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Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Westerner

A 1940 oater directed by William Wyler and starring Gary Cooper, The Westerner is not either's finest work, but it does showcase Walter Brennan in a scary-good performance as Judge Roy Bean, earning him his third Oscar.

Roy Bean was a real person--he held court in his bar in west Texas, proclaiming himself as "the law west of the Pecos," and while he has a legacy as a hanging judge, he actually only sentenced two men to die (but, as they say, "print the legend"). As played by Brennan, he is something on idiot god, a simple-minded man who wields complete power, especially in the war between cattlemen and homesteaders.

To further his soft-headedness, he is obsessed with actress Lillie Langtry (also a real person), to the point of throwing anyone out of the bar who won't drink to her. Pictures of "Jersey Lillie" festoon the bar.

In comes Gary Cooper, who has been arrested for stealing a horse. Brennan assures him that "we give horse thieves a fair trial before we hang them." But Cooper, not missing a chance, tells Brennan he has met Langtry, and has a lock of her hair. Gullible to the point of incredulousness, Brennan believes him and commutes the sentence. When the real horse thief is found, Cooper and Brennan form a strange bond, even while Cooper romances Doris Davenport, one of the homesteaders.

The Westerner has some great talent involved--the cinematography was by Gregg Toland and the music by Dmitri Tiomkin--but it wasn't Wyler's best. The pacing seems off, as Cooper and Brennan's scene have a lag-time--each seems to take too long to respond to each other's lines, as if they were being fed to each other via an ear-piece. Cooper, who didn't want the role because he feared he would be outshone by Brennan (he was right) doesn't ever seem to have a handle on the character.

But the film is worth seeing for Brennan. He won three of the first five Best Supporting Actor Oscars (the theory is he was popular with extras, who then were allowed to vote). His Bean is exceedingly complex for a mid-level western. The last scene, which has him buying out the theater where Langtry is playing, dressing up in his Civil War uniform, and about to realize his greatest wish, is poignant. He would go on to play several versions of a character he became famous for, the kind of addle-pated sidekick, but his Bean was much more than that.

Of further interest, the film features an early appearance of Forrest Tucker, who would go on to fame in the series F Troop and for sinking a putt with his member.

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