The last film of an actors career can sometimes be unmemorable in that it just is another film in their filmography like The Harder They Fall for Humphrey Bogart, it sometimes can be quite memorable for the wrong reasons like Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 From Outer Space where it is an unfortunate indication of where their career ended up, or it can seem like the right final showcase for their talent that seems like a final reflection on their career. Clark Gable had this with The Misfits, Burt Lancaster had this with Field of Dreams, but perhaps the most perfect example of this has to be John Wayne's last film being the Shootist. Wayne was always known best for his work in westerns, and it's fitting for that last film to be in that genre. This takes a step further than that since the central character is dying from cancer, unfortunately what Wayne would die of a few years after this film. Not only that but in a way the story of J.B. Books seems to be that of many a John Wayne character and in way this is both a sendoff for Wayne, and for all those various western heroes he played throughout his career.
Every time I've covered John Wayne outside of his Oscar nominations they've been for somewhat atypical performances for Wayne. The first being the Quiet Man as the romantic lead where he played a guy whose problems came from his refusal to fight, and the other being for The Searches where he was the lead in a western but as a much harder and colder man than usual. That is not the case with this film as J.B. Books feels like the end to a more typical John Wayne villain. The film has a certain dark edge to it, but it in itself isn't all that dark. Books's life is not that of William Munny from Unforgiven, Ryunosuke from The Sword of Doom, or even Wayne's own Ethan Edwards where the violence of the men was most often a result of their own selfishness or viciousness. It's made known that Books only kills people who break one of his few personal rules, and as well that he even spent time as a law man. This is not unlike the more typical Wayne character, and this is John Wayne style John Wayne performance. Of course in the war films and the westerns the effectiveness and strength of the typical Wayne could vary, sometimes it would work, sometimes less so, luckily The Shootist is the very best John Wayne John Wayne performance I've seen.
Wayne is especially on here to say the least as he just has this grander larger than life quality often what he seems to be striving for in his performances, and this is fitting quite well to the man of J.B. Books who is considered the living legend, the last great gunfighter. Wayne carries himself well with this in man as his whole stature and manner here feels that of such a man. Wayne's presence is in his usual way but stronger than in any other film as this sort of man. There just is something more remarkable here as Wayne brings something extra as though Books is not like those previous characters, but instead seemed to have been everyone meaning he's lived quite a life. There is a gracefulness evident here that seems indicative of his ways as a shootist. Whenever he does deal with someone with the gun Wayne plays these scenes perfectly by not giving any hesitation or fear in Books, instead he portrays Books as being basically a professional in the way he takes down any opponent. What Wayne does not put in though is any sort of sadism in Books as again this is a John Wayne type of character, and the film presents every man he kills as basically making the first move against him, although this is not to say that it's quite the simple within Wayne's performance.
I would not necessarily put John Wayne as one of the most charming actors of all time, that was never exactly part of his appeal, but here Wayne really is incredibly charming. It's an intriguing one though as Wayne again does not feel that different from his earlier similair performances, but it seems as though he learned from all those earlier work as he makes himself charming within the rough and tough sort of character. Wayne just seems to hit his mark every time in this film as his little bit of humor thrown in here or there in some of his banter in dealing with phonies or just other folk works especially well here. All the old Wayne tricks and touches are here, but Wayne makes them the best he's Wayne has a generous amount of warmth in his performance here and his chemistry with Lauren Bacall as local inn keep named Bond is surprisingly effective. It's not romantic chemistry in this case, but rather just a honest feeling companionship that they develop. Wayne is wonderful in their more tender moments together as he shows quite clearly a love of life within in Books, and that the cancer that's killing him is no way a blessing, even with so many gunning for his life, rather Wayne shows he's a man who has enjoyed his time on earth even though it has not always been easy.
The film is not a depressing requiem as there is something very encouraging about Books right until his last scene in the film. There is that darker edge within there and this mostly comes from Wayne's own work. Although Wayne is quite moving in portraying that enjoyment of life in Books, that is not all there is when Bacall's character does press him a bit more on his life and what exactly it has lead to. In these moments Wayne is striking by revealing a deeper sorrow in the man as though when he is forced to truly reflect on things that all that he's done has not added up to enough. There is a powerful anguish in moments, and although in the end Books goes to face death head on, Wayne suggests a most definite fear of this when Books is at his lowest moments. The best moments of his performance is when he deals with Bond's son Gillom (Ron Howard) who idolizes the man. The younger man is eager to learn all the tricks from Books about gunfighter, and he's eager enough to shoot with him as well as tell him the truth that it's more about will and nerves than accuracy in a gunfight. What's outstanding about Wayne's work though is how he actually undercuts these words with his own delivery of them. He ends up being quite heartbreaking actually when he tells Gillom these things it is not pride that Wayne conveys rather he brings a considerable sadness in them as though Books himself is realizing that what's he's best at and what he's defined his life with is not something worth living for. This is a great performance by Wayne because he does not leave death as a one note. There is of course sadness in there in those moments of regrets, there's those glints of nostalgia, as well as the appreciate of what's still left there. What makes this truly special though is that John Wayne is also able to make it feel like one final hurrah for his whole career as a star, as almost everything that defined that is found here through his portrayal of J.B. Books, and not only that Wayne happens to make it the greatest iteration of that classic John Wayne persona.