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….

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

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

3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Delmer Daves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *   *   *   *

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

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

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

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And Ben Wade? Well, he watches…

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and smiles…

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and talks…

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and stays quiet…

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and tries to escape…

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or doesn’t…

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

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

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

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

And you wouldn’t exactly be wrong.

But you would be limiting yourself.

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

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

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

*  *  *  *

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

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

What does it take to maintain one?

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

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

Starkness. In the tone poem visuals…

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

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

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

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then catches him out…

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then obliterates itself…

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

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

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

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but the outposts to the towns…

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and the sun-baked exteriors…

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to the shadow-striped interiors…

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

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

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

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and keeps an ever firmer grip on the proceedings…

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

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….serene in the confidence this is only temporary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His boy Charlie will find him…

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He’ll be dealt the best possible hand…

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

Start offering him money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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a miracle which she cannot yet see…

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Because she isn’t looking up at the window…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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She can’t accomplish even that.

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

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

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

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

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and shadows…

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and menace…

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and constant evocation of those impossible odds…

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

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into the light…

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

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

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or an honor code…

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or a gang of men…

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or even a spurned Iago…

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determined to have his man back…

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Or end in the boneyard…

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

Something far more prosaic.

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

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and who both Dan Evans…

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and Ben Wade…

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were lucky to have met.

You might even call it a miracle.

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

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

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Last Reincarnation of Virginia McMath…)

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…Well, in the movies, anyway, where she was known as Ginger Rogers.

There were credits after the two from the mid-fifties that I re-watched this week (1954’s hit-and-miss Black Widow and 1955’s riveting Tight Spot) but she seems to have stayed on safe ground afterwards. In any case, her days as a star who could put Van Heflin or Edward G. Robinson in second place on a lobby card were numbered.

Hollywood didn’t start throwing forty-something leading ladies over the side yesterday.

I don’t necessarily buy the notion that she was “playing against type” in this last major phase. It’s a common assessment of these two roles (which are more different from each other than either is from the hard-boiled dames she had made the first of many strong impressions with in the early thirties)and that judgment isn’t entirely wrong, just a tad simplistic.

By the time the mid-fifties rolled around, Ginger had been a sufficient number of “types”–most famously the proto-type of the wisecracking girl next door (related to–but finally very distinct from–the Screwball Dame, the Streetwalker, the Good Wife, the Girl Friday, the Victim of Cruel Fate, or the Modern Housewife, all of which she had a hand in shaping as well**) which has, in fact, turned out to be Golden Age Hollywood’s most durable and flexible archetype (if the latest exemplar, Jennifer Aniston, turns out to be the last, it will be our loss)–that finding a new one by simply playing “against” the old ones would have been next to impossible.

They were brave choices all the same.

The script lets her down pretty badly at the end of Black Widow (surprising since it was by the great Nunnally Johnson, though the fact that he was also directing may be suggestive of why directors get so much credit when movies work), and, to tell the truth, she didn’t get as much out of it as she might have. Stuck with the job of selling the bleeding obvious as a Big Surprise (always a bad thing in a plot that depends almost entirely upon its twists), she tried to make up for it by over-emoting, the mistake she had, up to that moment, been better at avoiding than all but a handful of her most astringent contemporaries.

The movie is promising, then, but finally a bit of a disappointment.

Tight Spot, released the following year, more than made up for it.

The movie’s a good one–not perfect by any means, but it grew on a second viewing, not a usual occurrence with me and noir.

And, while I noticed, and appreciated, other things, it was mostly her performance that filled the new spaces.

It occurred to me that she might have seen Sherry Conley–in prison on a bad rap like everybody else (except in her case it really might have been), a little past her prime, a little broad in the beam, and with a few snappy lines at her disposal but no more than a few and nowhere near enough to meet every occasion–as a chance to put dramatic flesh on her own archetypal Busby Berkeley-style streetwalker Anytime Annie’s comic bones.

It’s true there’s no line as good as 42nd Street’s “Who could forget her? She only said ‘no’ one time and then she didn’t understand the question,” in Tight Spot’s solid script. But there is a lot of sharp self-analysis and a complex character arc that Rogers handles beautifully at every turn.

Sherry Conley is a woman who sweats, never more than when she’s working overtime at pretending to be on top of things. She’s constantly backing and filling, looking for angles, forever assuming that any step which doesn’t send her through a trap-door only increases the likelihood that the next one will, while not forgetting the spot she’s standing on isn’t exactly safe either.

That’s not an uncommon position for a female character in noir-land.

What’s unusual about Rogers in Tight Spot–trying to make up her mind about whether to testify against a gangster who has a habit of murdering witnesses (Lorne Greene in a very sharp turn) all while falling in love with a conflicted cop (Brian Keith, good as always) in a “safe” hotel room–is that, like a lot of actual human beings and almost no Streetwalkers who show up in Movie-land, she can’t seem to get out of her own way.

She’s used to being goosed and not at all used to being liked.

Not even by us, the people in the cheap seats. Not that we’ve had much practice, this being the character who usually gets killed off in the second act, now suddenly asked to carry the thing through to the final credits.

One way to judge whether a performing artist–especially an iconic one–has taken a genuine risk is whether the result divides the artist’s devotees. I know that, to at least some extent, this result does.

I can see where it might. The risk Ginger took in this last moment of her real stardom, was the one Hollywood actresses tend to avoid like the Plague at any age.

Namely, she was willing to grate. Even in a movie that–good as it is–turns slick here and there, she never does.

Or, put another way, she was willing to play a character who tends to grate and to play her in three dimensions.

The variety of opinions as to how worthwhile this really was tend to wander all over the map and to break down more along the lines of responses to the character being worthy of any attention at all than to the actress’s choice of how to play her.

I’d say that’s the best proof that Ms. McMath–who has a pretty good claim on being the toughest nut in the history of Hollywoodland (a land and a history where I can’t conceive of any other sort of nut surviving at all)–succeeded very nicely.

(**NOTE:There’s also a rumor that she could dance a little.)

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Sometimes, the Western Really Does Go Everywhere)

Captain Phillips (2013) channels 3:10 to Yuma (1957)

(WARNING: Possible spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen either film)

I’m careful about proclaiming just any old American (or Americanized) narrative a “western” (“noir” is the other catchall descriptive that gets around, often after being recognized as a subset, or extension, or consummation, of, well, westerns–these notions, like some who perpetuate them, can get tricky).

However….

In 2007, James Mangold remade 3:10 to Yuma, the classic Glenn Ford/Van Heflin western based on an Elmore Leonard short story and directed by the estimable and too-oft overlooked Delmer Daves. Mangold (a fairly estimable director himself–Walk the Line is first-rate) and his talented cast (Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, et al) made such a hash of things that it was possible to walk out of the theater thinking westerns can’t really be at the heart of everything when they aren’t even at the heart of westerns anymore.

But then Mangold’s version wasn’t really a remake, or even a re-imagining of either Leonard’s original story or Daves’ film. Whatever the intent, it ended up being a cartoon. And, no, not one of those cartoons which are rooted in westerns.

The real remake arrived in theaters a few weeks ago, disguised as Tom Hanks’ worthy (one might almost say tiresomely worthy) bid for a third Oscar, Captain Phillips.

Oh, I know Captain Phillips is based on a true story. I even have a pretty good sense that, for once, the movie may actually adhere pretty closely to the events it is based upon. But that doesn’t disprove my theory. Life wouldn’t know what to do with itself if it didn’t have art to imitate.

So once more, a decent, hard-working, put-upon family man sets off to accomplish a dangerous mission for the sake of an earnest monetary reward. Once more, he finds himself trapped in a small space, trading wits with a charismatic, psychologically adroit villain. Once more the “villain”–ruthless enough in each case to kill a member of his own criminal enterprise without a second thought*–turns out to have both an honor code and a human side that very much includes a growing soft spot for the good man. In each case, the bad man ends up on the way to prison and the good man goes home to his family. And in each case there is a strong hint that the good man has what the bad man truly wants–call it the emotional security which only home and family can provide.

To be sure there are many differences as well. There’s even a crucial twist on the basic theme–in the bobbing, claustrophobic, nodulized life-boat of Captain Phillips, the bad man has hold of the good man (which means the cavalry, here played a U.S. Navy which is never more safely anonymous and faceless than when one of them is given some screen time–Ford’s Ben Wade would be able to teach them nothing about cold-blooded efficiency) is on the way, while in the shadow-striped, still-as-death hotel room of 3:10 to Yuma, the good man has hold of the bad man, and it’s the bad man’s outlaw band (led by Richard Jaeckel at high tide, so one need not worry about facelessness or anonymity) who are riding to the rescue.

And the differences do tell us something. For instance, in 3:10, Ford and Heflin may be from opposite sides of the law, but they are from the same world. In Captain Phillips, Hanks and the mesmerizing Barkhad Abdi (playing the Somali pirate leader Muse) may as well be from different planets. (Their deepest connection, in fact, comes in the harrowing action sequence when Muse and his little band are taking over Phillips’ ship. It’s the moment when, as skilled commanders of ships in battle, they have the most in common, even if one ship is a tiny but lethal motor boat and the other a massive but vulnerable and unarmed freighter.)

What impressed me, though, is not so much a difference as a yawning chasm: namely, why 3:10 to Yuma is a movie I’ll watch as long as I have eyes and I could miss seeing Captain Phillips a second time without my life feeling in any way diminished. And why I suspect the case would never be the other way around for anybody, though many could dismiss either and many more could simply enjoy both and let it go at that.

Both movies are made with consummate skill and, honestly, that superlative sequence where Abdi’s pirates take over Hanks’ boat–done as well as an action scene can be–has no equivalent whatsoever in 3:10 to Yuma. There’s tension in the western, but not much action. In Captain Phillips the new, post-western narrative model holds sway–there’s action without much tension.

I can’t say the absence of real tension was simply because I knew the ending going in. If anything, 3:10 to Yuma, which I’ve been watching regularly for years, gets more tense every time I see it, because the more I watch it, the more I feel the weight of what’s really at stake. And, believe me, Tom Hanks emotes at the end of Captain Phillips like nobody’s business. You can feel his relief at being rescued gush out of him.

He’s very, very present.

What’s not present is a sense of something bigger than himself. Some moment that offers the equivalent of Van Heflin’s Dan Evans explaining to his wife why he can’t back down from the task of walking Ben Wade to the train station, even though the reason for his taking on the job in the first place–two hundred dollars–has long since become irrelevant.

He can’t back down because, if he did, there would be nothing left inside of him.

In Captain Phillips, Richard Phillips and Muse really are no more than ships in the night. They happened to collide–a point that is too fully realized by the utter inability of anyone but the two leads to make an impression, while Yuma is filled with faces that matter. The solid direction by Paul Greengrass, the fine performance by Hanks and the riveting one by Abdi–none of it can quite mask that fundamental absence of belonging to something that is worth belonging to.

So the events of 3:10 to Yuma’s fictional story change everyone they touch and it’s possible to imagine they would change you if they happened to you.

There’s no sense that the events of Captain Phillips actually change even the real life characters who lived it–that Richard Phillips’ future will be much altered beyond the residual effects of the inevitable book and movie contract or that Muse’s future in an American prison will be much different than the quasi-prison piracy had already put him in. And there’s no sense these events would change you either except that–much like a car accident or any other random event–you’d be happy you survived.

That’s the new triumph of civilization, what the modern non-culture can still give us at the movies and pretty much everywhere else: Survival is the new emptiness and emptiness is the new fulfillment and, heck, we should all be grateful for it.

There’s cool stuff at the multiplex.

Lucky us.

What more could we ask for?

(*NOTE–It was unclear, to me at least, whether Abdi’s Muse actually kills a rival pirate during an early scene in Captain Phillips. Since he cold-cocks him with a heavy metal object, it’s reasonable to assume he was willing to kill him, which makes the point even if he doesn’t go about it anywhere near as cold-bloodedly as Ben Wade does in 3:10 to Yuma.)