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Archive for the ‘Author Peter Lenihan’ Category

936full-the-searchers-poster

By Peter Lenihan

Of all the very recognizable titles (think Rules of the Game, Tokyo Story, Seven Samurai, Vertigo, Citizen Kane) that appear on S&S lists decade in and decade out, Ford’s film is arguably the most controversial, and the fact that many people consider it to be one of the medium’s greatest masterpieces frustrates some in a way that may be unique even within the prissiest cinephilic circles. It is, of course, ultimately pretty irrelevant—polls can only track the critical fashions of a given moment and often inadvertently end up embalming the films that are most kinetic and alive. The Searchers isn’t always thought of as one of these, and I’m not sure any Hollywood director of Ford’s time moved the camera less frequently (it’s worth remembering here what Renoir said of The Informer), but it’s also true that few directors consistently filled the frame with as much movement as Ford was able to. Still, at some point the opening shot of The Searchers, complemented by Max Steiner’s lovely score, becomes indistinguishable from the fact that we are watching the shot, slavishly recreated in only the Lord knows how many fifth hand pastiches—the inky blacks of the opening title card slowly dissipating as Martha Edwards opens the door of her cabin and grasps one of the columns of the porch as she spots her brother-in-law (and, more likely than not, the love of her life) on the horizon. (more…)

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By Peter Lenihan

“More an essentialist than a minimalist” was how critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once described Robert Bresson, a somewhat elusive distinction that might help us make sense of Budd Boetticher’s unusual westerns as well. We must first emphasize the differences between these two directors’ works. Boetticher, unlike Bresson, worked with actors. They were not exactly stars, but great players like Randolph Scott, Richard Boone and Lee Marvin did some of their best work in his films. Additionally, Boetticher’s films were the result of collaboration—it’s impossible to imagine the Ranown films existing without writer Burt Kennedy and actor Randolph Scott, and they seemed to contribute as much to the films’ present qualities as the director. Finally, despite their singularity, films like Ride Lonesome were a particularly extreme expression of genre and filmic codes—they were anything but rejections of conventions, and instead appeared to purify and render them anew.

Nevertheless, Rosenbaum’s distinction remains a helpful one, particularly since Boetticher’s films are so much more than the result of mere subtraction. For all that sparseness and open nothing, Boetticher’s films are incredibly precise and—on their own modest terms—complex, often resembling intricate dances in which men working and living together are forced to get along until the shooting starts. At least three Boetticher films—Seven Men from Now, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station—essentially have the same plot. A group of men and women, many of whom are not quite who they appear to be, must get from one place to another. The reasons certain people have for going to this place remain in clear conflict with the reasons of other’s within that group, and although they might unite to fight Indians or bandits, the group itself cannot hold, and often, though certainly not always, breaks apart violently. (more…)

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936full-wagon-master-poster

By Peter Lenihan

A precredit prelude and overlapping images—so that it seems to be behind the wanted poster that Shiloh Clegg guns down a bank teller during a hold-up. It’s a strange opening to a strange movie—the Cleggs, while integral to the film’s narrative structure and Ford’s overarching vision, are hardly the central focus, and to foreground these characters so early on is a bit of a bluff. There’s also the wanted poster itself, which would have looked generic in 1920, let alone 1950 (or 2012). The fact that it’s such a familiar genre component is, in a way, the point—the familiarity of it eases one into a movie whose form and structure is fairly radical and free, and that “it’s just a Ward Bond oater,” while hardly true, is as good an entrance point as any.

There’s something else to this opening shot worth mentioning. Overlapping two images necessarily deepens what we’re looking at—even if one distorts the other, it still does, on the simplest level, give us more to see. Ford always was a director of motion, and handed a film concerned with the actual movement of different outsiders, he tries to fill every composition with people running and talking and playing and moving from one side of the frame to the other. There’s a tremendous sense of detail here—while I don’t think it’s incorrect to characterize the director’s films as mythic, it can be misleading insofar as it neglects the degree to which his best works seem lived-in.

Take, for example, the scene in which Ward Bond breaks up a fight between Harry Carey Jr. and one of the most hot-headed Mormons in the group. As a sequence, it’s not particular or unfamiliar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of westerns or John Ford movies—the two boys are sweet on the same lady, have a non-argument and start punching each other. Ward Bond breaks it up and Ma Joad starts blowing her horn. The greatness of the scene isn’t dependent on the participants’ acting or a sense of directorial technique as we tend to technically think of it. What Ford does do is widen the frame so that the action in some sense moves beyond itself—we can watch the fight, or the dance of light and dust that it causes, but we can just as easily watch the world unfolding behind this, of men and women and children and horses watching, moving, talking—each with their own inner life. (more…)

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by Peter Lenihan

Fort Apache is a turning point. Since the thirties John Ford had made only two westerns—Stagecoach (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946). Between 1948 and 1950, however, he would direct five—Fort Apache (1948), 3 Godfathers (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagon Master (1950) and Rio Grande (1950). This, in itself, is not necessarily important. Great directors excel in many genres, and following Rio Grande, Ford wouldn’t make another oater for six years. However, the differences between these five films and the two that came before it are striking, and worth emphasizing.

Film historians have gone to great lengths to underline the importance of Stagecoach, and particularly its place in the canon as the first “mature” “western”—a distinction I approach with great trepidation, and which you probably should too. If we are to understand maturity as consisting of busy, overlapping subplots and more characters than writer, producer or director know what do with, then I agree. The film as a whole, however, is too overstuffed to accommodate Ford’s poeticism, and both the film’s merits and failings seem to have more to do with its script than direction or (admittedly often startling) cinematography. My Darling Clementine, alternatively, is essentially a sequence-for-sequence remake of the superb Frontier Marshal (1939), and that it is not recognized as such probably has more to do with the obscurity of Dwan’s film than anything else. While Ford’s sense of community in Clementine is undeniably deeper than in Stagecoach, there’s an often transparent directorial discomfort with the pulpy gunfighter plot he’s supposed to be telling, and the film only comes alive in the scenes that have nothing to do with the Clantons or the OK Corral.

Fort Apache is a bit different, and marks, as Dave Kehr put it, the film in which “Ford finally withdrew from the Oscar race and entered his own individual aesthetic, isolating himself in the glories and eccentricities of a great artist.” Those are lofty pronouncements, but strike me as being justified by the film (as well as Wagon Master, The Sun Shines Bright, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and countless others). It’s a film of strange, unexplained suggestions—the dispute between Collingsworth and Thursday, for example, is never fully explained, although it almost certainly has to do with sides taken during the American Civil War—and although some of this is overridden by a stunning and bombastic climax, these uncanny whispers remain. (more…)

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By Peter Lenihan

Finding Ford is a biweekly series on the films of John Ford.

Apologies for the EXTREME tardiness of this week’s post—as some of you may or may not know, I live and work at a small provincial college in a fairly remote area on the border of Thailand and Burma, where power outages, not to mention internet disconnections, are a daily reality. Ideally I would have my pieces scheduled here at WitD well in advance, but that rarely happens, and when the power is out the power is out.

I have found in the past few weeks that I have less and less time to dedicate to these entries, and that I find myself repeating the same ideas from essay to essay. It’s for these reasons that I’m deciding to suspend the Finding Ford series for the time being—it may very well be resuscitated some time in the future, but for now I think it has run its course, and it’s unclear to me where it has left to go. (And if anyone feels like continuing the series themselves, perhaps offering fresh perspectives on the films I haven’t yet covered, they absolutely have my blessing; just throw Sam or me an email).

The Searchers has been written on twice before at Wonders in the Dark. Here Allan Fish called it the ninth best film of the fifties. And here Maurizio Roca contrasted it unfavorably with Michael Cimino’s striking Heaven’s Gate—I don’t agree with a word of the latter piece but there’s no denying it stakes out a position that many today agree with, and does so in a way that is far more palatable (and less self-centered) than the Stephen Metcalfs of this world are capable of. (more…)

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By Peter Lenihan

Finding Ford is a biweekly series on the films of John Ford. The next entry will be on The Searchers.

“Every time we get near the land you get that look on your face. When a man goes to sea he ought to give up thinking about things on shore. Land don’t want him no more. I’ve had my share of things going wrong, and all come from the land. Now I’m through with the land, and the land is through with me.”

Ford’s most extreme forays into expressionism (The Informer and The Fugitive particularly, but The Long Voyage Home and his more stylized silents as well) are often regarded as lesser works for lacking a sort of “authenticity.” Ford, conventional wisdom says, lives in the most unfussy and naturalistic frames, and what the director and Toland are up to in The Long Voyage Home is often thought of as a bit too “artistic” to be called truly great cinema (it’s also one of many reasons The Grapes of Wrath is generally regarded as the superior 1940 Ford—in that one, Toland really calmed down after the first fifteen minutes). It’s a position I’m not wholly unsympathetic to—and given the state of cinema in 2012, frustrations over deliberate artiness and forced aestheticization are arguably more understandable than they would have been in 1940—but the degree to which it encourages schematic readings of Ford’s work is more than a little obnoxious.

And then there’s The Long Voyage Home itself—made in the middle of what is considered by many to be the director’s most fertile period (although not, admittedly, by me), it’s an adaptation of several short Eugene O’Neill plays centered around the multi-national crew of the merchant ship Glencairn, commissioned during wartime to transport a load of ammunition to England. It’s a scenario that sounds more out of Hawks’ playbook than Ford’s, and there’s no question that this would make a marvelous double feature with the previous year’s Only Angels Have Wings—both films seem to exist at the end of the world, at some lost forgotten way station where fog clouds even the memories of the place. Men doing the only thing they know how to in spite of death—but while Grant at least has a bullshit line to pull out of his (gloriously ridiculous) hat, all these men have is whiskey, and indeed this often seems to be a film about drinking. Which isn’t to say that there’s a bottle in every scene, and it’s almost certainly not the drunkest of Ford’s films (although I have no idea which one is), but alcohol hangs over the picture as forcefully as the fog the sailors spend the movie cursing. (more…)

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By Peter Lenihan

Finding Ford is a biweekly series on the films of John Ford. The next installment will be on The Long Voyage Home.

Here’s the thing about Will Rogers, the quarter-Cherokee vaudeville cowboy who could only play himself and was a better man for it—while hardly a dominating presence in a conventional sense, his improvisatory style tended to shape the film’s around him, whether or not he played the lead. Take State Fair, a lovely bit of Americana directed by Henry King in 1933. This isn’t Rogers’ movie, and while his children spend the majority of the movie finding (or not finding) romance at the annual state fair, the actor spends the bulk of the running time hanging around the pig pen. And although King applies some nice lyrical interludes to Gaynor’s courtship (a couple rollercoaster moments recall The Crowd), it’s Rogers and that damn pig he keeps returning to, and it’s with this pair that the emotional catharsis of the climax resides. (more…)

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By Peter Lenihan

The next installment will be on Steamboat ‘Round the Bend.

A precredit prelude and overlapping images—so that it seems to be behind the wanted poster that Shiloh Clegg guns down a bank teller during a hold-up. It’s a strange opening to a strange movie—the Cleggs, while integral to the film’s narrative structure and Ford’s overarching vision, are hardly the central focus, and to foreground these characters (and a murder!) so early on is a bit of a bluff. There’s also the wanted poster itself, which would have looked generic in 1920, let alone 1950 (or 2012). The fact that it’s such a familiar genre component is, in a way, the point—the familiarity of it eases one into a movie whose form and structure is fairly radical and free, and that “it’s just a Ward Bond oater,” while hardly true, is as good an entrance point as any.

There’s something else to this opening shot worth mentioning. Overlapping two images necessarily deepens what we’re looking at—even if one distorts the other, it still does, on the simplest level, give us more to see. Ford always was a director of motion, and handed a film concerned with the actual movement of different outsiders, he tries to fill every composition with people running and talking and playing and moving from one side of the frame to the other. There’s a tremendous sense of detail here—while I don’t think it’s incorrect to characterize the director’s films as mythic, it can be misleading insofar as it neglects the degree to which his best works seem lived-in.

Take, for example, the scene in which Ward Bond breaks up a fight between Harry Carey Jr. and one of the most hot-headed Mormons in the group. As a sequence, it’s not particular or unfamiliar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of westerns or John Ford movies—the two boys are sweet on the same lady, have a non-argument and start punching each other. Ward Bond breaks it up and Ma Joad starts blowing her horn. The greatness of the scene isn’t dependent on the participants’ acting or a sense of directorial technique as we tend to technically think of it. What Ford does do is widen the frame so that the action in some sense moves beyond itself—we can watch the fight, or the dance of light and dust that it causes, but we can just as easily watch the world unfolding behind this, of men and women and children and horses watching, moving, talking—each with their own inner life.

It’s essential in some sense, then, that such an unremarkable story is being told. This is a movie about a couple of horse traders that hook up with some Mormons and a hoochie coochie show and a band of bank robbers. They travel from one place to another together. Some die, some don’t, and no one really gets along but everyone understands that they are, you know, “in this together.” And so although the focus here is on Johnson & Carey and, to a slightly lesser extent, a prostitute and one of the Mormon elders, it’s just as easy to imagine Ford making the film about one of those nameless families moving through the frame, or even the Navajos that we meet all too briefly. (more…)

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By Peter Lenihan

Apologies for the tardiness of this entry—I’m finishing up teaching a summer course and things have been a bit hectic. The next installment will be on Wagon Master, which I would suggest is one of the five or so greatest masterpieces the Hollywood studio system produced. Definitely see it before my piece drops, if you haven’t already.

The Iron Horse, Ford’s first mega-hit, is built around a premise that in 2012 (one hopes) we can all recognize as bullshit. As conceived, this is a film about what one intertitle describes as “inevitability,” and as such it’s a film of trajectories rather than possibilities, whose final outcome (that is, the bridging of “east” and “west”) is not a foregone conclusion because it’s what historically occurred, but because, if we’re to believe what the film is selling, it’s the only thing that could have occurred. As a particularly bombastic defense of Manifest Destiny, then, it’s stupid and racist and vulgar in a way that Ford’s films almost never are, and I would encourage any viewer to approach it with a healthy degree of ideological distrust.

At the same time, to discuss it in this way is to suggest that it was more thought out than it was, and we now know that it was essentially shot without a script. This was the freedom the twenties and only the twenties offered American filmmakers, and although the story had a basic treatment, Ford chose day-by-day what was going to be shot. In retrospect, it probably couldn’t have been done any other way. This was the filmmaker’s graduation into the big time, and he acted as both director and producer. The degree of management required for a planned shoot of this scale would overwhelm just about anyone, and for a relative novice like Ford it simply couldn’t have worked. So, he did what he had to do—he made it up as he went along. (more…)

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By Peter Lenihan

Finding Ford is a biweekly series on the films of John Ford. The next installment will be on The Iron Horse.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that as he was editing The Quiet Man, Ford told a friend that the film was getting better and better, and that perhaps even the Irish might like it. It’s a telling remark, highlighting not only the complex relationship between “Ireland” as a geographical and historical space and the “Ireland” of this very lovely film, but also candidly dealing with what is commonly viewed as a touristic component of the film (and indeed, so many of his films). It’s a broad charge, but it’s also almost undeniably there in The Quiet Man, which is (depending on who you ask) either a sentimental outside-of-time fairy tale or a product of condescending, sexist ideological imperialism. I don’t think it’s really necessary for me to point out that both those views are a bit reductive, but there’s a lot at stake here—both for those who wish to defend a certain narrative tradition and those who are only too aware of how national myths have come to shape their country’s history.

And at this point even its production history is the stuff of myth. Republic Pictures was a small, not particularly wealthy studio that specialized in B westerns, some of which are very well thought of today (Rio Grande & Johnny Guitar being two of the most obvious examples). Ford had bought the rights to The Quiet Man in the thirties, and one assumes Argosy lacked the bankroll to get it off the ground. Republic weren’t too keen on the idea of making it either, and forced Ford to make Rio Grande on the cheap in an attempt to recoup the presumed losses. To everyone’s surprise, The Quiet Man ended up being one of Republic’s and Ford’s biggest successes ever, and earned the director his fourth and final Oscar (the film lost the Best Picture trophy to The Greatest Show on Earth, of all things). It was, for all intents and purposes, the director’s final hit—although he continued to work through the fifties and sixties, his films were seen as archaic and unfashionable, and although various French critics (and, perhaps even more famously, Akira Kurosawa) praised much of his later work, he was patronizingly treated as a relic with consistently modest box office returns.

The story is, as is so often the case with Ford, astonishingly simple, and certainly contributes to its folk tale feel—Sean Thornton (John Wayne), a disgraced boxer, returns to Ireland to buy back his old home. He falls in love with a girl (Maureen O’Hara) there, marries her, and has to beat the shit out of her brother (Victor McLaglen) in order to gain her loyalty and love. Between these incidents (and indeed, The Quiet Man is, at 130 minutes, one of Ford’s longest productions), there’s a lot of drinking, a lot of singing, and a lot of Barry Fitzgerald. (more…)

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