Sunday, January 22, 2012

Casablanca and Other Westerns

When people ask me about me about my favourite films (and they do, especially children), I usually mention Casablanca, because it’s more or less true. Then I talk about the Westerns I watched in my childhood, and the thrillers- blood, death, crazy people and clever but tortured detectives- that I tend to watch now, because they are entertaining without requiring thought, and Mrs Hickory likes them. Such an answer is what is expected, it’s easily understood, and it doesn’t lead to long and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to explain things to people who don’t want to understand them.

The truth, what I actually watch on those rare occasions when I have the time and the inclination to sit and watch the television with the brain fully engaged and exclusively focused on the screen, is too complicated to attempt to discuss with any but the most enthusiastic cinephile. Italian neo-realism and Scandinavian black comedy are interests so niche that to confess to them is to be dismissed as nuts, or to be asked to pontificate all evening to an audience that thinks you’re nuts anyway.

So I keep my cinematic tastes to myself, at least in real life. But it struck me the other day, when answering a question about those tastes, that Casablanca is really a Western. A Western disguised as an anti-Nazi propaganda film disguised as a romantic melodrama, but at bottom, a Western. Flawed goodies, human baddies, a girl who is too good for all of them, a world too tough for them to live in as they would like, and a battle, a gunfight, that is won by the goodies, and yet not quite won, as the hero of the goodies wins righteousness even as he loses his prize.

Talking of Westerns, I add an idle thought on ‘The Man who Shot Liberty Valance’, a great film even if you don’t like the genre. Liberty Valance is a nasty piece of work, a drunken thug not above provoking men into drawing on him so he can shoot them, a bully and a coward. But he survives by using the decency of those around him against themselves. James Stewart is a moralist, a pacifist (and a bit of a coward too, as I recall) who won’t use Liberty’s spiteful bullying of him as an excuse to fight him, and Liberty knows this. John Wayne is not afraid of him, but won’t kill him just because he can, he will only do it if he is forced to, and Liberty is very careful not to force his hand. The story, and the film, works because the characters are complex, carefully crafted, and coherent. We understand why they behave as they do. Otherwise it would be so much nonsense.

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