FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE SIXTIES

At least according to Terry Teachout, this idea has been going around. Terry’s own list is here (it’s a pretty good one). The idea is to take each year of your life and list your favorite film from that year.

For me, “favorite” is a simple concept. It’s whatever resides at the matrix of what I like the best and what has meant the most. I tend to emphasize this quality over what I think is “great” anyway (though, unsurprisingly, there is considerable overlap…we tend to elevate what we like, though I also like to believe that what we like can elevate us).

I want to drill down a bit, though (including links to those films I’ve written about at length and mentioning the close competition, when it exists), so I’m going to post these by decade…starting conveniently enough with the decade I was born in and am most fascinated by…

1960 The Apartment (Billy Wilder) (over Swiss Family Robinson and Psycho)

1961 The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson…and, for once, truth in advertising)

1962 The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn) (over The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country, Cape Fear, The Manchurian Candidate…I could go on. Easily the strongest film year of my lifetime.)

1963 Charade (Stanley Donen)  (over The Great Escape and Hud)

1964 The T.A.M.I. Show (Steve Binder) (Actually a strong year, but….no competition)

1965 A High Wind in Jamaica (Alexander Mackendrick) (over That Darn Cat and The Truth About Spring)

1966 Gambit  (Ronald Neame) (over A Man For All Seasons and El Dorado)

1967 The Graduate (Mike Nichols) (over Wait Until Dark, Hombre, Don’t Look Back and the Soviet version of War and Peace)

1968 Monterrey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker) (over Where Eagles Dare…Interesting decision if I took one of those liberties I’m prone to take and considered Elvis’ Comeback Special a film. Glad I don’t have to make it.)

1969 Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler) (over Support Your Local Sheriff...it was a very strange year.)

Overall, a strong decade. As will be the 70s. After that….dicey.

 

 

 

 

 

3:10 TO YUMA…BLOGATHON AT CRITERION BLUES (I Watch Westerns: Take Two)

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NOTE: This was scheduled to be part of the blogathon devoted to Criterion Collection releases that is being run by Criterion Blues this week and, though the blogathon is still running, I’m a day or two late. My deep apologies to Aaron and his cohorts for the late posting as computer problems compounded by a health issue kept me from filing on time (and much thanks for their patience and understanding of the situation). I’m also using this post to inaugurate a new category “I Watch Westerns” which will give me an excuse to review some of the many westerns that have cycled to the top of my frequent watch list in recent years. FYI: John Ford will continue to be handled under the John Ford categories. Meanwhile, Please visit Criterion Blues early and often to check out the many other entries! They’ve got a whale of a list over there and any film fan should find plenty to interest them.

3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Delmer Daves

NVE00182NVE00184Two men in a hotel room. On a first visit, it’s tempting to think that’s what 3:10 to Yuma is principally, or even all, about.

After eighteen viewings (three for this post), I’ve found that it yields quite a bit more, though never a false note.

William Wellman once noted that, in Hollywood’s Golden Age at least, American film was genre film. Being a master of so many himself, his opinion deserves respect, but I’m not sure it goes far enough. One of the benefits of having well-defined genres produced “on assignment” by so many of the same directors, producers, studios and stars was that their mature work tended to flow across those boundaries with a natural, practiced ease. By the late fifties, when the middle-aged pros who were responsible for 3:10 to Yuma were hitting their stride, the border between noir and westerns was especially fluid. But the lessons accumulated across the board, in musicals, horror, comedies or melodramas, were hardly lost on the men who made this film and they brought every bit of their generational experience to bear.

That might be one reason eighteen viewings doesn’t seem like a lot.

There was an arc to the development of the western itself, of course, and that arc was at its very highest peak in the last half of the fifties. One advantage the genre had, and still has, is that John “I Make Westerns” Ford defined it. That meant the purely narrative possibilities were consistently expanded and redefined over the course of the western’s own “golden age,” which stretched from the late forties to 1962, when the Ford of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance all but literally handed the reigns over to the Sam Peckinpah of Ride the High Country, who proceeded, for better and worse, to get lost in the sixties.

All of which may help explain why so many fifties’ westerns bear up under relentless viewing even if they weren’t made by geniuses.

I’ve never heard anyone call Delmer Daves a genius or an auteur so “damn good director” may have to do, as it did for so many others who followed the noir-to-western path in the post-war era when westerns (again thanks largely to Ford) were often prestige items and noirs were almost always solid little money makers, made primarily on the cheap, just waiting for French critics to elevate them to a place where the term acquired its present day  status as an all-purpose euphemism for “cool.”

However, he got there, Daves must have recognized that 3:10 to Yuma was a chance to merge the presumably old-fashioned prestige genre with the just-about-to-be-cool one he had helped pioneer in a way that was rare, if not unique.

I say “must have” because films that are better on the eighteenth viewing than on the first don’t happen by accident.

 *   *   *   *

Back to that hotel room. It’s in Contention City, in the Arizona Territory, circa 1880, as imagined by Elmore Leonard and re-imagined by Daves and company and it’s certainly rife with tension, not to mention subtext.

A family man (Van Heflin’s Dan Evans) is holding a shotgun on a notorious outlaw (Glenn Ford’s Ben Wade) while they wait–and wait–for the train that will take Wade to the prison at Yuma.

And, while they wait, Dan Evans sweats and worries…

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And Ben Wade? Well, he watches…

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and smiles…

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and talks…

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and stays quiet…

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and tries to escape…

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or doesn’t…

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…all while remaining supremely confident that, if by some rare chance he can’t find his own way past Dan Evans’ defenses, his men are coming to the rescue.

It does not take a lot of psychoanalyzing to compare it to a flirtation and plenty have done so. Homoeroticism is always catnip for theme-oriented critics. And when all this is playing out in the Bridal Suite (or as Wade puts it, ever so casually, “the Bridal Suite huh?…I wonder how many brides…Hmmm?”), while Wade’s faithful second (Richard Jaeckel in a performance that’s part peacock, part rattlesnake, part lit-fuse on a stick of dynamite, and would have stolen ninety-nine percent of the movies ever made), searches desperately for the key in the lock to that room filled with all those noir-ish shadows, moving about like a dancer who has lost the only perfect partner he ever had? Well…

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…You can see why those two men in that hotel room get a lot of whatever ink happens to be spilled over this movie.

You might even give it that kind of attention yourself, the first few times around.

And you wouldn’t exactly be wrong.

But you would be limiting yourself.

3:10 to Yuma is a noir and a psychodrama and it’s got music in its bones and Val Lewton-style horror in the marrow of those bones.

It might be a few other things as well. I’ve only seen it eighteen times so I wouldn’t presume to have found its limits.

Mostly, though, it’s a western, a western as fine as any made by anyone not named John Ford and not far off even his highest standard. All of  which means it’s bigger than its considerable parts. It’s at the far limit of what genre film can do and that turns out to be just about anything.

*  *  *  *

I find myself drawn to westerns for a pretty simple reason. Even the modest ones tend to be about first things in general and first American things in particular.

How will we live? What is civilization worth? What does it take to build one?

What does it take to maintain one?

These are not exactly settled questions. Check any given day’s headlines.

No narrative, film or otherwise, western or otherwise, puts those questions in starker terms than 3:10 to Yuma. That starkness is realized–and fully integrated–on every level.

Starkness. In the tone poem visuals…

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Starkness. In the purely philosophical skeleton of the story’s underpinning value system…(“Safe? Who knows what’s safe? I knew a man dropped dead from looking at his wife. My own grandmother fought the Indians for sixty years then choked to death on lemon pie…Do I have two volunteers?” You’ll look a long time before you find the American frontier’s peevish brand of can-do Calvinism put more succinctly than that.)

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Starkness. In the off-handed terseness of even the throwaway dialogue…(“Quiet here?” “Like a tomb.” Hell, Sergio Leone wasted more words than that.)

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Starkness. Especially in the rhythm of the romance, the real flirtation that pulls Ben Wade in…

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then catches him out…

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then obliterates itself…

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Starkness or anyway spareness. In the indelible grace notes, of which there are dozens, my favorites being the neat inversions (not revisions, those were left for later, cheaper, filmmakers, valuing  mechanical flash over every human quality) of Fordian style…Felicia Farr’s barmaid, who has inadvertently trapped Wade, helping him into the sort of stagecoach so many of her predecessors (including Claire Trevor in Stagecoach) have been ushered out of town on, often to find the very kind of civilization-building redemption that eventually, and not inevitably, awaits Wade himself…

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And then watching him ride away with the stoic pride and sorrow of a Cavalry wife in the set of her shoulders, the depth of her own virtues, dignity not least among them, unmistakable and far past irony…

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Deep starkness. In the way every element is woven together by a lonely, purely thematic score that is sung, hummed, strummed, whistled and orchestrated with an endless, minimalist insistence and variety (bracketed by one of Frankie Laine’s very greatest vocals) that would be called avant garde if it came from any place but Hollywood, supporting the subtlest mood shifts and not only melding the austere visuals that link the desert to the edge of civilization…

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but the outposts to the towns…

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and the sun-baked exteriors…

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to the shadow-striped interiors…

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and those interiors, in turn, to the faces of the men at the story’s center…

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and, finally, to what’s going on behind those faces…

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And, stark raving starkness, no matter how many times or how many ways “There is a lonely train, called the 3:10 to Yuma,” plays, the stark raving loneliness is most of all plain in the storytelling itself. In the way each scene–each situation within each scene–builds its own tension before insinuating itself straight into the next. How death enters early….

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and keeps an ever firmer grip on the proceedings…

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…How the reality of Ben Wade’s iron-hard character, capable of shooting down his own man in cold blood for the crime of making a mistake, is carried with him every step of the way. How when he’s caught red-handed, he can wear the inevitable iron bracelets as if they were cuff links…

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….serene in the confidence this is only temporary.

The serenity holds. It holds Wade’s character together and it hold the spare, terse, nerve-grating mood together and it holds the deceptively far-reaching narrative together as well.

For all the power represented by what I’ve mentioned above, 3:10 to Yuma reaches the next level, the level where it can sit beside John Ford and Anthony Mann and High Noon and Shane at the top of American film’s strongest and deepest genre, when civilization comes to call.

It makes its presence felt at the deepest level–the level beyond plot represented by the town marshal, the posse, the owner of the stage line Wade’s gang has robbed, the brother of the driver who has been killed–in two unlikely sources.

First there’s Henry Jones’ Alex Potter, the “town drunk,” whose presence as a bulwark of civilization would be unlikely anywhere except maybe Hollywood and is not less integral or intense for all that.

“Come on,” he says. “Give me a chance.”

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“You can tell Dan he can count on Alex Potter right to the end,” he says, even before the solid citizens of Contention City have joined the solid citizens of Bisbee in demonstrating how little they can be counted on.NVE00365

And he gets his chance….To be shot down by Jaeckel’s not-yet-jilted lover for the crime of being a man Dan Evans could count on to the extent of shouting a warning with a gun in his back…

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And paying the exact price that kept all the solid citizens at bay…and which Dan Evans will now have to measure himself against.

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The movie goes past that, however. It makes it clear that all that might not be enough.

For civilization to finally be left standing, it helps to have a second bulwark, one whose presence was once only unlikely in Hollywood, where she was (again outside Ford and the western) so often neglected, if not forgotten: the Frontier Wife.

Van Heflin and Glenn Ford gave perhaps the finest performances of their stalwart careers here, the kind of performances that never get mentioned for awards and never yield a false second under the most intense scrutiny. But 3:10 to Yuma wouldn’t work at the highest level if it weren’t for Lenora Dana’s presence as Alice Evans.

You don’t have to believe me. You just need to watch the hard man, Ben Wade, killer of his own men, leader of a nest of rattlers bound to respect only the kind of man who can ride herd on their sort, seducer of barmaids who needn’t worry about his careless mistake in getting caught because, wherever they take him to wait for the train, his men will be waiting between there and the station.

Oh, there’s nothing different at first, nothing remotely spiritual.

He’s caught. He’s spirited to the Evans’ house and sneaked off the stage. That hotel room is waiting, its particular tension held in abeyance.

For the time being, the hard man sees what we see. The tired face, the slumped shoulders….

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The accumulated burdens of marriage, childbirth, hardship, life in the unyielding, drought-stricken wilderness you can always see from her porch, at her back or over her shoulder, depending on which way she’s facing.

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Dana’s performance and her character’s relationship with her husband are of a rare kind, one completely without glamour or pretense (which is what “without glamour” almost always means in movies, even in good movies). There’s a strong hint that she’s from money, a hint Wade picks up on immediately and begins using as a wedge. He seems to know what kind of ammunition he’ll need when he’s trapped in that hotel room and the train is drawing near and those handcuffs stop feeling like cuff links.

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He’ll need to be able to say “I’ll tell you one thing Dan, if she was my wife I’d treat her a whole lot better,” and have it get under Dan Evans’ sweat-soaked skin. He’ll need to have been the man who brought a small light to Alice Evans’ eye, the light even the best husband is likely to have a hard time drawing forth after a thousand petty squabbles, a generation of backbreaking labor, a life that’s put tired lines around eyes that might have very reasonably expected better.

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When they are finally alone in that room, Ben Wade means to ensure that they are not really alone. He has played the charmer, taken a risk that, here in the home of Dan and Alice Evans, at their dinner table, with their kids watching, he can find a wedge to plant between them, or at least between himself and that train ride.

Yes, he’s taken a risk. Only it’s not the risk he imagined. For most of his time in that hotel room, though, a hotel he’s entered as sure of himself as Cary Grant on a Hitchcock set, eyeing decor that might have graced a cabin on one of the ships owned by Alice Evans’ father, while everybody else does the worrying…

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…it will be a risk that looks to be paying off.

He tries Dan Evans and comes up short. But Evans doesn’t shoot him, so he has time.

And time works for him because it’s ticking, ticking.

His boy Charlie will find him…

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He’ll be dealt the best possible hand…

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For the longest time he’ll be able to work both ends against the middle. Wait for his men. Work on Evans.

Start offering him money.

Way more than the two hundred he’s being paid to deliver Wade to the station.

By the time the thunder rolls and the storm breaks–not inside Dan Evans, but in the Arizona skies and within the conscience Ben Wade didn’t know he had left–the offer’s up to ten thousand and Evans looks to be baited.

Probably he would be, too, if civilization hadn’t been doing it’s work, if the ship captain’s daughter hadn’t been chasing her own conscience, wondering what her marriage was really worth.

First she rides to Bisbee, where civilization is not yet a full step from the wilderness…

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Then she confers with the other women who are holding down the fort, waiting. They include the wife of Alex Potter (foregrounded, face half in shadow), who doesn’t yet know her man’s fate…

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Alice Evans will know soon enough. She’ll arrive in Contention City in record time, having made the journey that apparently took her husband, Alex Potter and Ben Wade all night in just an hour or two.

It could be simple cheat, of course. But in the context of visiting and re-visiting 3:10 to Yuma, it acquires the effect of an earned miracle…

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a miracle which she cannot yet see…

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Because she isn’t looking up at the window…

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,,,where Ben Wade has just discovered that what he’s really risked is being forced to look inside himself and decide whether he still likes what he sees and Dan Evans has just found the strength he’ll need to break free of that hotel room in ways that go far beyond putting an outlaw on a train and collecting a reward.

He’ll need every bit of that strength, too, because just here, 3:10 to Yuma begins to acquire the shadings of a Lewton level horror, with the miracle wife pushing on, finding herself under the town drunk’s shadow as he hangs from the hotel’s chandelier…

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A sight that joins her with the stage owner, the man who had, not so long ago, promised to walk with her husband “every step.”

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…and is now prepared to pay Dan Evans not to take that walk.

Though, if Mr. Butterfield, having felt the shadow of that corpse, can’t talk her husband out of it, surely she can…

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And if she can’t do that, then she must at least be able to keep him from telling the only sort of lie either would ever tell the other. The kind meant to spare her from an uglier truth…Like the real odds that he’ll live to see the miracle rain the thunder she refuses to hear portends…

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She can’t accomplish even that.

Even finally knowing what his life and hers are really worth, he can’t walk away from that body stretched on the chandelier and live with himself.

It’s not a fake sacrifice. There are seven killers between him and the station and he doesn’t yet know that the man he’s been holed up with is changing. In a room where each of them has spent every second he’s not watching the other knowing he’s being watched, where we’ve begun by knowing what each man is saying by the other man’s face and ended by knowing what each man is thinking by the other’s face, he has still missed at least one thing we’ve seen….

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The sight of the outlaw realizing the homesteader has the one thing he can’t have and of us realizing the choices he’ll make from now on, including the choice that saves Dan Evans’ life, are those of a man who knows something about such choices and their costs.

So, in the end, Dan Evans walks Ben Wade to the station in a tense, drawn out sequence that’s as hard and spare as the rest of the film, all angles…

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and shadows…

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and menace…

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and constant evocation of those impossible odds…

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In the end, it will be plain that Ben Wade’s final choice, his emergence from the fog…

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into the light…

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won’t result from all that time spent together drawing them closer and closer…

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but from the recognition that what stood between them all along wasn’t a barmaid…

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or an honor code…

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or a gang of men…

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or even a spurned Iago…

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determined to have his man back…

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Or end in the boneyard…

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No, what was standing between them all along was the same thing that would, in another earned miracle, join them in the end.

Something far more prosaic.

That frontier wife, the sort of woman civilization always tends to neglect and always at its own peril…

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and who both Dan Evans…

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and Ben Wade…

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were lucky to have met.

You might even call it a miracle.

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You might even say that train to Yuma wasn’t so lonely after all…

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FINAL NOTE: If you want some evidence of just how forgotten the Frontier Wife is, you can watch the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, which changed the setting to modern day but, mysteriously, kept the period costumes. That’s the only reason I can think of for ever recommending it.

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.

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(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!