…of being an exceptionally gifted actor. Appealing, yes. Gifted, no. He knew how to react brilliantly — how to respond in his usual taciturn, straight-from-the-shoulder way to certain aggressive behaviors and situations, and at just the right speed and with just the right sense of timing. And he certainly knew how to seethe and sulk.
But in terms of owning a scene on his lonesome, relying solely on his own dialogue and delivery while others listen and watch, he rarely got there. But he did once.
The below scene from Red River is probably the best acting moment in his entire life. It’s about resolve, painful rejection, parental disdain, nihilism. If Wayne had turned up the anger just a hair, it wouldn’t have landed as well. It would have also missed if he’d turned it down a notch.
Name me any other scene in which Wayne hit the mark as movingly and efficiently as he does here. Those famous bookend scenes in The Searchers (i.e., the door opening and closing upon Wayne’s Ethan Edwards) don’t count because all he was doing was just standing there — the emotional expressiveness was entirely John Ford‘s.
Ford to Howard Hawks after seeing Red River: “I never knew the big sonuvabtich could act.”
Dunson: “Cherry was right. You’re soft. You shoulda let ’em kill me, ’cause I’m gonna kill you. I’ll catch up with ya. I don’t know when but I’ll catch up. Every time you turn around, expect to see me ’cause one time you’ll turn around and I’ll be there. Gonna kill ya, Matt.”
By the way: If there was a recently colorized version of Red River (as colorizing technology has gotten much better between the last five or ten years), I’d probably give it a looksee. Just for curiosity’s sake.