FINALLY, THE CIA GETS THE MOVIE IT SO RICHLY DESERVES (At the Multiplex: October, 2017)

American Made (2017)
D. Doug Liman

Based on a true lie

Well damn. It’s about time.

I don’t see them all, but, as far as I know, the last great movie about the CIA was The In-Laws, all the way back in 1979.And it was all made up.

This one’s about half made up, which is about as close to the facts as any good CIA movie should ever be. Any closer, and it’s just a documentary, ready to be turned over to Ken Burns and produced on the public dime, like all the rest of the CIA’s activities, Viet Nam war included.

American Made was bound to be advertised as a Tom Cruise vehicle once Cruise was cast as Barry Seal, the Agency’s smuggler of choice for drugs, guns and Freedom Fighters back in the post-Vietnam, pre-Iran-Contra Go-Go phase of the Cold War. I grinned when I first heard about Cruise being cast. No matter the advertising, it’s very rare that I see a new movie coming and say “Well, I’m not missing that one.” And, despite our boy making no particular attempt to physically resemble Seal (who often checked in around 300 pounds), it’s every bit the inspired casting I hoped for.

The same people who complain about this or that historical detail being completely misrepresented in your favorite movie about Wyatt Earp or Jesse James are complaining about the same kind of things here.

My best advice is to ignore them.

Most of what we know about Barry Seal is what the CIA tells us anyway. Anybody who ever saw the In-Laws knows what that’s worth.

Suffice it to say he was a shady character and Cruise gets at the important thing, which is his motivation.

Yeah, American Made‘s Barry Seal has got some patriotic leanings and God knows he’s greedy.

But that’s not what makes him tick.

What makes him tick is a quality almost no movie ever gets right, even when it’s the very subject (as it is here, if only subterraneously). Before and after he was everything else–in life or film–Barry Seal was a primo example of a good, old American Type: the Danger Jockey.

No man who did what he did–in life or film–has ever been really high on anything but Risk.

And no man who did what he did has ever been cured of his peculiar addiction by anything but his Fate.

In Barry Seal’s case, that meant being cut down by Medillin Cartel assassins while reporting to a court-ordered work furlough at a handy Salvation Army depot in his home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at a moment when, by rights, he should have been in either a Federal Prison or the Witness Protection Program.

American Made stays in touch with the facts just enough to lay out a prima facie case–fictional but convincing–of just why and how all that was made inevitable. The biggest laugh in the theater came on the line “Governor Clinton is on the phone,” which comes just after Cruise’s Seal has assured the representatives of the umpteen law enforcement agencies who are gathered round a D.A.’s desk to determine which one of them is going to bury him under an Arkansas jail that he’s going to walk out of there.

Second biggest laugh?

When he walks out of there.

The film is skillful enough to have let us know by then what he already knows, which is that he is jumping from a frying pan to a fire–and the all-consuming flames will forever await him, no matter how fast he dances.

It’s also playful enough to get those laughs, all along the way.

Liman’s a plenty good director (Go, the first Bourne film, Edge of Tomorrow, Fair Game), but that last is a trick only Tom Cruise could do so well. He has made it look so easy so many times that he’s also made it easy to fool yourself into thinking he’s not acting, the same way Cary Grant and John Wayne weren’t supposed to be acting. But he’s made up his own iconography, without  the help they had from either Hollywood or the Culture (neither of which was any longer offering assistance in this regard by the time Cruise played his first iconic role in Risky Business). That’s not a small thing and he’s never put it to better use than here, where he’s all there is and all there needs to be. (The film’s one big mistake is sticking him with a devoted wife for whom he would do just about anything except give up being a Danger Jockey–it would be a mistake even if it were factual, which it ain’t. If there ever was such a Danger Jockey, it sure as hell wasn’t Barry Seal, and having the devoted wife be a confused, foul-mouthed, hypocritical Hollywood Southern sugarcake, who we’re supposed to love and admire anyway, doesn’t lessen the mistake).

In a world where the detritus of America’s classic transformation from Nation to Empire rolls daily by (just today, we decided that desertion would no longer be treated as a crime worthy of punishment by the American Military, a level of disdain for reason and tradition even Barry Seal might have blanched at if he could have stopped laughing long enough) American Made is just another two hours of entertainment. But when the court chroniclers of our long-promised future Golden Age come to write the last great score against our name, and ask themselves how and why it all went south so far, so fast, they could do worse than take a close, hard look at this great Tom Cruise vehicle, which already says to anyone paying attention:

Ah hah!

 

CITIZEN KANE ON CAMPUS (And Then There Was Hollywood: Tenth Rumination)

Citizen Kane (1941)
D. Orson Welles

Notes on attending Kane on campus last night….

1)   Watching it for the first time in a while–first time in decades with an audience–I was struck by how little its prescience has been noted by the crit-illuminati and/or their journo-politico fellow travelers re our recent political upheavals. I’ve seen Donald Trump compared to Adolf Hitler, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln (by himself), P.T. Barnum, Huey Long, Ross Perot, Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge, etc. Never once have I seen him compared to Charles Foster Kane. I’m sure it must have happened. But, as closely as I’ve been following along, I have to believe such comparisons have been few and far between. Now why would that? Hold on, I think I may have an answer way, way further down…

2) The main reason I go to watch classic movies on college campuses whenever I can is to participate in–and gauge–audience reactions. This was one of the rare times FSU’s Student Life Center was running a film in 35mm, so it was extra treat. (The Center, incidentally, is named for Reubin Askew, former Florida governor who was the only Democrat my mother ever considered voting for. In the end, she didn’t, citing her contempt for his running mate, though I always suspected she just couldn’t make the leap to the idea that the “New” Democrats were anything more than the Jim Crow scoundrels who had ruled her Southern childhood dressed up in sheep’s clothing. She was wrong about the thoroughly decent Askew–but had she lived just a little longer she would have spotted Bill Clinton for the smooth, duplicitous son of Pitchfork Ben Tillman he was right off, and taken some gently sardonic satisfaction in noting which one rose to the White House.) Re Kane, though:The reactions this time were….interesting.

3) The film was introduced by a couple of genial, slightly goofy student-age dudes, one of whom was evidently in charge of the theater’s programming, the other the projectionist (this being a rare modern occasion when one was required). They gave us an entertaining five minutes, during which I kept thinking “If this was Moore Auditorium in 1983, these guys would be chum for the sharks.” We won’t win any more wars, but the world was meaner then.

3) The main new thing that struck me in the movie–it’s one of those movies which will always reveal new things–was that when Joseph Cotten’s Jed Leland returns his copy of Kane’s “Ten Principles” (along with a $25,000 check torn to pieces), it’s not a comment on Kane’s journalistic or political honor (Leland was the first to know he didn’t have any), and therefore must be meant to strike at his betrayal of his marital honor–the only kind he’s really broken faith with. I don’t think the college kids around me quite got this (though they knew it was a big deal of some sort–it elicited the only gasps and “o-o-o-h-h-h-s” of the night). There’s no reason they should have, of course, marital honor no longer being a thing. But I was ashamed of myself for not noticing years back, when it still was a thing.

4) When it was over,  a girl in front of me turned to her friends and said “It was good.” They all nodded along. The relief was palpable.

5) There was a moment during the film, when the kid behind me said “This is going on right now.” I honestly can’t remember which scene he reacted to, because I was pretty much thinking that about every scene.

6) It became obvious to me for the first time during this viewing that Welles didn’t screen Stagecoach forty times while he was making Kane so he could understand more about deep focus cinematography or how to film ceilings (those being two of many theories, some endorsed by Welles himself, of what he was after). He screened Stagecoach forty times so he could learn how people move and talk on screen and to understand film-rhythm.

7) For all that–and all its technical perfection (one understands why it knocks ’em over in Film School)–it still doesn’t pack the emotional punch of Gone With the Wind or The Searchers, the reasonable competition for Hollywood’s greatest film. It might be a greater film from a purely technical standpoint and it’s certainly formidable as a Narrative. But if Narrative is the prime value of story-telling–and it should be–it still comes a little short. I should add that this says more about the other films than it does about Kane, which is still a moving experience on every level. And more so, I find, with age.

8) I’ve never bought that it was one of the great Hollywood blunders for John Ford and How Green Was My Valley to have won Best Director and Best Picture for 1941. All in all, I might pick Welles and Kane, but it’s a close run. He was robbed of the acting Oscar, though. Gary Cooper–almost inevitably with war clouds looming, then breaking, during awards season–won for a fine performance in Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (Ford’s own stated choice for best picture and director). But Welles gave one of the half-dozen signature performances in film. The only greater injustice in the history of the acting category was John Wayne being denied so much as a nomination for The Searchers. Welles was at least nominated.

9) Did I mention kids are so much nicer now? In the bathroom afterwards, three guys were talking about how “It wasn’t bad for 1941.” And another said, “I mean, it’s not something I’m gonna tell my friends they have to see.”

10) I was otherwise occupied, and thus robbed of my chance to share my Citizen Kane story with the younger generation. Had I been able to leave the stall a little sooner, I was planning to say something like this:

So I was sitting with my Dad about fifteen years ago, a few years before he died, and he puts down his newspaper and says ‘John, what is the significance of “Rosebud?”‘ I then proceeded to explain to him that it was a reference to the movie Citizen Kane (of which he had vaguely heard–my dad saw a movie about once a decade). I told him some of the plot and the presumed symbolism of it turning out to be the name of Charles Foster Kane’s childhood sled, the one he was playing with when he was taken from his parents.

My dad listened patiently to all of that, and, when I was finished, he looked off into the distance for a minute and finally nodded and said “Oh yeah. Old Hearst’s mistress.” Then he went back to reading his paper.

Mind you I hadn’t said a thing about Kane being based, in whole or in part, on William Randolph Hearst, let alone anything about Rosebud being his pet name for Marion Davies’ private parts and that being the more or less real reason Welles got more or less run out of Hollywood.

The only thing I could ever figure was that in Dad’s Carny days, perhaps through his friend and business partner “Cy,” who was an intimate of Red Skelton’s (they having grown up together in the mob-owned night clubs of the Midwest–there were certain towns in Illinois from which it was necessary for Cy to absent himself from the show for a week or two), he had picked up some piece of stray gossip that stayed with him all those years and flashed to the top of his mind as the shortest, straightest way to sort out all the nonsense I had been babbling on about.

I’m not sure how much of that I would have had a chance to share with my fellow bladder-emptiers last night. But if, by chance, they hadn’t fled, I was going to finish with a flourish and say:

“Now you should probably go watch it again and see what you missed.”

Ah well. Their loss.

And I still can’t blame them because, for all its purported “modernity,” Kane’s fall is straight out of the oldest trope in Western Civilization: Pride goeth before a fall.

Today’s twenty-somethings could be forgiven for thinking that’s all a lot of hogwash.

[Addenda: To answer the earlier question….The crit-illuminati and journo-politicos will catch on to the similarities between Donald Trump and their “fictional” Welles-ian hero when the Security State arranges for The Donald to be found in Mar-a-Lago, with a snow-globe falling from his dying hand as he lies on his big brass bed and Melania is discovered by a maid, locked up in the bathroom, murmuring, “I never wanted it. He wanted it for me!” The reports of the event won’t suffice to awaken them, but the note from the boss will do the trick. You know, the one that begins “Our friends at CIA have requested…”

FORD AND HAWKS, HAWKS AND FORD…AT WAR (And Then There Was Hollywood: Eighth Rumination)

Air Force (1943)
D. Howard Hawks

and…

They Were Expendable (1945)
D. John Ford

Ford and Hawks. Hawks and Ford.

No two directors have ever been paired so frequently. Hence, they’re stuck with each other–not that either man would mind.

They might be bemused, though, given all that separated them.

As for what united them, at least in the critical narrative….

Part of it was timing. They were close in age (Ford was born in 1894, Hawks in 1896), and subsequently comparable in experience and stature, not to mention close friends, especially later in life.

Part of it was taste. They both used John Wayne a lot (Ford could rightly take credit for making Wayne a star, Hawks for his maturation, Ford again for making the most of that maturation). They both liked stories about men in groups (though Hawks generally preferred ad hoc associations, Ford more formal and permanent ones).

Part of it was longevity. Once you sort out the wunderkinds (Welles, Ray, Coppola), they stand apart as the great American (and most American) filmmakers of the Golden Age or any other.

But mostly it’s the old yin and yang.

Give them the same subject matter, and they’d find approaches that both complemented and repelled each other–like two planets orbiting in opposite directions around the same sun.

That essential paradox was never more clearly displayed than in their approaches to their respective (somewhat obligatory) films about fighting men in WWII.

By obligatory, I don’t mean they took them less than seriously–these are two of the best war films ever made and likely the very best about men in small combat units. But it’s likely each man (both notoriously hard to read and completely unreliable as authors of their own narratives) approached his project more compelled by duty than enthusiasm. “A job of work” as Ford was fond of saying.

The dates on the films are a bit deceptive. Hawks filmed in the summer of 1942 and Air Force was released in February, 1943. Ford filmed in the summer of 1945 and They Were Expendable was released in December, 1945. The three years that separated the respective film-shoots were a lifetime.

In 1942, the outcome of the early war in the Pacific (the setting for both films) was still very much in doubt. It no longer seemed likely the Japanese would be overrunning the Pacific coast. But that they would hold onto, perhaps expand, their empire, seemed as likely as not.

In the tense, skittish atmosphere of ’42, Hawks, the man who loved flying and the sky, made a film about the crew of a single plane responding to Pearl Harbor and the impending loss of the Philippines by island hopping until they are able to lead a squadron that takes out an entire Japanese fleet and basically win the war by Christmas.

In the triumphant atmosphere of ’45, Ford, the man who loved sailing and the sea, made a film about a PT boat squadron being driven relentlessly toward defeat.

Air Force is notable among Hawks’ films in that death has a real presence and even a sting–a deep one on-screen and a deeper one off. In that sense, it’s the most Fordian film made by a director who, when asked by Peter Bogdonavich if he thought about Ford when he made westerns, said: “Well, it’s hard not to think about Jack Ford when you’re making a western…or any film really.”

Still, the tell-tale differences are there: there’s a “lucky” animal in both pictures, each played for laughs–a feisty little dog in Air Force gets some big scenes and plenty of attention, even an arc; a black cat in Expendable has no arc but simply skitters from boat to boat, reinforcing the random nature of “luck” in war time.

The men in both pictures go to extraordinary lengths to protect and preserve their “ships”–ships that are, in each case, considered of little use by high command until their crews prove them otherwise in the heat of conflict. Hawks’ plane–the Mary-Ann, rides out the film in glory. Ford’s boats–known by their numbers–go down in flames, one by one, until the last one is hauled off to run messages for the battered rump Army unit that remains on Corregidor. The men of Hawks’ Mary-Ann gather in the last scene, all smiles, on their way to bomb Tokyo. The men of Ford’s PT boats are scattered to the winds: some dead or lost at sea; others reassigned to the army, where (like the nurses exemplified by Donna Reed’s WAC) they’ll be killed or taken prisoner in the oncoming attack; a tiny few evacuated (in one of Ford’s most effective and moving final scenes, which is saying something) to be reassigned to teach the men who will “come back.”

Speaking of women–there’s no room for Hawks’ ideal One-of-the-Boys Dames in Air Force, so they don’t function as anything but someone for the heroes to say goodbye to (albeit they don’t yet know they’ll be heroes because they leave San Francisco on Dec. 6, 1941). The closest thing to a significant female character is a young woman, seriously injured in the Pearl attack, who is the sister of the Mary-Ann‘s co-pilot and the fiancee of its bombardier. She has a bedside scene that’s actually echoed in Expendable, only there, the patient is a wounded soldier pretending he doesn’t know he’s going to be left to die when his crew comes for a last visit.

In Ford, death always stings, never more so than here, where it is a constant presence, weighing more and more heavily as the film progresses–every visit registering in their commander’s face (Robert Montgomery, in a performance that transcends any notion of awarding it, though I doubt that’s why it was ignored).

Expendable, on the other hand, does have one significant female part–Reed’s Sandy Davyys. It’s a small but telling (and career-making) part. She’s no dame, but any man with sense would marry her a hundred times over any other man’s glorious fantasy. (Evidently a lot of men who actually fought in WWII felt the same. After Reed’s death, her daughter spoke of her mother receiving hundreds of letters from servicemen, which she mentioned to no one, and kept to the end of her life, a life that included fierce and public opposition to the American war in Viet Nam.)

Which leads us to the issue of verisimilitude.

To be fair to Hawks, Air Force comes from an era when war films were all but required to be infused with propaganda. Ford, directing at the end of the war, and having seen much of that war up close and personal–including Midway, where, in the initial fighting, men every bit as devoted to their planes as the crew of Air Force, were destroyed en masse by more technologically advanced Japanese fighters*–had a freer hand, not to mention a set of experiences that jaundiced a world view already prone to melancholy. In addition, Ford had the advantage of working with a number of cast and crew who, like him, had seen action. It’s possible that They Were Expendable is as close as any group of men have ever come to portraying war as they had just witnessed it so close to the fact.

And, oddly, it’s Expendable‘s downbeat tone–reflected in a title that, perhaps unconsciously, doubles as homage to its heroes and a dire prediction of the subsequent costs of empire which are with us still–that lends gravity to Hawks’ irrepressible can-do optimism. It’s a spirit that’s fundamental to all of Hawks’ best work, just as the spirit of elegy and remembrance is fundamental to Ford’s, but here is gains by the presence of a counterweight, brought to his own film by Ford’s original great silent-era collaborator, Harry Carey, Sr. and the hindsight we can enjoy from a distance where both films are secure in their reputations, as necessary to their own times as they are unfathomable to these.

I didn’t have a chance to see either film until after I was forty. The distance between them–the way they both reinforce and parry each other, until Expendable finally rises above–was more evident then because I’d undergone my own transformation. At twenty-nine I was a Hawks man all the way–the same way I preferred the Beatles to the Stones, Audrey Hepburn to Vivien Leigh, Raymond Chandler to Ross MacDonald.

Time reversed all those judgments.

Not because I lost any affection for the former–not even one degree.

Just because older, for me as for most people, has meant sadder and wiser.

Defeat may not be permanent. But it’s the greater part of life’s arc. As someone said at the end of another great war film: All glory is fleeting.**

For nations, as well as men.

Hawks may have suspected.

Ford knew.

*Ford, having taken film of the men with their planes the day before, later arranged the films to be sent to each man’s family at his own expense.

**Patton, for those wondering. Pretty safe bet that Francis Ford Coppola, who wrote the screenplay, knew his Ford as well as Patton knew his Latin.

HAUNTING THE PRESENT…THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE AT FIFTY-FIVE (I Watch Westerns: Take Six)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, D. John Ford)

Some day I’ll get back to John Ford’s people, which is the only way to get at the  unique narrative depth of his films. For now, the present calls.

And you know the drill: “This is the west sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

As our benighted populace works itself into its latest Twitter-fueled tizzy, busily convincing itself that it really is different this time, that “fake news” is something more than the latest euphemism for “news,” the only news fit to print is that John Ford, the “mythmaker” who couldn’t have made myths as rapidly as he deconstructed them if he had spent his life on a gerbil wheel, remains both the most misunderstood American artist and the most contemporary. What he asked, we spend our lives–and what’s left of our national narrative–answering, even if more and more of us never heard of him.

What he asks in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is not whether we should allow comfortable legends to displace disorienting facts (an issue he does address, here and elsewhere, often in profound and troubling ways) but something which is itself both simpler and more difficult.

“Aren’t you proud?”

The question is posed near the end of the film. It’s directed at James Stewart’s Senator Ransom Stoddard by his “good wife” Hallie, whose maiden name we have never learned. They are riding a train–especially commandeered for their use–away from the western town of Shinbone, which exists in a territory-become-state that seems closest to Colorado. As it is asked by Hallie Stoddard–and by the actress who played her–the question has no answer.

Yes, of course, we are proud–Ransom Stoddard and our pioneer ancestors and us.

Yes, of course, we are the furthest thing from proud. Ransom Stoddard. Our pioneer ancestors. Us.

After all: Look….Look what we’ve done!

And:

God help us, look what we’ve done….

“Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden….Aren’t you proud?”

Vera Miles spoke those lines on a movie set, sometime in the early sixties. She was playing a character sitting on a train as it rolled through a “garden” at the turn of the previous century, a character who has spent the previous half-day being brought face-to-face with the memories of her life in the “wilderness” of the 1860s or 70s.

We’ve seen who she was: an illiterate firebrand who has never seen a “real rose” and yearns–one might even say burns–for betterment, learning, civilization.

We’ve seen who she has become: cultured, worldly, frozen.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is her story because it’s the entire American story, maybe the entire story of Western Civilization, boiled down to a single scene.

This scene:

Only Ford would make a complex narrative film where the central conflict is played out between two people who share only this one scene and never exchange a word of dialogue.

Do they need to?

It’s all right there. Her fear. His arrogance. A room full of men in which only one (John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon, glimpsed at the far rear of the second frame above, where only Ford would resist cutting to an instant reaction shot of him**) can protect her.

Doniphon’s presence is felt. The scene even plays out with him challenging Valance, not over whether he’s Hallie’s protector–that’s a given and, like so much else, unspoken–but whether (by proxy of a dust-up over a steak spilled on the floor by James Stewart’s “new waitress”) he will extend his protection to a Civilization which, by the careful none-of-my-business postures of every other man in the room, we know will not assert, let alone defend, itself.

And, of course, in the end, he will do just that…and make the garden where the existential question “Aren’t you proud?” can finally be asked, some thirty years hence, over the memory of his own coffin.

By which time every answer the question can yield is a tragedy because the “garden” has come at the expense of the only happiness he cared about.

Not his own.

Hers.

Aren’t you proud?

(**Peter Bogdanovich, a Ford confidante in the years after Valance was made, is fond of telling about a similar sort of decision from the set of 1941’s How Green Was My Valley. The outline of Walter Pidgeon’s Doniphon-like priest is seen in the far background while Maureen O’Hara’s Hallie Stoddard-like bride rides off to a loveless marriage in a rich man’s motor car. A cameraman asked Ford if he didn’t want a reaction shot of Pidgeon up on the hill. “Aw no,” the Narrativist groaned. “They’ll just use it.”)

MY FAVORITE “ANYTIME” MOVIES….BY DECADE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Some time in the distant past when I used to listen to sports talk radio (and boy is that time getting to be distant), I heard a segment where a bunch of junior noncoms in the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade opined about movies they could literally sit down and watch anytime.

The DBCCB being what it is, Die Hard came up a lot.

Nothing against Die Hard, which I like, but I always thought I could do better ….so, being, as they say, snobby but not runny snobby:

The Thirties:

Carefree (1939, D. Mark Sandrich)

As many have noted, more a screwball comedy than a musical. As not enough have noted, a first class screwball comedy. And while it may not be a musical, strictly speaking, it does have Ginger doing “The Yam,” my favorite five minutes of film. My second favorite five minutes is Ginger, hypnotized, running loose with a shotgun, muttering “Shoot him down like a dirty dog!” while Luella Gear explains to Jack Carson that  “It’s probably one of the silly rules.”

The Forties:

Colorado Territory (1949, D. Raoul Walsh)

Walsh’s superior remake of his own High Sierra, the movie that made Humphrey Bogart a star. It’s easier to have sympathy for a western outlaw than a modern sociopath (even if the sociopath has had the rough edges smoothed away for the box office). Joel McCrea’s at his very best as a man looking for a second chance in the same wrong place he lost the first one, and VIrginia Mayo makes for one fetching half-breed. Plus it’s a heist flick, always a plus in my book.

The Fifties:

Rear Window (1954, D. Alfred Hitchcock)

Top drawer Hitchcock of course. It’s not so much remembered now, but this sat in the vaults for decades before being restored and re-released to theaters in the eighties. I took my mom to see it and, every time Grace Kelly came on the screen she would murmur, “Isn’t she so-o-o-o-o-o beautiful!” I could hardly disagree, but I thought I would go back a week or two later and watch it by myself, just to see what it was like without the sound effects. Met a girl from work in the lobby and, since we were both there by ourselves, it would have been rude not to sit together. First time Grace Kelly came on the screen: “Isn’t she so-o-o–o-o beautiful!” Interestingly enough, we spent the time before the movie mostly talking about a girl in our office who actually was the only woman I’ve ever known who was as beautiful as Grace Kelly in Rear Window, and had just quit to move back to Orlando. I found out a year or so later that she had wanted to date me, in part because I was the kind of guy who took his mother to the movies….Oh, wait. You thought I was gonna talk about the movie? Come on. You know about the movie. Hitchcock’s serious side and his comic side, perfectly married. That’s the movie.

The Sixties:

El Dorado (1967, D. Howard Hawks)

This is probably my all-time “anytime” movie. It’s a not-that-loose remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which everybody, including me, knows is “superior.” But there’s nothing in Rio Bravo I’d trade for the hour in the middle when John Wayne and Robert Mitchum are just a couple of roughnecks trying to keep law and order in a cowtown while Wayne keeps seizing up from the effects of a bullet in his back and Mitchum–with so little polish on him you can smell the whiskey, if not the vomit–is trying to dry out in time to dodge the next bullet. And if that’s not entertaining enough, I can always sit and ponder the mysteries of a universe where Michele Carey could smoke that many holes in the screen and fail to become a star.

The Seventies:

The Rockford Files: Season Four, Episode 8, “Irving the Explainer” (1977, D. James Coburn)

Not a movie. Okay, but there’s enough plot for three movies and it never gets resolved or leaves you wishing it would. People ask me what my favorite television series is and I say The Rockford Files. People ask me what my second favorite television series is and I say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”  Pick to click:  “Let me get this straight: You have a client who has the same name as Herman Goering’s house?”

The Eighties:

Midnight Run (1988, D. Martin Brest)

Way funnier than Die Hard, and the action sequences are no sillier. I’m not sold on Robert De Niro’s serious mode. (The whole Brando school leaves me…bemused.) But there’s never been a better comic actor. Not even Cary Grant. Matched here by the entire cast, including Charles Grodin, who I can usually take only in the smallest doses.

The Nineties:

Wag the Dog (1997, D. Barry Levinson)

Preston Sturges for the Age of the Security State and a road movie to boot. We forget. That’s the only explanation for a world where this movie exists and you still have people running around crediting the CIA–or, better yet, “the intelligence community”–as a reliable source. Comic genius from Dustin Hoffman, the aforementioned Mr. De Niro and Anne Heche, as the Girl Friday from both Heaven (oh, the efficiency) and Hell (she doesn’t care the job or the master, she just wants to serve someone and, buddy, you better be it).

The Current Millenia:

I know we are in the second decade of the new millennia, but it hasn’t been the sort of millennia that produces a lot of things worth revisiting. Forget two, I’m surprised there’s one.

Knight and Day (2010 D. James Mangold)

That’s the whole movie right there. Two people who are amazed by each other. One’s a superspy and the other likes to work on cars. Guess which is which? This is almost enough to make me forgive James Mangold for his wretched remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Almost.

THE MARSHAL FROM WICHITA….JOEL McCREA (AFTER HE WAS JOEL McCREA) AS WYATT EARP (BEFORE HE WAS “WYATT EARP”) (I Watch Westerns: Take Five)

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Happy to be taking part in Toby Roan’s Joel McCrea Blogathon. Toby blogs at 50 Westerns from the 50’s, which is on my blog-roll and highly recommended for anyone seeking a better understanding of a bottomless subject. His comment section alone is more informative than a lot of books. Anyway, I picked McCrea’s turn as a pre-legend Wyatt Earp in Wichita, one of many superficially unassuming westerns that have grown with time and repeated viewings. Please take the time to click on the link provided and peruse the other entries….There’s always much to learn, even on an average day.

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By the time (1955) Joel McCrea played Wyatt Earp, in Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita, both men were at the height of their fame and iconography. McCrea had been a major Hollywood star for a generation. Earp had been a legend, both in his own mind and elsewhere, for nearly three-quarters of a century.

Nonetheless, on paper it  wasn’t the most natural pairing.

McCrea was sufficiently laconic to give Gary Cooper a run for his money, while Earp’s legend had grown, in part, because of his flamboyance–both as a lawman and a story-teller. Still, in the age just after the closing of the Frontier and just before our present Return to the Primitive, Civilization was thought best managed by the sort of man McCrea was best at portraying. It was what made him a star then and what now leaves him vulnerable to memory’s fast-fade. You don’t quite have to be an aficionado–of Hollywood or the Western–to recognize the value of McCrea’s name in a credit. But, each year more than than the last, it helps.

The Laconic Hero certainly wasn’t all he could play, even in westerns. He wasn’t Preston Sturges’s main boy for nothing, and, in a stone-cold classic like Colorado Territory, he was able to give his rock-solid persona the sort of tiny, invisible nudge (common to the great leading men of his day, virtually unheard of now that everyone’s been to “acting school”), that made him more than credible as the lone competent man in a brutal hole-in-the-wall hold-up gang…and, oh-by-the-way improve on Humphrey Bogart’s star-making turn in High Sierra (of which Colorado Territory was a superior western re-make).

Still, by the fifties, he had grown comfortable in his more basic man-of-the-west persona, and that’s certainly at the core of his presence throughout Wichita.

It’s also part of what makes the movie deceptively quiet. Despite a surfeit of plot and action, plenty of Tourneur’s always deft and subtly impressive visuals, and a strong cast even by fifties’ western standards (Edgar Buchanan, Vera Miles, Walter Coy, Lloyd Bridges, Jack Elam, Robert Wilke…like that, plus an especially fine turn from Wallace Ford as a newspaper editor who’s seen it all before), it can fool you into thinking not much is going on.

Wyatt Earp–not then a name carrying the particular weight that attaches to any version of the Dodge City or Tombstone tales upon which Earp’s legend was built–comes to Wichita to start a business. Then the usual stuff happens.

He averts a holdup at the bank where he is about to deposit his money….

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He turns down a marshal’s badge because he’s not interested….

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He then takes the badge when it becomes evident he’ll never get a business off the ground in any place as wild and lawless as Wichita (the woman is cradling her dead child, just shot through an open window by the cowpokes who have taken over the town…and whose business the town desperately needs)…

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So he tames the town…

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And keeps it tamed….

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To the point where he can enjoy the fruits of his labor…

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In part by wooing the town’s prettiest girl. (Miles, just before she altered the worlds of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. And, while she’s fine here–when was she not?–and you can already learn things by watching her, it’s clear Tourneur, one of the period’s finest directors, didn’t see the qualities they saw. One of the distinctions between even great talent and genius I suppose).

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More than all that, he begins to accept his destiny as a “natural born lawman….”

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The man who can turn this…

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and this…

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into this…

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and this…

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And make it stick until he and the girl can ride off into the sunset, where–having both his history and his myth handy–we know he will clean up other, even more raucous towns, and, unlike most legendary western characters, live to make sure at least some of the tales get told the way he wants them told.

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Simple enough. But that basic story rests inside a larger, subtler one, one which involves a hard-headed look at small town politics, the responsibilities of leadership and power, the testing of character and, yes, the fragility of Civilization. How close the run is between here…

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and here…

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and here…where even those who rejected Civilization a moment before are suddenly reminded of its virtues.

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By movie’s end, McCrea (and his legend) and Earp (and his legend) have merged in a way that hardly seemed possible at the beginning, when the “pilgrim, probably looking for something to eat” approached a cattle drive that would soon shape his destiny.

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In that beginning, McCrea’s at his most lock-jawed and generic. He really could be almost anybody and it’s only upon reflection that you realize how perfectly that suits the Wyatt Earp who, as a later Prophet might have had it, is busy being born. In the world of 1955, or 2016, we expect anyone playing Earp to have a star quality that’s evident from the moment we set eyes on him. But McCrea, who was perfectly capable of exuding that quality, holds it in check as he rides into the movie. It’s preparatory to his playing Earp as a character we don’t know, and who perhaps does not yet know himself. Once you realize that–and I confess it took me several viewings, though of course that’s an acknowledgement there was always plenty to draw me back–the movie itself gets a whole lot more interesting.

It’s credible that McCrea’s Earp is the kind of man a couple of cowpokes would take for an easy mark. And just as credible that they lose first their sense of superiority, and, consequently, their lives, for their mistake.

That’s the sort of duality McCrea’s rare breed of actor specialized in. He had company in this regard, but you wouldn’t need much more than a card table to seat them. Gary Cooper. Randolph Scott. Just then coming on the scene, James Garner. Maybe Jimmy Stewart at a stretch. But you could be as great as John Wayne or Robert Mitchum or Kirk Douglas and never convince an audience that the dumbest cowpoke ever born could mistake you for a mark.

McCrea splits the difference between “aw shucks” and “don’t push me” so easily it could take the viewer just as long to notice as his adversaries do, even in a film where the adversaries aren’t limited to the obvious bad guys. That he’ll tangle with Bridges, Elam, Buchanan, is clear enough. Here, as elsewhere, they were hired to be the sort of men Joel McCrea would have to dispense with. They, too, could do other things, but it’s not asked of them here at the birth of Wyatt Earp, where they do what they do as superbly as ever.

This Wyatt Earp’s biggest run-in, though, is with Walter Coy’s character, Sam McCoy, and not just because he’s Laurie McCoy’s (Miles) father.

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Coy was a fine actor who was often hired to play basically decent but feckless men. This might be his best turn. He shifts from glad-hander to big shot to concerned father to vengeful widower to the film’s chastened conscience as easily and naturally as McCrea shifts from wanderer to lawman and it’s these performances, along with Ford’s beautifully underplayed curmudgeon and (underutilized though she is) the early peek at Miles, already shouldering the permanently thankless burden of representing Civilization, a heartbeat before The Wrong Man and The Searchers, that give the film enduring interest.

I don’t know if the interest is bottomless…But I feel like I’m a long way from being done with it yet.

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OUR NEVER-ENDING “FORT APACHE” MOMENT (Segue of the Day: 5/11/16)

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One day, cruising the internet for signs of intelligent, or at least coherent, life, and, instead, I come across this:

And as for “off the reservation”, wow—I guess Hillary should take a gander at John Ford’s classic Western, Fort Apache(1948), where John Wayne tangles with Henry Fonda as a U.S. Cavalry martinet vengefully pursuing the Native American “savages,” led by the famous Chiricahua Apache chief Cochise, who refuse to stay on the reservation decreed for them by the government during Westward expansion. The bloody Apache wars in Arizona were one of the darkest chapters in American history. But there you have Hillary’s gender theory in a nutshell: men are bums and bullies who belong in internment camps under female lock and key.

(Camille Paglia, May 5, 2016, Salon.com)

Next day, filling in one of the holes in my education (about which more in some upcoming monthly book report), I come across this:

Mythopathic moment. Fort Apache, where Henry Fonda, as the new colonel, says to John Wayne, the old hand, “We saw some Apache as we neared the Fort,” and John Wayne says, “If you saw them, sir, they weren’t Apache.” But this colonel is obsessed, brave like a maniac, not very bright, a West Point aristo, wounded in his career and his pride, posted out to some Arizona shithole with only marginal consolation: he’s a professional and this is a war, the only war we’ve got. So he gives the John Wayne information a pass, and he and half his command get wiped out. More a war movie than a Western, Nam paradigm, Vietnam, not a movie, no jive cartoon either where the characters get smacked around and electrocuted and dropped from heights, flattened out and frizzed black and broken like a dish, then up again and whole and back in the game, “Nobody dies,” as someone said in another war movie.

Michael Herr, Dispatches, 1978 (recalling 1968)

I confess that, not for the first time, I’m not at all sure what points Paglia was trying to make. Probably the same ones Herr had made, far more eloquently, decades earlier. It’s a dangerous world. Civilization is fragile and built on corpses. Get stupid, get screwed. Or get dead, in a world where death is real. We’d better study the American narrative closely, because, like it or not, embrace it or not, we are setting the agenda for the age and thus charged with deciding which corpses will seed the ground.

If you want to know the future–or even the present–study the past.

In other words, the very points John Ford spent his career making.

The distance between Herr’s earned, astringent clarity, let alone Ford’s artistry (both long since rendered impossible by the ensuing cultural collapse) and Paglia’s lack thereof (now de rigueur, though she’s often perversely charming in her absolutely complete inability to recognize how much she’s benefited from the downfall she rightly laments), is the distance we’ve traveled in less than two generations. You can guess which voice has been nearly silent since and which one is ready for an interview–the modern media’s equivalent of a close-up–this weekend!

Goodbye us.

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QUEEN OF THE EMERALD ISLE (Maureen O’Hara, R.I.P.)

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Maureen O’Hara was as Irish as Irish gets (born a Fitzsimmons) and proud of it. But after about 1939 it was almost impossible to imagine that Ireland, or any land, could have ever contained her particular multitudes. Her rise to the most international sort of stardom was swift and sure, from playing Esmeralda opposite Charles Laughton’s Hunchback, then straight to Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford in three short steps. And, once she got there, her stay on the mountain was as long as just about anyone’s.

Longer frankly than mere talent or star-power could guarantee alone. For the run she had, you need both in abundance. That and the ability to play just about anything while maintaining a core persona that is strong enough for the folks in the cheap seats to never have any doubt it’s you up there.

Just about every film fan has an instant picture in their mind when her name is mentioned. But unlike so many of whom we could say the same, she was impossible to pigeon-hole, even with the false boundaries that so many have tried to hang on her favorite co-star John Wayne. All you need for confirmation is a quick run through her truly iconic parts: who else really pulled off pirate movies, westerns, a Christmas classic, a Disney classic, spy thrillers, comedies, good wives of both the cantankerous and eternally faithful sorts and, oh yeah, Esmeralda? Sure, there were maybe a few. Pick your own list. But you probably won’t need your second hand to count them all.

Good luck getting a read on her away from the screen either. She never forgave Walt Disney for billing her second to Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap and went to her grave insisting there was nothing to do with John Ford but to love him even though he once punched her in the face.

Very Irish all that. But more than that, very Maureen. She was a truly brilliant actress and a luminous movie star who was always absolutely and thrillingly herself.

Somebody who could break your heart just by being…

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…or put a smile on a blind man’s face a thousand yards away.

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Not just the last of her kind, then. The only of her kind.

REPUBLIC PICTURES BLOGATHON…ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (I Watch Westerns: Take One)

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Toby at 50 Westerns from the 50s is hosting a blogathon devoted to Republic Pictures and he’s been kind enough to include me. I’m hardly in the league of the western devotees who frequent Toby’s place when it comes to deep knowledge of the subject, but I do have a deep connection to one of the studio’s signature films so I thought I’d put in my two cents. Please click over to 50 Westerns from the 50s (it’s on my regular blog roll or you can link here) and check out the other entries. You can have a lot of interest in Golden Age westerns and still learn something every time you visit either Toby’s site or Colin’s at Riding the High Country (also on my regular blogroll). I certainly do. They both have extensive blogrolls of their own, incidentally, which make for excellent adventures in further research.

For any of Toby’s readers who find yourself here for the first time, this is a pop culture site with a particular emphasis on classic rock and soul, so I don’t specialize in westerns (though I really need to get back to writing more about them). But I do write about them occasionally and I have a couple of ongoing categories devoted to John Ford which might be of interest and which I really do intend to get back to very shortly! They can be found in the blogroll at the right. You can also follow the links within the post to some further thoughts on Gail Russell, among other things. There’s also a friendly search engine if you want to look up, say, Anthony Mann or John Wayne. Please know that if you want to comment on an older piece I will see it and respond.

Now to business….

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What I know about Republic Pictures is what every junior grade film buff knows.

Herb Yates. Tight-fisted. Quick buck. No fancy-schmancy. Seat of your pants operation.

All the stuff you can pick up here and there from folks who may or may not know of whence they speak.

What I know about Angel and the Badman, besides it being made for Republic, is what I see when I pop it in one of the modern devices few were conceiving could give their day’s work such a long afterlife back in Republic’s not-quite-as-seat-of-the-pants-as-it-probably-seemed heyday.

All of which makes me think there is such a thing as cultural auteurism and that Republic’s was as distinctly American as real apple pie or double-header baseball or any of those other things that used to mark us off and now seem like relics of a rapidly receding, ever more elusive past.

I doubt any film the studio put out could have been made in Sweden or Italy.

Angel and the Badman certainly couldn’t.

It probably shouldn’t have amounted to much as it was, American or otherwise.

The director and producer were both first timers, albeit first timers who had worked their way around the block more than once in other capacities before they got to the head of those particular lines. The female lead was a notoriously shy ingenue whose life was already on the brink of wreckage and disaster. The supporting cast was purely stock, except for maybe the aging, silent-era cowboy taking on one of his last work-where-I-can-get-it character parts. The location shooting was solid but hardly inspired.

Going by his reputation, then, it’s about what you’d think Herb Yates would come up with circa 1947.

And, if so, more power to him. Or, if you like, more power to his memory and the memory of his little studio that could.

You stick your nose in there often enough, and you might occasionally–or even frequently–run into something that amounts to more than just a pretty good living.

Of course, sometimes, mostly later on, Yates would team up with a Frank Borzage or a John Ford, and the chance at making something enduring would lean in a little closer. But Angel and the Badman proved (as I’m sure plenty of his other specifically non-auteurish projects did, but I’m sticking to this one because it only takes one and this is the one I know best) he didn’t need all that.

It endures and it says something about us.

1947’s Oscar nominees combined could hardly claim more.

*  *  *  *

That first time producer was John Wayne and, if he weren’t such an iconic movie star, we might be more inclined to remember what a formidable producer he actually was.

He showed his savvy right here, at the beginning. The first time director he wanted, James Edward Grant, turned in a solid job and, though he only directed one more film, he also became Wayne’s favorite go-to screenwriter. The cripplingly shy female lead did what she often did and gave an indelible performance which nobody credited as “acting” no matter how unlike her other indelible non-acting performances, or how unlike anybody else’s pure acting job, it was. The aging cowboy put a beautiful capstone on his career without breaking a sweat. The stock company put the glue in the cracks just like they were supposed to.

And while this sort of thing happened a fair amount in Hollywood’s golden years, I’d argue the pieces rarely fell into place so beautifully as they did here.

The folks who read this aren’t likely to need reminding of Wayne’s own formidable acting skill, but I don’t see this one put among his top-line performances as often as it should be. It’s his great transitional role, delivered in the same year he made Red River (you want a lesson in acting, try a double bill of those two made-in-forty-six specials). Red River has been justly celebrated as the role where he stretched, matured, played older, got John Ford to admit “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.” It’s all of that.

But I’d argue that what he did here, working for himself, was just as grand. He took on the role of “the kid”–ultra-familiar to his core audience from dozens of truly B-westerns and serials, some of which, contracts being what they were, he kept right on playing after a similar role in Stagecoach made him a star–one last time.

And he made the kid’s transition into a world his character should have rejected out of hand seem not merely plausible but so inevitable that almost anyone watching the movie for the first time will have the satisfaction of seeing the change coming and saying, of course, to themselves when the final credits roll.

No mean trick that, because, by then, you might have forgotten who he really was at the beginning…a man even Gail Russell didn’t have at hello.

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A man who might have become Ethan Edwards as readily as he remained the Ringo Kid…

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And in case you wonder how much acting skill that took, her “hello” was in the old style, when everybody on a second-line Hollywood lot knew what nobody on any lot knows now, which is how to film an entrance.

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So, okay, maybe she doesn’t have him at hello. Nobody could. But she at least has his attention. Because nobody wouldn’t give her that.

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So forget the double bill. You could just watch that minute-and-a-half and have done with the acting class.

Because, in a sense, that’s the whole “movie” part of the movie right there.

The Quaker girl’s spell. The hell-raising cowboy’s attempt at resisting.

Her attempts to give in to him without losing herself. His attempt at remaining himself, and finding whether it will be worth it to give in.

Simple. You could probably explain it to Herb Yates in the traditional “you got two minutes.”

If Angel and the Badman stopped right there, just carried that story to any one of its logical conclusions (even the one Hollywood was bound to demand), it would, at very least, be what most critics, be they industrial or high-brow, seem to think. Entertaining diversion. Good little western. Not bad for a Republic effort. Etc., etc. etc.

Making the Angel a Quaker gives it more than a spin, though.

We don’t have a lot of narratives about Quakers. In American life, they’ve always punched way above their weight. Look at any movement toward freedom and you find them (abolition, women’s rights) or their principles (civil rights, war resistance) at the foundation. In American narrative, whether purveyed by novelists, dramatists, filmmakers or historians, they hardly register.

On that level, Angel and the Badman, probably conceived as a Hollywood pitch that a tight-fisted producer could go for, really is, in the American vein, the little picture that could. What should have been a gimmick–what really was a gimmick even in a film as fine as Witness (made nearly forty years later with the Quakers replaced by the Amish, lovely people who really do make a point of standing outside of history)–takes hold. It takes hold in a way that more serious minded efforts don’t. No less than William Wyler tried it on with Friendly Persuasion a decade later and it was just fine. That and no more.

Angel and the Badman is something more.

I don’t mean it’s a tract. Far from it.

The film’s running argument as to whether the Friends’ beliefs and lifestyle can co-exist with a violent world without being protected by violent men, doesn’t go terribly deep (though I’d argue it goes deeper than Friendly Persuasion, in part because it doesn’t try as hard).

But it lays out the fundamentals of the argument extremely well and without proselytizing or even drawing much attention to the tug and pull.

And that’s where John Wayne’s inherent generosity, his best quality as an actor, producer and (probably) man shone through.

He got that this was Gail Russell’s movie. That it wasn’t just a traditional love story, beautifully as that part is handled, but one where ways of life counted more than the lives themselves.

I give the credit to him because I really doubt that it occurred to Herb Yates or even James Edward Grant that she even could carry a movie that had John Wayne in it, let alone that it would fall over on its side if she didn’t. He seems to have believed that she could carry a love story where the girl has to make it clear to the boy (and it’s worth remembering that Wayne, pushing forty, could still convey hell-raising boyishness convincingly–that acting thing again), that she will follow him anywhere but she won’t abandon her core convictions.

And, oh by the way, he was right.

Her beauty alone might give a man pause, even an untamed boy-man who defines himself by his untamability.

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But it wouldn’t hold him at the end. Not unless those core convictions had worked their way past his defenses over time even more thoroughly than his all-American animal magnetism (part cowboy-anticipating-movie-stardom, part movie-star-summoning-the-mythos-of-the-cowboy) worked its way past hers in the first instant, when he was barely conscious of her. So much so that this…

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could produce this…

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a mere moment after he had convinced himself (and everyone else) that he was still this…

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The very baddest of the badmen…

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Who would never be anything else.

Russell’s Penny Worth had more closeups than I care to count in this movie that runs on closeups. And for a Quaker girl, she sure got into a lot of clinches. So, on top of everything else, it’s one of the truly fine Hollywood romances.

But it wouldn’t register nearly as deeply or distinctively without the back story–without her ability to convey both the overpowering sexual chemistry and the absolute unwillingness to abandon her belief, even if she abandons her home and family, not as though they represented contradictions being resolved, but as though they were two sides of the same coin.

A conventional reading of the plot resolution, and boy there are a lot of them so I don’t have to guess, would contend that it’s simplistic, or unrealistic, even miraculous. And, on paper, this reading would be right.

The Badman can be with the Angel, on her terms, only because the old cowboy who set out to haunt them…

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is finally there to protect them…

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..with, I might add, two shots that are too close together to have possibly come from a repeating rifle fired by the same man.

But that misses the point.

In the real world behind the fantasy worlds we work out in movies and elsewhere, the pull of the just is a little more powerful than a cynic, supposedly contending for “realism,” might want to admit. The fight for the freedom of the spirit is always going on behind the fight for something more temporal. It’s the real reason the temporal fights are carried on so bitterly and for so long. After all, there are plenty of beautiful girls in the world.

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Some of whom are even willing to love a Badman…to dream they, believing only in their particular dream, might be the one who makes him see the light…

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But Angel and the Badman, made for a Saturday afternoon audience, under the rudest all-American circumstances, isn’t just a first class entertainment. Thanks to the classiness of more than a few of those involved and a culture, no longer extant (be it Hollywood’s or America’s) that once gave them room to breathe, it has a certain grace that transcends even the most considerable and conscientious craft. It offers a reason for remembering why the believers in the possibility of a better world are so often the instigators of fights that can’t possibly be won until the moment they are.

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WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Notes on Narrative in True Grit and the Breathlessly Awaited Eleventh Maxim!)

[NOTE: This is an update of a piece I roughed out for my own amusement back when the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit reached theaters in 2010. I love both film versions and think the novel is a masterpiece. But, for the sake of this piece, that’s actually neither here nor there…I was more fascinated by two other, not entirely unrelated elements. First, the Coens’ ability to hoodwink the media in much the same fashion that politicians do, namely by relying on a mindset that is both lazy and servile. Second, by just how hard true narrative is to really master….Since it fits some themes I frequently visit here, I finally got around to putting it in shape….Well, good enough for a blog post anyway!]

First….True Grit, in whatever form, is Mattie Ross’ story. so here she is, saying her piece in three voices:

First voice:

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“He (Rooster Cogburn) directed LaBoeuf to take his horse and find a position up on the north slope about midway along one stroke of the V, and explained that he would take up a corresponding position on the south slope. Nothing was said about me with regard to the plan and I elected to stay with Rooster.”–from Charles Portis’ novel, True Grit.

Second voice:

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“I go where Rooster goes.”–Kim Darby, from the 1969 film version.

Third voice:

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“I picked the wrong man.”–Hailee Steinfeld, from the 2010 film version (choosing LaBoeuf over Cogburn).

That is, she picked this guy:

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Over this guy:

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Not for a date mind you, but to kill the bad men.

As Hailee Steinfeld’s folks might say: Oy vey.

And so, with all that in mind for starters…a little rumination:

It’s a testimony to just how great a character Mattie Ross is, and how many valid interpretations she might be able to bear, that the choice Hailee Steinfeld’s “Third Voice” Mattie makes in the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit does not sink their very fine film.

By all rights it should.

Having already violated the impeccable narrative structure of their source considerably by, among other things, having Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf leave the scene once (to be brought back by some not overly reasonable coincidence), the Coens have him not only leave it a second time (for no better reasons and to be brought back under a circumstance that is, if anything, even less likely than the first), but leave it with Mattie begging to be taken along!

That’s about as far from “I elected to stay with Rooster,” or “I go where Rooster goes,” as anyone can get.

Naturally, the chorus of those who insisted the Coens were “truer” to the book, in form, spirit or both, was loud and long–not merely an echo of what the Coens’ themselves had been very publicly insisting ever since it got about they were re-making True Grit, but, by the time the film was released, a rising crescendo.

The most egregious example of that crescendo was probably Dana Stevens at Slate.com, who, a whole day after admitting in one of the website’s podcasts that she had never read the book or seen the original film, blithely wrote:

“…this version of True Grit hews more closely to the cult novel by Charles Portis than the 1969 adaptation starring John Wayne.”

Granting that anyone who uses the word “cult” to describe a million-copy bestseller (which has subsequently inspired two major hit movies, one of which merely won that obscure cult figure, Mr. Wayne, an Oscar, plus a sequel and a network television movie, all before becoming a #1 New York Times bestseller again upon the release of the second movie) probably cannot be considered an intellectual titan, there’s no reason to pick on Stevens.

Allen Barra (writing for the Daily Beast), after noting how “surprising” it was that so few reviewers actually knew Portis’ novel, then gave an example of how closely the Coen brothers had stuck to the source:

“The Coens’ script preserves the thumbnail description of the marshals available to her:

‘The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear does not enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings in his prisoners alive….Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best that they have.’

‘Where,’ Mattie wants to know, ‘can I find this Rooster?’”

Well, actually, the description of Cogburn, and Mattie’s response, were preserved in the Coens’ version. But the description of Quinn is considerably altered…enough that it deflates the clear punch of Portis’ prose, a mistake the original film never made once and which the Coens made, if not frequently, then at least far more than they needed to.

Incidentally Barra, having declared himself a fan of both Portis and this newer version of the film, is no fan of the original, which he describes as “sloppily made.”

Detailing the sloppiness of Barra’s own review would require a small essay of it’s own (that described above is the least of it), but at least he’s not Tom Shone.

Shone, a former film critic of the London Sunday Times who did not have a paid outlet at the time, but perhaps merely wanted to give Dana Stevens a full run for her money, wrote about the film on his website. He complained of a “plot robbed of forward thrust by fidelity to the meandering byways of Portis’ plot (is there a limit to the number of times Le Boeuf can change his mind about whether he wants to be with the other two or not?)”

Gee, if he had left out the specifics of his complaint, I might have been able to conclude he had actually read the novel and just wasn’t very perceptive.

But, no, he needed to go the last mile and prove himself something worse (because, of course, the “meandering” to which he so disapprovingly refers is all the Coens and none of Portis).

If only I could believe that the Sunday Times had sacked him for such.

As it is, I’m stuck leaving my faith in human virtue to the side yet again and am thrown back on purely philosophical questions such as whether Mattie Ross would have any more truck with me than with thee?

See, I’ve never been too sure.

My first acquaintance with Mattie was in the first film. I saw some piece of it on television some time in the vaguely remembered seventies. My viewing was in black and white, on a 19-inch rolling screen (there used to be a thing called vertical hold, children, and in your poorer households, it did not always “hold”). I remember being struck by how little Mattie, and the actress playing her, cared for whether she was liked.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I had never encountered anyone in life or (discounting villains) the movies, who cared so little.

Brave choice by Ms. Darby and she’s still paying the price.

John Wayne, thankfully, will always have defenders, and so opinion was fairly evenly divided among reviewers. the blogosphere and the general public, as to the worth of his performance as Rooster Cogburn. But in the wake of the Coens’ version, I didn’t find a single mainstream defender of Darby (who was instead retrospectively slagged and slandered for being “perky,” “adorable” and “crush-worthy,” not to mention far too old to be playing a fourteen-year-old and a pain in Henry Hathaway’s neck).

As I’ve written elsewhere, I rate Darby’s performance in the original True Grit as the second best ever given by a woman in a western (just behind Vera Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance…don’t worry she never got the credit she deserved either).

You don’t have to agree with me or even think Darby was any good at all to attend further. Such things are purely subjective. But If you found her “adorable,” please check yourself into some government facility. I’m depressed enough as it is. I don’t need to see my tax dollars being further wasted not helping you.

There’s no such thing as an “adorable” Mattie and no such thing as an intelligent actress, writer or director who would ever want to see her portrayed that way. Whatever one thinks about the people playing those various roles in the versions of True Grit that now exist for the world’s perusal, none of them were or are stupid.

And that gets to the heart of what’s really, really good (I’d even say great) about the newer version…and also what’s rather problematic about it.

It gives us not only a Rooster Cogburn who is vastly different than the original film (but still perfectly valid in terms of the novel’s structure and themes), but a vastly different Mattie.

These differences have been variously noted–Cogburn more than Mattie, if only because John Wayne cannot be readily dismissed even by a brain-dead intelligentsia (which I believe I have fairly represented above). But because no one took Darby seriously, the only thing that has been left to say about Steinfeld is that (take breathless pause here) she really is the age Mattie is recalling in the novel (narrated from old age), and she’s not Kim Darby.

Bad luck her, I thought after seeing the ubiquitous trailer in the months leading up the Coen version’s release.

But you know what? Breathless reviews aside, Steinfeld’s Mattie quickly won me over and she did it the only way (given my history with both the book and the earlier film) she could have.

That’s by giving a performance that ranks high on the list of women in westerns all by itself (just off-hand, I’d say top ten and pushing for a spot in that top five I listed).

This is perhaps even more than usually impressive because she’s got so much working against her at the start.

She might have been thirteen (only a year younger than the Mattie of the novel’s principal action and eight years younger than Darby had been, though it should be noted Darby was not really playing fourteen but probably more like sixteen or seventeen, an age for which she was more than credible and which, unlike having LaBoeuf ride off a couple of times for no good reason, does no damage to the story), but she was also a lot of other things.

truegritdarbysteinfeld

(Kim Darby and Hailee Steinfeld)

First off, tall (5’8″ according to the publicity at the time and you can believe it when she stands next to the sheriff Barra refers to above and I can’t be the only one who found myself thinking she could take him three falls out of five) where Mattie was short (“no bigger than a corn nubbin” according to Rooster in all versions including, rather incongruously, this one).

Also drop-dead gorgeous where Mattie was plain (in the book) or at least not gorgeous (in Darby’s case);

Not to mention an arrow-straight force of nature with no hint of sorrow touching her face outside one very brief (and well-played) scene when she is given her murdered father’s possessions, and no feminine quaver touching her voice (Darby made quietly and deeply effective use of both).

And, oh yeah, Steinfeld was in a Coen brothers movie and not just any Coen brothers movie but one where they’ve made a reach for the brass ring and invested themselves emotionally and narratively to a very high degree.

Somehow, Steinfeld–and, to be fair, the Coens as well–made all that work for the character.

I never quite bought the Coens’ repeated story (always couched as supremely ironic serendipity) that they scoured the country in general and the south in particular and, at the last possible moment, miraculously found the one girl in America who could, in their oft-repeated phrase, “handle the language.” Let’s just say I’m not surprised that when two Jewish guys from Minnesota who have spent most of their adult lives making movies decided to re-invent Mattie Ross, they searched the world over and finally settled for a tall, gorgeous, Jewish kid from the movie capital of the world.

And nothing wrong with that by the way.

As I say, Steinfeld really is all that. Nothing much resembling Charles Portis’ Mattie Ross, maybe, but the sort of humdinger who makes it very easy to think she could have got the job done her own way had she by chance been set down in Fort Smith in the 1870s!

The Coens deserve credit for more than a slick marketing campaign, though. They made a relatively complex narrative film (brave enough) and, for once, laid their own joke-ridden quasi-nihilism largely to one side (all but unheard of for anyone as invested in po-mo cynicism as they are).

Of course, such things take practice and whenever they left Portis to one side and struck out on their own, they tended to get lost.

Steinfeld’s Mattie, for instance, is an accomplished rider and horse-trader, but is strangely ignorant of a pony’s eating habits. Having been told by a young hand who is as confused by her ignorance as the viewer might be, that a horse likes apples (who knew!), she steals a supply of them from a bowl at the boarding house where she is staying (an action Portis’ Mattie would never contemplate and the Coens’ Mattie, still capable of telling Rooster, “It’s all stealing” in a later scene, is not sufficiently re-imagined to accommodate).

These are small things but they demonstrate how easy it is to lose track of narrative essence if you don’t have the requisite habits of mind and are rather accustomed to using bits of business and cheap “irony” for connective tissue instead of meaningful human behavior.

Even more problematic, the Coens’ needless departures from Portis’ structure, are not fully fleshed out. Hence we have Mattie, not LaBoeuf, questioning Rooster Cogburn’s morals when he announces his intention to shoot one of Ned Pepper’s gang in the back. And Rooster putting Mattie, not LaBoeuf, in danger when they encounter their first bandits (something Portis’ Rooster would never have done). The reason Mattie has to behave thusly, against her own grain, is that the Coens’ re-imagined story has LaBoeuf elsewhere. Unfortunately, for all the changes they’ve rung in Mattie’s character, there’s nothing to indicate their Mattie would be likely to have a moral–as opposed to practical–qualm as to whether vicious outlaws were shot in the back or that their Rooster would put Mattie in unnecessary danger (at least not while he’s sober).

Again, these are small things, but annoying because needless–and probably a mistake the Coens could have avoided reflexively by this point in their careers if they had spent the last twenty-five years making films worthy of their considerable talents instead of the modestly amusing (or modestly disturbing) time-killers which they have chosen to produce instead.

But I digress. If you can either ignore these sort of things or leave them to one side–and I confess I saw the movie five times in the theater and have seen it at least as many more on DVD, so yes, I have to admit it is certainly possible–this is at least within shouting distance of being a great western and the most worthy addition to the form’s screen-canon since the original Lonesome Dove miniseries (which in turn was the most worthy addition since 1962, the year of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Ride the High Country, though there were certainly some good ones in between).

I don’t think it rates quite as high as those landmarks but that’s no shame. John Ford was film’s greatest narrative master and Valance was the decades-long culmination of habits the Coens were trying out for the first time. Ride the High Country was one of the few times Peckinpah would ever keep things simple enough to make an emotionally complicated film that didn’t actually require a more than basic narrative. So coming only a little short of those marks still ranks as a fine achievement.

As impressive as their actual film was, though, it could never hold a candle to the Coens ability to control the other narrative….the narrative the intelligentsia (such as it is) would be bound to accept and perpetuate unless they wanted to go completely off-script and do something besides carry water for the cool people.

Fat chance, that. Hence, the one thing the Coens most assuredly didn’t do–stay true to the book–was bound to be the thing they most consistently got credit for doing.

Just like they planned it.

And, maybe not surprisingly, the next time I caught up with them they were doing this. Nothing to do with developing any more complex narrative then, and small wonder.

So for an Eleventh Maxim, I suggest borrowing a simple rule from politics (one which we mere citizens need not cast aside in our quest to understand either politics or art merely because virtually all political “journalists” do), and suggest to critics that they resist their own worst instincts and insist on treating artists thus:

Never listen to what they say. Only watch what they do!