The Westerner (1940)

Directed by William Wyler
Written by Jo Swerling and Niven Busch

A few Gary Cooper films into this mammoth Westerns marathon, and I don’t think I’ve been wholly impressed as of yet. His “awe shucks” persona has been fine, just fine, let’s get that straight, but it is hard to count him a cowboy all-timer. Yet. The Cowboy and the Lady was his best performance thus far, but as I talked about in my review of that film, it doesn’t quite count as a Western in my book. But with The Westerner, Gary Cooper proves that his brand of cowboy has a place in the west. It certainly won’t hurt his efforts to be complimented by Walter Brennan either, a character actor who has already shown up multiple times, with plenty more appearances to come. And don’t you know it, this just might be his best Western performance to date as well. A pretty good duo and a lot of fun to watch together.

Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) is a drifter, a man who spends his life in the saddle. When he pulls into Vinegaroon, the Texas town run by the “Law West of Pecos”, Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan), he learns he’s been sold a stolen horse. After an impromptu trial before the supposed saloon judge, Cole is able to prove he didn’t steal the horse, and befriends Bean in the process. Bean, however, is a strong proponent of the cattle rancher, and a staunch opponent of the invading homesteaders to the land. Jane Ellen Matthews (Doris Davenport), the woman who helped Cole get off, mostly due to her disdain for Bean, is one such homesteader. So when Cole begins to fall for Jane Ellen, he must choose between his new good friend, Bean, and his girl. Playing mediator, Cole is forced to come between the ranchers and the homesteaders to make peace before violence breaks out.

As this film got going, I found myself thinking that not much at all was actually happening. In the end I can’t really say a whole lot did happen. There are no crazy stagecoach chases, huge shootouts, or any other common, loud western regulars. Instead, I found myself sitting there enjoying the interplay between Bean and Cole, between Brennan and Cooper. Their friendship is what fuels this film, everything else is secondary, even the homesteader/rancher subplot seems put-on. Speaking of which, I found the at-odds nature of the homesteaders and ranchers to be quite pertinent to today’s current political climate, neither willing to bend, especially with an authoritarian figure on the side only hoping to make tons of money. But that is neither here nor there.

Brennan is an absolutely whirlwind in this film, which makes me none too surprised to learn that Gary Cooper was worried about doing the film, thinking Brennan would steal the show. He actually filmed under protest, but also under contract. Thankfully for everyone involved, things worked out. Brennan is terrific, and won an Oscar for his performance, and Cooper is just as good as he’s ever been here as well. The two really have a great chemistry, and while Cooper may have worried about not being the star in his own film, they are co-leads in every sense of the term I think. Both worthy of praise.

For once too, even among a series of pretty good films in this marathon, the film actually picks up in the second half as opposed to losing its steam. The theater sequence alone is perhaps the best scene in the whole marathon to this point. It is truly gripping and emotionally charged cinema, packed with great visuals and writing. Setting the finale in an empty theater, where the authoritarian leader is set to see his show of his woman, Lilly Langry (which by the way, Langty, Texas is NOT named after, despite Bean’s true obsession with the actress), is brilliant, and executed to heartbreaking perfection. It is most clearly the film’s signature moment, which elevates it quite a bit to be one of the better films thus far in this marathon. I would be shocked if Brennan outdoes himself here, but I would also be overjoyed.

*** – Very Good

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