The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an entertaining and emotionally involving western. Yet, while it is an enjoyable film it falls distinctly shy of its innate story potential.
Director John Ford and the writers have somewhat overplayed their hands. They have taken a disarmingly simple and affecting premise, developed it with craft and skill to a natural point of conclusion, and then have proceeded to run it into the ground, destroying the simplicity and intimacy for which they have striven. The long screenplay from a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson has Stewart as a dude eastern attorney forging idealistically into lawless western territory, where he is promptly greeted by the sadistic, though sponsored, brutality of Valance (Lee Marvin), a killer who owes his allegiance to the vested interests of wealthy cattlemen opposed to statehood, law and order.
The audience instantly senses that Stewart did not fire the fatal shot that gives him his reputation and destines him for political fame. Because the audience knows that: (1) Stewart can’t hit a paint can at 15 paces, (2) Stewart has won the heart of the sweetheart of John Wayne, best shot in the territory and a man of few words but heroically alert and forthright. Had the body of the film (it is told in flashback) ended at this maximum point, it would have been a taut, cumulative study of the irony of heroic destiny.
Stewart and Wayne do what comes naturally in an engagingly effortless manner. Vera Miles is consistently effective. Marvin is evil as they come. There is a portrayal of great strength and dignity by Woody Strode. But the most memorable characterization in the film is that of Edmond O’Brien as a tippling newspaper editor deeply proud of his profession.
1962: Nomination: Best B&W Costume Design