21 June 2013 | JamesHitchcock
A Fresh Look at the Western
The western was generally a male-dominated genre, so it is unusual to come across one bearing the name of a female character for its title. Even a film like Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar", which features two strong women played by Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, bears the name of one of the male characters. "Valerie", however, is not a typical western. Most westerns from the fifties tended to revolve around a few well-worn themes- Cavalry versus Indians, lawman versus outlaws, wagon train, range war over grazing rights, cattle drive, etc. This one is different. Indeed, it might be more accurate to describe it not as a western but rather as a courtroom thriller or domestic melodrama which just happens to be set in the Old West. Unlike most westerns, the story could, with only a few minor changes of detail, be transferred to virtually any other part of America- or, indeed, to many other countries- at virtually any other period in history. This perhaps explains why it was made in black-and-white; although colour was increasingly becoming the norm for traditional westerns in the late fifties, monochrome was still commonly used for psychological dramas.
As the film opens, a wealthy rancher named John Garth is tried for shooting his beautiful young Hungarian-born wife Valerie, critically wounding her, and murdering her parents. Most of the story is told in a series of flashbacks, using for a framework the testimony given in the courtroom by various characters. The two main witnesses are Garth himself and Valerie, who has by now recovered sufficiently to give her evidence from her hospital bed. As might be expected, the two give very different accounts of their marriage. His testimony is that she was a cold, unloving wife who was unfaithful to him with his own brother and with the local preacher, the Reverend Blake, that her parents constantly interfered in the marriage and that the shooting was either a crime of passion or self-defence. She testifies that he was a brutal, foul- tempered husband who wrongly and unreasonably accused her of adultery in an attempt to justify the violence he wreaked on her in his frequent rages.
The film has been compared to Kurosawa's influential "Rashomon", which also told its story from several different viewpoints, although as another reviewer points out, there is a difference. In Kurosawa's film the various conflicting viewpoints were all presented as equally valid, implying that truth is something subjective, whereas here truth is treated more objectively. One of the parties is telling the truth and the other is lying. Which of the accounts is true and which is false is revealed in the final denouement.
This made Valerie a difficult role to play, as the actress playing her needed, effectively, to play two quite different characters, both the innocent wronged wife which Valerie claims to be and the heartless, promiscuous seductress which is how her husband depicts her. The role therefore needed someone more accomplished than the Swedish sex symbol Anita Ekberg who always, or so it seemed to me, got by more on looks than on talent, at least in her English-language movies. (She was perhaps fortunate that the early part of her career came in the fifties, at a time when the film industry seemed particularly obsessed with voluptuous blondes- Monroe, Dors, Mansfield, Bardot, Van Doren, et al.) Here she is rather disappointing, failing to portray either of the two Valeries with any great conviction. Sterling Hayden, however, is more convincing as Garth, possibly because the difference between the two versions of Garth's character is not as great. Even on his own testimony Garth is an unhappy, tormented man, haunted by memories of the Civil War in which he was responsible for torturing Confederate prisoners in order to extract information from them. The Reverend Blake is played by Ekberg's real-life husband, Anthony Steele.
I had never heard of this film until I caught it when it was recently shown on television, and I note that mine is only the third review it has received, suggesting that it is not very well known. Yet despite the weakness of its leading actress, I feel that this is one of those westerns that deserves to be better known. Its German-born director Gerd Oswald handles his material well and the unusual subject-matter makes the film a welcome and refreshing change. 7/10