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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So he tames the town…

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And keeps it tamed….

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

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

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

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The man who can turn this…

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and this…

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into this…

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and this…

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

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

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and here…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PAINTING THE DAYTIME BLACK…ROSANNA ARQUETTE GOES SOUTH OF THE BORDER, TAKES OFF ALL HER CLOTHES (Noir, Noir, Noir: 1st Feature)

[NOTE: Time for a new category, explanation to follow….]

The Wrong Man
Director: Jim McBride (1993)

You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees

“She Belongs to Me” (Bob Dylan)

Alternate unused title: “You Wish She Belonged to You (And You’ll Keep on Wishing, No Matter What)”

(Beware: Spoilers included!)

WRONGMAN1The great lie in the American version of the modernist myth (well, other than it being somehow “modern”), is that we’ve cast off the old Puritanism and traded it in for our new, liberated selves.

Fat chance. We’re Americans and we’re stuck with who we are. Last I looked, even our porn is grim. Take out rock and roll and maybe very early New Orleans jazz and it’s been one long march to the reaper, hat in hand, for four hundred years, though at least now, in the new millenium, the march is growing shorter, day by day.

When it comes to writing about art at length, however, as opposed to preaching about the state of the world as an occasional aside, I prefer to ac-cen-tu-ate the positive. If paid up members of the heavily industrialized crit-illuminati didn’t keep bringing my mood down, I’d be a regular ray of sunshine around here. That’s why I’ve mostly stayed away from noir, film or otherwise. There’s a roadside bar between here and town. If I want to encounter the dark side of the American dream I can stop in any time. Since I don’t drink, ain’t any good at schmoozing, and am a long way past my high school social or physical reflexes being anywhere near their prime, I reckon I could get rolled by the dark side quicker than just about anybody.

So I doubt I’ll be dwelling on this, but I’m not immune to noir-ish charms, if that’s what you want to call them, and I’ve decided that whatever I’m not immune to, I shouldn’t be too proud to write about.

My first visit with The Wrong Man in twenty years seems like a good place to start.

The film shares a name with a classy affair by Alfred Hitchcock, which came out in 1956. That one rates a full point-and-a-half higher on IMDB, doubles the rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is taken quite seriously by many serious people and, even with Vera Miles’ great, unnerving performance as a woman driven to the nuthouse when her husband is wrongly accused of murder, is about one-tenth as destabilizing as this Clinton-era sleaze bucket from a mid-level Hollywood pro that was apparently made for Showtime but also played at Cannes, which is pretty destabilizing all by itself.

Is it any good?

I have to say I think so, which I think is the most you ought to ever be able to say about any noir after a couple of viewings twenty years apart.

The story is simple but deceptive. After twenty years I remembered basically where it went…

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…but very little about how it got there (and, really, not as much about the ending as I thought). But, either way, it didn’t feel like anything that would fall apart on a dozen viewings, which is the other thing you have to be able to say about a noir to start deciding if it’s any good, let alone really good.

So check back with me about ten viewings from now on that.

I promise it won’t take twenty years…or two hundred.

One thing I can say is possible is that I might get tired of Kevin Anderson, who plays the nominal lead and sustains a narrow range of slightly befuddled expressions throughout, whether by choice or typecasting I bet his own mother couldn’t say. One thing I can say for certain, is that I won’t get tired of John Lithgow or Rosanna Arquette, who enter about fifteen minutes in and proceed to both take over the screen and make all that simplicity very, very deceptive indeed. I mean, I won’t again forget the beginning…

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…Or, bang, bang, bang, that it can’t be reconciled with that ending in the imagination the way Arquette miraculously reconciles it on-screen.

Between times, in the heart of the movie, it’s all faces. Basically, those three.

There’s an occasional Mexican thrown in, mostly policemen, and well played all around. But, mostly, it’s three souls truly adrift in a strange land, every part of which is made stranger by their continued presence. The land’s not haunting them, they’re haunting it…or anyway Lithgow’s Phillip Mills and his “wife,” Arquette’s Missy, are. Anderson’s Alex Walker is caught in the wash, running from the Mexican police because he’s wanted, in classic dream-logic noir fashion, for a murder he didn’t commit. Mills and the girl he keeps calling his wife (whether she really is or not and what it would mean if she either is or isn’t, are some of the dozens of things I feel certain are worth pondering in this particular dream), don’t know what he did and don’t care, at least not until the very end, when, by means entirely persuasive without being entirely logical, they come to care a little.

Meanwhile, he’s a fish on a hook and they like taking turns jerking the line and watching him flop.

What sort of complicates things is that Phillip himself is a fish on another hook. That’s the one Missy keeps yanking on and that’s the real narrative here. It’s all about the hook-pulling and the triangulation of those three faces. One which hardly changes…

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One which shifts almost entirely between degrees of suspicion…

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And one which is on the hunt for endless kicks….

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and, hence,can hardly stay still for a second…

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I don’t really know of any equivalent to what Arquette does in this movie. She’s a purely sexual being, playing somebody who can’t add two and two and wouldn’t bother to try if she could. She’s crazy as a loon. And, except for maybe when she’s stripping to James Carr’s version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” drifting in on the kind of station you can always tune in on the radio playing in your dream version of the Mexican boonies, in a scene that, by the time it arrives, is as likely as the sun rising in the east tomorrow….

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or wondering if her “husband” is dead…

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or pulling a gun on him, when it turns out he isn’t…

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,..she’s kind of klutz.

She’s also got the fashion sense of an attention-starved four-year-old….

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She lies the way the living breathe and the dead sleep…constantly and naturally….

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. And, if you don’t like the one she just told, she’s got another, even better one, waiting right behind it.

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Oh yeah, she also sucks her thumb when she’s riding around in the backs of cars….

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fans her crotch for the bus crowd when the night’s too hot….

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and is good at exactly one thing, which is making everybody sweat…

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…including whoever is on the other side of that camera there.

She’s Carroll Baker in Baby Doll and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde and Melanie Griffith in Something Wild, only with the ante upped and all rolled into one. Any hint of artiness has been replaced by pure crass.

Sort of like you imagine it would be, if you ever met this girl in “real” life and were stripped of any protection or pretension mere civilization might offer.

One reason she’s so good at the one thing she’s good it, is that she’s only interested in two things: nailing everything on two legs (as long as she doesn’t have to chase it…too much work, she’d much rather you just keep popping up in her car or wandering back to her bedroom)

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and being cared for (which is why you are always going to have to put up with her current man until you prove you’re somehow better for her)…

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About these issues, she is passionate and relentless.

You can see where this might lead to complications. Anything that happens along, she can talk her husband into giving it a ride, even if (maybe especially if) the police are after it.

Then what?

A movie, that’s what. A real movie sort of movie, made up out of purely sordid but tangible dreams. The kind Quentin Tarantino is always bragging so much about wanting to make but never quite does, and, if it’s true that he turned down Arquette for the lead in Pulp Fiction in favor of Uma Thurman, then he’s even more of a coward than I think he is, which, until now, I didn’t even consider possible.

There’s no real hope of romance or redemption in The Wrong Man: Hollywood kind, pulp fiction kind, or any other kind. I’m not even sure a sane person would wish those things on any of the people involved. Certainly no sane person would want to be caught dead in a hotel room with them.

But the thing is, the characters are human size, even if the situation isn’t. To some degree, they are even likable. You there, with your sanity, wouldn’t want to be caught standing next to them when the bullets start flying. But you can see how it might happen just the same.

As I said, Kevin Anderson’s Alex is a pawn in all this. The movie is about faces and his hardly changes expression. Arquette and Lithgow are familiar. He’s not. They have histories as actors, even if those histories mean next to nothing here. They’re old pros stealing scenes from the nonentity as easily and thoughtlessly and greedily as their characters steal his character’s soul.

Or at least they make it seem that way and without a hint of professional slickness showing anywhere. They’re caught in a project that’s part road movie, part southern gothic (with as much dream-sharp dialogue as Tennessee Williams ever gave anybody), part neo-noir, part south-of-the-border wet dream (I think I had this exact one when I was in the tenth grade), part soft-core porn flick, part made-for-cable-because-there’s-no-more-drive-ins-for-it-to-play extravaganza, with a real actress standing in for the various cable-ready Playmates of the Month, most of whom weren’t built as well, nearly as anxious to show it off or anyways capable of making a bareback ride on John Lithgow seem like something a girl might just naturally want to do.

So they take one piece of Old Hollywood advice that for all I know may be taught in chic acting schools as well.

If you take the part, whatever it is, sell it.

The result is a movie that starts running when they show up and, for all the laughable complaints about “slow pacing” from the peanut gallery at IMDB and elsewhere (I’d bet ninety-nine out of a hundred paid up members of the crit-illuminati would say the same if they ever deigned to watch it in the first place, because they would surely have their defenses up every second of the way), it never sets its feet again. It just keeps leaping and crawling and pointing its toe, searching for something solid underneath,  until the very end, when it turns into genuine tragedy of the kind that classic noir almost never achieved, even in the rare instances where it was tried (I’m always amazed at the number of fake happy endings Old Hollywood noir could snatch from the thinnest possible air).

And that’s what makes this one a little shocking–the running and running and ending up in a place where the earth seems very far away. Arquette’s Missy Mills screams over her husband’s congealing corpse because she may have no more idea than we do whether he deserved it or not, but she knows in an instant that she’ll never find another sucker quite like him.

The closest she could hope to come is moving down the track, too fast for her to catch up to and too broke to make it back on his own. And just because she sucks her thumb once in a while doesn’t mean she doesn’t hurt as much as you do buster!

Well, anyway, that’s what I’ve made of it so far.

I’m not worried, though. I’m sure I’ll understand the rest eventually. In twenty years or two hundred.

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(In case you are wondering, that’s Missy’s “Yeah, I banged the kid last night, and I’m thinking of running off with him. But don’t worry, I might change my mind at the station right before they shoot one of you for the murder you either did or didn’t commit and I’m sure whatever I do it will be worth it” look.)

[NOTE: This has never been released on DVD as far as I can tell. There’s currently a copy on YouTube for those who are into downloading or watching on-line. I’m, uh, not recommending it or anything. Because, really, it could make your day or rot your liver. View at your own risk.]

SEEING PSYCHO WITH THE NOVICES (Segue of the Day: 9/1/15)

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So Psycho came to the local college theater (the big one with the stadium seating this time) and I had a chance to see it on a big screen, with an audience, for the second time since I started this blog.

I wrote about the first experience here and, just from a film school standpoint, everything was the same, only more so. Vera Miles still keeps the whole thing from dissolving with a flicker of the eyelid here, a sideways glance there, an occasional quaver of barely contained emotion appropriate to actual human responses bubbling up through the movie’s otherwise completely flat, almost robotic surfaces.

Anyway, the audience told the tale.

The main difference between the two viewings was that, this time around, I was clearly with kids who had mostly not seen it. That’s maybe another sign, perhaps a slightly surprising one, of how times have changed.

Last time I saw Psycho with a college audience was in the mid-eighties, with VHS players a recent phenomena and public screenings of classic film outside of major cities relatively rare.

Back then, people were competing to see who could recite the most dialog back to the screen. This time around, with opportunities to see popular classics having been in abundance for the entire lifetimes of most of the audience, even the most famous surprises were clearly surprises. Except, of course, for the one surprise almost nobody can avoid knowing about, which is the shower scene.

So the shower scene evoked relatively little response and the screams and shouts and warnings were all at the end, meaning the part real film buffs are always claiming they stop watching after they’ve seen the movie a time or two, because, well, the first part of the movie is where all the film buff stuff is at.

Look, Anthony Perkins’ performance is all that. He deserves every accolade he’s ever received. And Janet Leigh is fine, too. It’s a nicely nuanced turn.

But, as I intimated in the earlier piece, there’s no edge or shadow in her performance (or her persona, such as it was/is) that suggests her character is really the type to steal $40,000 for some reason other than to set a fever dream plot in motion. I suspect that’s why the shower scene has little emotional resonance with audiences these days, when the violence is no longer anywhere near the edge and the “shock” aspects have faded, especially for kids who barely know who Janet Leigh was and have no reason to think she won’t be killed by the sociopath at the Bates Motel just because she’s too big a star to die halfway through the movie.

All of that leaves the movie right where it really always was…with Miles to do the heavy lifting at the climax which, had it not worked so perfectly, would have left the movie a curio for the benighted to discuss among themselves, like Rope or Marnie, instead of, at one and the same time, in the conversation for the greatest horror film and the greatest noir.

Interestingly enough, it’s the end sequence, the foundational, “don’t go in the basement” moment, that is the most iconic. I have no idea if it’s the absolute first of its type, but that hardly matters because it was rare-to-unheard-of before Psycho and, unlike the inimitable shower scene, has been imitated four thousand times since.

All of which adds to my growing and now close to irreversible belief that Hitchcock either truly lost his nerve or let his vendetta against Miles (who had backed out of Vertigo because she was pregnant and refused to get an abortion) obscure his judgment. I love the movie as it is. It’s as great and disturbing as its reputation (something I concede about few Hitchcock movies, as much as I enjoy them).

But I’m convinced it would have been even greater and more disturbing if he had cast Miles in both parts.

And what, may you ask does any of that have to do with the Segue of the Day?

Absolutely nothing.

All the screening did was reinforce some of my already formed opinions (albeit under very different and illuminating circumstances).

Happens all the time.

What I don’t get to do enough of, these days, is smile.

Which is what hearing this…

and this…

on the sound system, while waiting for the lights to go down so I could watch Psycho with the twenty-year-olds made me do all over.

STANDING TALL (Lesley Gore, R.I.P.)

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“Tom Doniphon, you listen to me. Where I go and what I do is none of your business. You don’t own me!”

(Vera Miles to John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–1962)

“Don’t tell me what to do/And don’t tell me what to say”

Lesley Gore “You Don’t Own Me” (1964)

DI: Fans have always told you how important song has been to them. Are you making “a statement” even today?

LG: No question about it. It’s the one song – after some 40 years, I still close my show with that song because I can’t find anything stronger, to be honest with you. It’s a song that just kind of grows every time you do it. It might mean one thing one year and “boom,” two years later, boy it can mean something else.

(Digital Interviews with Lesley Gore, May, 2003)

When the late Charlie Gillett published the first important history of rock and roll in 1969, he dubbed the flood of hit records by young women from the early and mid-sixties “Girl Talk.” However problematic that phrase was, it was positively enlightened compared to the “girl group” moniker which gained currency soon after and has been used as short-hand ever since by everyone from the boys’ club that re-defined rock ‘n’ roll’s quasi-official narrative in Gillett’s wake in strict accord with their own needs to those doctrinaire feminist scholars who are so often in the habit of accepting all the wrong things.

One group that never accepted the term was a number of the “girl group” participants themselves.

I don’t know how Lesley Gore felt about it, but Arlene Smith (14 when she basically invented the concept with the Chantels), Mary Weiss (15 when she defined the apotheosis with the Shangri-Las) and others always saw themselves as a vital part of a larger tradition and always understood that the term was meant, consciously or subconsciously, to segregate them from that tradition.

As it happened, it worked to separate them by more than gender.

Make of it what you will, but no other “genre” name in rock and roll or any other form of music has ever needed to not only cordon off its practitioners by gender, but also further subdivide them by race, age, number and anything else that can be brought to bear.

This was made somewhat easier by an odd circumstance. With the exception of Weiss, all of the concept’s signature lead group voices, were black (Smith, Shirley Owens, Ronnie Spector, Martha Reeves, Gladys Horton, Diana Ross, Darlene Love). Meanwhile, except for Dionne Warwick and Mary Wells, the signature solo voices were white (Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Petula Clark, Jackie DeShannon, Nancy Sinatra and, of course, Lesley Gore). So just in case gender wasn’t handy enough on its own, some of these voices could be conveniently cut from the bunch by race…or age…or number…or just vocal inclination.

Further divisions were managed by siphoning off various groups or singers into some other category (anything would do).

Wells, The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes were “Motown.” Clark, Springfield and Lulu (along with Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw, big stars in England who had limited success in the States) were “British Invasion.” Warwick was “Supper Club Soul” or “Adult Contemporary.” Lee and Francis were “Teen Idols” (or “Countrypolitan” or just “Pop”) and so forth.

None of this was exactly untrue. I make the distinctions myself at times.

But the trick to the official rock and roll narrative was that, once separated from the already hidebound ethos, these outliers were never let back into their moment.

I mean, if you wanna start a fight with a Rock Critic, try calling Dionne Warwick (twenty-one when she recorded her first big hit) or Brenda Lee (fifteen when she recorded hers) a Girl Group singer.

The effect, when used in tandem with the “male-producer-as-svengali” syndrome I’ve addressed pretty relentlessly on this blog, was and is to blunt the force and magnitude of the first mighty surge of cultural power ever spear-headed by a collective of young women in the history of American music.

Or, for that matter, pretty much any age women anywhere.

In any cultural (as opposed to social or political) context.

Ever.

The effect of the “girl talk” moment, both as symbolism and underlying reality, was of that part of the audience which had fought their way to the front rows at Elvis and Jackie Wilson concerts in the fifties (and, yes, fainted at Frank Sinatra concerts in the forties, though in those days they mostly stayed in their seats), literally stepping forth from the audience and taking the stage themselves.

Few of them wrote their important hits (Smith and DeShannon were rare exceptions). Even fewer produced and none ever received proper credit. So, mostly, they seized the moment by singing.

Sing they did. Brenda Lee, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Darlene Love, Arlene Smith, Mary Weiss, Ronnie Spector, Jackie DeShannon. No genre, style or sensibility, however named, was ever graced with greater voices, and, amongst that cacophony, it fell to then seventeen-year-old Lesley Gore, she of the perfect pitch and Sarah Lawrence pedigree, to sing their anthem, the one record that most assuredly marked the future off from the past, even as the storm of the British Invasion (a genre, like any but the one Lesley Gore was slated into, where no distinction needed to be made between groups or individuals, men or women, teens or twenty-somethings, no matter how many of its acts were four or five guys with guitars) seemed to wash every other future away.

‘You Don’t Own Me,” (it’s title and ethos copped from a John Ford movie even in the unlikely event the songwriters never saw it) wasn’t her biggest hit.“It’s My Party” made #1, while “You Don’t Own Me” was stopped at #2 by the symbolic-as-hell and real-as-hell phenomenon that was “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. It may not have even been her greatest vocal. I’m partial to “She’s a Fool” myself and there’s plenty of other competition.

But it’s the one that truly escaped time and found a life that was not and is not in any way bound by its original moment.

My memory plays tricks on me and I’ve never been able to track the quote down, but I’m willing to swear on anything you want that, somewhere, there’s an interview with Gore where she said it was also the one song she knew would be a hit.

When she was asked how she knew, she had a simple answer:

“Because I read my fan mail.”

Call her anything you want. Can’t mark the future off any plainer than that.

Time came for Lesley Gore today at 68.

Well…not really….

 

THOSE WOMEN OUT WEST….ALWAYS GETTIN’ IN THE WAY! (I Watch Westerns: Special Edition)

“In fact we always throw a woman into the story, because without a woman, a western wouldn’t work. Even though she isn’t necessary, everyone appears to be convinced that you cannot do without a woman. But as soon as you get to fighting against the Indians, or to the chase scenes, or when the heroes discover the traitor, then the woman gets in your way. So then you have to come up with a clever trick and send her somewhere so she won’t be in your way, and you won’t need to film her. It’s sad to say, but women do not have much importance in westerns…On the other hand, maybe someone will make a western some day with a woman as the main character.”

(Source: “Interview With Anthony Mann,” conducted by Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol for Cahiers du Cinema, March 1957 and reprinted in the booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection’s release of The Furies)

Well, with all due respect to one of my favorite directors (and one of the greatest western directors) it was hardly as bad as all that!

It’s true women weren’t usually leads in westerns, but Mann himself had, for instance, seven years prior to this interview, made The Furies, in which Barbara Stanwyck–being, you know, Barbara Stanwyck–had not exactly shrunk into the background just because she had top billing and the most screen time and was the script’s central character and all.

And as for them “getting in the way,” when the going got heavy? Well, I guess that was sort of a rule, but I could point to a lot of exceptions.(My favorite being Susan Hayward’s sharpshooting at the end of Rawhide–beautiful because it comes straight out of her character even though we’ve never seen her with a rifle in her hand before that moment–Jack Elam might have looked surprised at having that twitch in his eyelid permanently stilled but there’s no reason we should be!)

Still, while Mann’s expressed view may have amounted to a kind of selective amnesia, it was and is–all evidence to the contrary–a common one.

Too bad, because, outside of what used to be called “women’s pictures,” actual women (as opposed to the admittedly marvelous fantasy creatures favored by the makers of screwball comedy, musicals , biblical epics, film noir and Li’l Abner movies) played a more significant role in westerns than in any other major Hollywood genre.

If we’ve mostly forgotten their vital presence, it’s probably because we don’t think we need their kind any more.

Since I beg to differ–and since I need to update my file of self-defining things–I’m listing a countdown of my five favorite examples out of a potential hundred or so (with accompanying introductory and valedictory shots):

5) Gail Russell as Annie Greer in 7 Men From Now (1956: Budd Boetticher, director)–Quite probably the most affectless and unassuming performance ever given by a strikingly beautiful woman in a Hollywood film. Russell’s own inherent shyness and troubled life–which had very much left its mark on that beautiful face by then–probably worked in her favor here, even as it had almost certainly kept her from major stardom elsewhere. One wonders if the brief time she had left might have been lengthened if more people had noticed.

All in a day's work...

All in a day’s work!

After the bodies have stopped falling.

After the bodies have stopped falling.

4) Angie Dickinson as “Feathers,” (aka “The Girl,” aka “The Lady,” aka “The Lady She Did Not Go!”) in Rio Bravo (1959: Howard Hawks, director)–The Hawksian woman–greatest of all Hollywood’s femme fantasies–improbably and indelibly humanized.

I think we might be in a Howard Hawks movie...

I think we might be in a Howard Hawks movie…

Yes...yes we are.

Yes…yes we are!

3) Claire Trevor as Dallas in Stagecoach (1939: John Ford, director)–The epitome of turning a shop-worn cliche (in this case “the hooker with a heart of gold”) into flesh and blood, maybe because she did the best job of showing that the heart wasn’t made of gold but of pain and fear. The Oscar waited down the line, for some year when Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel weren’t performing miracles in Gone With the Wind. But Ford’s single-handed resuscitation of the western as an art form could never have worked all the way through without her.

Shamed in sunlight...

Shamed in sunlight…

Redeemed in darkness.

…Redeemed in darkness.

2) Kim Darby as Mattie Ross in True Grit (1969: Henry Hathaway, director)–Darby played Mattie Ross, one of the great prickly pears in American fiction, as though Charles Portis rather than Hollywood convention should be the prevailing authority on the subject. (Pick to click: “If I smelled as bad as you, I wouldn’t live near people.” But there are oh, so many.) Boy has she been slagged for it, especially in light of Hailee Steinfeld’s very fine, if rather comfortingly modern, take in the 2010 remake. Boy are people wrong. Among the dozens of reviews I read when the newer version hit theaters, only one–by the conservative critic James Bowman–bothered to point out that Darby was much more convincing than Steinfeld when taken as the frontier woman Mattie Ross is supposed to be. (Granted Steinfeld wasn’t always helped by the newer script, which, among other things, has Mattie professing ignorance of what horses eat!) Out of Darby’s many adroit touches, my own favorite is the arm-swinging walk she used to hold up against John Wayne in long shots. Yeah, it was Mattie Ross to a “T,” but I’ve also often wondered how many of the great thespians Wayne routinely dominated in such shots over the years wished they had thought of that.

Old maidhood awaits...

Old maidhood awaits…

...Not without its memories.

…Not without its memories.

1) Vera Miles as Hallie Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962: John Ford, director)–Not just one of the great gender/genre performances but one of the great performances period and, as almost goes without saying, she’s received scant thanks for it. All she had to do, for starters, was hold her own–playing twenty-something and fifty-something–in a western that had John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin all at the very top of their considerable games. She made that look easy (and made it look easy in that particular way that allows many people to assume that it could only look so easy if it really was easy). Then she had to make it her character’s movie without resorting to any obvious scene-stealing (not so much because anyone would have cared–though they might have–as because such obviousness would have fatally unbalanced the story). After all that, at the very end, she had to deliver the “Aren’t you proud?” speech in such a way that the answer would remain naggingly ambiguous, forever reminding us that the value of the past will always be determined by what we make of the future–while leaving room for those who insist on “knowing” to make up their own minds. And yes, she made that look easy, too. Ever gallant, Hollywood rewarded her by providing that all her best future roles be TV show murderesses and Disney wives.

Age...

Age…

...to youth

…into youth

And youth...

And youth…

...to age.

…into age.

Please feel free to add your own…Like I say there are many to choose from!

JOHN FORD’S PEOPLE….CHARLIE McCORRY

Actor: Ken Curtis

Film: The Searchers (1956)

NOTE: This is the first in a series of studies devoted–film by film–to an assortment of major and minor characters in John Ford’s oeuvre. If you’re asking “Why this approach?” or “Why John Ford?” I hope the posts themselves will ultimately provide the answers. I’m beginning with The Searchers for the simple reason that I’ve lived with it the longest and the closest…

I’ve known Charlie McCorry my whole life–and not just because he literally turned into Festus on Gunsmoke.

In my own world, he’s worn a half-dozen different names and faces but certain characteristics–besides his actually being referred to as “Festus” now and again back when the TV show was common cultural currency–remain constant.

Inherently shy, he tends to mask it by a show of boisterous, occasionally abrasive behavior. This includes a tendency to exaggerate whatever accent he was born with and a braying laugh that can fill a football stadium when he decides to unleash it.

His humor runs to the crude and obvious but is ameliorated by a spirit of genuine self-deprecation.

He is fiercely loyal to whatever rare authority he deems legitimate and–in the manner of all equal and opposite reactions–deeply suspicious of any deviance from same. This makes him a poor choice for captain but an extremely capable second-in-command, especially in small units (like, say, a Texas Ranger company). Capable, in part, because his trust will always have been earned–and because he’ll view any threat to his Captain as a threat to everything.

If it’s broke, he can fix it.

Once he’s fixed it, it stays fixed and, unless it’s in the practice of his profession, he will be deeply insulted if you try to pay him for it.

If it is in the practice of his profession, he will give you a price break. Unless he knows you really can’t afford it, in which case he’ll do it for free anyway.

He always has some special talent that surprises. This talent might range from playing a mean rockabilly guitar to doing beautiful, museum quality craft work (usually in wood or leather) to (as with Charlie McCorry himself) possessing a beautiful singing voice (which he not infrequently uses in the service of a church choir, though Curtis himself put his at the disposal of the Sons of the Pioneers).

He is slow to anger and an extremely tough opponent in any fight you manage to pick with him.

Judging by the quality of the women he ends up with, he is a formidable romantic rival.

No matter how many of his friends he outlives, his funeral will always pull a crowd.

Finally, because he is nearly always portrayed as a straight buffoon in American narrative–fiction, film or stage–it is not surprising to find him described by quotes like these:

“The subplot with Vera Miles and Ken Curtis becomes a bit more grinding every time you see the film.” (David Thomson, Have You Seen…?)

“A comically (even grotesquely) inappropriate potential partner” [for Miles’ Laurie Jorgensen] (Douglas Pye)

“Dumb hillbilly suitor” (David Grimsted)

“Country bumpkin” (Arthur M. Eckstein)

Preposterously yokelish” (William Luhr)

(All from The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Western, Arthur M. Eckstein and Peter Lehman, eds.)

“An absurd booby” (Lindsay Anderson, About John Ford)

“Irritating,” “too coarse by half” (Scott Eyman, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford)

“An oaf” (Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films)

“Gormless bumpkin” (Edward Buscombe, The Searchers: BFI Film Classics)

I could go on but you get the drift.

The only countervailing view I’ve found is J.A. Place’s insightful commentary in her The Western Films of John Ford–which judges Charlie McCorry by who he actually is in the film rather than by the response he is likely to draw from critics who might not ever best him in any other scenario but can very definitely out-type him. Doubtless there are other positive views somewhere or other but they certainly don’t add up to more than a tiny fraction of the intellectual scorn heaped on the character.

So, with this disconnect between image and reality fully established, let’s look at Charlie a little closer.

Outside of his broad accent–which is actually quite true to such characters in life, though Curtis was understandably reluctant to play him that way and expose himself to the inevitable tide of “sophisticated” commentary sampled above–the film makes no real distinction between Charlie’s qualities as a “suitor” and those of his rival, the movie’s hero, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter).

In no way does the film Ford actually made–as opposed to the one many seem determined to run in their heads (sometimes buttressed by cineaste-level knowledge of Ford’s own dismissive on-set comments regarding both Curtis–his son-in-law at the time–and the character, which are no more meaningful in terms of reading the ever-contrary Ford’s intent here than they are elsewhere)–suggest Martin is a superior man, or a worthier object of Laurie’s affection.

There’s little to choose between them socially. Martin’s better looking to be sure, but, in Ford’s universe, surfaces are as likely to conceal as reveal–though he certainly never discounts sexual attraction (or even obsession) as a powerful motivation for both rational and irrational behavior. Charlie has more responsibility in the community, is clearly a good provider and a stable, respected presence (though Martin is hardly deficient in these categories–his long absence is for reasons that seem perfectly valid to everyone but Laurie herself, and is hardly a sign of waywardness.)

Even when they fight, it’s to a draw, with both men finally collapsing in exhaustion.

Tellingly, in a movie where the main character, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, is famously contemptuous of everyone and everything–and where his contempt is expressed directly, by look, word or deed, to Martin Pawley, Mose Harper, Jerem Futterman, Look, Laurie, Mrs. Jorgensen, Mr. Jorgensen, Brad Jorgensen, Nesby, Chief Scar, Ethan’s brother Aaron, the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton, Comanches, “Yankee cavalrymen,” women who “ain’t white….anymore” and, finally, Debbie Edwards herself–he has no confrontational scene with Charlie McCorry.

Even more tellingly, the scene where this might have been expected to take place–when Martin and Ethan arrive just in time to interrupt Charlie’s planned wedding to Laurie and where Ethan might have been expected to lay on something more than even his usual withering sarcasm, plays this way:

Charlie: “Marty with ya’?”
Ethan: “Yep.”

NVE00097

That’s it.

Ethan does allow himself a wry smile and it might be at Charlie’s specific expense (as opposed to general bemusement at the overall situation he has walked back into). But he’s careful to save it until after Charlie has left the room.

NVE00098

It is true that Ethan is wearied by this point, but he’s ready enough with his usual barbs when Laurie begs him to stop the ensuing fight (“Why? You started it.”), when Mrs. Jorgensen wants a better view (“Don’t forget you’re a lady!”), when Lieutenant Greenhill shows up (“Yeah, he’s a Yankee cavalryman.”)

Charlie McCorry is spared all this for a simple reason.

Ethan Edwards–and John Ford–knew him a lot better than your average film critic does.

Charlie’s real place in the moral universe of The Searchers is the place he actually tends to occupy in the sort of community the film depicts–the sort of communities that have to exist first in order for film, or film critics typing away (not to mention a lot of other things), to exist in turn.

He’s a guardian of order and his thanks is the usual–see above.

In addition to inspiring phrases like “gormless bumpkin,” an awful lot of typing has been variously dedicated to Charlie’s relationship with Laurie and even with Martin.

I’ve never seen a single word about his relationship with Ethan.

That’s certainly in part because the relationship is not exactly verbal. Though they are present in numerous scenes together, the exchange above is the full extent of what they actually say to each other….in the entire film.

Easy enough to understand how such a relationship can be missed, even by people who have a lot of time for studying such things.

But they do have one and it’s a long way from incidental.

It involves Charlie keeping watch.

What he keeps watch on is anything that threatens his community’s stable underpinnings.

The first time he starts keeping watch on Ethan Edwards–the very first time he pays him any extra attention at all–is early in the film, at the dawn of the original “search,” when Ethan shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche. Watch that scene and you’ll see that Charlie McCorry (left) keeps staring at Ethan long after even his Captain has turned away.

NVE00087

Once he cottons to Ethan being a man who needs an eye kept on him, their relationship remains fixed–and silent–until Charlie is understandably forced to turn his attention to Martin near the end of the movie.

If Ethan chunks a canteen at Captain Clayton, everybody else watches the canteen….or the Captain.

Charlie (second from left) watches Ethan.

NVE00089

The first time Ethan utters “That’ll be the day,” it is in defiance of Clayton.

The Captain gives him a long look before calling for the horses.

Charlie (right) gives him a longer look.

NVE00090

Finally, in the aftermath of the river shootout that follows close on, Charlie–who we should note has been the coolest head in the fight itself, the only man who has remained entirely untouched by fear, rage, confusion or the pure elation of killing the enemy (again, quite true to his character in life)–is on his feet in an instant when the long-simmering confrontation between Clayton and Ethan boils forth.

Watch that scene and what you see is everyone present doing their level best to stay as far away as possible.

Except for Charlie (moving from the left).

NVE00091

NVE00094

 

NVE00095

Charlie is at his Captain’s side in an instant, without the least hesitation–quite prepared to take on Ethan Edwards in that moment or any other where he has strayed across the line.

Just as he will be when Martin’s “Well, if it’s all the same to you Reverend, I ain’t goin’ to Austin.” finally makes him something taking Laurie away could not–the new threat to earned authority. Yes, Charlie’s response is given extra heat by his jealousy–but it’s what we would expect in any case if we’ve been paying attention–“You’re goin’ if the Cap’n says you’re goin’.”

NVE00031

And I should add that this relationship between the “Captain” and Charlie is well earned. Earned for all the reasons mentioned above and best demonstrated by the fact that Charlie is the only one who consistently calls him Captain, as opposed to Reverend, (all of which, in turn, is maybe the reason the Captain is not likely to let anyone else tend any wound that shows up in a highly inconvenient location as a result of the “Yankee cavalryman” getting careless with his saber–in a scene that grates on many a delicate sensibility, though I’d call it a perfect example of Ford’s consistent ability to use the commonest devices, in this case low comedy, to delineate character and a put an exclamation point on a relationship that is no less important for never having to be spelled out).

NVE00100

The measure of respect that Ethan Edwards drops into the only word he speaks to Charlie McCorry–a word spoken at the very moment when Charlie is about to be spiritually cuckolded and would seem most prone to mockery–is thus fully earned as well.

With the possible exception of Laurie Jorgensen, he is also the only character in the film who Ethan never makes the mistake of misjudging or underestimating.

He does not poke him or prod him or insult him or throw him on the ground or kick him square in the ass. He does not romanticize him. He does not underestimate him. He does not mete out any of the usual fates or judgments that otherwise accompany proximity to Ethan Edwards.

He does not mess with him at all.

Most of all, he does not speak to him until he’s spoken to.

And then?

“Yep.”

Ethan Edwards knew Charlie McCorry very well indeed.

He probably even knew that Laurie Jorgensen could have done a whole lot worse than end up married to him.

NVE00096

 

 

DECEMBER BOOK REPORT (12/12)

The Oswald File (Michael Eddowes, 1977)

My Kennedy assassination reading tends to follow a pattern:

See something that looks kind of intriguing (usually for cheap in a used book store or antique shop). Take it home and begin reading it that night, always in breathless anticipation–will this be the one that solves the mystery once and for all!

Get about half-way through within a day or so….Then look up the author and find out just what breed of crackpot I’ve run across this time ’round.

Eddowes probably wasn’t a crackpot–he was a lawyer who had been instrumental in getting England to outlaw the death penalty.

No, he was a pen for hire (by one of the right-wingers who was himself suspected of being involved in the plot to kill JFK–I tell you this stuff gets deep some times), put on the case to throw suspicion back on the Russkies.

And–perhaps because he began to believe his own hype–a fine, readable job he did, at least until it all bogs down in minutiae and disorganization and, yes, the usual unanswered questions and gaps in the author’s own logic at the very end.

Still, these things are worth reading because I always learn something about mindsets.

And I must say his points about Jack Ruby have made me determined to find out if there is a good biography anywhere existing of that eternal fly in the non-conspiracy ointment.

Last Summer (Evan Hunter, 1968)

The first I’ve read of Hunter (either under his own name or his nom-de-plume, Ed McBain). I’ll definitely want to read more. This is creepily effective in the manner of Patricia Highsmith. The ending was a bit of a let-down in dramatic terms, but that might have been the point: gang-rape as simply another act of modern banality. If so, I can’t say the ensuing decades have proved him wrong.

Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (Stephen Rebello, 1990)

I frankly read this in anticipation of the movie Hitchcock, of which it is the principal source. The movie was pretty good. The book is better than good, a clear-eyed, unpretentious, supremely integral job of assessing the film as art, personal and mass psychology, and popular phenomenon.

And it did nothing to dispel my sneaking suspicion that Hitchcock’s reaction to Vera Miles’ astringency-into-madness performances in the premiere of his television show and The Wrong Man remains the undiscovered–and probably undiscoverable–country of his late career genius (where three of his four final more-or-less consensus masterpieces, Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds, arrived out of far left-field and cut a swath modernity has been wandering about in ever since–helplessly as it were).

Whether we would have got there without him is one of those questions each of us must figure out for ourselves. I say yes–we humans are an excessively heedless and ungrateful lot–but I’ll very carefully thank you for not cutting my throat if we chance to disagree!

 

BOOK REPORT (9/12 and 10/12)

Rough September. Back to my usual slog in October!

Civil War in the Ozarks, Phillip W. Steele and Steve Cottrell (1993)

Fiction research. Bone dry and rather skimpy but it’s a building block. It looked like a close call for a while, but I ended up knowing more when I finished than when I started. Whew!

The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda, Devin McKinney 2012.

I could quibble.

McKinney hews to the crit-illuminati’s standard line on Fonda’s most important director (John Ford as “myth-maker,” g-r-r-r-r-r, there go my teeth, grinding again) and thus gets some important things wrong (such as concluding that Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is the greatest western ever made…I’m a fan of Leone and the movie and calling it the greatest western is one of those instances where one man’s opinion is one man’s opinion but it’s also what we used to call bull hockey).

He overrates by a mile Fonda’s contribution to The Wrong Man–the actor’s single collaboration with Hitchcock,which was utterly dominated, on screen and in the director’s mind, by Vera Miles–and does so in service of his own thesis, rather than the search for Fonda’s heart and mind or his place in the larger story McKinney is trying to tell.

And, for reasons that one can only guess at, he leaves Fonda’s relationship to Jimmy Stewart (lifelong best friend, staunch political opponent, and chief competition for Hollywood’s greatest male movie actor) so far in the background it’s basically invisible.

In a psychological bio-portrait of Henry Fonda, I don’t count these as minor flaws.

But boy, there’s a lot to like. McKinney can make sentences, paragraphs and pages move. He’s got a handle on Fonda’s odd combination of stiffness-without-rigidity, righteousness-without-priggishness, loneliness-without-existentialism and orneriness-without-meanness and on why and how he–and he alone–was able to turn these somewhat prickly attributes into first stardom and then iconography. And he’s especially strong on Fonda’s famous children. I don’t feel like I need to read a biography of either of them now, and they don’t take up a sentence more than they should in a 350-page book about their father.

Most importantly, McKinney is able, despite occasionally straying from the path, to make the case for his basic ideas. I especially like his notion of Fonda being the first real movie star president–the one the country most wanted to see be president in the movies (and perhaps still does), not least because we knew how unlikely it was we would see his movie like (as opposed to his “reality”) get anywhere near such high office.

McKinney makes a good deal of the deeply and genuinely Rooseveltian Fonda’s spiritual defeat by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election–the man most people wanted to be president in the movies yielding, at death’s doorstep, to the man no one could imagine being president and who had not only come to overthrow the New Deal but would succeed, in part, because Fonda himself had rendered us so much assurance in the role.

By 1980, we were used to thinking of a movie star being president, even if we didn’t quite know it yet, and McKinney’s Fonda provides a nuanced outline of just why and how that came to pass.

That’s a lot to put on a movie star, but McKinney makes a convincing case that Fonda’s career and character can bear the weight. Leaving the actor’s famous and oft-repeated account of his childhood witness to an Omaha lynching for the end is a brilliant, novelistic stroke. Linking it to the unprovable but compelling and realistic possibility that Fonda’s father had seen something similar in his own youth on virtually the same ground ends the book on a note of epochal sadness and disorientation which this writer’s swift, economical style does full justice.

Caveats or no, highly recommended.

 

DON’T WORRY, NOTHING TO SEE HERE, MOVE ALONG PLEASE…THOUGHTS ON CITIZEN KANE BEING DETHRONED

The headline being attached to Sight and Sound’s latest list of the “greatest films” is that Citizen Kane–which topped the once-a-decade poll five straight times from 1962 to 2002–was displaced by Vertigo.

Studying the top 50, we find that the real news, as usual, is that nothing has changed.

Existentialism still trumps narrative. Concepts still trump people.

Directors still count (and conceptual, existentialist directors still count most of all). Performers still don’t count even a little bit.

A lot of people are lamenting the absence of Luis Bunuel or Howard Hawks or Erich Von Sternberg or Douglas Sirk or whoever and, in at least some cases, I see their point.

But I miss Vivien Leigh and Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant a lot more. Not to mention Anne Bancroft and Humphrey Bogart and, heck, Gloria Grahame. (That’s GWTW and/or Streetcar, plus The Lady Eve, Notorious, The Miracle Worker, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Heat and/or In A Lonely Place for those keeping score at home….and, incidentally, shifting the focus from directors-only, to great-directors-collaborating-with-great-actors would also redress the diminution of women’s-importance-in-film discussed, albeit without much insight, here)

Interesting and serendipitous that Vera Miles, the astringent, oft wrongfully-dismissed muse of both Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford’s last great periods–and the woman Hitchcock never forgave for backing out of Vertigo after he had already built his story-boards around her irreplaceable profile (he knew what had gone missing even if his now-triumphant acolytes didn’t and don’t) is the only American lead besides Brando who made the list twice.

So at least they got that part half-right.