JOHN FORD’S WOMEN….A HANDY TEN

This is a rare photograph of John Ford without either his eye-patch or trademark dark glasses. It was taken in a military setting (1951 in the Philippines according to the on-line source I copied it from), but it’s appropriate for this post because the old line about Ford wearing those dark glasses to hide his vulnerability is in line with today’s subject…and fully evident here.

Now here’s a subject. Ford has been accused of every bad thing–he might be unique in the degree to which he is suspected of bad-think by progressives and reactionaries in about equal measure–and there are plenty of people who consider his treatment of women regressive at best.

As usual, this view tends to say more about those who hold it than Ford’s actual films. Not more than a handful of directors across the world–forget Hollywood–gave as many good actresses as many good roles. The list of those who delivered breakthrough and/or career-defining performances in Ford films (often against the grain of everyone else’s expectations*) includes Hattie McDaniel, Anne Shirley, Jean Arthur, Claire Trevor, Shirley Temple (as child and young woman), Maureen O’Hara, Donna Reed, Jane Darwell, Sara Algood, Anna Lee, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Olive Carey, Constance Towers and Vera Miles. That’s not even including all the performances listed below (Henrietta Crossman did not, alas, become a big star), the great performances he got from established stars like Claudette Colbert and Anne Bancroft, or the legion of small parts that deepened some of Ford’s best films (see Marjorie Weaver in Young Mr. Lincoln ** or Beulah Archuletta in The Searchers for prime examples).

It’s true that giving great roles to women was not the first thing worth remembering about Ford (as it was, perhaps, about George Cukor), but I suspect the criticisms that have come from the Left (in Ford’s day and ever since) and often been verified by the Right (that’s what “conservatives”  mainly do…accept, and therefore conserve, whatever Narrative emerges, be it true or, as in this case, false), have more to do with disapproval of the kinds of women Ford valued (pretty much all of them, so long as they had a spark of honor and didn’t represent one of Hollywood’s plethora of easy ways out), than the sensitivity and nuance he, almost alone, accorded them.

Even in westerns.

Even in war movies.

The depth and breadth of the women he did portray, and the broad spectrum of actresses he hired to play them, did not really permit a “type” in the manner of Hitchcock or Howard Hawks. There was no room for fantasy creatures, however beguiling, in a canon devoted to understanding how civilizations are built and maintained.

For that you needed a gallery like this one, where Ten hardly scratches the surface.

Henrietta Crossman as “Hannah Jessop”
Pilgrimage (1933)

Knowing Crossman only from Pilgrimage, Ford’s first great narrative film of the sound era, it’s almost shocking to come across pictures of her that prove she was once young and occasionally even smiled. None of that is evident in her harrowing, embittered performance as Hannah Jessop a rural southern woman who signs her son up for the draft in WWI rather than see him marry a local girl of whom she does not approve. In early cinema, this is as striking and unsettling a performance as Renee Falconetti’s title role in The Passion of Joan of Arc, except Crossman’s character is not at odds with either history or herself.

Not, in other words, for the faint of heart.

Claire Trevor as “Dallas”
Stagecoach (1939)

The girl Hannah Jessop didn’t want her son to marry, cast back to the Arizona frontier of the previous century. On one level, it’s a Hooker With a Heart of Gold cliche (though it had much to do with defining that cliche). But it’s also a sound representation of the travails faced by women on the frontier. The life John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is determined to save her from flits in and out of her expressions for an hour and a half.

Then they take a walk into the heart of it, side by side, and, the first or fiftieth time you watch it, you can feel that life closing back around her.

Trevor (and Ford) got that the cliche not only had a foundation in reality, they understood that the reality involved a great deal of self-loathing, which needed only the tiniest scratch on the surface to show through This is one of those performances that seems all about that surface at first, until you realize that’s just how such a person would be forced to live, just the masks they would be forced to adopt–unless, as here, a miracle arrives.

She gets that part–and all that such a miracle would mean to this woman–as well.

Edna May Oliver as “Mrs. McKlennar”
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Supporting role or not (I wrote about Claudette Colbert’s lovely performance as the lead, here–it shouldn’t be overlooked that Ford often had two or more strong female performances in an era when one was nearly always enough for his competition), this is one of the towering performances of pre-war cinema.

Oliver captures for all time a type that was invaluable on the frontier and still recognizable in the neighborhoods where I grew up in the sixties and seventies. Bawdy, prickly, judgmental, generous to those worthy of her respect, ready with a tongue-lashing for those who weren’t, level-headed, good-humored, nobody’s fool and a rock in any crisis.

Except for here, she never got full representation in our movies. I haven’t seen her around lately and I hope she’s not really gone. Because if she is, we are too.

(Oliver lost the Oscar to Gone With the Wind‘s Hattie McDaniel, who had her breakout role in Ford’s Judge Priest five years earlier. I don’t want to call that one. It’s one of those years I wish there had been a tie.)

Jane Darwell as “Ma Joad”
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Iconic. The only actress to win an Oscar in a Ford film (there should have been others–starting with Crossman–but that’s a topic for another time).

As Darwell portrays her, Ma Joad is broad, sentimental, prone to bouts of emotion (except when there’s a real crisis). Again, the wrong kind of woman to appeal to our “modern” ideas. And, again, a type familiar from my childhood (Ford’s films are virtually the only place the people I grew up around have ever found sympathetic representation).

Florence King had the best line about the women Darwell’s “Ma” embodied: “They got their name in the paper three times. When they were born, when they married and when they died.”

Growing up, I took the permanent presence of such women for granted.

More fool me.

More fool us.

Donna Reed as “Sandy Davyss”
They Were Expendable (1945)

Reed’s breakout role, as a WAC caught in the Philippines after Pearl Harbor.

This is one of those characters who might seem rote at first, like all any good actress needed to do was hit her marks.

Until you realize how much Reed has to convey–the full weight of a first record of how American women bore up under the existential crisis of the twentieth century–and how easily and naturally she does every last bit of it. Then you start thinking of who else could have done it as well….and the mind blanks. Then the mind laughs.

How did Ford know, in 1945, that the mousy little contract player taking bit parts on the lot would be Donna Reed? (And I’m not saying he knew it in casting, because I don’t even know if he was responsible for casting her–but you can bet he knew it by the time the camera rolled.)

Well, that’s just the sort of thing Ford always seemed to know.

(FYI: Based largely on this role–a model, witting or unwitting, for Dana Delaney in China Beach, one of the three or four best characters in the history of television–Reed received hundreds of letters from servicemen. She read every one, answered every one, kept every one, told no one. Her daughter discovered the letters only after her mother died.)

Joanne Dru as “Denver”
Wagon Master (1950)

A hooker who doesn’t come close to having a heart of gold…but she might be persuaded to settle down.

Ford’s dreamlike ending leaves the question of whether she does less settled than you might think and Dru’s performance (her best for my money, though she was also excellent in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Hawks’ Red River, on which she claimed Ford gave extensive editing assistance) is filled with glances and expressions and lost looks that don’t give away so much that you can ever feel like you know her all the way through.

Just well enough that you’re rooting for her. Again, the right choice for a woman in her position. Given the 1849 setting she might be the mother who was massacred and left Stagecoach‘s Dallas an orphan who was forced into the same trade.

If she settled down, that is….

Maureen O’Hara as “Mary Kate Danaher”
The Quiet Man (1952)

O’Hara starred for Ford five times (more than any other leading lady in the sound era), including her breakout role in How Green Was My Valley and her defining role here.

My own favorite is her Cavalry wife in Rio Grande, but there’s no gainsaying this. It’s the most iconic role any woman had in a Ford film (edging Darwell in Grapes of Wrath as it’s a lead). And O’Hara is brilliant. She and John Wayne made every other screen romance look contrived and Ford was able to hang anything he wanted on the combustible chemistry they created.

He got carried away here and there, but every time the camera swung back to Mary Kate Danaher–which was often–the film was back on track. In some ways, it was the director’s chance to prove he could do the things so many claimed he couldn’t–mainly sex and romance.

Those people were already wrong. Here, with the Irish redhead’s fiery assistance, he made them look silly.

Ava Gardner as “Honey Bear Kelly”
Mogambo (1953)

And if that hadn’t done it, this would have.

This is a fairly straight remake of Red Dust, a pre-code sizzler from Ford’s buddy Victor Fleming. Gardner has the Jean Harlow part as a show girl stranded in the wild (here, Africa), hoping to hang her hat on the local big cheese (here, as in Red Dust, Clark Gable, only now graying at the temples).

Somewhere along the way, it turns from lust to love. For her at least. Again a pretty standard part…but Gardner does wonders with it. I love Harlow and Red Dust might be her very best. But Gardner’s Kelly feels like she has miles on her and knows there’s one chance to shed them before they add up to a weight she can’t throw off….and an empty life.

You never felt Harlow’s character was on the verge of breaking, that she was walking all the way up to a line that couldn’t be re-crossed.

You can feel Honey Bear Kelly doing just that.

Watch this on a triple bill with Stagecoach and Wagon Master some time for a master class in how to pick up the same stone and draw blood from it three completely different ways.

Vera Miles as “Hallie Stoddard”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

There are actually people who profess not the get either Miles or her character in this movie.

I wonder if it’s just possible they get her all too well.

This would be one of the great performances if only for her reading of the greatest passage in American fiction: “Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?” (You have to run some to beat “You don’t own me!” which, two years before it showed up in Lesley Gore’s demo pile, is also here, also hers–and perfect.)

But it’s not comforting. It doesn’t permit the space modernity demands for cuddling up.

Miles wasn’t so much the aging Ford’s perfect muse as his perfect match. Every other western he made after The Searchers–all of which featured fine actresseswas diminished by her absence.

All she had to do here was hold her own in the middle of a triangle formed by John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin, all at their best. She made it look easy, which is probably why, like a lot of Ford’s women, she’s never gotten credit for it. Either that, or it’s the character people are afraid of–a woman who chose the only way she could and lived to realize that she will never be granted the comfort of knowing whether she chose wrongly.

One of the ten best performances given by an American actress–and I’m not sure you need the gender distinction.

Had it not been given by a woman in a John Ford western this would be nowise controversial.

Anne Bancroft as “Dr. D.R. Cartwright”
7 Women (1966)

Ford’s final completed film.

The frontier has moved to a Chinese mission post, where Bancroft’s D.R. Cartwright–doctor and skeptic–arrives as the emergency medical assistance.

There’s probably more debate about the quality of this film than any of his others. I lean toward the positive, though I’d like to see a quality print before I die (with Ford, the visuals comment on everything else, so being forced to watch a washed-out bootleg is even more of a handicap than usual).

But most people agree on the quality of Bancroft’s performance, which is on a par with her iconic work in The Miracle Worker and The Graduate. Ford was a devout Catholic but his films are filled with bristling critiques of both religious fanaticism and false piety–never more than here. A mission post isn’t as far from his usual concerns as you might think and Cartwright is as representative of his world view as any character could be.

That Ford didn’t like Bancroft’s performance (she was cast after Patricia Neal had a stroke a few days into the shoot) was probably indicative of his capacity for self-loathing. This is one of those times when it’s best not to take him seriously.

There’s never a time when we shouldn’t take his great films seriously.

Certainly not now.

I won’t give away the ending, but D.R. Cartwright’s final scene still has a lot to teach us.

[NOTES:

*One of my favorite Ford anecdotes, which I really hope is true, regards Grace Kelly, not considered “box office” enough at the time for the role Ford wanted her to play in Mogambo (where she would have to hold her own against the established star power of Ava Gardner and Clark Gable).

The honchos were not impressed by either the films she had done (including High Noon) or her existing screen tests, all of which were in black and white.

“Shoot her in color,” Ford said. “She’ll knock you on your ass.”

They shot her in color. Mogambo–unjustly neglected these days–became the biggest hit of Ford’s career and made Kelly a star. Alfred Hitchcock and the Prince of Monaco were among those suitably impressed.

**Mary Tyler Moore’s performance on television is, to my mind, the definitive Mary Todd Lincoln. But it’s a shame Weaver never got a shot at a full-length portrait. In Young Mr. Lincoln she has to convey a Mary Todd who was rarely, if ever, seen elsewhere in history or fiction–the one who Abe Lincoln either fell in love with or simply regarded as his likeliest portal into the good graces of the polite society which would be required for the fulfillment of his political ambitions. Weaver–who has perhaps ten minutes on screen–does not neglect either possibility, or the perils lying within.]

 

FLORIDA ON FILM….A HANDY TEN

I like this map because it represents the absurdist nature of the Sunshine State perfectly. Palm trees in the Panhandle? Scholars in Gainesville? Salvador Dali got nothing on us! Oh, wait. Did I mention his museum is in St. Pete?

A few months back, I posted a list of recommended Civil War films (which I now take the opportunity to re-recommend) and came up with the concept of “A Handy Ten.” I’ve decided to make that a category, with the Civil War post the first entry (now duly noted and categorized). It won’t just be for films. I hope it will prove useful for large subjects and small. The “Civil War on film” is a pretty big subject. “Florida on film” is a medium-sized subject. I tried to watch or re-watch as many Florida-themed films as I could. My range of familiarity is by no means exhaustive (really disappointed that Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise and Gal Young ‘Un are not on DVD…On the strength of his Ulee’s Gold, which didn’t quite make the cut, I would have gotten hold of those if they had been available), but the state has certainly inspired a lot of takes, and from some very odd angles.

Here’s a Florida boy’s handy ten…

Citizen Kane (1941)
D. Orson Welles

Not a “Florida” movie? Have you forgotten the location of Xanadu? Have you forgotten where the word “Rosebud” was uttered? Have you forgotten that it didn’t really make sense for such things to happen or be located anywhere else, not even California?

California might do for Hearst Castle or some such. But that’s mere reality.

No, Xanadu could only be in the future home of Disney World, which, unlike its Cali predecessor, has swamped an entire region of the state and become not so much a theme park as a life-style, spreading like fertilizer, burying any hint of the “old Florida” underneath as surely as Charles Foster Kane buried himself.

Re-inventing the “Florida as Destination” movie (The Ghost Goes West is an earlier, happier, example) is hardly the first thing Citizen Kane is known for…but none of the other things it’s known for have had any greater effect.

These days Xanadu is called Mar-a-Lago.

Dreams, people. Dreams! It’s what even the nightmares are made of.

The Palm Beach Story (1942)
D. Preston Sturges

…And yachts!

Yeah, they have those in Cali as well, but The Quail and Ale Club never rode west of the Smokies, so to Florida we go, with this re-re-invention of the Florida as Destination movie, which, had mobsters taken it to heart the way Walt Disney and Donald Trump did Xanadu, would have made Florida the new Reno.

We got the lottery instead. Probably because the state has been run for decades by people who make The Quail and Alers look like the Jedi.

One of Sturges’ indestructible comedies (to my mind, more indestructible than anything he did except The Lady Eve, which will still be standing when the last diamond is ground to dust). Ring Lardner did fine work in a similar vein in print a generation earlier, but nobody got the Florida Adventure on film quite like this movie, which almost ends happily if, in true Florida Dreamer fashion, you don’t look too close.

Key Largo (1948)
D. John Huston

Of course Florida makes a great setting for a definitive gangster film. Chicago and New York are just big, grimy cities. Florida’s a dream. Except in Key Largo, where it’s a creeping nightmare, a hurricane-haunted ghost world that Edward G. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco has to pass through on his way to Paradise.

John Huston is a favorite director of mine (somewhere in my American Top Five at least) and Key Largo may be my favorite of his films. There’s competition to be sure, but, filming in the Keys, no director has gotten the feel of the Florida landscape, or it’s peculiar semi-tropical atmospherics quite as right (down to its endless, flat highways, which feature in a stunning opening sequence that catches something about Florida that’s similar to what Touch of Evil‘s opening sequence catches about Mexico, namely that, if you don’t happen to belong there, you probably shouldn’t stay).

Perhaps the story–a good one, involving Humphrey Bogart’s half-brave serviceman, home from the war, trying to outlast and outwit Rocco’s gang in Lionel Barrymore’s classic Old Florida hotel while storms rage within and without–is merely taut and well-made, rather than terribly original. But for a sense of Florida as a place that is never quite settled, even by constantly shifting and grinding American standards, this is definitive, even down to a reasonably sympathetic view of the local Indians. There’s fine work from an Oscar-winning Claire Trevor and Lauren Bacall (as Barrymore’s daughter and Bogart’s love interest), plus a for-once convincing crew of hoodlums.

But the land and the air are the show, eclipsing even Robinson’s towering performance. Key Largo, in permanent competition with the following year’s White Heat as the greatest American gangster film,  has been in the DNA of every Florida noir since.

Seminole (1953)
D. Budd Boetticher

Good, swift entertainment from Boetticher, a few years before he began his cycle of classic westerns with Randolph Scott. There’s little fealty to history in its story of the United States army clashing with the Seminoles under their most famous chief, Osceola (a scenery-chewing, not terribly convincing Anthony Quinn). There’s much else going for it, though–Rock Hudson, more relaxed than he would be again until McMillan and Wife in the 70s, plus Boetticher’s usual sure-footed, no-nonsense direction, some terrific action scenes and a rare and compelling early look at Lee Marvin playing someone on the side of the angels (which didn’t happen again for years) and, perhaps drawing on his own military experience, giving a definitive portrayal of a type usually reduced to cliches: the career sergeant, caught between command and his troops, right and wrong, duty and justice. Of the few given the opportunity, no one’s done it better.

But it’s as a Florida movie that Seminole leaves a lasting mark. Nothing has come close to this one in catching the feel of the Florida swamps, or the difficulties inherent in trying to root out a people who owe their survival to centuries-earned knowledge of an impossible landscape (in this case, the Florida Everglades). Every American military commander or political leader preparing to send troops to yet another foreign jungle or desert or mountain range, where they will be pitted against locals who know how to turn every inch of the ground to their advantage, should be required to watch Seminole so they might be reminded of why, in what is now the United States, only one Indian tribe–the Florida branch of the Seminoles–has never signed a peace treaty.

“The Girl in the Bottle” (Pilot Episode of I Dream of Jeannie) (1965)
D. Gene Nelson

Dr. Bellows: “That image of a beautiful girl on a desert island was your mother.”

Major Nelson: “My mother’s in Salt Lake City.”

Dr. Bellows: “I’m a psychiatrist. I know a mother when I see one!”

So far as I know, not a single foot of the original series was shot in its nominal setting of Cocoa Beach. That’s okay. The astronauts were all living and training in Texas by then anyway.

Come on now. You didn’t think they were gonna set a story about a genie and an astronaut in Texas? They sent them to Texas because it looked like the moon.

Not even Barbara Eden could have saved that concept. They needed the idea of Florida, and, frankly they got it. In the neighborhoods I lived in, Dr. Bellows and Major Nelson would have fit right in.

And I’m only a little disappointed that the pilot didn’t feature the snow-capped mountain peaks of Cocoa Beach.

That came later in the series.

Did I say something about our knack for inspiring Dali-esque absurdism?

Night Moves (1975)
D. Arthur Penn

Pervert: “There ought to be a law.”

Non-pervert: “….There is.”

Set partly in California, it finds life–and death–in Florida, mostly by living out the tragic implications Key Largo couldn’t quite face.

This time the good guy doesn’t win.

Mostly because there are no good guys.

This time, the boat that was a ride to shore in The Palm Beach Story, and a testing ground in Key Largo, is a coffin, circling round and round.

Florida in the 70s–the place that left California behind and made its own way.

Definitive. After The Miracle Worker, Arthur Penn’s best movie. After The Conversation, Gene Hackman’s best performance. Plus everything Melanie Griffith would ever be.

Body Heat (1981)
D. Lawrence Kasdan

On celluloid, all the happy, spring break, astronaut movies were set in the New Florida, where all the famous beaches and tourist attractions are (now including the Kennedy Space Center, which these days is basically a museum).

The noir stories are set in the Old Florida, where the beach bums and white trash and old money live.

Same places of course. For movie or mythic purposes, everything below Gainesville is the same place.

Body Heat was filmed in Palm Beach County, which is just north of Miami. But the most noir-ish real life experience I ever had was when I was thirteen and my Dad and I were painting a banker’s house in Ormond Beach, which is connected at the hip to Daytona, a good two hundred miles north, straight up US 1.

You pass the hospital where I was born along the way.

Anyway, he and I were staying in the house during the week and going home on weekends. One night we ventured out for some reason (to eat? a baseball game? the Boardwalk?…the memory hazes). On the way back from wherever we had gone, he drove down the main drag, where the big, flashy hotels loomed over the only beach in Florida you can drive on–a detail lost on the makers of The Right Stuff, who think you can drive on Cocoa Beach without Jeannie’s help, a fact which kept it well off this list–in a gaudy, neon-filled, row.

In those days, there were such things as pay phones. For some reason, the stretch of highway that led south from Daytona’s hotel strip had one phone booth, free-standing in the middle of nowhere, meaning a hundred yards or so from the last hotel and maybe half that far past the last cone of light.

As we passed the phone booth on the way towards the hotel strip, an extraordinarily beautiful girl stepped into the booth’s milky light and lifted the receiver.

I can see her yet: Twentyish, blue jeans, white blouse, dark tan, shag haircut, sandals.

All very 1974.

The inside of the phone booth was the only spot of light for fifty yards around and it was impossible to tell, from the girl’s body language, whether the call was prearranged or an emergency, something she did every day or never, whether she was in deep trouble or simply casually phoning a friend.

The night and the setting–and the distance from civilization, so close and yet so far–said it could be anything.

I always thought there was a story there, if not a hundred stories.

At least one of those stories was later turned into a movie and that movie is Body Heat, one of the few masterful modern noirs.

Kathleen Turner didn’t look anything like that girl and didn’t generate anything like the same vibe.

But it was her, a few years on….I know it was her.

Doing just what I was afraid she might.

Being very, very bad.

“Brother’s Keeper” (Pilot Episode of Miami Vice) (1984)
D. Thomas Carter

It hit like an atom bomb in ’84 and the New Golden Age of Television hasn’t dimmed the afterglow. Not only does the series still pack a punch–the pilot still hits the hardest.

By this time, of course, South Florida really was the most dangerous place in the developed world (or maybe just the world). The bad wind from Johnny Rocco’s ghost-world had blown up to the mainland and the corpses-in-waiting were toting machine guns. Brian DePalma tried to catch the new vibe in an update of Scarface and just came off looking silly. Michael Mann’s TV show, filled with castoffs and never weres, caught all the dread–and the deadpan humor no absurdist landscape can do without–DePalma and a hammy-even-by-his-standards Al Pacino missed.

I know, there’s a movie of Miami Vice, too. I just don’t know why.

How were they going to improve anything this perfect?

It has the best quality of all, too.

When I’m only thinking about it, I think I must have dreamed it.

And that was before Edward James Olmos came on board.

Matinee (1993)
D. Joe Dante

Nothing’s more Florida than the Cuban Missile Crisis. You know why? Because when Cronkite or Brinkley or Huntley or that other guy nobody remembers used to come on the air and intone about Cuba being ninety miles away from the United States or, better yet, the “US mainland,” what they meant was ninety miles away from the coast of Florida. And that’s what they meant when they said Cuba was ninety miles away from the coast of Florida too.

Freakin’ National Guard used to roll past my house.

Ask William Castle! Er, I mean, John Goodman. Er, I mean…Lawrence Woolsey.

Yeah, him. Go ahead. Ask him.

He knows! That’s why he headed to Florida–not your podunk state–when it was time to promote Mant!

Because where else would he go? Ten years later, we were laughing at the memory of when our older brothers and sisters had to duck under their school desks to protect themselves from the nuclear bombs!

Bunch of maroons. They deserved a Lawrence Woolsey.

Never catch anybody pulling the wool over our eyes that way. We were just waiting around for the eighties, when we could be the guinea pigs for the Cowboys running the Cocaine capital of the world.

We’ll show ’em!

Still scarier than Scarface, too, which I’m told is a big favorite to this day among a certain class of Cocaine Cowboy morons.

To hell with them and to hell with Castro.

Go Mant!

Men in Black III (2012)
D. Barry Sonnenfeld

The quality of mercy is not strained.

Strange, but, except for Love and Mercy, nothing in any movie this century affected me the way the Cape Kennedy scenes did in this movie. (And, yes, it was Cape Kennedy then, in the moment just after and before it was Cape Canaveral). Somehow or other, seeing it in the theater, the sublime silliness of the Men in Black franchise was submerged, for just a moment, under a sense of wonder.

I know what it felt like to watch the first moonshot come off the launch pad. I was there. I was eight years old.

In boyhood, it felt like a moment when time travel was possible, even inevitable, even mundane….like a concept that had already been accepted as reality. It felt like we had already been to the moon and back and were ready to move on to the next thing.

And who cared what that was.

If you could dream it, my friends’ dads could build it.

At fifty-something (and I watched MIB III again before I wrote this, just to be sure), that moment feels like a missed opportunity, a hole in time that matches perfectly to a time travel plot in a silly movie about the secret society of men who protect us from aliens.

We like to think we could put a man on the moon again. If we only had a reason. If only we really wanted to.

I wonder.

But at least we can still make movies about the time when we could.

That’s not nothing.

And all those movies have to come to Florida sooner or later.

Because, unless the Men in Black really are out there–hiding something from us, protecting us from our own ignorance–nobody sent any men to the moon from anywhere else on this earth.

Get to know this list here well enough and you might just find yourself a little closer to understanding why.

Like Xanadu and Mar-a-Lago and unconquered Indian tribes, some things can only happen in Florida.

DEEPEST, DARKEST NIGHT…(Noir, Noir, Noir: Third Feature)

The Big Heat (1953)
D. Fritz Lang

(Warning: Potential spoilers)

Well, it’s the first Classic Era movie I’ve reviewed in this category. Might as well start at the top.

The Big Heat is Fritz Lang’s best American movie (for my money, his best movie period). It’s top drawer in Glenn Ford’s catalog, Lee Marvin’s catalog and those of a host of fine character actors (Jeannette Nolan, playing against type as a cold-blooded blackmailer, is a particular standout).

But Gloria Grahame, Nolan’s “sister under the mink,” owns it….and them. She smolders through noir‘s darkest night, a night only Lang could provide, invests it with her peculiar brand of laconic feline energy, and the hotter and brighter she burns–scarred face or no–the deeper the shadows around her fall.

These were Grahame’s salad days: Give her more than three lines and she would own any movie she was in, including In a Lonely Place, which is one of the ten greatest American movies. The Big Heat doesn’t fall much below that level and it might very well be the greatest Gloria Grahame movie, which is a whole other arrangement.

It’s easy to forget when you’re just thinking about her–and how she usually ends up–that she could bring a girlish quality, too, the same quality a kitten brings to a lion’s den. Glamourous kitten, but kitten just the same:

Even at first glance (and that screenshot is literally our first glance), there’s something more, something different. But you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a passing thing, that she’ll still end up being just another starlet playing a victim in a steamy thriller. You could be forgiven even more when she speaks and it’s a girl’s voice. A big girl, but still….a girl.

That’s just Nature calling. Human nature, sure–that old thing–but something more primal too. There’s a sense that she’s so attuned to the rhythms of the Jungle it can never consume her the way you already know it will consume everybody else. For starters, she’s picked the only natural path for a kitten among the lions….or the wolves. To keep just anybody–or everybody–from jumping her bones, with or without permission, she’s given her permission to the biggest, meanest wolf she can find, Lee Marvin’s Vince Stone.

Marvin was known for playing thuggish characters early on and this was his definitive turn in the days before anybody knew he could act and he was all presence. Vince Stone’s a pure animal. You’re a little surprised to discover he can manage modern technology, like telephones.

You’re even more surprised he can form sentences when he speaks into them.

That’s the kind of playmate Grahame’s Debby Marsh has picked for herself. The biggest wolf in the pack….

…That’s true, even if Stone’s boss, MIke Lagano, (a quietly menacing Alexander Scourby), is the one with the polish to be CEO in the flat, urban setting that’s required to blur text and subtext, the better for modern minds to comprehend them.

The main story line involves Ford’s lock-jawed straight-cop-in-a-crooked-city going after Lagano and Stone (and the tentacles of their gang, which reach all the way to the Police Commissioner’s office) because they killed his wife. The moral danger Ford places himself in by turning vigilante might have made a good, albeit more conventional, movie in itself. Such is the quality of The Big Heat‘s script, its deft narrative and Lang’s mastery in fusing mood and method.

But Grahame easily subverts all that, and turns the film into something larger, something which yields, in turn, the hard, lethal kiss of tragedy so much of noir was content to flirt with. Debby Marsh could easily have been the conventional bad girl looking for an excuse to turn good. The Big Heat has its boundaries expanded, and inherent genre limitation turned on its head, by Grahame’s ability to suggest the two sides are not simply interchangeable, but in real, possibly irresolvable,  conflict. You believe her when she wonders if Ford’s Dave Bannion is the man she’s been looking for, the one man who can take her away from the wolf….or take the wolf down. The hero of any number of other noirs

But you believe her, too, when she says “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better!” You get a sense of how much it would take to make her really give up the danger if she has to give up the life she’s bought into along with it.

It would take a lot.

A lot happens.

 

And it’s Grahame who covers the transitions. Ford’s Bannion goes from decent stick to cold-blooded avenger and back again and he handles all the usual angles as well as you would expect. But Grahame’s Marsh takes a longer way around and ends up surrounding a story that was probably meant to surround her. Just for starters, this film has two of the most shocking sequences in American cinema. She and Vince Stone are the key players in both (the only players in the second). They would be. And they switch places. In the first Grahame is a not-quite-innocent victim, in the second an avenger who makes Bannion look like a conscience-stricken priest.

But it’s the same girl. And she’s been a few other girls in between–all human, all convincing. That’s the kind of walking over, under and around a plot that precious few actors can do (Ford did the same thing in 3:10 to Yuma, and one wonders if he learned a thing or two watching Grahame in this earlier film). There’s finally no pity, “self” or otherwise, in Grahame’s performance and no way out for her character.

You can understand why audiences, then and now, couldn’t quite make up their minds about her, whether she should be admired, pitied or feared.

Or was it her characters?

Or even just the pieces of those characters she was bound to invent or discover once somebody gave her a blueprint called a script and the script was even halfway good?

Who knows. You can have a lot of fun trying to figure it all out, none more than here, where she, more than anyone on film–the actress who had already been married and divorced from Nicholas Ray and had already slept with his thirteen-year-old son on the way to marrying him a decade later–never lets you forget that the dreams, American or otherwise..

are always kept next to the Nightmares…

…American or otherwise.

HONOR BOUND….7 MEN FROM NOW (I Watch Westerns: Take Seven)

7 Men from Now (1956)
D. Budd Boetticher

(NOTE: Mild spoilers ahead, concerning the early part of the film.)

It’s common for the honor of one or two central characters to be tested in a western. It’s rare that everyone’s honor is tested.

Most of the values assumed by Burt Kennedy’s haiku-perfect script for 7 Men from Now, (sometimes rendered Seven Men from Now) the first of the magnificent string of westerns made by the director-star team of Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott on shoestring budgets through the late fifties, have either vanished or gone underground. For three thousand years prior, those values–or, if you like, the value of those values–was unassailable. With sixty years of “progress,” we’ve managed to render them obsolete, which is why we ourselves will soon follow.

Meanwhile, we can have fun remembering.

You can’t have much more fun doing anything than watching Seven Men from Now, whether for the first or fiftieth time.

Nowadays, a man who sets out to avenge his wife’s death in a movie is a cartoon character, or else a mere projection of fantasy. The underlying urge is still understood–modern action movies thrive on revenge. Only it is bound to be rendered safely, in no more than two dimensions (and preferably fewer), devoid of emotional content that cuts any deeper than the thrill of seeing blood spurt (a thrill that animates a remarkable number of “intellectuals,” prone to bragging about their capacity for absorbing faux-violence from the cheap seats while calling for more, always in the name of “realism”).

Everyone knows that, in the real world–in what now passes for reality anyway–this is a job for law enforcement.

Of course, it was always a job for law enforcement, when and where they were up to the task, and the first brilliant stroke the creators of  7 Men from Now rendered, was having Scott play an ex-Sheriff, Ben Stride, who retains the moral authority of law and order, but no longer wears the badge that makes his authority official.

it was hardly the first time the idea had been tried, but Scott had reached a point in his life, and his career, where he carried the intrinsic weight of the contradiction like its own badge–one buried in his chest instead of resting on his shirt.

His test of honor is the simplest. Will he be able to kill the men who killed his wife?

The men on the run have robbed $20,000 in gold and they don’t know it’s his wife they’ve killed in the process. The outlaw who does, Bill Masters, doesn’t ride with them and he plans on parlaying his knowledge into some sort of edge that will give him possession of the gold.

He’s played by Lee Marvin in his early villain stage, so you know going in his code of honor is going to be a bit slipperier than Scott’s….or even those other outlaws.

It’s real, though. A good part of the plot involves finding its limit. The force of that journey is magnified considerably by his double testing of John Greer, a westward moving settler (a stolid Walter Reed) who is having his own manhood tested by the rigors of the trail, a plot twist you might not see coming, and his ability to hang on to his attractive wife, Annie (the always luminous Gail Russell), whose own hold on a wife’s honor is simultaneously stretched and burdened by her attraction to Stride (either because he’s Randolph Scott or because he’s a man who can handle the wilderness that has her husband buffaloed) and threatened by a leering Masters, who would count his reward far more than doubled if he landed her and the gold….and who is either perceptive or narcissistic enough to guess she might just go along if he’s the last man standing.

The tension in the plot, then, involves a good man who won’t dishonor a wedding vow, a woman who just might, a husband who depends on the men who are better than him being decent about it, and a bad man who wants what he wants but knows he’ll have to earn every bit of it.

In a modern context all of this would need explaining. (Anywhere it doesn’t need explaining isn’t modern yet.) And such explanations would  dispense with the narrative tension that 7 Men from Now ratchets, line by terse, stoic line.

There’s a deep enough mix of cynicism and romanticism in Marvin’s  remarkable performance (and perhaps even more remarkable presence, to speak of bygone concepts), to encompass everything Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah got up to when they set about to “revise” the western in the following decade, right down to a denouement that’s a full-blooded precursor of the self-destruction that swallows William Holden and company at the end of The Wild Bunch.

The principal difference–the one that will allow each present-day viewer to chalk up a clear preference, one way or the other (because before that, it’s a close run)–is that Marvin’s Bill Masters is more lucid about his aims and the crucial showdown in 7 Men from Now literally takes an eye-blink. For me, the impact is force-multiplied by the compression of time, rather than dispersed by arty slo-mo, but, of course, tastes will vary.

But this is not a simple case of the charismatic villain stealing the show. None of the formidable writing/directing/acting principles were ever better.

Scott’s Stride has a steely conviction that burns deep. He doesn’t strive to be likable. He has no interest in winning friends or influencing people and it’s clear that this isn’t merely a product of riding the revenge trail. We learn, early enough, that it’s the very quality that put his wife in danger.

Gail Russell’s job, playing Annie Greer, is to convey an attraction powerful enough to absorb such knowledge and remain torn between what she feels for Stride and what she owes her husband, even as it becomes clear that Stride would not be an easy man to live with and her husband grows into a figure of whom Marvin’s Masters can say “I was wrong Clete, he wasn’t half a man.”

That’s a tricky line to walk and Russell–one of those actresses who was forever accused of “playing herself” no matter how much one of her screen selves was unlike another–does it beautifully. (I’ve elsewhere called it the most affecting and unassuming performance ever given by a strikingly beautiful woman in a Hollywood film and I’ll stand by that….Did it help that her beauty had faded a touch through hard living and self torment? Maybe. Does it matter? No.)

One false note from the three leads, or even the supporting cast, and the spell would be broken.

It never breaks.

It’s easy enough to say “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” and easy enough for the response to be what a Bill Masters would want. You know: “Thank God for that.”

But the problem isn’t so much that we can’t now make a film like 7 Men from Now (not from lack of the talent–there’s always talent–or even will–put the talent at the disposal of a single strong, gifted personality and you’d be surprised what can result), as the reason we can’t.

It’s not that we can’t live it. We couldn’t “live” it in 1956, when the values that underpin it were still commonly recognized as virtues.

It’s that, absent those virtues, we can’t dream it.

The real residual value of the western (or any other marker of lost worlds, including rock and roll), isn’t what our present can take from it, but someone’s future.

Let’s all hope that future can arrive without an intervening collapse…

…but, hey, ya’ll know how I feel about that.

[NOTE: A recently acquired friend of the blog, the film critic, Blake Lucas, was preeminent in the restoration of 7 Men from Now a few years back. I’ve assured him that his place in heaven is secure.]

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.”)

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2016 Edition)

As before, in reverse order, excluding Manchester By the Sea, which I wrote about here (17 days, 10 movies):

(NOTE: As before, “Umpteenth Viewing” means I’ve seen it more than five or six times and don’t feel like counting up exactly how many.)

December 11–From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it came to the multiplex and I hadn’t seen it on the big screen since the eighties. And because it still packs a punch no matter the screen size. Strong hints of the stretched-beyond-reason formalism that would mark the rest of Zinnemann’s career are already present. The movie has a de-lib-er-ate pace. It’s as if Zinnemann, an Austrian Jew who left Europe well before the rise of the Nazis and lost both his parents in the Holocaust, wanted to spend the rest of his career arresting time. No modern audience, bereft of memory, would sit still for it.

December 15–Valkyrie (2008, Bryan Singer, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the thrill of it. When I saw this in the theater, nobody in a packed house twitched. That’s despite the fact that at least some, like me, must have known the ending, since it’s a film which takes few liberties with the last known plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I never tire of it. Perhaps because the real life event it depicts has that thing writers of fiction often spend entire lives searching for: the Perfect Plot. Singer made a decision to strip that Plot to its bare, pulp thriller bones and it moves. Going by in the background–and sinking in more with each repeated visit–is a depiction of a fully functioning police state which has rarely been bettered. And, finally, for Tom Cruise’s Claus von Stauffenberg saying “No one will be spared” to a man whose execution date is printed across the final frame.

December 17–How to Steal a Million (1966, William Wyler, Umpteenth Viewing)

For those faces and who wouldn’t? Oh sure, it’s a lovely comedy caper about stealing that statue (and who wouldn’t?), which belongs to the face on the right. And, as she puts it so eloquently, “You don’t think I would steal something that didn’t belong to me?” But I’d watch those faces doing piano recitals or planting petunias. Who wouldn’t?

December 18–Fun With Dick and Jane (1977, Ted Kotcheff, Second Viewing)

Because I hadn’t seen it in a while and wanted to give it another shot. It’s still pretty good. It’s still not better than pretty good. It moves along okay and has some fun moments. Best bits are still when Jane’s “Jane” goes all feminist though–never stronger than in her two piece by the pool. That and trying to guess which Jane is striving to communicate with us across time and space.

December 19–In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray, Fourth Viewing)

To commend whatever higher power assured that the King and Queen of noir, Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, made at least one film together, and that a director of Ray’s quality (he was then Grahame’s husband, though they were separated during the filming) was on hand to watch over things. It’s one of the few truly destabilizing films. There are no tricks–no surrealism, no funky dream sequences, no smoke dissolves, not even envelope-pushing sex or violence. The title is earned: by dialogue, performance, mood, setting, jagged rhythms. There’s interesting commentary in the new Criterion package which suggests both Bogart and Grahame were playing the screen characters closest to their real selves. Bogart’s real self would be dead in a few years. Grahame’s would end up sleeping with Ray’s son by another marriage when he was thirteen and marrying him when he was of age. None of that is in the plot here. All of it is in the air There’s a reason I’ve only seen it four times despite it being one of the ten best films I’ve seen once.

December 19–Three Days of the Condor (1975, Sidney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because who doesn’t want to relive 1975? Of course, everything 1975 dreaded, which this film does a fine job of conveying, has long since come and gone. Everything except one thing: the persistent metastasizing of the Security State. The movie slows down a bit too much in the middle but the beginning and end couldn’t be better, or more prescient.

December 23–Man of the West (1958, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Anthony Mann’s last great western and Gary Cooper’s last great performance. And for a thousand grace notes along the way, with Arthur O’Connell’s ability to wring tragedy from the fate of a cowardly fool touching me deepest this time around. Oh, and nobody could stage shootouts like Mann. Nor could anyone so deeply personalize violence….and never more deeply than here, where the set up is comic and the payoffs so indelibly brutal that the comedy goes clean out of my head and finds me utterly unprepared for it the next time around. Which might be why the have-done-with-it courage of Julie London’s rape victim (first spiritually, then physically, and it’s hard to say which is worse) never quite struck all the way home before.

December 25–Tiger Bay (1959, J. Lee Thompson, Umpteenth Viewing)

For one of the great thrillers; for the lively presence of working class, dockside Wales just before it was swept under by the tides of History; for the decency of John Mills “being himself” subverting what could have been a Javert-like role; for all sorts of other good reasons. But, of course, mostly for the startling, unprecedented, presence of twelve-year-old Hayley Mills, subsequently unrivaled, even by her. That presence is force multiplied by the film’s real plot–and real tragedy–which is a love story between star-crossed outsiders, separated not so much by the circumstance of a murder one of them has committed, but by a stitch in time that has left them man and girl instead of man and woman or even man and teenager. Perhaps Gloria Grahame would have known what to do. Horst Bucholz’s Bronislav Korchinsky does not. It is perhaps not coincidence that his best English-language work occurs here, opposite the only actress who could have loosened him up.

December 26–Eye of the Needle (1981, Richard Marquand, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the finely etched performances by Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan. Ken Follett’s good source novel made the forgivable mistake of portraying “The Needle”–a German super spy who has obtained knowledge certain of the Normandy invasion and is the only source an increasingly paranoid Hitler (see Valkyrie) trusts to give it to him straight–as a simple sociopath. More by the quality of his performance than anything obvious in the script, Sutherland conveys a man caught by a pang of conscience which cannot quite override his loyalty to a country he has not seen for years and must half-suspect he would no longer recognize. That allows Nelligan to become unhinged not so much by the presence of a monster, but the presence of this particular monster, who, only a minute before, seemed so much like a man she had dreamed into existence. That would frighten any woman into begging, “Stop. Please stop!” as she hunts him through the final scenes of one of the great modern thrillers. Marquand soon after got hung up in the universes of Star Wars and Bob Dylan and, coincidentally or not, died an early death. Who knows whether he had great things in him or this was just one of those lucky one-offs. I’ll continue to savor it, either way.

December 27–The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang, Umpteenth Viewing)

Forget Lee Marvin and Glenn Ford. This is the one where Gloria Grahame had chemistry with the carpet, not to mention the coffee pot. She looks like she could have sex with the air just by walking through it and leave the air begging for more. My favorite Lang and Lang is one of my Top Five directors. I have no idea why I can watch this truly disturbing movie over and over. I’m sure it does not speak well of me. But the way she says “And I did it!”  once the air and the coffee pots don’t want to have anything to do with her anymore is probably some sort of…influence.

Happy New Year!

TYPES? WHO NEEDS TYPES? (George Kennedy, R.I.P.)

georgekennedy5

Like all great character actors, including those who never took an acting class, George Kennedy could disappear into an astonishing variety of roles without resorting to any device detectable to the human eye. Like only the very greatest–a Ward Bond, a Harry Morgan, a John Carradine–he could do so without losing or surrendering any part of himself. He didn’t so much disappear into his best roles as make those roles disappear into him.

The only thing that kept him from leaving quite the legacy as the others was the absence of opportunity. He didn’t enter film acting until 1960 (after a sixteen-year stint in the military). He had missed the decade-and-a-half that might have given him a dozen memorable roles in noir or westerns. By the end of the first decade he did play in, the studio system that had given those other men so many chances to stamp themselves on the future had collapsed. Given what little time he had–how much trash and television was bound to infiltrate his resume as the world of the seventies-and-beyond fully emerged–he still left a remarkable legacy.

For my generation, especially the male half, his defining role was bound to be as Dragline in Cool Hand Luke. It’s the kind of performance you only have to see once for it to be burned into the memory forever. Dragline was the very definition of the kind of man you knew you might have to deal with if you ever found yourself in prison or the military, one whose rough respect might actually have been worth earning if, by chance, you measured up.

It’s hard to overemphasize just how rare it is for any actor, let alone one hired solely for support, to embody a character so completely that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing him at all, forget as well. Just as a for instance, I can actually imagine others (Harry Morgan, say, or, adjusting for age, John Carradine) replacing Strother Martin in the same movie without putting a hole in its side. If you’ve seen the movie, you can appreciate how hard and rare that is. And I’m not saying I’d prefer anyone to Martin, just that I can comprehend it.

Nobody else could ever be Dragline. That was one case where they didn’t have any choice but to give him an Oscar.

But what’s far more interesting is that Kennedy wasn’t defined even by that.

He gave real menace to the fundamentally comic Audrey Hepburn/Cary Grant thriller Charade, put indelible worry lines on the face of the permanently harried, middle-rank go-between in The Dirty Dozen (where those he had to go between were merely Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan), and played the crucial deadpan foil who allowed Leslie Nielsen’s comic genius in The Naked Gun movies to flourish without ever suggesting his own indispensability to anyone who wasn’t prepared to think longer and harder about it than he ever would.

In other words, he could do this:

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or this…

glemmedu3

..without making you think he was doing anything at all.

Or letting you forget that he, alone, was George Kennedy.

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THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM

I haven’t done any hard statistics on this, but the vast majority of my movie-watching these days is revisiting movies I’ve seen before and a fair amount is revisiting movies I’ve seen many times.

This habit has grown over the last ten to fifteen years and intensified a bit in the last year or so after I suspended (and ultimately disconnected) my television service. I might go a month without seeing anything new and I now tend to treat movies like music, so watching favorites is more like listening to familiar albums than, say, re-reading a novel.

Like albums, movies tend to draw me back for certain very particular reasons–the parts I never get tired of. Hence, the “why I watch” bit. I’m offering this up as a snapshot of the kind of thing I engage with and very rarely write about. And if I very rarely write about this stuff it isn’t because it’s not worth writing about, it’s just because there isn’t enough time in the world….So, for fun, in reverse order, ten days, ten movies:

Dec. 8–Scaramouche (1952, George Sidney, Umpteenth Viewing)

SCARAMOUCHE

For Eleanor Parker; for the greatest sword fight in movie history; and for one of the sweetest and bitterest final scenes. Besides, it was my birthday (very early hours). I was also impressed this time around by the scenes in the National Assembly, which present the real fight boiling underneath the burgeoning French Revolution as one between the aristocrats and the wannabes. A timeless theme if ever there was one and hardly relegated to the French (let alone the Hollywood version of the French), though they’ve certainly made an art form of it.

Dec. 6–Life of Crime (2014, Daniel Schechter, 2nd Viewing)

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For Jennifer Aniston, who reinforced everything I said here, and, yes, still definitely should have played at least one of the female roles in American Hustle.

Dec. 5–Saskatchewan (1954, Raoul Walsh, 2nd Viewing)

saskatchewan

For the scenery; for the measured and reasonably complex view of both Native American politics and the White Man’s code of military honor; for some fine action scenes involving canoes, of which there can never be enough;and for the memories of happy days a good friend and I spent honing our “It-ain’t-really-a-western-unless-Shelley-Winters-or-Joan-Blondell-shows-up” theory, which, for those of us born within a certain time span, has turned out to be surprisingly durable.

Dec. 5–Wagonmaster aka Wagon Master (1950, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For a cast that, even within the context of John Ford’s oeuvre, reminds me remarkably, almost painfully, of the vanished people I grew up among (and no, they weren’t Mormons). That, plus all the usual reasons for watching any of Ford’s numerous masterworks. To take just one such: The long, gliding scene that begins with Joanne Dru’s showgirl turning down an invitation, offered at a “squaw dance,” by one of the outlaw band who have hitched a ride with the Mormon wagon train, and ends with the man being tied to a wagon wheel and whipped by the Mormons while the stoic Navajo elders look on. I’d have to revisit my Shakespeare to be sure, but it might be the most remarkable piece of compressed narrative that exists in any form.

Dec. 4–The War Wagon (1967, Burt Kennedy, Umpteenth Viewing, though the first in a very long while)

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

For the memories; for “Mine was taller.”; and for Kirk Douglas finding all those different ways to jump on horses from every conceivable angle without, so far as I could tell, mangling his manhood!.

Dec. 2–7 Men From Now (1956, Budd Boetticher, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Gail Russell; for Lee Marvin (“I was wrong Clete. He wasn’t half a man.”); for Randolph Scott’s finely wrought study in stoicism; and for the peerless storytelling, delivered with haiku-level perfection.

Dec. 1–Star Wars (1977, George Lucas, Umpteenth Viewing)

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Just gettin’ ready.

Nov. 30–Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Rick and Ilsa and Frenchie. And to hear Dooley Wilson sing “As Time Goes By.” What, there are other reasons? Sure, but who needs ’em.

Nov. 29–An American In Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Leslie Caron, dancing or not, and for the glories of the vanished studio system.

Nov. 28–The Truth About Spring (1965, Richard Thorpe, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Hayley Mills, decked in denim; for more deathless lines than I ever found in a classic screwball (“Tommy, if you dare shoot Ashton, I’ll never cook for you again!”); for the evocation of every Florida kid’s dream-life; for “Here’s one they won’t get. Here’s one for freedom.”; and for a chance to tell the lingering shade of that lucky little so-and-so, Jimmy MacArthur, who got out of the last frame with Hayley once and Janet Munro twice: “I ain’t sorry you’re dead!” and half-hope he won’t be able to decide whether I’m kidding. Oh, yeah, and: “Of Catfish Key….Da-h-h-ling.”

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Shia LaBeouf Looks Back, Robert Ryan is Careful Not to Look Ahead)

The Company You Keep (2012)

I saw both Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps in theaters.

Though he was far from the worst thing in either, if Shia LaBeouf had been standing in the lobby of those theaters wearing exactly what he wore in the movies I had just seen, I probably would have walked right by him without a second glance.

The credits of The Company You Keep, Robert Redford’s casual, by-the-numbers mea culpa for Weatherman (where once again we learn that they were in it to save us from our poor, ignorant selves!…who knew?), were so stuffed with Oscar Winner/Nominee types that I didn’t even register the names of the actors if and when they rolled at the beginning. Figured I’d surely recognize anybody who had anything important to do.

So imagine my surprise when twenty minutes or so had passed and I had to look up the name of the youngish actor who was moving through this sedentary “thriller” like a lightning strike through a corn-field and it was….Shia LaBeouf.

Seriously, he was so quick on his feet, so much the only member of the cast who “got” the sixties, that I thought at some point they should just start playing early Who songs in the background every time he came on screen. And he kept it up almost the entire movie. Right up until the very end when the script (which had let everybody else down a long time since) finally let him down too.

Lightning strikes are tricky, so I don’t know if this was a one-time occurrence or he’s finally on to something. But I’m definitely going to start keeping watch.

The Naked Spur (1953)

I’ve probably seen this a dozen or so times. Like many great movies, it strikes different chords at each separate viewing. What really got through to me this time was Robert Ryan’s villain–or more accurately, how different he is from Robert Ryan’s several other distinctive villains in other good or great movies.

It’s an early version of the types who showed up in Budd Boetticher’s Ranown series with Randolph Scott a few years later, where they were typically played by Lee Marvin or Richard Boone or Claude Akins, all of whom were wonderful.

But Ryan’s take is more realistic, hence more chilling.

I’ve met this guy on occasion and, even when he isn’t a suspected murderer on the run, he really is like this.

In life and in the movies, he has a world of cunning. In most movies he also has a world of cool. It’s the type of part that was made for the always uninteresting belief that villains are inherently more interesting than the rest of us.

Except the way Ryan plays him, his Ben Vandergroat doesn’t have an ounce of cool. He’s grasping and desperate and manipulative, not merely slippery with sweat but greasy with it–as far as possible from the modern villain’s mask which so often calls to mind the cool shark gliding in the shark pool. (The actor even trades in his trademark rasp for a high-pitched not-quite-whine.)

It’s a testimony to the quality of the script, direction and cast that nothing else fades away once this is finally recognized by slow learners like me. If anything the stakes are intensified (it doesn’t hurt that the finale is one of history’s greatest sustained action sequences). The scariest thing in the world, after all–even scarier than nature–is a villain who is actually villainous. One who, lacking the cool villain’s essential sadism, controlled only by meanness, truly doesn’t care about anything like money or revenge or jealousy but only about his own survival.

I guess by the time he made The Naked Spur, Robert Ryan knew there’s no threat in this world quite as unsettling as simple human banality.

 

WHERE DID THE DANGEROUS MEN GO? (Or…As long as men are in charge, never underestimate the power of “I think I can take that guy!” to determine the course of human affairs.)

Now that I’m starting in earnest on my John Ford journey here, I’ve been seriously researching sites with intelligent things to say about the western in general and Ford in particular. To that end, in addition to April Lane’s great “Directed By John Ford” site (which I linked to a few weeks ago), I’ve added two of the best–”50 Westerns From the 50s” and “Riding the High Country”–to the blog roll. I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in a broader perspective than I’m likely to pursue here to visit those sites (and check their blog rolls as well). Even if you think you know a lot about classic westerns, you’ll almost certainly learn something and have a lot of fun doing it.

Just by coincidence, something in Colin’s latest piece here hooked up with something that struck me recently after seeing Zero Dark Thirty. This, in turn, fanned some dying embers back into a flame and revived a nagging idea I was on the verge of leaving for some other time (which might have been next week or never…all you fellow writers out there know how these things go).

The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s the quote that caught my particular attention:

“Richard Boone’s crafty and cunning Grimes is the ideal foil to Newman’s motionless and emotionless Russell. Boone gave countless performances that were straight out of the top drawer and Grimes has to rank up there among the finest. He had a real knack for conveying a quiet threat – there was always the feeling that here was a man it would be foolish to cross.”

(NOTE: I don’t intend this as a serious think piece or anything…just having some fun with a few thoughts that have crossed my mind in the past few weeks….Please bear that in mind if anything from here forward starts to threaten your blood pressure!)

To go back to Zero Dark Thirty: for me, one of the more fascinating aspects of the film–fascinating because so much effort has been made to assure everyone of its general veracity (with the usual caveats regarding fictional portrayals of real events, etc.)–was how distinctly unthreatening the Navy Seals were.

I want to be careful here, because quite obviously the actual Seals who killed Osama Bin Laden by performing an extremely difficult and dangerous mission were genuinely hard men in a way one would never expect any professional actor to be. And, for all I know, real life Seals look, sound and behave very much like those in the film. (Certainly the only one who has come forward to be publicly identified does not radiate the aura of a man “it would be foolish to cross.”)

So it could very well be that Kathryn Bigelow was given a chance to observe some actual Seals, got a vibe from them, and cast actors who fit that vibe perfectly.

But what I do find myself wondering is this: What if she had really wanted a few dangerous-seeming men to play those roles?

What if any modern Hollywood director wants even one dangerous-seeming man to play ANY role?

Who exactly would they get?

I’ve put some thought into it and I’ve come up with….exactly no one.

I know it’s a subjective question. Doubtless there are people who saw George Clooney in The American or Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James…or Samuel Jackson in whatever, and thought “Boy, I’m sure glad I was never on the wrong side of that one in a bar fight!”

But I don’t think it’s really all that subjective. Not when we cast our collective memories back.

I mean, these modern choices might convince a few people. But it’s not that long ago when there was no “subjective” to it. When all but a few were convinced. And the men who did the convincing did so with little or no apparent effort.

In other words, if you wanted somebody to play a role that called for an unspoken aura of a man it would be “dangerous to cross” there were real choices.

Not just second line stars like Boone or Lee Van Cleef, but first line ones. Robert Mitchum, say, or Lee Marvin. Or character men like Neville Brand and Aldo Ray. I’m naming only the very most obvious, those that spring first to mind. Certainly any old movie fan could name several dozen more who would–and did–look the part of men ready to be sent to the most dangerous places.

Some of these older “types” actually were hard men in life (not a few had served in WWII or Korea themselves) and some of them were probably cream-puffs when the cameras weren’t rolling. We can all probably have a fun game trying to decide which were which.

But I still think it’s interesting to compare the changing “appearances-vs-realities” dynamics. To contrast one era’s version of an ideal to another era’s version of same….and it’s worth asking if the disappearance of the former ideal from popular culture reflects an almost insane confidence. (“Got terrorists? Don’t worry…we’ve rounded up some dudes from the bar down the street and outfitted ’em with the latest technology. They’ll be along shortly to hold your hand or burn your town as needed!”)…or a complete lack thereof (“This is the best we got, the elite of the elite. Think what the hell would happen if we had to actually wage war!”)

That the good old U.S.A. still has men who can carry out dangerous real life missions is unquestionable. That we still have some number of men (and perhaps women as well) who could perform the even more difficult task of taking and holding the ground that would need to be taken and held for missions such as the one celebrated in Zero Dark Thirty to become unnecessary, is also unquestionable.

But we used to have enough such men that their presence was mainstream–all but taken for granted. So many that it was probably inevitable that a few of them–or a few skilled actors who had the chance to observe them first hand–would end up burning holes in movie screens.

If it were ever to become absolutely necessary–not to having better movies, but to, you know, making the world safer and freer–then maybe we could do so again.

Or maybe not.

I’m getting to the point, though, where I don’t know if I can keep blaming all those politicians who never, ever want to find out.

Better to just send in the Seals.

[NOTE: Just anecdotally and strictly for what it’s worth: The only real life Navy Seal I ever observed in action was a fifty-something retired-from-service gentleman who looked to be about five foot ten and weighed maybe a buck seventy. He was umpiring a semi-pro national tournament-level softball game (translation: presiding over a testosterone-laden arena of very large men with very thin skins and very short tempers under considerable pressure). The “action” I observed was his handling of a potentially ugly brawl that was about to break out between half a dozen players who, on average, probably had him by six inches and fifty pounds of 400-foot-off-the-handle style muscle–the kind you get putting in prison yard hours at the local gym. He shut things down rather quickly and easily. So quickly and easily that anyone who hadn’t been paying strict attention might have been deceived into thinking it had all been no big deal. And–in a fashion that was a lot truer to a movie-land Robert Mitchum than to anyone observed in Zero Dark Thirty–he did not have to raise his voice. (Though he was smiling later by the concession stand when he repeated what he had said, out of everyone else’s hearing, to the central-casting bully of the lot who was the heart of the trouble. I don’t remember his exact words, but they were along the lines of precisely which bones he was going to break in the big man’s body if he didn’t get his fat ass back to the dugout and keep his mouth shut….I do, however, remember this part, delivered with a Tennessee drawl they never, ever get right in the movies: “The first thing I told him was that I’m a retired Navy Seal which means I’ve been trained to cut your heart out with the pocket-knife I just happen to be carrying….” Don’t know if he was embellishing. I do know that, whatever he had really been trained to do, and whatever he really said to the large fellow in question, it worked. Retired or no, he looked and sounded very much like a man you would send on dangerous missions…and nothing at all like anyone who was available to be cast in Zero Dark Thirty.)]