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22 Classic Westerns We Love

by The Playlist Staff
December 22, 2010 6:01 AM
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“High Noon” (1952)
Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” ranked #27 on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of great films, making it the 2nd highest-ranking western after “The Searchers” (John Ford is unfuckable-with) and this reevaluation (the AFI’s list originally hit in 1998) is a wise move. The gracious Gary Cooper stars as Will Kane, the longtime Marshall of a small New Mexican town. He’s about to hang it all up for his new Quaker pacifist bride (a gorgeously luminous Grace Kelly) when he gets word that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) -- a soulless criminal that Kane brought to justice for murder -- has inexplicably been pardoned on some unexplained technicality. Kane can go on to greener pastures with his new wife, but the call of duty is too strong and he returns to rally members of the community to fight off the scum that is heading their way. Famous for being shot in (nearly) real time, which always seems deceptively simple but takes an enormous amount of skill to pull off, perhaps its greatest triumph is that it never becomes merely a formal exercise and actually remains one of the most entertaining of the westerns on this list. And the last scene when Cooper’s character contemptuously tosses his marshall’s tin star at the feet of the cowardly and thankless townspeople? One of the best “go fuck yourselves” kiss-offs in a movie, ever. [A]

“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971)
Moody, atmospheric, enigmatic and ultimately brilliant, leave it to Robert Altman to construct one of the shrewdest anti-western westerns of all time. The film follows John McCabe, an ambitious gambler who arrives in a town named Presbyterian Church (after its most prominent building) and naturally, establishes a brothel by purchasing prostitutes from a pimp in a neighboring town. McCabe stumbles into success almost by accident, largely thanks to Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a professional madam who whips McCabe’s makeshift operation into shape. The success of the enterprise catches the eye of of a mining company who want to buy him out as well as the mines surrounding the town, but when he says no, three bounty hunters are set out to kill. Time for a big showdown, right? Not if you’re Robert Altman. The final sequence is jaw dropping because it turns the entire notion of the western hero right on its head. Altman practically mocks the pissing contest between McCabe and the killers by cross cutting their showdown with the battle to contain the fire at the church that has suddenly burned out. McCabe has no problem shooting anyone in the back and as he trudges through the knee-high snowdrifts and blowing wind, the futility of his struggle that is driven mostly by pride is held in stark contrast. Also look out for Keith Carradine, in one of his first film roles, playing the tragic, nameless young gunslinger who gets caught between the two forces fighting for Presbyterian Church. Gorgeously shot by Vilmos Zsigmond like a hazy dream and featuring a lovely, and gloriously anachronistic score by Leonard Cohen, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” is one of the shining examples of 1970s American filmmaking: an impressionistic, boldly individual and completely genre-defying western that still remains unlike anything before or after it. [A-]

“Open Range” (2003)
Post- “Dances With Wolves,” Kevin Costner’s directorial career, well, floundered would be a nice way to put it, with his follow-up efforts (an uncredited directorial stint on “Waterworld,” an all-too-credited stint on “The Postman”) were unable to hit the same epic stride that so impressed the Academy with his debut. And time has not been particularly kind to ‘Dances’ either, revealing it as a rather self-indulgent overlong vanity project that in many ways foreshadowed the frighteningly egotistical bent of his movies to come. So with this unpromising background, “Open Range” is a complete and welcome surprise, and sees a chastened Costner direct himself (as before) but this time with a light touch and a generous desire to showcase the supporting talent. And what talent: Robert Duvall, Annette Bening and Diego Luna are all in fine form, with Michael Gambon as an appropriately dastardly villain. “Open Range” is a classic western full of man’s-gotta-do ethos but leavened with an unusually strong female character and moments of genuine humor. By turns touching, funny and exciting (John Ford would be proud), this overlooked film deserves a lot more attention and praise than it got, and goes some way to help Costner atone for directorial sins past. [A-]

“Winchester ‘73” (1950)
The word ‘seminal’ could be applied to many of the films on this list, especially if like us, you have a full-on stiffy for the western genre. But while it’s a term that is most usually found in reviews of the John Ford/John Wayne oeuvre, there was another great, seminal western partnership during this period: that of director Anthony Mann and star James Stewart. Teaming here for the first time, you can see why they would go on to work together seven more times (four of them westerns). Stewart’s performance is a revelation -- keen-edged, desperate, almost deranged at times, and it’s wonderful to see him explode out of the laconic everyman role he often played elsewhere. The plot itself is unusual too, a revenge story built around the titular rifle that digresses at times to follow the rifle’s story, rather than the human protagonists’. But nonetheless, it remains a blistering human drama centering, as so many great westerns do, on a man haunted by his past and trying to embrace his destiny, ultimately discovering the two are irrevocably linked. [A]

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  • Brian | July 4, 2013 12:38 PMReply

    Jeremiah Johnson. No list is complete without it.

  • Tuco | March 1, 2013 3:06 PMReply

    The man with no name trilogy and Django (1966). These are the top 4 westerns. period.

  • Perry | December 23, 2010 5:39 AMReply

    I really don't get your logic. You say you want to avoid the usual suspects so that's why we don't see any of Leone's pictures on here. But High Noon, Rio Bravo, Stagecoach, Unforgiven, these aren't usual suspects? And I love The Quick and the Dead, but there is no way it should be on a list of classic westerns over Once Upon A Time in the West or any of the Man With No Name flicks.

  • cirkusfolk | December 23, 2010 4:03 AMReply

    Wow, suddenly I'm being called out for being too hip. Guess my mention of Dead Man outweighed my opinion on Shanghai Noon. At least I got accused of watching too much PTA instead of Edgar Wright. You guys are just too cool for school.

  • Nathan | December 23, 2010 4:03 AMReply

    I'm not usually one to nitpick on these lists, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly?? Nor Once Upon a Time in the West?

    Rest of the list is solid, but without those two it's missing a big chunk of the genre. Though hey, it's a list of ones that you guys love, not best ever, so to each his/her own.

  • Chris Broderick | December 23, 2010 2:21 AMReply

    "Magnificent Seven" should be on this list -- great story adapted from Seven Samurai, great cast, great music, great fun. Unlike some of these, it holds up well after all these years.
    "Wild Bunch" should be on it too - yes, I think it's overrated by critics but still groundbreaking for its time.
    "Butch Cassidy" - a Western that didn't take itself seriously. "Blazing Saddles" has to be mentioned at least.
    More recently, I liked "Silverado" -- entertaining and fun -- and "3:10 to Yuma" (the remake) was well made and acted despite a dumb ending.
    "Jeremiah Johnson" isn't on here either and it's one of the most authtentic films ever made by Hollywood about the real West in the 1800s. "Dances with Wolves" should be on the list as well. Both these films should be on the list if 'McCabe and Mrs Miller" and the "Misfits" are on it. Those are not Westerns.
    You missed some good ones, particularly anything about Native Americans ...

  • Edward Davis | December 23, 2010 1:47 AMReply

    well, we didn't want to say it, but you nail it on the head. They are the true classics and that's what we've been saying internally for a while now, but the fact of the matter is -- for most young people -- the reverse "cooler" '70s westerns are in fact the usuals suspects and these ones -- the original classics -- are films a lot of people shrug at.

    Ask this circusfolk guy how many of these he has seen? He's probably been too busy watching Cameron Crowe and PTA films like 7 times instead of getting deep into any of these.

  • bonzob | December 23, 2010 1:42 AMReply

    Those two statements are antithetical.

    The early true classics ARE the usual suspects. Search for any "best Westerns" list and try to find one that doesn't mention High Noon, Shane, The Searchers, Stagecoach, or Rio Bravo.

    Nice to see some of that old Playlist condescension toward its readership, though.

  • Katie Walsh | December 23, 2010 1:33 AMReply

    You people don't read. The Headline is "22 Classic Westerns We Love" NOT "The Best Most Unimpeachably Classic Westerns That Are the Only Ones That Matter Ever In The Universe The End."

  • edward davis | December 23, 2010 12:27 AMReply

    Glad no one actually reads. We didn't forget anything, we chose to focus on certain westerns. We figured we'd skip a certain bunch of usual suspects for now in favor of the early true classics that not a lot of people of this generation have actually watched.

  • cirkusfolk | December 23, 2010 12:13 AMReply

    You also forgot one of the wittiest westerns of all time, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and think what you like about Mel Gibson but Maverick is a damn entertaining film.

  • cirkusfolk | December 22, 2010 11:35 AMReply

    The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is flat out the best western of all-time...spaghetti or not. Much better than Leone's own Once Upon a Time in the West. I also liked Jarmusch's Dead Man in a strange way. But then again, I like Shanghai Noon as well. It had all the western cliches but did them on purpose and in a fun way...much the same way Back to the Future 3 did. And no mention of which is better...Tombstone or Wyatt Earp? My vote has always been fopr Wyatt Earp.

  • bobs | December 22, 2010 10:57 AMReply

    "Ride The High Country" would have been the appropriate Peckinpah western to add to this list.

  • Christopher Bell | December 22, 2010 10:52 AMReply

    I do like "The Searchers," but man, that movie really has no sense of time. I don't remember the time frame - a few years, no? - but it feels like a week tops.

  • Tom Voyten | December 22, 2010 10:00 AMReply

    The Shootist has a place here. A slow walk of inevitability.

  • brit | December 22, 2010 9:45 AMReply

    how about The Great Silence? Maybe Johnnie To's Exiled. Perhaps even Sholay...

  • Xian | December 22, 2010 9:04 AMReply

    So glad you mentioned "Open Range"... it is very underrated and much better than "Dances"... one of the best recent Westerns and very entertaining.

  • Paul | December 22, 2010 8:29 AMReply

    Is THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY out because it's a Spaghetti Western?

  • ThePlaylist | December 22, 2010 7:58 AMReply

    While we like some of them, we decided to sort of skip the usual suspects, though we had planned to do the Wild Bunch and it fell through on the sked.

    But Magnificent Seven is not only played out, it's simply not that good, especially compared to a lot of these classics.

  • Rashad | December 22, 2010 7:50 AMReply

    Whoa, no Magnificent Seven?

    I didn't like My Darling Clementine. I wished someone else had played Holliday. Mature was wrong for it. I would have like someone like Mitchum. And the girl was all wrong too

  • bonzob | December 22, 2010 7:13 AMReply

    Not to be grade quibbling guy, but...

    The Quick and The Dead is a guilty pleasure, no doubt, but a B? Really?

    And Unforgiven a B+? I think you mean A+.

  • Gary Berger | December 22, 2010 6:58 AMReply

    I am sad to not see "The Longriders" and "The Outlaw Josey Wales" not on your list. They are certainly better than "Open Range", don't get me wrong still a solid movie, but not close to these two.

  • Kimber Myers | December 22, 2010 6:44 AMReply

    Killer work, guys. I'm going to use this as a primer for all the films I need to see in the genre.

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