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The Shootist

In 1976, John Wayne finished his film career on a high with the thoughtful, well-written western THE SHOOTIST. It’s easy for some to dismiss Wayne as a cowboy action star, but he often showed he was a hell of an actor and he surrounded himself with a cavalcade of great actors for his last time out.

Wayne stars at JB Books, a gunfighter newly out of jail on a trumped-up charge and facing the end of his life. That end has been clarified for Books, who opens the film visiting old friend Dr. Hostetler (Jimmy Stewart) for a second opinion. It’s confirmed that he has cancer and a few weeks to a couple months to live.

The quiet scenes of Stewart and Wayne discussing the diagnosis feature two legends conveying as much in silence as the do with dialogue.

Books decides to live out his final days in a quiet fashion, grabbing a room at the boarding house of widow Bond Rogers, well played by Lauren Bacall. Bond’s son Gillom is played by Ron Howard in a surprising performance a long way from Opie. It’s a strictly dramatic role for Howard and he’s very good, in awe of the legendary gunfighter while anxious to prove himself.

Richard Boone (Big Jake) is Sweeney, the arrogant land baron that framed Books, Hugh O’Brian is terrific as a younger gunfighter/card shark anxious to take down JB for the sheer fame of it and Harry Morgan is hilarious as Marshall Thibido, the lawman in town who can’t wait until somebody shoots Books so he can make the most of the event. John Carradine is perfectly cast as the town undertaker, a role he was born to play. Knowing it was his last film, Wayne handpicked Bacall, Stewart, Boone and Carradine for the cast.

Director Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz, The Beguiled) is a sure hand, creating a modern, darker take on a classic Western that foreshadows Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”, which would arrive in theatres almost twenty years later.

At the time of filming, Wayne had lost a lung to cancer but was in remission, surely facts that informed his strong performance.

The film has plenty to say about a man looking for peace after a violent life, but it’s clear neither Books nor Wayne have lost any of their mojo during the film’s suspenseful climax. Siegel stages a classic western showdown as explosive as any film in Wayne’s filmography.

At the time of its release, the film performed poorly at the box office, but in the decades since, it sits as one of the best final films of any major star. As Henry Fonda did with “On Golden Pond” five years later, Wayne found a near perfect vehicle to say goodbye.

The final moments are especially poignant knowing this was Wayne’s farewell film.

Deliberately paced and a tale well told, THE SHOOTIST is a great final push through the swinging saloon doors for The Duke, earning an A.

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