STUDIES IN COMMAND ON FILM (A Handy Ten)

These were harder to choose than I thought. I could easily have come up with another ten and covered several new angles. But I wanted a mix of good commanders and bad, intimate situations and world-shaping ones–or sometimes both. If you watch these ten, you can get a good sense of just how difficult it is to lead under pressure…and perhaps intuit why we are no longer good at it. It might even be a decent guide to answering whether we ever will be good at it again.

Me, I dunno. When we no longer have actors who can even imagine how to play these parts in a movie, I would say the signs aren’t good…but history exists to surprise us. I left aside such magnificent portraits as Herbert Lom’s definitive Napoleon in King Vidor’s War and Peace and George C. Scott’s Patton to focus on small unit command: the ship’s crew, the wagon train, the cavalry patrol, the lonely outpost. Mastery of such things is the root of Western Civilization’s military success and relentless civilizational advance for three thousand years. Any other sort of progress, real or imagined, that has been made the meanwhile is because people like these won the space for it when they succeeded and were punished by God and the courts of law when they failed.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
D. Frank Lloyd

Like most of the films here Bounty‘s story was based on a real incident. Pure fictions involving small unit command are usually adventure stories like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, wonderful films that alas, can do no more than reflect the qualities that shape the real world. The Nordhoff-Hall novel upon which this and the several remakes are based was already famous. But if we ponder the miracle of its two iconic characters–the able but sadistic sea captain William Bligh and the reluctant leader of his crew’s resistance, Fletcher Christian–being so definitively portrayed in the same movie, it becomes a little less miraculous when we consider that, at least outside Great Britain, Charles Laughton and Clark Gable helped make them iconic. The Bligh/Christian template–a vicious leader driving his men to the brink of mutiny by insisting on the letter of the law transcending its spirit to appease his own cramped soul–has found its way into a lot more than Bounty remakes…as we shall see. In any case, this is the exemplar in how not to lead free men. The refusal of the British Admiralty’s judges to shake Bligh’s hand after they, too, have followed the letter of the law and upheld his conduct, is a great lesson in the power of unspoken honor codes to rule men’s thoughts, irrespective of what the law demands of their actions.

Northwest Passage (1940)
D: King Vidor

A fictionalized account of Rogers’ Rangers, the famous militia who performed miracles on the frontier during the French and Indian War. Robert Rogers had a checkered career afterwards, descending into alcoholism, fighting for England in the American Revolution he had done as much as any man to make possible if not inevitable, and being exiled for his troubles. But, as portrayed by Spencer Tracy during the Rangers’ glory days, this is a finely etched character study of the kind of man needed to both drive and inspire men to the very limits of their capacities and perhaps a bit beyond. By the end, you can understand why such a man comes to need conflict and why, so often, only his kind can ensure victory. Always assuming they don’t turn into Captain Bligh. Vidor was one of the great, under-sung period directors who, especially with the aid of glorious Technicolor, can make you feel the sheer physical effort and sacrifice required of anyone who served under a man like Rogers and why those who survived took exceptional pride in being one of his men. It wouldn’t surprise me if George C. Scott, or George Patton himself, learned a thing or two by studying Rogers or Tracy or both.

Wing and a Prayer (1944)
D. Henry Hathaway

Of course, World War II brought many studies in command to the screen. Few were better than this relatively forgotten film which loosely re-creates the Bounty triad on an aircraft carrier preparing for Midway, with Charles Bickford’s captain serving as a stand-in for English sea law, Don Ameche’s second-in-command serving as Bligh and Dana Andrews serving as Christian. Except Ameche, in the performance of his career, is a better man than Bligh, able to play the hard-ass who stands between order and chaos, make the brutally hard decisions about life and death that are required for the mission to succeed, and take the slings and arrows that come with it, without losing himself. His satisfying but lonely walk in the rain at film’s end speaks quiet volumes about the emotional cost of middle command. (A good companion piece is 1948’s Twelve O’Clock High, with Gregory Peck playing a similar role to perfection.)

They Were Expendable (1945)
D. John Ford

Of course John Ford made a career of studying small group command. His films could make up the whole Handy Ten and then some. But I’ll confine myself to this one and the next as they represent the extremes of effective and ineffective leadership. The quality of the times brought out a new level of seriousness in actors usually associated with lighter fare. Like Don Ameche in Wing and a Prayer, Robert Montgomery, who had served as a naval officer, gave the performance of a lifetime in Ford’s even greater film, perhaps the finest ever made on the subject and certainly the best-titled. He’s bolstered by an excellent John Wayne, bringing unusual depth to the standard role of the hot-headed second, and Ford’s usual superb stock company, some playing men who are forced into command themselves as Montgomery’s PT unit is whittled down, down and further down under the withering Japanese assault on the Philippines in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about this film is that it captures the demands of leadership in war–most of which are boring and mundane and as likely to be made in the service of managing defeat as of procuring victory–as opposed to combat, where heroes are made.

Fort Apache (1948)
D. John Ford

And on the flip side, there’s Henry Fonda as the disgruntled, glory-seeking colonel of an outpost contending with renegade Apaches in the desolate southwest of the late nineteenth century. His unwillingness to learn from more experienced, but lower-ranking (and, as he sees it, ethnically inferior) men, ultimately dooms himself and his command. It might be Fonda’s very best performance as a man who is thoroughly professional, a loving father (to a luminous, teenage Shirley Temple), brave to a fault…and completely unlikeable. The ending is still controversial. Has John Wayne, again playing a strong second, except this time he’s the level-headed one, accepted Fonda’s example…or only seemed to? I’ll tackle all that some day when I write about the film in the depth it deserves, but as a study in how to destroy your command despite doing everything “by the book” this could hardy be bettered.

Little Big Horn (1951)
D. Charles Marquis Warren

This one features Lloyd Bridges and John Ireland leading, and competing for the heart of, a small squadron assigned to ride through Indian Country and warn George Armstrong Custer that he is about to be ambushed at the Little Big Horn. Of course you know going in their mission will fail–but just how it fails is compelling from beginning to end and holds up on repeated viewings. Bridges and Ireland were outstanding second-line stars who rarely got the chance to shine as they do here, playing tough men who are learning on the job while carrying out what they don’t know is a doomed mission. The film’s claim to historical accuracy may be dubious but as a study in not just command–but the competition the desire for command is bound to engender (especially when the ghost of Marie Windsor is lurking in the shadows)–this is one of a kind.

Westward the Women (1951)
D. William Wellman

A unique film on every level. This one isn’t based on any specific event but on a plausible summary of an aspect of frontier experience dreamed up by Frank Capra. When Capra himself, post-war, was deemed insufficiently credible or commercially viable to be entrusted with directing it, he passed it to his good friend, Wild Bill Wellman, who toughened the script and made a masterpiece. As a wagon train movie it might be matched by John Ford’s Wagon Master or Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River. But as a study in the vicissitudes of running a wagon train it has no equals. That it involves Robert Taylor reluctantly accepting the job of leading a hundred and fifty mail order brides through the toughest part of the American frontier, and then seeing it through, is an unusual twist that puts the icing on the cake. Not recommended for anyone who accepts the modern idea that men and women don’t really need or want each other. For everyone else, a great film waiting to be rediscovered.

Zulu (1964)
D. Cy Endfield

Less than three years after George Custer’s cavalry command was wiped out at Little Big Horn in the American west, a couple of green lieutenants were faced with similar odds at a mission post they had little choice but to defend in South Africa at a place called Rorke’s Drift. They were leading about a hundred and fifty men, nearly a third of them sick or wounded, against four thousand Zulus who had broken off from an even larger force which had annihilated 1,300 British troops at Islawanda earlier in the day. While it’s superb on every level, with some of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed, Zulu rises highest when viewed as a study in improvisation of the sort that western armies have excelled at for several millennia. As a heroic military feat, the stand at Rorke’s Drift is on a par with the Spartans’ delaying action against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., a tactical defeat that may have nonetheless prevented Western Civilization from being snuffed in the cradle. And if you think the Brits losing the land they fought for to the Boers a few decades later, and the Boers losing it back to the natives within a century, makes the historical importance of Rorke’s Drift less monumental, you might be right. Then again, if you accept that the spirit of Rorke’s Drift had more than a little to do with the spirit of the Battle of Britain, fought sixty years hence and without which the history of everything would probably look very different today, you might be righter. In any case Stanley Baker and Michael Caine (in his star-making role) give unbeatable performances as men who don’t particularly like each other showing grace under pressure over a twenty-four-hour period in 1879 when nearly one man of every ten they commanded earned a Victoria Cross, the British equivalent of the Medal of Honor.

Gettysburg (1993)
D. Ron Maxwell

I’ve sung the praises of Ron Maxwell’s film about the most important battle ever fought on American soil several times here. But, in addition to being one of the great war films, and, in my opinion, the greatest battle film ever made, it’s also a detailed portrait of several levels of command: watch it for Martin Sheen’s Robert E. Lee, Tom Berenger’s James Longstreet, Stephen Lang’s George Pickett, Richard Jordan’s Lo Armisted, Andrew Prine’s stinging, poignant cameo as Dick Garnett, Sam Elliot’s John Buford (who may have saved the war on the battle’s first day) and, especially, Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain (who almost certainly saved the Union army on the second day). There may have been a few better films on small unit command and a very few better films on command at Robert E. Lee’s level. But there has never been a film to equal it as a study in command at all levels during an existential battle in an existential war. Please don’t call yourself informed about American history if you haven’t seen this one.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
D. Kelly Reichardt

Not strictly speaking a film about command but a great look at how force of personality can trump all previous presumptions about who is fit to lead when everyone’s life is at stake. Michelle Williams gives another of her eerily natural performances as Emily Tetherow, a woman travelling with Stephen Meek’s half of a wagon train that has split in two along the Oregon Trail in 1845, who gradually takes on the role of leader and decision maker as the group loses confidence in Meek himself. Calling this film nuanced is an understatement. It moves at a glacial pace and Reichardt takes “realism” to such extremes it is often hard to follow the muffled talk or read the characters’ expressions in night scenes lit only by the tiny flames of candlelight available to pioneers of the period. And the film reaches no conclusions on the wisdom (or lack thereof) in transferring allegiance from Meek to Tetherow. But it makes you understand why the switch takes place–and why you might have cast aside your own assumptions in their place. The underlying message is that humans gravitate towards natural leaders and if the circumstances are desperate enough, all other presumptions grounded in nature will be cast aside. You make enough right decisions and people will follow you anywhere. Whether in war, commerce or adventure, it’s the first lesson of command: The strongest lead. Whether to success or disaster depends on what else they bring.

BERGMAN BREAKS OUT: INGRID BERGMAN’S SWEDISH YEARS (Foreign Film: Third Journey)

Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years (1935-1940)

The Count of the Old Town (1935); Walpurgis Night (1935); Intermezzo (1936); Dollar (1938); A Woman’s Face (1938); June Night (1940)

This collection of six early Ingrid Bergman films is part of Criterion’s Eclipse series and a dandy.

Of all the English-not-their-first-language stars who made their way to Hollywood in the Golden Age, none, not even Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, had quite the impact of Ingrid Bergman.

She won three Oscars and probably deserved more…there are a few performances here that might have at least got nominations had they been made in America or even England. Be that as it may her legend is secure for as long as anyone cares about film and the greatest thing about this collection is that you can see it all coming. If by some chance she had never become a huge star, people who discovered these films would have wondered why.

There are other great things, especially Gustav Molander’s direction of the films that launched her on the international stage: Intermezzo, Dollar and A Woman’s Face. Molander evidently had no small impact on the other Bergman, Ingmar, and one can see why. The films are all potboilers of one kind or another. Intermezzo, later remade with Leslie Howard as Ingrid’s first Hollywood film, is a pure melodrama; Dollar and A Woman’s Face are noir-ish thrillers, though all have elements that blend with other genres, especially the great women’s pictures being made in America at the time.

But Molander and Bergman herself give them more than a touch of class. They make them move, physically and emotionally. Even being distracted by the necessity of reading subtitles you can catch enough to see these are world class talents on display. For intensity, excitement and even intimacy, the chase scene in A Woman’s Face equals anything in Hitchcock, Ford, Kurosawa. It would be worth the price of admission even if the film didn’t contain Bergman’s greatest early performance and one of her greatest ever.

Still, it’s a testament to Bergman’s undeniable star power (David Selznick started wooing her to Hollywood about four seconds after he finished watching Intermezzo–he’d have probably given her Gone With the Wind if she had asked for it–a Swedish Scarlett? Never mind just get her on the lot!), and her already considerable skill that she shines through because these films, especially the last four, have much else to recommend them and I’m sure will reward repeat viewings.

I was especially impressed, even moved, by the social backgrounds so skillfully drawn in Intermezzo. With dark shadows already looming over Europe, never mentioned but rumbling in the film’s subconscious like distant thunder, it’s apparent that bourgeois life went on, even thrived in places like Sweden, where the hope of avoiding disaster was real. The Great War and world wide depression had not killed it. It would take Hitler, Stalin, the Pax Americana and the soft style of bureaucratic  thuggery assembled in Brussels after the war to accomplish that. Add to that the striking, inventive camera work and deep shadings of both plot and cinematography in Dollar and A Woman’s Face, and these films would hold plenty of interest if Ingrid Bergman had never been born.

They wouldn’t have been as good though.

Bergman has a claim on being the greatest actress to ever set foot in front of a camera. The touch of madness that set Vivien Leigh apart can be glimpsed here, and the trouper who could give Barbara Stanwyck a run for her money is on full display.

Give or take Saratoga Trunk, though, a fascinating misfire if ever there was one (it’s a lot easier to imagine the Mighty Ingrid, slightly imperious and all the more lovable for it, as a tail-swishing gold digger chasing a rich husband after you’ve seen the films here than after watching Gaslight and Casablanca yet again), she never got much chance to display her full range, perhaps show us what Leigh would have been like if she had held the madness in check.

It was Intermezzo that brought her international fame. The Germans wanted her as badly as Selznick, badly enough that she actually signed a contract with them–one visit to Hitler’s Germany was all she needed to break it. That film also set her basic style and image. But the strongest film here is A Woman’s Face, which doesn’t skimp on the social drama, sharpens it if anything, despite being a crime film that features Bergman herself as an all too convincing femme fatale who manages a transformation from horribly scarred blackmailer, willing to commit murder for profit without a second thought, to a woman who has her conscience revived by the miraculous restoration of her beauty (all the more striking because she also has a claim on being the most beautiful woman to set foot in front of a camera) with a startling, naturalistic ease. It’s in watching that take place that you realize there’s nothing this woman can’t do–by which I mean both the character and the actress.

I don’t mean to slight the other films here, especially Per Lindstrom’s June Night, another crime/social drama, which has a beautiful, poignant ending I didn’t see coming and strikes a deeper chord for having been made in a world where Sweden was on notice that it would not be allowed to stand idly by as it had done in 1914. They’re all good and they add up to a portrait of Europe between the wars that, collectively, go as far as The Rules of the Game to remind us of what was irretrievably lost in the raging conflagration.

I think they used to call it Civilization. The journey here, from the breezy comedy of The Count of the Old Town to the bleak romanticism of June Night, is a melancholy reminder of how quickly it can be lost.

Who better to take such a journey with than the Mighty Ingrid?

GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS–THE CANON (A Handy Ten, Times Two)

There is no way to limit Hollywood’s Golden Age westerns to a mere ten, or, as you’ll see, twenty, without seeming silly. You can do it with every other genre, even war films, even noir. The western is deeper at the high end, low end and every level in between, so I won’t be stopping here. A similar list of movies that aren’t as well known, will follow at some point.

But what with civilization crumbling faster every day, this seems like a good time to ruminate on the 1939-1962 period that defined what we thought of ourselves then and what troubles us now, as the thrashing about that was bound to follow the breakup of the Frozen Silence (1980-2016) proceeds apace and the past threatens to repeat its well-established pattern of eternal return to the anti-utopian verities. It won’t be long now before any discarded lessons contained herein will become valuable again.

Stagecoach (1939)
D. John Ford

There were other good westerns made in the late 30s, but John Ford’s return to the form–his first since his great silent Three Bad Men in 1926–is rightly regarded as lifting the game for his favorite genre. It wasn’t the first or last time he managed the trick, but it may have been the most influential. Rightly so. It made the western’s definitive star, John Wayne, solid box office, won Thomas Mitchell a well-deserved Oscar, and set Claire Trevor on a path to winning one later, some year when Vivien Leigh wasn’t making Gone With the Wind. They headed a deep, faultless cast, and the story, a series of intertwined character studies, grows like a fresh flower from the oldest dirt in the hills (or anyway Guy de Maupassant by way of Ernest Haycox).

After this, perhaps Ford’s most purely exciting and entertaining film, with action informing character, and character action, at lightning speed, the cliches that had propped up thousands of dime novels, silents, and serials for half a century were at last so well-defined the western–and the western alone–could go anywhere.

Destry Rides Again (1939)
D. George Marshall

And one of the first places it went, in the very same year, was a wiseacre spoof of itself. It’s prevented from stooping to parody by being a full-blooded western first, with a strong, well-developed, town-taming story that was pure Hollywood, owing little more than its title to Max Brand’s fine source novel. Highlights: Marlene Dietrich’s loose, unmannered performance, proof she should have done more westerns; Samuel S. Hinds’ tobacco-chawing judge, dispensing Boss Brian Donlevy’s mayhem with a firm, laconic hand; Mischa Auer’s seriously whipped “deputy”; and, the big screen’s greatest catfight, courtesy of Dietrich, the priceless Una Merkel, and “eight gallons of water.” Jimmy Stewart? Well, that’s a given, but it’s high even on his endless list of indelible performances.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
D, William Wellman

Wellman made better westerns (my later list will feature at least a couple of them), but none quite so iconic. Matching Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s superb source novel scene-for-scene, it’s not an easy watch. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (neither ever better) are a couple of cowhands caught up in a lynch mob. Jane Darwell, two years after her salt-of-the-earth Oscar turn in The Grapes of Wrath, plays the Spirit of the Mob, a kind of Rocky Mountain Madame LeFarge, with such conviction you might never see her the same way again. Here and there it’s a touch heavy-handed, but given the subject matter, that’s almost unavoidable and easy to bear. Certainly easier than the final scenes which put a noose around the neck of anyone who has studied enough history to know how often man’s gift for folly, from which God has not made him exempt, is the real source of horror in the universe.

My Darling Clementine (1946)
D. John Ford

Returning after a seven-year break, Ford remakes the Western again and sets the stage for everything it would become. Henry Fonda and Victor Mature play a Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday who are sufficiently removed from history that Ford asked studio head Darryl Zanuck for permission to change the names. Zanuck had a studio to run. No way was he going to give up those names. Ford, typically, doubled-down and vouchsafed the historical accuracy of the obligatory gunfight, claiming Earp had told him all about it in their silent-era bull sessions. But Ford the tall tale-spinner never got in the way of Ford the Artist. Ford the Artist knew the real story was about the epic Loneliness of the Gunfighter and how thin the line between lawman and outlaw was in a lawless land. In other words, the tall tales were what mattered, not the tawdry facts, which would have held nobody’s interest for more than thirty seconds. A century-and-a-half later, the Earp story is still being told and retold. No one has come close to giving it the significance it acquired here, as a cautionary fable.

Canyon Passage (1946)
D. Jacques Tourneur

This isn’t a town-tamer epic so much as a town-being-born Narrative, with all the nuances and complexities that implies. Susan Hayward was on her way up, and you can already see why she will make it to the top. Playing friends who are growing apart and beginning to compete for the same woman, Dana Andrews and Brian Donlevy are at their respective peaks as are the arts of cinematography (courtesy of Edward Kronjager) and Technicolor. Not even Ford’s westerns ever looked more spectacular. Ward Bond shows yet again why he was Hollywood’s supreme character actor, this time portraying a terrifying, animalistic thug who would have been at home in Deadwood…or Deadwood. As usual, the second romantic subplot is a little weak, but not fatally so–once Susan Hayward’s on the screen, it’s not likely the hero will end up with anyone else. As with Stagecoach, the story is from Ernest Haycox, another fine western writer who has been neglected by our urgent need to forget. The fate of Andy Devine’s family is all the more devastating for being handled with gravitas but no fuss. Not as famous as most of the films here, but like all the rest, it grows with time and distance.

Red River (1946–Released 1948)
D. Howard Hawks

Proof that Howard Hawks could conjure an “all is now right with the world” ending out of any scenario. But don’t let that deter you. According to Joanne Dru, Hawks needed editing advice from Ford. That seems to have been the principal reason for the film’s release being delayed for two years. We have Hawks’ own word–every bit as reliable as Ford’s–that this is where Ford saw Wayne’s performance and said, “I never knew the big sunnava-bitch could act!” The discovery would alter the course of the western for decades to come. As for Red River itself, it has more than enough going for it to justify its place in the pantheon: It made Montgomery Clift’s reputation, there’s stellar work from Dru, John Ireland, Walter Brennan and a host of sidekicks. The story, about the first trail-drive from Texas to Kansas after the Civil War, is epic and intimate in equal measure. And, yes, as only the very stupid or the very misinformed would doubt going forward, the big sunnava-bitch could act.

THE CAVALRY TRILOGY (1948–1950)
D. John Ford

Fort Apache (1948)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

RIo Grande (1950)

John Ford’s three late-40s cavalry films have been considered a loose, informal trilogy almost since they were made. Themes certainly unite them, as does a keen eye for the details of cavalry life as men and women actually lived it in the post-Civil War generation during the conquest of what became the American Southwest. I’m treating them as one entry because there’s nothing else here I could leave off in good conscience–and certainly, none of these three could be left off!

What’s interesting narratively, is that each story stands alone at least as well as the three hang together. Ford viewed cavalry life as a continuum in three distinct modes, first as Tragedy (Fort Apache) then as a Comedy of Manners (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and finally as Elegy (Rio Grande). Anyone who thinks Ford glossed the men in “dirty shirt blue” should give his subsequent takes on the subject a gander (Sergeant Rutledge, Two Rode Together, even The Searchers) for a stark, sometimes corrosive contrast.

Most of Ford’s stock company features throughout this cycle of Tragedy-Comedy-Elegy, keeping things lively in one, two or all three pictures. Beyond that, look for a teenage Shirley Temple, luminous in Fort Apache, John Wayne at his most moving and eloquent in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Maureen O’Hara’s twirling parasol in Rio Grande (If Ford had given it to Phil Sheridan it would have been yet another historical touch he was accused of manufacturing). Those and a thousand other things. (Stanley Crouch, lifetime Crit-Illuminati member paid in full, once described Shirley Temple in Fort Apache as “somewhat monstrous.” Has any actress ever done a more valuable service than making Stanley Crouch look under the bed?)

And keep going back to them. There’s always more to learn.

Where they rode, that place became the United States of America.

Colorado Territory (1949)
D. Raoul Walsh

Perhaps the greatest western heist flick. It’s a train robbery this time (as opposed to a bank or stage), and a redemption story to boot. Walsh remade his own High Sierra, setting the modern gangster story that had made Humphrey Bogart a star back three-quarters of a century and mining even more gold from it. Joel McCrea didn’t know how to give a bad performance but this time, as “nothing but a big Kansas Jay,” he had a script that allowed him to be far better than good. Same for Virginia Mayo as a girl who’s been run out of all the best saloons in the territory and proves more honorable than either the thieves McCrea’s character has fallen back in with or the good girl (Dorothy Malone, always a welcome sight even in a stodgy role) he has fallen for. A strong story, a sterling character study of a man trying to escape his past, and nobody, but nobody, ever said Raoul Walsh was anything less than an action master of the highest order. The climax stings, no matter how often I watch it.

The Gunfighter (1950)
D. Henry King

The pinnacle of the gunfighter-tries-to-lay-down-his-guns narratives. Gregory Peck proved one of many western leading men who were more convincing playing an older man than a younger one. He’s not grizzled exactly, but there’s an old soul watching every single thing from behind those eyes. This is one where the bullets hit the bone. You can feel the weight of the lives, and souls, at stake, including eternal sidekick Millard Mitchell in the role of a well-spent lifetime. Peck’s aging gunfighter keeps looking for answers and the film doesn’t let you believe he’ll find them–but it lets you believe he believes.

Leads to killing in the end. One of those films where you know where it’s going but you can’t stop watching just the same.

WInchester ’73 (1950)
D. Anthony Mann

Outside of John Ford’s very best, perhaps the greatest and most influential western of the era. It remade Jimmy Stewart’s career, allowing him to keep all the associations of his past everyman roles while he re-invented himself as a western hero who, while still on the side of the angels, serves them with a touch of warrior madness in his soul. It also vaulted Anthony Mann, who had already made several fine noirs and historicals, to the top shelf of Hollywood directors, where he was to remain for more than a decade. It’s great enough that, except for Rock Hudson, who didn’t make a very convincing Indian, everyone associated with it would be remembered even if they had never done anything else.

Just on a side note, it was seeing Winchester ’73 on a big screen (after a dozen viewings on video), that made me realize no great film can be appreciated on a television set. When the bullets hit the rocks in the famous final shootout between Stewart and Stephen McNally, I felt like the shards were knicking my cheek.

High Noon (1952)
D. Fred Zinnemann

Of the many good things that can be said for High Noon, the best thing is that it troubles hidebound souls straight across the political divide. No ideology you bring to it can survive its scrutiny, which is why so many feign boredom or derision or simply run out of the room to keep from confronting it. Its primal power has rarely been matched even in this most primal of genres.

The constant repetition of the theme song, the ticking of the endless  array of clocks, Gary Cooper’s stone face, all work to set the audience on edge (or drive them batty), as the plot keeps us invested in that most nerve-wracking of existential questions: What happens under the pressure of time that doesn’t happen any other way?

It’s the question that drove Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Louis L’Amour and other giants of the genre to distraction when they came to assess the film as Realism. That is, they, and others felt compelled to demand strictures from High Noon they rarely paid the least attention elsewhere, including much of their own best work.

I love it myself, for all those reasons and more. But it really doesn’t matter. Like the next film here (which seems to elicit similar discomfort from the tepid and the passionate alike), it needs to be confronted. Be careful, though. Like the next film on the list, If you pay too much attention it might start to work you over. You might start finding a lot of elements, like Katy Jurado’s face, that won’t let you run and hide.

Priceless exchange overheard in the men’s room by the director following the not-very-promising debut of his only western: “What does an Austrian Jew know about making a western anyway?”

Shane (1953)
D. George Stevens

Jack Shaefer’s source novel has a gem-like purity. George Stevens, with memories of Dachau still playing in his head, both toughened and expanded it without losing the story’s central iconic force. Among the more famous exchanges, including the last one between Alan Ladd’s Shane and Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson so oft-quoted elsewhere, I like this one best:

Shane: What’s your offer, Ryker?
Rufus Ryker: To you, not a thing!
Shane: That’s too bad.
Ryker: Too bad?
Shane: Yeah, you’ve lived too long. Your kind of days are over.
Ryker: My days! What about yours, gunfighter?
Shane: The difference is I know it.

The tragedy is that Ryker’s “kind of days” are never over.

Except in the valley Shane rides out of, slumped in his saddle, the dreamland where he has obliterated himself and there is no more need for his guns…or any guns at all.

The man who filmed the ashes and bones at Dachau, another man who made only one western, must have wished it could be so–and must have known it could never be.

The Man From Laramie (1955)
D. Anthony Mann

Anthony Man and Jimmy Stewart again. Each of the five westerns they made together is a masterpiece and ranking them by quality is a fool’s errand. But, after Winchester ’73, this is the one that seems to carry the most canonical weight. Stewart ratchets up his a-man-against-himself-is-a-man-against-the-world persona to Shakespearean proportions. The story and cast (exceptional: Donald Crisp, Arthur Kennedy, Aline MacMahon, Alex Nicol and the great Cathy O’Donnell who makes even the obligatory ingenue role sing) are up to the task. It’s a stranger-in-town saga (Stewart, with a secret and a purpose of course), crossed with a family drama of an aging cattle king (Crisp) reaching the time of life when he must choose between the son he has (Nicol) and the son he wishes he had (Kennedy).

Anyway, he thinks Kennedy is the son he wishes he had.

Like I said, Shakesperean. At least.

The Searchers (1956)
D. John Ford

The apex, a narrative so densely layered it can no more be plumbed than Hamlet or the Illiad or War and Peace. It’s also a hellishly entertaining Saturday Matinee western. John Wayne’s performance was one of the handful that makes awards irrelevant. The greatest American director’s greatest film. If Ford had made noirs or musicals or horror films, one of those would be the defining American genre.

He made westerns.

7 Men From Now (1956)
D. Budd Boetticher

The first of the Ranown western cycle made by Boetticher, producer Harry Joe Brown, writer Burt Kennedy, and star Randolph Scott. They are all endlessly rewatchable. At least four, including this one, Comanche Station, The Tall T, and Ride Lonesome, are masterpieces. People debate endlessly about which is best but the four are on a level where rankings are silly. I’m choosing this one because it’s first, it has an astounding performance by Gail Russell which has grown with time (and which, according to the great critic Blake Lucas, who had a good bit to do with restoring 7 Men From Now, Boetticher’s favorite of his western leading ladies, all of whom were excellent), and it’s Lee Marvin’s definitive bad guy turn.

If there had been Oscar justice, Marvin would have won for his supporting role in the same year John Wayne won for his lead in The Searchers.

Oscar ain’t about justice.

3:10 to Yuma (1958)
D. Delmer Daves

A morality/mystery/miracle play all in one, which I wrote about at length here.

I said most of what I had to say there, so I won’t pontificate. This about sums it up:

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 (noir) 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.

It’s a lot more than eighteen now. And it’s better still. Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, each at their very best, give one of the top ten “dual-performances” in any Hollywood film and I doubt I need to restrict that to Hollywood.

The film’s prestige has grown sufficiently to have a Criterion release in recent years. Any list of a hundred American films that fails to include it doesn’t have my serious attention.

Avoid the pointless remake.

Rio Bravo (1959)
D. Howard Hawks

The story has been told, again and again, that Howard Hawks and John Wayne were disgusted by films like High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, where professional lawmen seek help from amateurs. It was the seeking that disturbed them, not whether Gary Cooper failed to find a Van Heflin in his particular town. It’s our good fortune that by the time they actually made  Rio Bravo, their “answer” film, all that preaching was conveniently tabled and they just went out and made one of the all-time pure entertainments (one where it should be said Wayne’s John T. Chance is helped by amateurs whether he likes it or not–it’s okay, apparently, as long as he didn’t ask for it!). Everyone’s great, with special kudos to Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan in what might be his defining comic role, and Claude Akins, playing that rarest of men–one with no redeeming virtues whatsoever.

The story doesn’t bear too much scrutiny measured against history or common sense. Just as a for-instance, drunks don’t dry out after a two-year bender and start shooting like Annie Oakley the next day, as Dean Martin’s Dude does here. But it works within its own miracle play assumptions and achieves its own kind of perfection.

The reason I know is that except for The Searchers, I’ve watched it more than any film here.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)
D. John Sturges

John Sturges made better westerns (more on that later)..but this is by far his most iconic and well worthy of the canon. It’s a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. You can fall short of that standard and still be damn good. The Magnificent Seven falls a bit short of that standard–and is still damn good. (Sturges said no less than Kurosawa told him so.) The story has professionals putting their lives on the line for Mexican villagers who are plagued by a band of outlaws. No doubt Howard Hawks and John Wayne approved!

Truth be told, the village scenes drag a bit and Horst Bucholz, a good actor, was a bit miscast, not so much because he doesn’t seem Mexican as because he seems urban and modern, which might just be a way of saying too European (a problem that did not extend to Yul Brynner, who according to Bucholz, was the only cast member to extend him either courtesy or respect).

But Sturges was an action master and there’s a raft of career-making performances by Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn. That plus the great presences of Brynner and Eli Wallach as the outlaws’ leader make this an easy watch.

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

The direction of the country since its release–beginning with John Kennedy’s assassination a year later–has lifted this into competition with The Searchers as John Ford’s greatest, most prescient work. It would be great in any case. There’s definitive work from James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien. Vera Miles gave one of the finest performances in American film. It’s also one of the great language films, the source of “Well, Pilgrim,” “Print the legend,” “You don’t own me” and much more.

And it contains the greatest line in American fiction, and the greatest line reading in American film, spoken by Miles’ Hallie Stoddard near the end:

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

Well, aren’t we?

Ride the High Country (1962)
D. Sam Peckinpah

Well, aren’t we?

There is almost no way to reconcile this film with Bloody Sam’s later, more famous exercises in style. It’s laconic, elegaic, sure-footed, unhurried, character-oriented, without a single false note. Here, he seems all but fated to pick up John Ford’s torch and carry it forward.

Fate, as it often does, had other plans. Peckinpah’s most famous film, The Wild Bunch, made a mere seven years later, is a lynchpin of another age, one that sought to extinguish not only all assurances but the traditions upon which they were based.

His later approach met with considerable short term success.

Whoever replaces us will get to decide what that’s worth. I don’t short The Wild Bunch‘s considerable virtues and I understand its reputation even if I don’t agree with it.

But for me, this film is worth far more.

Joel McCrea’s aging sheriff would have heard Hallie Stoddard’s question and answered: “Hell yes, I’m proud!”

But whoever was listening might have noted–might still note–that he was dying.

[NOTE: As I mentioned above, I’ll be doing another list of less well-known westerns from the same era. Give or take The Searchers, I think I can come up with a list of twenty that are just as good as what’s here, if not as iconic. Heck, I already have, and it wasn’t even hard.]

Til then….

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2018 Edition)

Nov. 25-Henry V (1944, d. Laurence Olivier, Third Viewing)

Because I like Olivier doing Shakespeare better than I like him doing anything else even if he doesn’t break the droning mold the Brits have carved out for Shakespeare’s impossibly alive language. Everything is read like a sacred text (Renee Asherson, allowed to speak mostly French, comes off loosest and best). But the play-within-a-play narrative is ingenious and Olivier the director gave Olivier the actor a great stage with his stirring reenactment of Agincourt. Except for John Sturges in Escape From Fort Bravo, no one has ever caught the terror and excitement of a fleet of deadly arrows better. I’d be surprised if Sturges, one of the very greatest action directors, didn’t learn a thing or two from this one.

Nov. 26-Three Days of the Condor (1975, d. Sydney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the great cast and tick-tock plot, of course. But, these days, mostly because I don’t want those evil bastards in the shadows to think getting away with it is the same as me not knowing they are there. Here of late, I try to watch either this or Wag the Dog at least once a month.

Dec. 2-El Dorado (1966, d. Howard Hawks, Umpteenth Viewing)

Heck, who doesn’t want to spend two hours with these guys, even if it’s to mark Michele Carey’s passing? Especially the “badge with a drunk pinned on it.” You can tell which one he is if you look close enough. Robert Mitchum was interviewed on late night TV years later and told the story of how he came to be hired. “Howard” he said, “What’s the story?” “Oh, no story Bob, just character.” I watched this with my Dad once and, when ithe credits rolled, he said: “What the hell was that supposed to be about?” I mumbled something that didn’t mean much. I forgot Mitchum’s story. It would have been the perfect answer. No story, Dad….just character. I guess where he is now, they’ve explained it all. ‘Cause I know they’re watching El Dorado.

Dec. 3-Live a Little, Love a Little (1968, d. Norman Taurog, Third Viewing)

While I was in a Michele Carey mood, I thought I might as well keep it going. She’s highly entertaining and Elvis seems to realize he might be on to something. Also better than usual music, including “A Little Less Conversation” which had to wait several decades for its time to come around. Dated, like all Sixties-Elvis movies, but fun.

Dec. 3-Girl Happy (1965, d. Boris Sagal, Umpteenth Viewing)

Maybe because it was the first Elvis movie I saw (on a black and white television, in 1976, after the lights were out), I have fond memories of this one. It was also the only Elvis movie I ever saw without being at all aware of any connotations that might come with the term “Elvis movie.”  That might be why it has held up whenever I’ve watched it on a semi-regular basis ever since. Elvis might have had better leading ladies than Shelley Fabares or Mary Ann Mobley…but he never had a better double-team. And I stand by “Wolf Call,” “The Meanest Girl in Town” and the title track as seductive, Devil’s Island pop-and-roll, I don’t care what anybody says!

Dec. 3-A Walk on the Moon (1999, d. Tony Goldwyn, First Viewing)

Because it was recommended over at Greil Marcus’s mailbag a while back and Diane Lane is a pretty good bet anytime. Diane Lane and Woodstock seemed an irresistible combination and it pays off in a lovely look at the limits of traditional family life colliding with the emerging counterculture. The best scene in the movie barely involves the fine cast. It’s a shot of nude bathers wandering into the upstate New York mountain not-exactly-resort lake where nice, working class Jewish families go to get away from the city. The director doesn’t overplay his hand. There’s a confrontation, but no “big scene.” Lane’s face is shown in reaction as she stands on the near shore, swathed in  safety. No dialogue. Just a glimpse of her face that says I wish I was over there. The implications of taking that step are the whole movie. It’s not a classic, but it’s a good film, and a rare look at what a revolution in mores really costs.

Dec. 4-Me Without You (2001, d. Sandra Goldbacher, Second Viewing)

Because it was time to revisit the lacerating performances by Anna Friel and, especially, Michelle Williams, as they come of age in end-of-the-century Britain. Williams was such an unknown (to me at least) and overpowering presence when I first saw this shortly after its release to video, that I didn’t fully appreciate Friel’s equally great performance, though I was aware it must have been better than good to have simply kept up. From this distance, I could see some of the plot machinations working themselves out, but it didn’t really matter. Once the characters are fully integrated into their own lives–and each other’s–the question of whether and how they can possibly remain friends is as fraught with peril as any “real” lives could be. Knowing how it ended did not make it less destabilizing. It was Goldbacher’s third feature. She’s made only one since. If making them takes as much out of her as watching this one does out of me, I’m not surprised.

Dec. 4-The Day of the Jackal (1973, d. Fred Zinnemann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Edward Fox’s chilly and chilling performance as an assassin on the trail of Charles DeGaulle. I finally got around to reading the book in the last year or two and it proved even better–the question of whether “The Jackal” is a sociopath is held much longer, almost to the very end. But the suspense here–built by Fred Zinnemann’s docu-drama style–is real. Watching this always reminds me how little any of us know about what’s really going on. And you know how that twists my guts.

Dec. 5-I Know Where I’m Going (1945, d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Third Viewing)

To watch Wendy Hillerman and Roger Livesey play out one of the screen’s most realistically prosaic–and, paradoxically, hopelessly romantic–love stories. We know they’re meant for each other almost from the moment they meet. But do they know? Even on repeated viewings it’s not a settled question, perhaps because the evocation of the wild Scottish north country permits nothing to be taken for granted. Among the finest films in the English language, even if a fair bit of it is spoken in Gaelic.

Dec. 6-The Man From the Alamo (1953, d. Budd Boetticher, Fourth Viewing)

For another of Glenn Ford’s terse, un-heroic western heroes. Years before his collaborations with screenwriter Burt Kennedy and star Randolph Scott, Budd Beotticher proves he can get along without them (even if Kennedy is missed–there’s way too much exposition at the beginning). This one also shows he was a master of big action scenes before they gave way to the intimate, almost unbearably tense gunfights that were a staple of the films that later made his reputation. The story–of a man who leaves the Alamo in order to save his family, only to be branded a coward–is a good one and the climax is nearly as exciting as the best of John Ford or Anthony Mann. A good one to close the cycle on after subjecting myself to a more-than-usual amount of modern angst!

…Til next time!

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (September, 2018)

Sept. 16-The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola, Fifth Viewing)

Because it had been a while and, recognizing it’s a cinematic masterpiece, I still want to keep trying. The glamorization of sociopaths is not something I take lightly, and whether that was anyone’s intention or not, that’s been the movie’s chief legacy. Why I’ll always come back to it at least once in a while: To remind myself that Al Pacino, in his breakout role, was a model of restraint and nuance. There’s no way to imagine anyone else in the part while you’re watching it–and no way to reconcile what he was with what he has become. And for Brando’s reckless and glorious decision to play the Godfather as a series of fluid masks, part clown, part Borgia, which never let you in on whether he thinks this role is a Serious Acting Job, a Gently Mocking Comic Performance, or a Complete Crock.

Or maybe all three.

Sept. 16-The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola, Fifth Viewing)

Well, I already watched the other one. And my internet was out. Pacino’s still great. Brando is sorely missed (as is James Caan). DeNiro is good enough, no better. It still gets by, and pretty easily. It’s extremely well made. It doesn’t help that its vision of American corruption–doubling down on the first movie and evidently illuminating in its own time (a lot of people thought it was better than the first)–has long since been rendered naive by real world events.

Sept. 17-Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937, Norman Foster, Third Viewing)

For Peter Lorre, and the charms of Old Hollywood. What else is there? What else does there need to be? Not much, thankfully.

Sept. 19-Office Space (1999, Mike Judge, Fifth Viewing)

For the production values….Just kidding. Really because we’ve all been there. I’ve worked for the same company since 1986 and, except for my first year and one or two years in the early nineties, I’ve basically worked unsupervised. The last ten years I’ve worked at home. Except for the pay, I’ve had a pretty good gig. Still, I relate to some part of this. Everybody relates to some part of this. Office life and the rending and tearing of the American Dream. Jennifer “This is Me, Expressing Myself,” Aniston expressing herself, comic genius from Gary Cole, Diedrich Bader and Stephen Root (pictured above), and I like how no one really escapes into anything except the next round of being themselves.

Sept. 20-That Darn Cat! (1965, Robert Stevenson, Umpteenth Viewing)

 For Ms. Mills, of course, and because it’s an indestructible fantasy–an America where cats and plucky tomboys solve kidnappings and, if they do have to call on the FBI, it’s represented by Dean Jones, not J. Edgar Hoover or the clownfish who run the place now. And laugh about those silly Disney comedies all you want, but try putting a cast together to equal not just those two, but  Dorothy Provine, Wiliam Demarest, Elsa Lancaster, Ed Wynn, Neville Brand and Frank Gorshin these days. When you do, just be sure to keep them. I’ll take this.

Sept. 20-The Truth About Spring (1965, Richard Thorpe, Umpteenth Viewing)

Sue me, I was still in a Hayley mood (not to mention a Hayley-in-blue-jeans-and-a-sailor-cap mood, which is sort of its own thing). Plus, I like to fume at James MacArthur once in a while by reminding myself he’s the only male of the entire species who ever walked out of a last frame with her and Janet Munro. Who doesn’t want to sit around the house on a rainy day muttering Lucky bastard. I’m glad you’re dead!?

Plus it’s one of maybe twenty movies that still make me laugh out loud. I’ve never pretended to know why.

Sept. 20-The Bad News Bears (1976, Michael Ritchie, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s the best movie that is ever going to be made about the seventies and the closest I’ll ever see to an autobiography on film. I wasn’t any one player–but I was more than a little piece of some of them (including the Timmy Lupus we all suspect we are when we’re ten and the Kelly Leak we all want to be when we’re twelve)–and I knew the rest. I like that Michael Ritchie and Walter Matthau (in his finest performance) didn’t miss what was happening to the culture at the neighborhood level–and what was being done to those of us who were too young to know–without it really being anyone’s fault because it was everyone’s fault.

And, for all that, there’s still no movie any funnier.

Sept. 21-The Terminator (1984, James Cameron, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s the greatest pulp movie ever made and I’m always glad when I haven’t seen it in a while (like, I don’t know, six months) and can feel like I’m about to get run over by a truck again.

The entire American movie industry–not to mention James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger–have spent the last three-and-a-half decades trying (and failing) to catch up. Absent any meaningful national narrative (like those that fueled everything from westerns to war movies to biblical epics to melodramas in previous decades), pulp is all we have. Since there’s little we can do about that, it’s lucky for us we at least have a truly apocalyptic vision of ourselves, just as it was all blowing apart. If you watch it often enough, you might start to notice how impossible Linda Hamilton’s transformation from the girl next door to scared rabbit to super-heroine actually is–and how natural she makes it look. Whether you notice or not, it once inspired David Thomson to call her character “a very tough young hoodlum” when what he meant was, she’s a waitress.

As Sarah Connor might say, it never hurts to be reminded what the crit-illuminati really think of you.

Sept. 23-Destry Rides Again (1939, George Marshall, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the second best western of the nineteen-thirties (after Stagecoach). I usually don’t exactly get Marlene Dietrich, but she’s fabulous here. I almost always get James Stewart and he’s fabulous, too. I also like to be reminded that the second greatest western of the thirties was a spoof and that it was greater than even the greatest spoofs that came later because it was also a really fine straight western. That said, there’s no scene I wait for more eagerly than the catfight between Dietrich and Una Merkel, which puts all other screen catfights to shame. (The only weakness is a stolid romantic subplot–but even John Ford sometimes had trouble with those.)

Sept. 23-Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because I like it’s odd rhythm, which is neither modern nor old-fashioned but, rather like the Duke Ellington score that pulses underneath, its own thing. Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara play a couple who hadn’t been seen in American film before and really haven’t been seen again. It’s not that people haven’t tried, it’s just that, as a pair, they represent something that can only have real juice the first time it happens–and I don’t even know whether I mean the characters or the performances, or that it matters.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, they’re going to run down the road until somebody stops them. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, they’re never going to be easy targets or sitting ducks. You can’t predict what will happen to them, no matter how many times you watch. All the other fine performances (James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, George C. Scott–none of them ever better) are just there for a framework, along with Preminger’s stellar direction and a dead-on script pruned from Robert Traver’s (a nom-de-plume for real life attorney John D. Voelker), overlong bestseller.

Everybody else is stuck in the fifties.

Lee and Ben are ready for the sixties.

Ready in a way the squares who sit around in their little towns preserving civilization–setting up law practices, defending murderers–never can be.

….Til next time.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (July, 2018)

July 3-Three Days of the Condor (1975, Sydney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s still the best straight movie about the CIA (and all that it represents in a nonrepresentative “democracy”). Much as I’ve liked it over the years, it’s grown lately, I think because Faye Dunaway’s performance no longer seems like it belongs in another movie. The rest always fit. It might be Robert Redford’s best role/performance and the rest of the stellar cast (Cliff Robertson, Max Von Sydow, John Houseman) were never better. And to remind myself that we still haven’t figured out who watches the Security State while they are busy watching us.

July 3-The Hot Rock (1972, Peter Yates, 2nd Viewing)

Because I liked it just well enough when I watched it a few years ago to give it another chance and besides Illeana Douglas, who generally has impeccable taste, recommended it on her podcast. Good move. I can now count it as one of the few good adaptations of a Donald Westlake novel. Still not sure I buy Robert Redford as Dortmunder (if you’ve read the books you’ll know what I mean–he’s as miscast here as he was perfectly cast in Condor), but he gets by, and the rest works beautifully.

July 4-Drums Along the Mohawk (1939, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well it was one of those July Fourths that happened to coincide with “time to watch Drums” moods. And I ask myself, yet again: Why is there only one great movie about the Revolution? Because nobody could imagine why another one was needed?

July 5-The Replacement Killers (1998, Antoine Fuqua, 3rd Viewing)

Because sometimes you just want to watch a movie while “Popcorn, got to be a mother for me!” plays in your head. If you ever get those moods, this is a real good one. And these days, you can wonder if Harvey Weinstein killed the box office to get back at Mira Sorvino, who, on this evidence, should have gotten her own action series.

July 7-Proof (2005, John Madden, 3rd Viewing)

For one of Gywneth Paltrow’s best performances (from the days when she was almost too good to be true), matched by a stellar cast. For one of the few movies about the life of the mind–especially the fine line between genius and madness–that works all the way through. For Hope Davis’s chilling, almost sympathetic, take on a middle class Iago. Why don’t I watch it more often? Watch it once and you’ll know why.

July 7-Diamonds Are Forever (1971, Guy Hamilton, Umpteenth Viewing)

My favorite Bond. Others are “better” of course (Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, maybe one or two of the later ones). But this one’s the meanest, most cynical, trashiest, least coherent. All the things I want most from Bond. The only fault is they needed more Plenty O’Toole. Of course they did.

July 7-D.O.A. (1949, Rudolph Mate, 1st Viewing)

Because this was one of the few top-rated films noir I had never seen. Talk about incoherent. But the atmosphere was everything everybody always said it would be and I’m a sucker for Edmond O’Brien, especially when the script and the lighting give his goofy melodramatic side a chance to run free. Plus it has a downer ending (surprisingly rare in noir), that you’re told is coming in the first moments and still packs a punch. Look for the great Neville Brand, minus his trademark gravel voice, in a chilling role as that rare movie goon who would give you the heebie jeebies if you met him in real life–not least because he’s the type you might actually meet in real life.

July 8-D.O.A. (1988, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, 1st Viewing)

This was on a disc with the original D.O.A. but I might have watched it some time or other anyway. I’m an unabashed fan of Dennis Quaid’s wicked grin and Meg Ryan’s tousled hair. To tell the truth both have been used to better advantage elsewhere. This isn’t bad, it just doesn’t quite seem to have a reason for being. It can’t match the nightmarish qualities of the original (color doesn’t help) and Ryan is pretty much wasted in a tack-on part. Plus, Quaid’s character is one of those modern academic men who isn’t sure he wants to live anyway. Kind of takes the tension out of a movie about being dead on arrival. And did Dennis Quaid ever strike you as a guy who wasn’t sure he wanted to live? I didn’t think so.

July 8-Buchanan Rides Alone (1958, Budd Boetticher, 3rd Viewing)

Because it had been a while. It’s a measure of just how good the Scott-Beotticher westerns are that this is counted one of the “lesser” efforts. Lesser it may be, but it’s still hellishly entertaining, with Randolph Scott trading his trademark stoicism for a grin Dennis Quaid would kill for and making it work. Even so, it’s not a comedy. The plot is strong if elemental and Boetticher’s unabashed love for Mexico and its people (not to mention its honor code) will make you weep for a land where, these days, having a hundred or more political candidates murdered in a single election season isn’t even news.

July 9-Funny Face (1957, Stanley Donen, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because Audrey. Lots were better dancers, but, among Fred’s many partners, only Ginger was a better match for banter–and Audrey could always make you root for her beyond all reason, so her dancing has a poignant quality no others matched. Made because Astaire had held on to Daddy Long Legs for decades (until he was old enough for the part) and agreed to do it with Hepburn, who, at the last minute was unavailable (he did it with Leslie Caron instead and the world got a two-for-one deal that’s pretty wonderful). He still wanted to work with her and you can see how much fun it was for all concerned. Hepburn turned out to be just as good at “serious” parts as she was at romantic comedy. But this is the last time she was lit from within in the manner that made her a star.

Soon after, reality set in and the world of Three Days of the Condor hove into view.

More’s the pity.

Til next time….

POST-GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS….A HANDY TEN

The “Golden Age” of the Hollywood western is generally conceded to have stretched from 1946 to 1962. It’s bounded by the respective releases of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in the former year* and Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country in the latter.

Based on the films each man released in ’62, the hand-off from Ford to Peckinpah should have been a natural one. What happened instead was what we like to call The Sixties.

All that’s beyond the scope of what I’m after here, which is simply to suggest some films for viewing that, taken together, make up an impressive legacy of their own. Call them markers on a trail to what might have been…

The Shooting (1966)
D. Monte Hellman

Harrowing. This film is as unsettling as In a Lonely Place…perhaps more so, because it doesn’t have Humphrey Bogart’s, or even Gloria Grahame’s, level of star power to supply a set of foundational assumptions. With this and Ride in the Whirlwind, Hellman invented what came to be called Acid Westerns. That’s a ridiculous moniker (did anyone think to call Lonely Place Acid Noir? As though it’s destabilizing qualities were merely hallucinatory? Thought not.) When Warren Oates is the stable one, you’re in another land alright. But it’s one that could only be reached through the gateway of the western–not a pill. Next to this, the best spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch look silly and ham-handed. Not to mention light-hearted.

Hombre (1966)
D. Martin Ritt

Strong by any standard. One of Newman’s signature “H” movies (The Hustler, Hud, Harper) and perhaps the best. Not least because his character has no redeeming quality except that he’s right. This is Stagecoach turned into a nightmare. One where the characters never quite wake up. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Martin Ritt (who made an awful lot of good movies for a guy who doesn’t get talked about much) watched a lot of Boetticher-Scott westerns somewhere along the way. Or maybe Elmore Leonard (who wrote the source material for this and Boetticher’s The Tall T–as here, Richard Boone played the villain) just brought certain qualities out of people.

True Grit (1969)
D. Henry Hathaway

Don’t sleep on this one just because John Wayne’s Oscar winning performance is larger than life even by his standards or because there’s been a fine remake. Kim Darby is still the definitive Mattie Ross. George MacDonald Fraser’s assertion that the line readings throughout are the closest we’ll ever have to hearing Victorian western speech as it was actually spoken makes it plain this is a window into a lost world. Charles Portis’ source novel provided dozens of memorable lines…and Marguerite Roberts’ script added a few more, without missing a beat. I still wish they had kept Portis’ ending, but everything else is in place. For Wayne and Darby and a host of fine characterizations (Strother Martin and Robert Duval are especially memorable) it will always be worth revisiting.

Bad Company (1972)
D. Robert Benton

One of the best roles Jeff Bridges ever had while he quietly went about being the best actor of his generation. Here, he and an equally effective Barry Brown are green as grass Civil War draft-dodgers heading west….and finding out maybe marching off to war wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all. Bridges’ brand of American innocence is even funnier–and warmer–in a western setting. It’s a shame he didn’t come along twenty years earlier, when he might have made a dozen of these.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)
D. Robert Aldrich

Aldrich and star Burt Lancaster had been players in the Golden Age and even made a couple of fine westerns together (Apache and the wonderful Vera Cruz, with Gary Cooper). This gave them an opportunity to raise their game and they were more than up to the task. Lancaster was never better than as a grizzled scout trying to help a green lieutenant (a superbly callow, but learning fast, Bruce Davison), track down a renegade Apache band and perhaps even live to tell the tale. This might be seen as re-revisionist western–a kind of answer film to Arthur Penn’s misguided Little Big Man, which had perverted Thomas Berger’s great novel from comedy into parody, and presented the warrior cultures of the Plains Indians (in that case the Cheyenne, who held the U.S. Cavalry at bay for forty years) as peace loving flower children. No one, at least, will emerge from watching Ulzana’s Raid for the first or twentieth time under any misapprehension that Apaches would have been at home in the Age of Aquarius….or welcomed hippies into their own age.

The Shootist (1976)
D. Don Siegel

A setup to be sure. John Wayne, cancer victim and last of the Golden Age cowboys, playing John Bernard Books, cancer victim and last of the Old West gunfighters. But, with the great Don Siegel (like Martin Ritt, an underappreciated pro’s pro) at the helm, an impeccable cast (Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone–one could go on) and a lean, well-measured script, it defies expectations and transcends its own nostalgia. It self-consciously echoes a hundred westerns, none more than Shane. Except this time, the gunfighter does not ride out of the valley. And it isn’t clear what he has done for Civilization–except represent the best of what it inevitably washes away.

The Quick and the Dead (1987)
D. Robert Day

In the eighties, the western was represented most ably on television, with adaptations of Louis L’Amour (usually starring either Sam Eiliott or Tom Selleck) leading the way. This and the Selleck vehicle, Crossfire Trail, are my own favorites and can stand for the lot–fine westerns that might not have stood out in the Golden Age, but certainly would have held their own. Elliott and Selleck, both excellent, are a wash and Crossfire Trail gave Wilfred Brimley the role of a lifetime. Still, I’m giving this one the edge because it has a slightly more expansive story and a fine performance by the always under-utilized Kate Capshaw, as an eastern woman adapting to the mindset of the frontier more rapidly  than her husband (an equally good Tom Conti), in part because she grasps how vulnerable any woman (let alone one as fetching as Kate Capshaw) is in a land where the law is what you make it.

Lonesome Dove (Miniseries) (1989)
D. Simon Wincer

Speaking of television….This epic mini-series blew the doors open when it first aired. There was serious talk of the western being revived in a way that hasn’t really occurred since. And it’s all that. None of the fine cast were ever better, and, though the story is an old one (it’s about a cattle drive after all), the mini-series length gave Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval, among others, a scope rarely afforded elsewhere. They took full advantage. The effect on Duval’s career was unfortunate. He’s satisfied himself with playing old coots ever since, with markedly diminishing returns. Jones didn’t get his mojo back until he learned to laugh at himself in the Men in Black series. But that doesn’t diminish what they did here, in the company of the strongest female cast to appear in any western (again, the length matters)–Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Glenne Headly, all superb. The other volumes in the Lonesome Dove series are good, especially Streets of Laredo, with James Garner and Sissy Spacek taking over the Jones and Lane roles (and being everything you would expect from those two). I also recommend Larry McMurtry’s source books. But the space opened up here has never been filled by anything else, making it, in its own way, as epic as anything done by the old masters.

Appaloosa (2008)
D. Ed Harris

An entertaining, if troubling, update on the town-taming ethos. The set up is similar to Warlock, Edward Dmytryk’s entertaining, if troubling, take on the town-taming ethos from 1959. I like Appaloosa better. The story is tighter, the grim psychology more relentless and logical. And there’s a rare good middle-age role for Renee Zellweger. Those who worry about the western (or any action) genre bleeding into fascism will not be comforted, but not being comforted is a symptom of the concerned citizen and you could spend your life worrying about subjects a lot less worthy of your time and attention. And I’m normally not big on actors directing, but Ed Harris does a lovely, understated job here. No fancy camera tricks, just straight, no-nonsense storytelling that lets the good actors (including himself) do their thing.

True Grit (2010)
D. Joel and Ethan Coen

It feels a little odd to include both versions of True Grit on such a small list. Thee are other worthy candidates even if I did leave off spaghetti westerns (God help me, I do like Sergio Leone), Peckinpah (I like several of his later westerns, including, until the end, The Wild Bunch–that’s the part that excites a lot of people but seems to me senseless bluster), or spoofs (highly recommend the Kennedy/Garner Support duo and Waterhole #3).

But I can’t choose between them and I certainly can’t leave them both off. This has the advantage of great atmosphere and sticks reasonably close to Portis’ story and language. Jeff Bridges proves again that a lot was lost when he didn’t get to make more westerns. Matt Damon acquits himself well. Hailee Steinfeld makes for a compelling contrast to Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross and gives the role her own stamp–maybe proving that, like Rooster Cogburn, Mattie’s just a great character, open to a wide array of interpretations. And the Coens more or less restored the book’s ending, pulling the punch only slightly by not having the older Mattie recite the entire last paragraph of the novel, which gets my vote for the finest ending of any American novel. It was a hit and, once more, there was talk of reviving the western. There always will be such talk–the western is in our DNA. But if we have to live with what we have, it’s still a lifetime investment getting to know the best of it. If you want to take that journey, everything here is worth adding to your list.

**NOTE: Howard Hawks’ Red River was shot in 1946 but not released until 1948. According to one of the film’s stars, Joanne Dru, the main reason was trouble in the editing room, resolved when Hawks sought Ford’s advice (Ford did not, so far as I know, do any actual editing but made some key suggestions). Hawks later admitted to Peter Bogdanovich that Ford was always in his head anyway. I mention it only to illustrate that Ford was always in everybody’s head. Regarding anyone who’s up to any good, he still is, even if they’ve never heard of him.

 

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (April, 2018)

April 15-Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski, Umpteenth Viewing)

To see how I felt about this chilly masterpiece in the first age when Hollywood, at least, would have to be circumspect about celebrating its statutory rapist director. I feel pretty much the same. It’s chilly and it’s a masterpiece. One thing I noticed, though, is that Faye Dunaway brought a human quality it’s hard to imagine coming from any other actress of the age–just like she did in Bonnie and Clyde. Two Egg strikes again.

April 16-Patriot Games (1992, Phillip Noyce, 4th Viewing)

To see if Harrison Ford–even Harrison Ford–could improve how I feel about the CIA. He couldn’t. Not even in this helluva entertainment (the thing moves) where he has at least one brilliant moment that transcends craft or star power. His response when he finally kills the rogue IRA terrorist (a menacing Sean Bean) who has been after his family is worthy of a Golden Age western. Too bad nobody thought to remake High Noon with him.

April 16-Robin Hood (1991, John Irvin, Umpteenth Viewing)

To be reminded of how superior this nearly forgotten take is to the contemporaneous box office smash with Kevin Costner. To revel in Patrick Bergin’s definitive Robin Hood. To marvel at the strong cast and excellent direction and script overcoming poor Uma Thurman (is she the only actress to have been both Weinsteined and Tarantinoed?) being so badly miscast as Marian. And, of course, to hear Friar Tuck greet the worst of the villains with a hale and hearty “Welcome….to Hell.”

April 17-No Name on the Bullet (1959, Jack Arnold, 5th Viewing)

To see Audie Murphy play, without a wasted word or gesture, a man who killed more men than Audie Murphy.

April 18-Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest, Umpteenth Viewing)

To see a modern comic masterpiece (and perhaps be reminded that making a comedy is the only way to make a masterpiece in a fallen culture–absent absurdity, the old tropes required for any kind of drama or heroism or mythos simply don’t hold). And, however great DeNiro and Grodin are (neither was ever better), the whole cast is operating at the same level. Dennis Farina you’ll have remembered, even if you only saw it once…but don’t sleep on Yapphet Kotto’s FBI agent. He’s like a slow-burning cigarette that can’t quite be extinguished. Only if that were funny.

April 19-The Searchers (1956, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well, I don’t need a reason to watch The Searchers for the fiftieth time. But here’s a challenge: Try picking one image, just from what’s available online. Is is even fair that every frame of the greatest narrative film looks like a classical painting? Or that you can take a frame like this one and spin a hundred stories out of it that have nothing to do with what actually happens in The Searchers? Or that, in this one frame, the doll, the dog, the rocking chair and the child’s dress will all play a vital part in the story that does get told? Or that you might have to watch it fifty times to notice this?

Just asking.

April 22-Life of Crime (2013,  Daniel Schechter, 4th Viewing)

For what I’m starting to think might be the best adaptation of one of Elmore Leonard’s crime stories (not prepared to go all the way there yet–the competition is tough). This is the first time I really understood it as an absurdist comedy first and foremost. I gave myself permission to laugh out loud five minutes in and then I couldn’t stop. Every performance is a comic gem. On the commentary track the director says he asked Jennifer Aniston on the set why she didn’t do more movies like this. He didn’t record her answer so I’ll give it for her: Because it’s not the seventies anymore. I don’t know whether recognizing how far out of her time she is should make her accomplishments as the last true persona actress more impressive, or just make us all sad.

April 23-Rob Roy: Highland Rogue (1953, Harold French, 3rd Viewing)

Mostly to see if this entry was worthy of inclusion in a potential “Handy Ten” of Disney Adventure films. I was lukewarm on past viewings. This time, I started to think it just might make the cut. The action scenes aren’t all they might be–French was clearly no Ken Anakin. But there’s a scene of a Highlands wedding that would be grand even if the bride and groom were less fetching than Richard Todd and Glynis Johns. And there’s another of a Highlands funeral that might have been just as striking if Sir Walter Scott hadn’t insisted on it being broken up by the bloody English. Also, I hadn’t quite caught how much better the backbiting politics were played than the battle scenes.

Worthier than I thought then.

And it’s always refreshing to recall that, from the beginning of Hollywood to the toadying present, Disney was the only studio that wasn’t afraid to kill Redcoats–or pretend to forget that the British Empire was the first in history upon which–as the proverb and the wag had it, respectively–the sun never set and the blood never dried.

April 23-Heat (1995, Michael Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the action scenes. For the way two of the three main “family/personal” angles work, mostly because of sensitive, convincing performances from a pre-Weinsteined Ashley Judd (Appalachian girl playing an L.A. street tough) and Amy Brenneman (New Englander playing an Appalachian transplant, so far adrift in the L.A. wilderness it’s really not that unlikely DeNiro’s brooding sociopath could win her over with simple acts of kindness–or that she could transform him with kindness in return). For the way Judd’s street tough refuses to give up her powder keg of a husband (Val Kilmer) because she knows he would never give her up.

For all of that, I’ll put up with a lot of Al Pacino chewing scenery in between not insignificant stretches where he reminds you he can also act.

…Til next time!

WHAT I MIGHT BE ABOUT TO GET UP TO….

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. The hardest part about blogging (for me at least) is deciding what to write about. I always have a few longing posts incubating. Some sit for months or even years before the mood to polish them off strikes.

But mostly, ideas come and go. Several times a day. Sometimes more. The hardest part is avoiding politics. I know I write about them here and there, especially the Age of Trump, but it’s not what I want this blog to be about. If I ever decide to go heavy on it, I’ll start another blog–probably called No Comfort here. That should put me at the top of the charts!

This week been more interesting than most, because I’ve become self-conscious about the process. Here I sit wondering whether I should write next about Cyndi Lauper (or just She’s So Unusual, or maybe Twelve Deadly Cyns, or just “Money Changes Everything,”) except I really need to get back to John Ford or Elvis and I’ve got that Handy Ten on Golden Age Westerns to finish off plus my favorite Various Artists box set (Philly Soul) and six or seven other topics to consider, when all of a sudden, just this morning (early, before the sun came up), I’m listening to the Byrds and thinking This, this is what I should be writing about, and then Vivien Leigh pops into my head and I ask myself how it’s possible I’ve been writing this blog for six-and-a-half years without ever attempting to do her justice (given that no one else has managed it, should’t I at least try)?

And, you know, the chances are at least fifty-fifty, the next thing I write about won’t be any of those things.

It probably won’t even be about the paradigm shift I see happening in the two major political parties which will either lead to a reversal of voting bases (like 1980) or priorities (like 1932) or the elimination of one or the other to be replaced by something new (like 1860).

It probably won’t even be my response to Terry Teachout’s long interview about the Band, where he opined, among other things, that their first two albums were the only “adult” music being made at the time (1968-70) in what I like to call Rock and Roll America.

Boy, will I have something to say about that some day….unless, by chance, all the “some days” become consumed by all those other things I’m sure I’ll have something say about…

JOHN FORD’S WOMEN….A HANDY TEN

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

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

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

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

Even in westerns.

Even in war movies.

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

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

Henrietta Crossman as “Hannah Jessop”
Pilgrimage (1933)

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

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

Claire Trevor as “Dallas”
Stagecoach (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More fool me.

More fool us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joanne Dru as “Denver”
Wagon Master (1950)

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

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

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

If she settled down, that is….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can feel Honey Bear Kelly doing just that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ford’s final completed film.

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

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

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

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

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

Certainly not now.

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

[NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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