Jane Ellen, one which will be shaken when she believes him to have betrayed her trust after a particularly vicious attack leaves the fields of corn aflame and most of the farmers fleeing in defeat.  Cole's only choice at that point is to use his friendship with Bean against him, setting him up for a showdown that will end in death for one or both of them.

As a counterpoint to Brennan's comical yet cruelty-tinged role--which won him an Oscar--the boyishly handsome Gary Cooper is at his laconic, likable "aw, shucks" best as the kindhearted drifter who won't suffer an insult but feels compelled to champion the farmers' almost hopeless cause (as SHANE will do years later, along with countless other heroic Western loners).

He has a childlike way about him at times and his scenes with his leading lady are playful, notably when Cole is trying to talk Jane Ellen out of a lock of hair to present to Bean as belonging to Miss Langtry.  The more dramatic turns between the two later on are less convincing, however, lacking their earlier chemistry--a happily-ever-after epilogue seems tacked on, and the film never reaches the emotional highpoints between these two characters that it makes a cursory effort to achieve.

Before that, though, comes the exciting climactic scene which, rather than the battle between the two warring camps that we expect, is an odd episode in which Bean's obsession with Langtry lures him into a final showdown with Cole.  The sequence is a novel one and is tinged with melancholy as we feel a conflicting sympathy for Brennan's otherwise rather monstrous character. 

With its beautiful black-and-white cinematography by Gregg Toland (CITIZEN KANE), THE WESTERNER is an appealingly old-fashioned Western with the kind of period authenticity and genuine-ness that sets it apart from the slicker, more modern examples of the genre.  There are a number of comic touches and a general lighthearted air that keeps things from getting too grim amidst all the shootings and hangings, tempered by a gradual note of melancholy in the relationship between Cole and Bean.

Unfortunately, we never really get to know the farmers enough to care about them, and the ranchers, including a young Chill Wills, are cartoon characters.  (Very young versions of Forrest Tucker and Dana Andrews are on hand as well.)  The fact that it's quirky enough to set it apart from run-of-the-mill Westerns with similar plots makes THE WESTERNER as watchable as it is, along with Brennan's Looney Tunes performance and Gary Cooper's endless, irresistible charm.


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