Friday, January 8, 2016

Dear John: The Shootist

To ring in New Year's Day I felt like watching something epic and/or classic. My copy of The Searchers is on loan so I ended up with another seminal if less classically remembered John Wayne western, his final film The Shootist from 1976. Based on Glendon Swarthout's novel with a script from Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale, the Don Siegel directed tale of a dying gunfighter intrigued and entertained me so much that I watched it 3 times in the 48 hour Amazon Prime rental period. The Shootist opens up with a montage of John Wayne clips from earlier films, setting up his J.B. Books as a law and gun man who won't be wronged, won't be insulted and won't be laid a hand on. Into his twilight years and diagnosed with cancer, Books just wants to live out his final days with dignity in peace. Ending up in the picturesque Carson City, fabulously brought to life by the real city in Nevada and the Warner Brothers lot, we meet a plethora of Wayne's friends, film favorites and familiar faces. You had semi-retired James Stewart as the local doctor Books trusts, Lauren Bacall as a widowed boarding house owner, young Ron Howard as her son and would be rabble rouser, Scatman Crothers as the world's greatest haggler and livery owner then genre faces Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brian, Bill McKinney and Harry Morgan as local threats and lawmen.

The script crackles with memorable moments (want my wallet? BLAM!), terrific dialog ("The day they lay you away, what I'll do on your grave won't pass for flowers"), a sense of humor and scattered bits of violence that pack an impact. While a bit weathered, gray and stiff at 68, Wayne is solid as Books, drawing on his heroic baggage to give us a character that's still able and willing as well as reflective and philosophical as he doesn't have time to take the long way or make nice. Director Siegel keeps things moving and the film holds up quite well as it's entertaining, reflective, funny and near mythical. The production was difficult from the start as Wayne was not the first choice for Books but Italian financier and producer Dino De Laurentiis is said to have been set on the star. Writer Swarthout recalled the shoot being difficult with Wayne falling ill during filming and the crew unsure if he would return. Wayne had already lost his left lung and several ribs to cancer prevention surgery years before and faced stomach cancer shortly before shooting commenced. Release information online is muddled with a June or July release where the film grossed either $6, $8 or $13 million depending on who you believed.

After a prolific, iconic and profitable career that spanned five decades, John Wayne died in 1979 with an Oscar, nearly 200 acting credits and worldwide fame to his name. Don Siegel had already established himself as a force in film after successful collaborations with Clint Eastwood and mega hit Dirty Harry, which would mark a milestone in his career. Subsequent team ups with Charles Bronson, Burt Reynolds and Better Midler would not be quite as influential and Siegel retired before passing away in 1991. Eastwood would credit Siegel along with Sergio Leone as the two biggest influences in his own prolific directing career. The Shootist ended up on several Top 10 lists for the year and garnered award nominations from The Academy, Golden Globes and BAFTA.

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