Those who believe that John Wayne only came into "deep" acting later in his career are wearing some fairly narrow blinders and have to ignore a long list of worthy performances.
Wayne's performance in The Quiet Man is simultaneously vulnerable and powerful, passionate and reserved, melancholy and puckish. The film is a joy to watch for a wide variety of reason, but John Wayne's wonderful performance is one of those reasons.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a movie where Wayne simultaneously plays the stereotype and breaks it wide open, Wayne's performance uses the audience's knowledge of his past films to good effect. Audiences were used to seeing the tough Wayne who met challenges head on, kills the bad guy, is fawned upon by the community, and who often ended up with the girl -- a perfect example of this character is Wayne's performance in Rio Bravo or Stagecoach. But Tom Donophon, Wayne's character in Valance, only accomplishes two of these line items. Donophon does that most remarkable of things. He gives credit, and all the rewards due to the individual to whom credit is given, to another man -- a man he believes to be better than himself. The film is a perfect argument against Machiavellian style politics, and a presentation of true heroic virtue. Donophon refuses to take any credit for a heroic deed, even though it means he must live without the woman he loves. He does this because the community needs him to do it. Wayne's performance is powerful in this film, and his heartbreak is palpable.
There are several other examples in Wayne's career of great performances, The Searchers and Red River also immediately jump to mind, but one of those performances that is often overlooked is Angel and the Badman a film in which we see glimpses of the actor's potential to break free from the cardboard hero in a screenplay were the audience, like in the later Valance, can see that there is more to the Western than good guy kills bad guy.
In Angel and the Badman, we see Wayne without the scaffolding of Howard Hawks or John Ford. This time, Wayne is directed by James Edward Grant who is better known for his screenplays than his directing, and who no one would argue was an auteur. The film is a vehicle for Wayne as "John Wayne," but it ends up being much more than that.
The film's story is a simple one. Quirt Evans is a man of the West. He largely lives outside the law, taking what he wants, and living life to its hedonistic fullest. Quirt isn't a purely evil man, but he is an amoral one and his flexible morality has come into conflict with another outlaw named Laredo Stevens.
So far, the names and character types are almost caricatures from a bad dime novel. Quirt? Laredo? These aren't names of characters one expects in a film of substance. That's typically true, but Grant -- who also wrote the screenplay -- is about to take our expectations of a cardboard tale and throw it for a loop.
As might be expected, Quirt gets injured in a rundown with Laredo. Quirt's injuries are not small and he ends up demanding to be cared for by a family of Quakers named Worth. Penelope Worth (Gail Russell) -- again with those obvious names -- takes a high interest in Quirt and the two eventually develop an emotional attachment. In the end, Quirt must choose between love and violence, between living a moral life or defending those he has come to love by murdering the villain Laredo.
This would all be typical stuff, and the audience can see which way the wind is taking Wayne by the color of his hat in a given scene as it alternates between black and white, except that Grant is making a more sophisticated argument than one might initially expect -- and Wayne is able to portray the moral complexity of the character required to advance that argument. Grant doesn't merely give us a tale where pacifism equals moral virtue and violent action equals moral vice. The film is as complex as High Noon in the way it balances legitimate authority and pacifism.
The Worth family, while happy, is suffering due to their religious practices and it is only Quirt who can convince their neighbor to give them the water they need to thrive. It is the threat of implied violence that accompanies Quirt that initially changes the mind of their Scrooge like neighbor to share water with the Worth family. The neighbor shares because he is scared that Quirt will kill him if he doesn't comply. What makes the scene powerful is that Quirt went to the neighbor unarmed, and with good intentions, and that the bond of neighborly friendship is cemented by the kindness of the Worth family. There is another scene where the threat of Quirt using violence saves the lives of the family.
Grant's argument in the film seems to be that violence, and the threat of violence, isn't in itself evil, but that the application of violence is only moral when done through proper authority. There are some great parallels between this film and the earlier mentioned High Noon, of particular interest is a comparison of the endings of the two films, and both films require subtle performances from underrated actors. Wayne's portrayal of Quirt begins as you might expect a Wayne performance to play out, but as it continues and Quirt transforms from Badman to Man it is Wayne's performance that makes it work. One can see glimpses of the performances Wayne would later bring to the screen, and one also gets to see how a writer can use the clichéd tropes of a genre and manipulate them into a more complex tale than one usually expects.