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  • The Top 5 American Western Standoffs

    The Top 5 American Western Standoffs

    August 5, 2009, 12:24 pm
    To kick off the first post for the Edit Decision List, I thought it would be fitting to choose a topic that relies on one of the most fundamental techniques in editing film: building tension. There are many places for using this technique, but it is in its most blatant use in the Western Standoff. Therefore here is The Top 5 American Western Standoffs based on editing.

    Criteria:
      -Must be a true standoff, not a gunfight
      -American Western Genre (includes Spaghetti)
      -Effective use of editing to create tension within the scene


    libertyvance
    The Top 5 American Western Standoffs
    5. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

    John Ford is known for popularising the American Western by making it something to take seriously, and has done a lot as far as creating a standard for the genre that was used again and again. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is later in Ford’s career, but he still uses the same fundamental techniques in making this film as he did in Stagecoach (1939). In some ways this hurts the film, because Ford has always taken what I would consider to be a very conservative approach to editing. However, the editing is still very clean and the viewer feels the tension and fear building in the intimidated James Stewart as he fumbles to take his revenge. The other reason why this film is worth mentioning in an editing context, is that it shows the standoff from two different perspectives: James Stewart’s, and John Wayne’s.
    The Top 5 American Western Standoffs
    4. Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)

    Okay, the title says "Gunfight" but for my criteria I’m talking about standoffs. Gunfight at the OK Corral actually has two or three great little standoffs that I’m going to focus on rather than the gunfight at the end. This film won an Academy Award Nomination for Best Film Editing in 1958, and it is a great example of what was known as the standard cutting sequence for every film coming out at that time: Establishing shot, medium shot character 1, medium shot character 2, insert cutaways, close up 1, close up 2, etc. The beauty of Gunfight is that they managed to use that common sequence and still build up tension. It helps that Kirk Douglas is a great actor, but we all know that true tension can only be built in the editing room.
    The Top 5 American Western Standoffs
    3. Shane (1953)

    This is a film that I had never heard of before my dad told me to watch it specifically for this blog. After some research, I found that it has actually won many awards, but nothing specifically towards editing. Frankly, I think that’s an injustice— There are many parts of the film where I would consider the film editing to be extremely unique in a good way. For the standoff, it still remains unique. There are no close ups, really, but the ambiance and the stillness in each shot is so solid that you don’t need it. In fact it’s creepier than your average stand off. One thing that really struck me was the use of animals, both throughout the entire film and within the standoff itself. The viewer can really tell that even the animals feel the tension in the room, and react in a subtle but fitting way. This one is worth checking out.
    The Top 5 American Western Standoffs
    2. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

    I don’t know if I would be allowed to have an American Western Standoff top 5 without this film. It is so universally known and loved that it would be impossible not to include it— and for good reason: it’s one of the best standoffs in film. This is technically tied for first, but why did I put it at number 2? Before you scream and yell at me (which I encourage) then consider the cheesiness of the scene. Yes, the majority of Spaghetti Westerns are cheesy and it’s basically expected that you will have to deal with a voice dub and overly dramatic music. As great as the editing is, and it is great— especially in its innovative use (and popularisation) of the extreme close up and the pure entertainment value of the immortal standoff— I have to say that the music really affects my opinion of the scene regardless of how entertained I am. Technically, the use of the music, sound effects (or lack of sound effects), and extreme close ups does its job exceedingly well. Throughout the entire standoff you are hanging on the edge of your seat excitedly begging for something to happen. But my main reason is that the music, as great and iconic as it is, does not build up the tension in the scene as much as it could.
    The Top 5 American Western Standoffs
    1. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

    The sole reason why this Once Upon a Time in the West gets one point more than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, is that the editing technique has been taken one step further. In this film Leone has refined the art of building tension, and the movie feels real and still has a sense of humour about it. This time, he has utilised sound effects instead of a theme song, and really integrates the surroundings as a character in the film. There is always a small, repetitive diagetic sound that is happening in the background— it creates a feeling of nothingness, like the only thing alive is the object making the sound. It keeps going and going over long shots and sequences, eventually making the viewer more and more agitated, but in a way that creates curiosity and anticipation rather than unbearable frustration. I’ve never felt more tense in standoffs than in this movie, and this is why I place it at number 1.

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