Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
A figure that constantly re-occurs in American cinema is an even-tempered man – it is almost always a man – brought to the end of his tether, who reacts in righteous anger against a vile enemy. The plot usually concerns a series of provocations, and a final last straw, before a cathartic episode of violence, where the enemy is left dead, and order is restored. Various westerns have used the plot. It is based on a long lineage, with the American writer Richard Slotkin arguing that the myths developed from early American history represented “Regeneration Through Violence”.
The character is central to director John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). An even-tempered lawyer Ranson Stoddard, played by James Stewart, is on his way to make a fortune in the west. In the opening scene, Stoddard is savagely beaten and left for dead. Recovering from the attack, he recongnises his attacker as Liberty Valance, but there is no law here to stop him. Stoddard is pushed beyond breaking point by Valance, who is played with malevolent glee by Lee Marvin. Yet Stoddard still believes in the law, but the power on the frontier belongs to those with guns and the ability and inclination to use them. After endless provocations, Stoddard must pick up a gun to fight Valance. His showdown with Valance leads him to being celebrated across the territory, and it forms the basis for a successful political career.
The idea of the frontier holds a strong grip on the American imagination. As the United States grew towards the west, the idea of a better life on the frontier took hold. But in no short time, the frontier as a physical entity disappeared, the land became settled, and towns and cities were erected. The frontier was no longer dangerous. The wild frontier in Shinbone begins to break down, and all that is left of the town’s origins is unreliable myths about its origins. When Stoddard and his wife Hallie leave Shinbone at the end of the film, Hallie tells him: “This country used to be a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. You helped to make it.” The town of Shinbone becomes a settled and civilised community, almost unrecognisable from its violent origins. The shootout helps heal the community and allows the town to grow under the rule of law.
The savageness and the violence of the frontier would return with a vengeance to the decaying cities. The shift can be seen from one of John Ford’s westerns, Fort Apache (1948), set on the western plains, providing at least partial inspiration for Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), where urban decay has caused crime on a massive scale. These inner-city areas appear lawless, with the police barely holding the line. Other films would follow in its footsteps. While Ranson Stoddard was not entirely a ‘righteous man,’ as his career is built on a lie, Bobby Saginowski, played by Tom Hardy, is even darker in The Drop (2014). Bob Saginowski appears to be a passive man working as a quiet barman at a neighbourhood bar in a rough working-class area of Boston. Little by little, we learn that Saginowski is not as harmless as he appears. Both he and his cousin Marvin Stipler, played by James Gandolfini, were low-level gangsters who lost out to a violent gang of Chechen mobsters. The cousins now work for the Chechen gang, who occasionally use their bar as a ‘drop’ for money for their various unlawful enterprises.
Bobby finds a battered pit bull pup abandoned in a rubbish bin on the way home from work. In rescuing the puppy, Saginowski meets Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace, and she guides him on how to take care of the injured puppy. Bobby keeps the dog while beginning to form a relationship with Nadia. Saginowski is threatened by Eric Deeds, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, a former abusive partner of Nadia. Deeds had injured the dog and left it to die where Nadia would find it. Deeds has a reputation on the street as a killer, and he finds various ways to intimidate Saginowski, demanding money for the dog and terrorising Nadia. Deeds eventually threatens to kill Nadia to get the money from the drop.
At which point, Saginowski shoots him twice in the face and yells at his corpse: “Go out for a dinner still dressed like you’re in your living room. You wear those big, you wear those big hippity hoppity clown shoes, and you speak to women terribly. You treat them despicably. You hurt harmless dogs that can’t even defend themselves. I’m tired of you, man. I’m tired of you, you embarrass me.” The righteous man had responded to the threats and taunts, and ‘nobody’ will hurt Nadia anymore.
Both Stoddard and Saginowski would win the woman in their respective films but at a cost. In rising in righteous anger, both have lost something. Unlike Stoddard, Saginowski is no innocent thrust into this position. In the twenty-first century, the righteous man has become far murkier. A practicing Catholic, Saginowski believes he is damned for previous crimes – including a previous murder – for eternity. He ponders his fate: “There are some sins that you commit that you can’t come back from, you know, no matter how hard you try. You just can’t. It’s like the devil is waiting for your body to quit. Because he knows, he knows that he already owns your soul. And then I think maybe there’s no devil. You die… and God, he says, Nah, nah you can’t come in. You have to leave now. You have to leave and go away, and you have to be alone. You have to be alone forever.” Yet to survive in their respective worlds, they must make an impossible choice between violence or death or flight. The eruption of righteous anger taints both Saginowski and Stoddard.
Like Stoddard, Deeds is credited with a killing he never committed. For the slaying, Stoddard is given political glory, while Deeds gains street credibility. In other ways, Saginowski represents an amalgam of Stoddard and the figure of Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne, who is the man who really shoots Valance in an act of cold murder. Unlike Doniphon, Saginowski faces his tormentor directly and shoots him in self-defence. But a decade earlier, Saginowski had also shot a man who posed no threat to him. Similarly, Doniphon shoots Valance from a darkened alley, giving the outlaw no chance to defend himself. The Drop is a savage updating of the themes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The frontier may have moved to the inner city, but the dynamics of the film have remained largely the same.
 Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.