The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is perhaps one of the moodiest and most atmospheric westerns of all time. In a sense, it is almost like a Noir Western with its often stark cinematography (especially during the climatic moments), and it is told through a long flashback that encapsulates nearly the entire narrative. Both qualities are typical film-noir.
John Ford had numerous classic westerns, but this one is possibly one of the darkest in tone. The film has a typically great John Ford cast (like My Darling Clementine or The Searchers). Of course, it would not be one of his westerns without John Wayne, then add James Stewart, Vera Miles, and of course Lee Marvin. Then the secondary cast is rounded out by such great character actors as Edmund O’Brien, Andy Devine, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef, John Carradine, and Denver Pyle among others.
This film is also steeped in politics. It becomes more obvious the more you watch that there is this underlining conflict between democracy and a different system of representation. Could this be a critique of Communism also packed into a western? Probably.
One of the moments that really stood out this time around was the flashback within the flashback when Doniphan (Wayne) reveals his point of view to Ransom Stoddard (Stewart). He was, in fact, the man who shot Liberty Valance. We knew it at heart but finally we have the proof and all of sudden his behavior seems justified and he becomes the tragic hero of the film.
It is an unjust ending and yet it plays out the way it was meant to — maybe not the way it should have. The lawyer got the girl, the fame, and the spot in Congress, because he is a hero for something he did not actually accomplish. Tom instead is the one who fades into the past. It struck me that this is one of the few films I can remember where Wayne actually dies, the other would be the Shootist. Except here he is dead before the story has even began. The legend of John Wayne himself lends nicely to this legendary man in the film who we only know through the recollections of others. As the newsman noted, when the legend becomes fact you print the legend.