Judge Bean's No Has Been
Gary Cooper waking up in bed next to Walter Brennan is not the sort of thing you expect from a 1940's western but it is one of the many memorable scenes in "The Westerner". It is a wondefully comical scene from hidden card up sleeves falling to the floor to the fact that both men are hungover having gone drink for drink the night before, drink that burned holes in the bar counter. But the thing about "The Westerner" is that it isn't purely a western comedy, it has a storyline as well with Walter Brennan playing the infamous Judge Roy Bean who is trying to run off the tomato kissing homesteaders from nearby land. Yet when it comes down to it whilst "The Westerner" has comedy and story it is a movie which is memorable because of Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan filling the screen with their characters and in doing so earning Brennan his third Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Wanderer Cole Harden (Gary Cooper - Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) finds himself in front of the infamous self imposed Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan - The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle) when he is accused of stealing a horse, despite pleading innocent and having brought the horse Bean's law says horse thives must hang. That is until Cole spots that the Judge Bean is a huge fan of Lily Langtry and in order to buy himself some time says he not only knows Miss Langtry but has a lock of her hair. Desperate to have that hair Roy gives Cole a suspended sentence to ride to El Paso to collect it but instead Cole finds himself falling for Jane Ellen Mathews (Doris Davenport) one of many homesteaders who have found themselves on the wrong end of Judge Bean's self imposed laws as he tries to force them off the local land.
It's strange as whilst writing that synopsis I thought to myself well from a storyline point of view "The Westerner" is nothing special, it is just another movie which sees a stranger helping the innocent against the corrupt and nasty businessmen, except in this case it is is the self imposed Judge Roy Bean. And for the most the storyline plays out in a typical way, Cole finds himself falling for the pretty Jane, he also finds himself between camps as he has become a surprise friend of the Judge's and then of course taking the side of the Homesteaders when he witnesses the nastiness of the Judge first hand. It almost sounds boring to read because it sounds such a typical western storyline yet "The Westerner" is anything but boring.
Firstly there is a surprising amount of comedy going on from Judge Bean being obsessed with Lily Langtry to the whole comedy of Cole buying himself time by playing on the Judge's obsession and saying he has a lock of her hair. You can guess he hasn't and what he will end up giving the Judge which is a highly comical scene in itself as he plays with the almost drooling Judge Bean when he pulls out a little bag and then pretends to struggle to open it. Yet I wouldn't say that "The Westerner" is a comedy because there is as much if not more storyline than comedy but scenes such as Cole and the Judge going drink for drink, the Judge mirroring Cole's movements and then waking up in bed together all stick in your mind and make you smile.
What really makes "The Westerner" tick is two fantastic performances with it almost feeling like Cary Cooper and Walter Brennan going toe to toe in every scene and challenging each other to who can win the scene. Now Cooper as Cole is brilliant, in that opening scene when he bluffs about the hair we know he is cunning but what happens next makes us wonder how cunning he is as a man is killed and you wonder whether he set him up. But in pretty much every scene Cooper shares with Brennan it is Brennan who comes out on top filling his character with a plethora of mannerisms which means you can't take your eyes off of him or stop listening to him either thank's to Brennan's humorous drawl. It is a joy to watch these two share so many scenes and whilst trying to out act each other it is never to the detrement of the movie, keeping their characters amusing and real.
There is something else which makes "The Westerner" a memorable movie and it is the camera work and direction as there is scene after scene of great shots. The most significant is the final shoot out but before that there is an amazing fire scene which is breathtaking even by today's standards.
What this all boils down to is that you could say "The Westerner" takes a familiar western theme and breathes life in to it thanks to the writing, direction, cinematography and most significantly two actors who go toe to toe to deliver memorable performances.