Posted in: by Rick Hermann, Contributors, Film Festivals, Westerns

Blood and Ashes

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Don Siegel, a man with an impressive history of making competent, toughminded, fast-moving films, admits that he’s trying to alter his “image” as an action director. In his most recent film, The Shootist, we can feel the tug between action and reflection, violence and elegy, present and past—opposing qualities that find a meeting ground in Siegel’s view of what itself is a contradictory environment of change and anachronism. This is turn-of-the-century Carson City, Nevada, outfitted with harbingers of the future such as trolleys on tracks and horseless carriages, but also retaining iconographic refuges of the Old West like the spacious Metropole Saloon. Scanning the borders of heroism, time, and fate within this world, Siegel’s style ranges from the intimate and discreet to the epic, the legendary and mythic mode of end-of-an-era Westerns—divergent strains of perspective (and The Shootist is very much a movie about various perspectives, mixing the larger context of legend with the intimacy of self-knowledge) that can unexpectedly coalesce within a single shot. Towards the end of the movie, when J.B. Books (John Wayne)—an aging gunman dying of cancer—prepares to go out to the Metropole to meet with three adversaries he’s treating to a showdown, there is something about John Wayne’s gestures and Siegel’s eye-level and respectfully unobtrusive camera that is both epically cumulative and heartwrenchingly personal. Very slowly and selfconsciously, Books places his guns just so in his belt, takes his hat from the peg on the wall and arranges it on his head, and checks his watch so as not to be late to this last appointment. (Books has opted to go down in a blaze of gunfire rather than succumb to the cancer attacking him relentlessly from the rear.) It is a painfully intimate moment, one which we feel almost indiscreet in witnessing. Nothing very important is happening—nothing more important than all the accoutrements of a man’s life getting arranged, put in order for his passing.

Pass away he will, but not before some memorable truths about identity and self-knowledge have been ascertained. Wayne’s performance as J.B. Books is a soft-spoken articulation of toughness, weighted with an elegiac sense of mortality accruing not only to the Books legend. There are moments during the film when—I can’t think of any less straightforward way of putting it—Wayne is J.B. Books, a man who’s slowly dying, who is the last of his kind. The honesty of Wayne’s performance, coupled with the rather grim logic of his being cast in the role of a man long ailing, is certainly part of what makes The Shootist so quietly compelling, what has the movie sticking with me like a memory impressed solidly but delicately in my mind as I recall certain moments of understated portent: Books’ offscreen fall and groan as he slips while getting out of the boardinghouse bath; Bond Rogers’ (Lauren Bacall’s) comment, upon watching Books swallow a dose of laudanum, that “That’s habit-forming, isn’t it?”—followed by an exchange of glances that makes any comment by Books unnecessary (it’s only habit-forming as long as you expect to stay alive); or an unfinished sentence Books utters to Mrs. Rogers when she is asking him to vacate his room, leaving us slackjawed and in tears as his eyes start to water up, all pretense of toughness suddenly dropped away: “Mrs. Rogers, you gotta understand … I’m in a kind of a … ” J.B. Books can’t choke out the rest of the sentence, whatever it might have been—perhaps “…in a kind of a tight spot,” with his back against the wall, all possibilities cut off, and only the wheels of Carson City left to turn, bringing his life around full circle.

John Wayne is J.B. Books

In The Shootist various kinds of wheels are turning: wagon wheels, horseless carriage wheels, trolley car’ wheels, roulette wheels, the hub and blades of an overhead fan in a gothic saloon big as a cathedral…. It could all have something to do with individuality-effacing progress in a tightening, once-frontier world; but it also involves the arcing pattern of a life coming around on itself, back to dust. J.B. Books, riding into Carson City, is momentarily framed inside a turning wagon wheel, literally caught within its rules of motion. Books’ subsequent meetings with all of his antagonists are associated with some kind of circular motion: After a long pan down the Metropole bar we see Jack Pulford (Hugh O’Brian), a slick gambler-gunman, framed behind a spinning wheel of fortune. Books meets Sweeney (Richard Boone) at a crook in the city street—Sweeney driving a primitive automobile, Books seated with Bond Rogers in her buggy.

In this connection we might also consider the climactic scene of the movie, the showdown in the saloon. J.B. Books sizes up his adversaries in the mirror behind the bar. There was originally some disagreement between Siegel and Wayne as to how this should be staged. Wayne wanted a closeup of himself followed by a cut to his point-of-view of the villains, while Siegel argued in favor of the mirror shots of each adversary. The scene, finally shot Siegel’s way, is very effective. We get the feeling that these men are no more than reflections, half-real presences interchangeable with any number of other reputation-hungry or score-settling gunmen looking for a big name to inscribe on their sixgun handles. They seem to radiate out from Books’ own presence; his reputation attracts this kind of riffraff. In respect to Books’ past, which Siegel leaves cloudy and ambiguous throughout the film, might these three men be versions of aspiring shootists, referring us back to the inception of Books’ own career? A circularity is implied even in the stunning manner in which Siegel accomplishes the mise-en-scène. He moves slowly from the reflection of one would-be usurper to the next, describing via this deliberate montage the equivalent of a Leone-like arc of motion that seems to close in on the fullness of time, a culmination of all that is in a man’s life … and death.

The morning aftermath of an attempt on Books’ life by some other reputation-seekers involves what is perhaps an apt image for this uncharacteristically subdued Siegel film. Books has rented a room at the widow Rogers’ boardinghouse where he plans quietly to await his death. He is ambushed there one night by faceless shadows we see in the flesh only when they fall dead in a faint glimmer of light on the hardwood floor. In the morning Books walks from his room carrying the bundle of sheets which, in the course of the melee and ensuing fire (from a shattered lamp), had been bled upon and streaked with char. Blood and ashes figure as a kind of conjunction of the violent and the elegiac, a tonal admixture conspicuous in the gothicism of Siegel’s The Beguiled but also present in a more mainline Siegel film that is filled with violence but retains a poetic sense of the quality of passing ways of life and types of people: Charley Varricksubtitled “The Last of the Independents.” J.B. Books is certainly another of those who is the “last” of his kind. As the film opens he is delivered from a landscape of towering, snow-covered mountains and brought into human focus; and as it progresses his geographic context is even more severely narrowed, from the horizon to the hallways of Bond Rogers’ boardinghouse where the moving camera and depth-of-field shots (enhanced by a prodigious use of mirrors) extend the space within the walls, as though trying to stretch free of their confines.

John Wayne and Lauren Bacall

But the horizon closes in. There is a strong sense of the foreordained in Books’ preparation for his death, which even includes his memorizing word for word the writing in a newspaper he’d picked up on the day he discovered he hadn’t long to live, as if by this he could place mortality on a map of time and events—impart some sense to, pinpoint some existential location for, his dying. Knowledge, even though it might encompass the hardrock fact of one’s own impending death, is a precious and often private affair in The Shootist. At one point an old flame (Sheree North) comes to collect annuity on a bankrupt relationship; she wants Books to marry her and sign over the rights to his private life in order that a pulp writer (Rick Lenz) can “print the legend” and make a financial killing on largely fictionalized accounts of Books’ exploits. Books asks her what either she or the writer could possibly know about his life that would allow them to even attempt such galling inroads on his privacy and peace of mind. “I still have some pride, woman,” Books asserts. “A man’s entitled to his dignity.” Almost in the same breath, he downs a swig from his bottle of pain-assuaging laudanum. Knowledge and awareness fix a man’s tenuous position in life, but also foist upon his shoulders a consciousness of his encroaching demise. “Dignity” in The Shootist is a quality that is quaffed with a potion of forgetfulness, an opiate for a man whose past has been lived out, whose life and legend he is ready to set at rest, whose soul is in order and whose consciousness is right ready to be relieved of its burden.

There is an interesting schism between the death of the man and the death of the legend in The Shootist. One is dying of cancer; the other rolls over dead from a shotgun blast in the back on the floor of the Metropole Saloon. It is the conjunction of man and legend, though, that forms the core of the movie, that brings together those aforementioned opposing qualities into a peaceful unity of largely reflective emotion. Siegel’s camera contributes to this effect of coalescing perspectives by pulling back from scene-initiating closeups on pairs of hands: from a hat placed on the edge of a chair by a hand that the pullback reveals to be, not Books’ own—although it is his hat—but that of the doctor (Jimmy Stewart) who is an old acquaintance of Books (the precise nature of the relationship is only whispered around in a few lines of elliptical dialogue); from the gun that both Books and Mrs. Rogers’ boy Gillom (Ron Howard) are handling before Gillom’s “shooting lesson”, a transmitting of the mainly spiritual secrets of becoming a shootist; from Books’ hand, holding a pen, writing “For Bond” on an envelope full of money he will leave behind. Books is linked to these characters in ways left essentially unspoken· through the memory of a shared past, the imparting of a fading tradition, or the beginnings of newfound affection. This gentle shifting of viewpoints—alternating between intimate closeups on affairs of the heart and the larger frameworks of legend and broadly played drama—keeps us mindful of the humanness that pervades this Siegel film. In a way, it’s appropriate that The Shootist is not really a big film; it only seems so because it shows us people like Wayne, Bacall and Stewart who are themselves large in stature, strong in heart, and who loom bigger in life on the horizons of the cinematic legends which they have helped create.

Direction: Donald Siegel. Screenplay: Scott Hale and Miles Hood Swarthout, after the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Cinematography: Bruce Surtees. Production design: Robert Boyle. Music: Elmer Bernstein.
The players: John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Harry Morgan, Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brian, Bill McKinney, Sheree North, Rick Lenz, Scatman Crothers, John Carradine, Charles Martin.

© 1977 Rick Hermann

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.