Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Westerner

By Scott Duhamel


The slow and steady tracking-shot-into- close-up at the opening credits of the early Gunsmoke years  is more than iconic, it is emblematic and will ever be a lasting (and essential) western image in American pop culture. While directly quoting the tracking-shot-into-close-up that steers all Western aficionados dusty souls, that justifiably empyrean big screen vision of John Wayne twirling his shotgun in Stage Coach, it offers itself up as a brand new (NW) defining image of The Westerner. When Ford spotlighted Wayne, that shot resonates as both the moment that that grand auteur would realize that Wayne was the right figure to represent his western balladry. Gunsmoke’s echoing shot, pulls up to a handsome and sturdy but slightly weathered  James Arness  (pointed to by Wayne himself after he turned down the potential  spotlight dousing offer of a TV series), essentially conveying the simple fact that then iconoclastic, rosy-cheeked, cocksure  adventurer of Wayne’s Stagecoach  has been replaced by Arness’ Matt  Dillon,  a man with one foot gradually settling into the winds of oncoming civilization and one foot still planted firmly in the wooly freedoms  of expansionism, yet still the lone American adventurer, a sharper, more expedient voice of law and order and right and wrong , an erudite arbitrator of frontier justice, a man who has killed, can kill, will kill, but prefers not to. The Gunsmoke close-up finally focuses on Dillon/Arness’ eyes, and they are the eyes of a nation progressing and receding, from a landscape of little rules but highly defined codes, one populated by individual valor and courage yet poisoned by wantonness and cruelty, with the ever sturdy Westerner forced to question the vagaries of right and wrong in a rapidly changing landscape.
True confession: Growing up I somehow missed the brilliance of Gunsmoke (1955-1975), the smartest, sublimely collective atmospheric (and obviously longest-running) western tale maybe ever told. Certainly individual western s movies had more impact and it’s unarguable that decidedly more overtly artistic westerns were made for the big screen yet Gunsmokes’s lasting impact, and it’s astoundingly continual high level of creativity are something to behold. I missed out on Gunsmoke, as a budding revolutionary and wanna- be hippy that because I knew there was an Arness-Wayne connection and I assumed it to be an onerous political one, and John Wayne was just somehow unacceptable in the turbulent late 60’s and early 70’s.
Years later I would read about Marty Scorsese screening The Searchers to his NYU film class, but prefacing the screening with an impromptu show of firing six shooters just so that his rabidly anti-Wayne film students would settle down for that sublime John Ford film. I missed the weekly imprimatur the Gunsmoke was searing into the collective consciousness, and have had the pleasure of rediscovering the lengthy series with continued viewings in the last few years. Although the show presented itself as hugely traditional, it was, in turns, ribald, self-conscious, cornpone, stark, moving, comical, and outstandingly consistent.  Outlaws swung brazenly into town, showgirls had hearts of stone and of gold, the cowpokes were filled with grandeur, whiskey, goldust dreams, American immigrant exuberance, and more than often, just plain broken down.
With the Zen-like Dillon (who, of course, spent time with the Indians and treated with respect from the initial show) often presiding as an onlooker or mere sideman (until there was a call for action) , Gunsmoke’s Dodge City was inhabited  by the cagey , flinty and determinedly philosophical  Doc (Milburn Stone), the perpetual rube Chester (Dennis Weaver), the occasionally becalmed but raging bull Quint( Burt Reynolds), the red-headed highly astute business women and unabashed mistress Kitty (Amanda Blake), and the quintessential sidekick Festus (Ken Curtis), he of the cracker barrel sentiment, hillbilly rambunctiousness but the wondrous naturalness of a man at peace with his environment (like Dillon), plus a baker’s dozen of regulars from the town drunk to the officious main street businessman, never mind the uncountable appearances of every sort of actor (up-and-coming, down-and-out, character greats, stars that were and stars to be) Hollywood had to offer.
Arness’ Dillon is a stately but full blooded representation of the American Westerner and his whittled down performance, filled with pauses, squints, grunts, asides, and one sentence summations formed an amazingly well-rounded figure,  highlighting a performance of depth and maturity. He embodies the transition from the traditional western to the post-western, while the modern world hasn’t fully cast a shadow on his travails, he, the great seer knows that it is coming, and that his destiny is to help strangle the primitive world the created him and he has long embraced. I’ll say it straight up---James Arness’  Matt Dillon is a truly tragic hero and one of the most essential starring roles in TV history. RIP James Arness 1923-2011.