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The Shootist

The framing device of John Ford's 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance takes place at the turn of the century, a time when social progress and the rule of law have left much of the Old West behind. The film was Ford's unique elegy to the heroes of a bygone day, and it is only fitting that its two stars — John Wayne and James Stewart — would re-unite for Wayne's last film, 1976's The Shootist, which serves as an elegy for Wayne himself, the man and the actor. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout and directed by Don Siegel, Wayne stars as J.B. Books, a notorious gunfighter (or "shootist," in the day's vernacular) who learns from his doctor friend E.W. Hostetler (Stewart) that he is rapidly dying of cancer. Ready to make his peace with the world, Books takes a room in the Carson City boarding house of the widowed Mrs. Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), striking up a friendship with her young son Gillom (Ron Howard). But word soon gets out that Books is in town and facing an early grave, tempting various gunslingers to make their mark on history by becoming the man who shot J.B. Books. While The Shootist is an engaging film on its own merits — with its solemn, meditative themes of death and redemption — it is virtually impossible to isolate it from the life of John Wayne. Wayne was a towering figure of Hollywood's golden era, and he is one of the few actors in film history who have become genuinely iconic. In part this was due to his association with gifted directors (in particular Ford and Hawks), but also because Wayne revisited one character — himself — so often that the man and the movie actor were inseparable (Wayne always insisted that his characters be a reflection of his personal values). For fans of Wayne then, The Shootist is very much the story of his death in broad Hollywood strokes, as he was suffering from cancer at the time and would succumb two years later. Wayne's condition was no secret, and although George C. Scott was originally cast as Books, Wayne's late decision to take the role prompted such luminaries as Bacall and Stewart to sign on, perhaps aware that it was to be his swan song. Additional supporting cast members — including Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brian, John Carradine, Scatman Crothers, and Harry Morgan — fill out the Carson City settings, but it is young Ron Howard who gets perhaps the most plumb part, the fatherless Gillom who sees Book as a hero, and eventually a mentor. The Old West passes to a new generation in a final scene between Wayne, Stewart, and Howard, and again life resembles art — Howard himself would take much of the Old Hollywood style and transform it into many successful films of his own. Paramount's DVD release of The Shootist features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 2.0 (mono). Features include an informative 18-minute retrospective on the film's production history and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—JJB



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