Friday, May 28, 2010

The Virginian

Pathfinding Western Comes to DVD

By David Luhrssen
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The premiere episode of “The Virginian” (1962) opens with a hanging in the Old West town of Medicine Bow. The execution is suggested—not shown—in quick cinematic strokes. The death of the accused murderer stirs varying responses from the townsfolk. Most enjoyed the spectacle and—like the smugly self-assured sheriff—console themselves that justice was done. Some people are uneasy. The judge, played by smirking Lee J. Cobb, hates to see capital punishment as entertainment. He resolutely showed his displeasure by staying home.

“The Virginian” ran in an unusual 90-minute format and continued for nine years, trailing only “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” for longevity as a TV western. “The Virginian: The Complete Season One” has been issued in an elaborate tin-box package for its set of 10 DVDs. Produced in the full, richer-than-reality color palette of contemporary panoramic Hollywood movies, “The Virginian” aspired to the highest technical levels. In an era saturated by westerns, “The Virginian” was outstanding.

The stories were often unusually thought provoking in a genre that has been criticized, not always justly, for painting the human condition in black and white. “The Virginian’s” premiere gets rolling with the arrival of a familiar western figure, the mysterious stranger. Soon enough, the stranger draws from the deeper archetype of the Trickster, signaling his reason for coming to town through a rope trick that entertains and ultimately disturbs the townsfolk. Like them, we don’t know what to make of this wily man, whose very presence taunts authority and complacency and who casts disturbing implications with every glance.

“Do you know what civilization really means?” Cobb asks at one point. It’s the sort of question “The Virginian” was more prepared to ponder than most of its small screen cowboy rivals.

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