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….

HOLLYWOOD DOES WAR AND PEACE….AND HOLDS ITS OWN (And Then There Was Hollywood: Sixth Rumination)

War and Peace (1956)
D. King Vidor

It’s impossible, of course. Novels far less great and complex than War and Peace have tended to school anyone who dared to film them in the vicissitudes of economic and critical failure. Especially with a finely wrought Russian-language version available from the Soviet era (1966 to be exact) having been brought in at twice the length with what amounted to an unlimited budget, what’s to be expected of a Hollywood-financed version filmed in Italy a decade earlier with a bewildering array of international stars not even bothering to attempt Russian accents?

Well, whatever we had a right to expect, a great deal was delivered.

Not the novel, mind you. Even the six-hour Soviet version couldn’t do that. But taken on its own, King Vidor’s effort is more than impressive. After years of enjoying it–and accepting that the miscasting of Henry Fonda as Pierre is not subject to rectification by time-travel and a word in the producer’s ear–I’ve even begun to lean towards it having more than a little greatness in its bones.

Vidor was a pro’s pro–one of a mere handful of important American directors from the silent era still going strong in 1956. Having made every kind of film (and as entertainment no less), he was well suited to making one where every kind of drama–romantic, familial, political, martial, diplomatic, religious–must be sustained in order for the thing to work at all. Now that I’ve reached the point where I can quit worrying about why and how someone as quintessentially ill-suited to play a big bear of an emotionally tormented Russian as Henry Fonda was chosen for the lead, I can fully enjoy the precision with which Vidor directed each of the film’s dizzying variety of modes, and the grace with which he, keeping close concert with the source no matter how much had to be elided, wove it all together.

I can also appreciate how right most of the remaining cast is. That Dutch-Anglo Audrey Hepburn would make as great an English-speaking Natasha as we’ll have, or draw a relatively relaxed performance out of her then-husband, Cuban-American Mel Ferrer, is no surprise. But she’s not a patch on Sweden’s Anita Ekberg (as Pierre’s supremely haughty first wife, Helene), Italy’s Vittorio Gassman (as Helene’s snake-in-the-grass brother and Natasha’s seducer, Anatol), Austria’s Helmut Dantine (as Dolokhov, an especially strong reminder that cads often make the best soldiers when there’s a real enemy to fight), England’s Wilfred Lawson (unbeatable as the aging Prince Bolkonsky), Austria’s Oscar Homolka (as General Kutuzov, Russia’s military savior) or the Czech Republic’s Herbert Lom (a definitive Napoleon).

With all that going on, Vidor needed some thread to hold his (or, if you like, Tolstoy’s) story together.

It took me a long time to notice that the thread was religiosity, which grows from ritual to faith as the story develops…and Napoleon’s army advances.

Given how closely I usually attend such themes, I credit Vidor (and Tolstoy) for integrating it so thoroughly and naturally, for making it not merely a theme, but part of the film’s air.

It’s what give Natasha’s betrayal of Prince Andrei the quality of sin, without which it’s merely a spoiled tryst….

It’s what gives Pierre’s protection of her the quality of a knight’s honor…

which would otherwise seem ridiculous in any setting as modern as even the Napoleonic era…

It’s what lies, unspoken, at the heart of key reversals in the lives–and spirits–of characters as diametrically opposed as Pierre and Dolokhov, on their twinned-journeys from this….

to this…

It’s what holds Kutuzov upright as he’s driven remorselessly backwards by Napoleon’s onslaught…

knowing he’ll be rewarded by Faith in the end…

and, unlike any other film I’ve seen where Napoleon Bonaparte plays a key role, it establishes what he lacked…

…which was belief in something higher than himself.

It’s also what allows a viewer to grasp in shorthand what Tolstoy was at such famously long-winded pains to articulate as “the Russian soul.”

And, in true cinematic fashion, it’s done mostly by showing, not telling. Such long speeches as there are boil down to Pierre and Andrei playing philosophes….

…aping the intellectual airs of the French who are coming to destroy them, rousing themselves to gut-level emotional commitment only when Moscow stands ready to be consumed by fire (in scenes, I might add, that are as impressive and harrowing as Gone With the Wind‘s burning of Atlanta, to which there are an essay’s worth of literary, cinematic and historical parallels)….

The rest of the time, Vidor allows the haunted, glorious imagery of Orthodoxy to suffuse scene-after-scene so that, by the time it’s foregrounded, it seems to have sprung more from Nature’s design than man’s. An icon peeking from the side of a frame, a quick sign of the cross as a medallion is handed over or as Pierre, the skeptic, enters a rare church service, set a tone which allows the great Act of Faith–the abandonment of Moscow “the holy city”–to seem less miraculous than dutiful. In a word, the film accomplishes, through its use of music, painting (not to mention painter-inspired cinematography), sculpture and iconography, what few explicitly “religious” films have ever done, which is demonstrate the power of cohesive Faith. Russia’s class-bound society–portrayed with a concise, gimlet eye in the film’s early scenes–responds to the invader as one because the abstract nature of God allows what only belief in God can: real humility for those previously favored by Nature or Fortune…

and real dignity for those punished by same. ..

Of course, it helps that Vidor knew his way around a battle field…

…as this movie, which offers so many other things, also gets the shock of war–so carefully planned one minute, so arbitrarily executed the next–as right as any film ever has.

Listening to the pounding of the French drums at Borodino, you can understand why a man with God-like ambitions would define himself by war’s fleeting glory….and feel his loss when the God he sought to replace turns his back and casts him down…

…only to be reminded that he’s earned his fall by the destruction he’s wrought…

…a fate worth pondering as the modern beast, whispering W-W-three-e-e–e, continues to slouch, quite literally, towards Bethlehem, and stupid people seeking no more than a medal and a bigger office, dream once more of war with the Russkies and convince themselves that this time–this time!–it will be different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

TEN FILMS YOU MIGHT WANT TO WATCH (OR REWATCH) BETWEEN NOW AND NOVEMBER…

(Well, I said I might be in a list-making mood. So, as the long, hot summer hits its stride, I introduce a new category I created because I couldn’t fit this post into any of my existing ones. Having stretched my brain to its limits, I’m calling it….Lists.)

High Noon (1952)
Director: Fred Zinneman

highnoon2

A supposed Cold War metaphor that could be claimed by either side, according to virtue-seeking whim. But it’s deeper than that, almost pre-civilizational, and the thematic structure is as spare and unforgiving as the famous “real time”  trick of the plot.

“You’re a judge,” Gary Cooper’s Will Kane says to the first person who decides to run instead of fight, when it becomes known that a vengeful outlaw’s gang is now waiting for him at the station on the edge of town, where he’ll arrive on the noon train.

“I’ve been a judge many times in many towns,” is the sensible, world-weary reply. “I hope to live to be a judge again.”

Last I looked, his shades are splitting time between the Supreme Court and the Council of Ministers. They’re all wearing different names and faces, of course, while every Leader of the Free World pretends this is his favorite movie.

A good, swift reminder that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for enough good men to choose survival over honor…or let things come to such a pass that the only choices are laying down and dying or throwing up in your mouth.

The Last Hurrah (1958)
Director: John Ford

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High-middling by Ford’s standards, which means it still goes places worth going. Perhaps the first film to suggest that our politics had got beyond satirizing, a suggestion we’ve spent the years since proving beyond a shadow of a doubt. I thought it was a touch over the top the first time I saw it. Then, upon revisiting, I realized how much Frank Skeffington’s opponents reminded me of the Bush family, who had, in fact, emerged from this very Bostonian milieu.

Seen in one light, the film can be comforting: It’s all been round before.

Seen in another, it can send an entirely different message: We’re doomed.

Either way, the final scene is Spencer Tracy’s finest hour.

That Hamilton Woman (1941)
Director: Alexander Korda

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What? You mean England and “Europe” weren’t always chums? You mean England and America weren’t always chums? What gives?

This film, about England at high tide (and yes, about Horatio Nelson and his famous mistress, too), is a good reminder of how hard it is to have chums–or challenge social convention–when you’re intent on ruling an empire where, as some quipster once had it, “the sun never sets and the blood never dries.” That’s something Americans have been forced to learn a thing or two about in the world we’ve made since.

From Gone With the Wind onward, Vivien Leigh was always some measure of great, and never greater than here, which may be the role she was born to play. The final scene is all hers and a killer. But it’s not more poignant than the moment, mid-film, when Leigh’s Emma Hamilton sees Laurence Olivier’s Nelson, returning from his “triumphs,” emerging from the shadows a broken man only she can redeem.

Winston Churchill’s favorite movie, back when it was still possible to believe “there will always be an England” meant there would always be something more than a plot of ground with the name attached.

La Marseillaise (1938)
Director: Jean Renoir

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Renoir and Ford were two sides of a coin. Ford’s specialty was weaving the life-size concerns of ordinary people into the tangled fabric of larger-than life-historical tapestries. Renoir, being a “man of the Left”–and the thirties’ Left at that–was practically obligated to have a go at the same.

It was his bad luck to be utterly bad at it–every bit as bad as Ford was at portraying the New World’s moneyed aristocracy. In his greatest films (here, The Rules of the Game, The Grand Illusion) the representations of the proles, whether earnest or earthy (the default positions for any intellectual purporting to celebrate the Common Man), were always woodenly conceived and executed.

Our good luck is that this ended up being a minor problem. Whatever Renoir’s politics, he knew his own strengths (the same might be said of Ford, whose politics were much more complicated, though, not, I believe, the complete mystery some have made of them). Beyond society itself, the great, sensitive portraits in his films–the ones he and his actors lavished real care on–were of the aristocracy, the nobility, the landed classes, and, here, the King, Louis XVI (pictured above, among his legions, as played by Renoir’s brother, Pierre).

One of the many reasons Renoir is so revered today is that he saw the collapse of France coming. Deep down, he must have known what that collapse meant: In essence, that, despite its long arc, the French Revolution had failed, with reverberations that will be felt until France is no more.

That was worth noting on the eve of WWII. If this political year somehow ends up marking another break with the past, it will be worth remembering in the Age to come.

War and Peace (1966)
Director: Sergey Bondarchuk

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What? You mean Russia and “Europe” have never been chums? Ever?

Of course no film can match the pure narrative depth and scope of Tolstoy’s mind-blowing novel, but this effort from the high tide of the Soviet Union’s crudely failed attempt to do what the super-sophisticated European Union is about to fail at as well, comes as close as anything can.

King Vidor’s 1956 Hollywood version has much to recommend it. Audrey Hepburn was a fine Natasha, Anita Ekberg a definitive Helene, Herbert Lom a Napoleon capable of making you feel for the man without quite forgiving him. The retreat from Moscow will never be done better. I’ve watched it a dozen times, but never without realizing that nothing can overcome whatever hallucination led someone to think Henry Fonda, great as he was, could make even a serviceable Pierre.

That’s well taken care of here, by Bondarchuk himself. He seems to be channeling Jean Renoir’s director/actor turn in The Rules of the Game, which was itself probably modeled on Tolstoy’s Pierre. Better than that, Bondarchuk found the definitive Natasha in Lyudmila Savaleya (Hepburn was great, but there’s an insurmountable advantage in being Russian when you’re playing the consummate Russian heroine).

The other big advantage in making a state-sponsored national epic? No time restraints. This runs north of seven hours, so you’ll either get lost or get bored (just like with the novel). But, just like the novel, if you stick with it, the rewards are enormous. And it’s worth remembering that Tolsoy’s various Russias–the one he lived in even more so than the one he remembered and imagined–were not far from collapse either.

Robin Hood (1991)
Director: John Irvin

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Talk about pre-civilizational. This deceptively modest rendering of the legend got swamped by the flashy Kevin Costner version that came out at the same time. Being ten times as good doesn’t always help.

Uma Thurman makes an odd, though not entirely ineffective, Maid Marion. (The role has been surprisingly hard to cast. Even Olivia De Havilland wasn’t quite right for it, she was just so luminous in Technicolor it didn’t matter. The definitive Marion was Glynis Johns, who, under the name of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, in a story set at his court, played the type to sublime perfection in Disney’s The Sword and the Rose. She somehow missed getting the part under the right name, in the right setting, when, with much of the same cast and crew, the studio made its own excellent version of the Robin Hood story a year earlier. Sometimes, the gears of the Cosmos slip just that little tantalizing bit, leaving us with insoluble mysteries.) And, for some reason, Nottingham has been split into two men, one a touch sympathetic, the other nasty-to-the-bone, neither named Nottingham.

But forget all that. It’s glorious.

We’re spared the return of good King Richard (or much reference to him at all, though Edward Fox has a fine cameo as a querulous Prince John), and spun straight back into tribalist politics, twisting Norman round Saxon and vice versa. Bergin’s Robin isn’t standing for the rights of Englishman as much as his own pride. Unlike any other version I’ve seen, his self-knowledge isn’t complete from the get-go–he doesn’t know who he is until events force him to accept that, if he doesn’t bring an end to the misery, no one will.

And If “justice” results?

So be it!

The Long Good Friday (1980)
Director: John Mackenzie

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Meet Harold and his Maid Marion, Victoria. No last names. He’s a man of the people, straight up from the streets. She’s either slumming upper class, or playing at posh, up from the same streets. Hard to tell.

Together, they rule the London underworld, with their sights set on moving.up. Today London, tomorrow the world.

Then a bomb blows up in a car and their world starts spinning. By the time it stops, they’ve done Shakespearean melodrama (nobody has a last name) and the good old gangster film proud.

This was Bob Hoskins’ breakout film. I don’t know who won the lead Oscars for 1980 without looking it up, but, trust me, whoever they were, he and Helen Mirren wasted them.

All those are plenty good reasons to watch this any old time, but the lesson for the long, hot summer coming is just this: It can always be worse.

The Long Riders (1980)
Director: Walter Hill

THE LONG RIDERS, front from left: Amy Stryker, James keach as Jesse James, Savannah Smith, Stacy Keach as Frank James, Fran Ryan, 1980, © United Artists

The most nuanced and effective look at the American Robin Hood, Jesse James, brought too close to get off lightly under the guise of romantic legend. You want tribalist politics? Try Savannah Smith’s Zee James (Jesse’s wife) giving a deathly quiet reading of a line so primordial you can miss it’s import if you aren’t paying strict attention.

“You gonna make ’em pay Jesse?”

That’s after the Pinkertons, trying to stand for justice just this once, accidentally (or, perhaps, “accidentally”) have killed Jesse’s little brother with a firebomb.

You gonna make ’em pay Jesse?

On earth, in every Age of Disintegration, that is all ye know, and all ye need know.

(Best scene: A brutal frontier barroom knife fight between David Carradine’s Cole Younger and James Remar’s Sam Starr, the half-breed husband from whom the woman born Myra Maybelle Shirley, played wonderfully here by Pamela Reed, took the famous form of her name).

(Second best scene: Zee James and two other women daring the Pinkertons to shoot them on their porch.)

(Not quite fatal flaw: The Northfield Raid being drag-g-g-g-g-ed down by copious and pretentious use of the era’s Wild Bunch-style slo-mo.)

A Perfect Murder (1998)
Director: Andrew Davis

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A re-imagining of one of Hitchcock’s classy, entertainments, Dial M For Murder, which it bests by miles. Reduced to plot, it is, like its predecessor, a slick, satisfying, murder-for-hire tale with a twist (look at the picture above and guess who’s going to murder who–look again after you watch the movie).

Michael Douglas is the typecast Wall Street buccaneer, Gwyneth Paltrow the typecast debutante trophy wife with social justice tendencies (she’s a trust fund baby who works for the U.N., and she’s Gwyneth Paltrow, how typecast can you get?), and Viggo Mortensen the typecast low-life.

That’s on the surface.

Underneath, it’s a Death Cage match between a couple of born-to-be Manhattanites (who cares where they really came from), whose abiding concern for the social niceties they’ve mastered in order to run in place is subsumed by the more human emotions: lust, greed and revenge.

Make of that what you will in this election year.

The Conservation (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola

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Just remember. No matter who the president is or will be, they are still listening.

You didn’t think the cost of empire was gonna be nothing did you?

Happy Fourth of July!

THE LAST TEN WESTERNS I WATCHED…(I Watch Westerns: Take Three)

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Machree comes to me, and I start watching westerns. The last few weeks were kind of odd in that none of the westerns I watched were by Ford, Hawks, Mann or Boetticher, so I thought it might make a fun post reinforcing my occasional off-hand suggestion that the genre is bottomless. Here’s a look:

April 27–Rimfire (1949, B. Reeves Eason, First Viewing)

rimfire2The essence: An innocent man is wrongly convicted of card-sharping in a “trial by acclamation” and subsequently hanged. (For card-sharping? Yep!) His ghost–or someone channeling it–wanders about, gunning for those who convicted him, offing them with solid gold bullets and dropping deuces and fours on the corpses. A Secret Service man, tracking the gold while he works under cover as a local deputy, tries to catch him between attempts at wooing the local blonde. That’s for starters. Is that enough to overcome indifferent acting by minor period stars, jittery direction and a choppy story-line with more subplots than War and Peace? I would never presume to judge. Each of us must find our own level in these matters. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Ian Fleming had this floating around in his subconscious. And I’d bet money Sergio Leone did.

April 26–Little Big Horn (1951, Charles Marquis Warren, First Viewing)

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This actually came in a cheapie double with Rimfire and the contrast couldn’t be starker. The basic story is based on a historical incident and involves a scout patrol which comes across signs that the Sioux are lying in wait for an unsuspecting General Custer. The movie consists of the patrol’s attempt to reach Custer in time. Of course you know they won’t, but it doesn’t matter because the real story is a truly complex study of male honor. Additionally, as a representation of the ethos of the U.S. Cavalry, it stands with John Ford’s famous trilogy and Ernest Haycox’s fine novel Bugles in the Afternoon. John Ireland and Lloyd Bridges, two actors who rarely got enough screen time, get plenty here and make the most of it. Neither man was ever better. The great Marie Windsor is sadly underused, but even that is a small quibble. A real find.

April 25–Rawhide (1951, Henry Hathaway, Umpteenth Viewing)

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Perfect. Along with Key Largo, one of my two favorite films using a common plot: innocents trapped by violent men waiting for an “event.” The setting here is a lonely stage stop. The event is an impending stage robbery. The cast is perfect, the plot unbreakable, the direction, by old pro Hathaway, taut as a piano wire. The denouement features a tension-filled “child in danger” sequence that’s on a level with Battleship Potemkin or Small Change and more fully integrated than either. (Note: I watched this in preparation for an upcoming blogathon where I’ll take a closer look at Jack Elam’s villain. The role was his career maker so watch for further thoughts here.)

April 24–The Last of the Mohicans (1992, Michael Mann, Third Viewing)

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Fenimore Cooper seems a natural for the movies. But this, likely the best adaptation of his work, is far more of a chore than it needs to be (though admittedly less of a chore than the thirties’ version with Randolph Scott). Mann shrouded the Fort William Henry battle scenes in an impenetrable darkness, only occasionally caught either the beauty or the mystery of the Appalachians and evidently convinced his female stars they were playing the Bronte sisters without the comedy. Past that, you have a depressingly inappropriate modernist score, Natty Bumppo transformed into “Nathaniel Poe,” perhaps so Daniel Day-Lewis can play him as a natural vessel for the Method and various English-actor types who deliver their lines as if they are simultaneously passing kidney stones.  Moderately worthwhile for Wes Studi’s definitive turn as Magua, a good surrender scene between the commanding French and English officers, and some occasionally haunting scenery that proves you can’t really turn off Appalachia’s beauty and mystery no matter how hard you try. (Note: I go back and forth on whether Drums Along the Mohawk, the Walter Edmonds novel, which shares its time and place with Cooper’s most famous novels and was filmed by John Ford in the late thirties, is really a western. But Cooper invented the form and nailed most of its elements in place. For whatever reason I have no such qualms about the Leatherstocking tales.)

April 23–The Last Hunt (1956, Richard Brooks, First Viewing)

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A brooding tale of the last days of the buffalo hunters. Robert Taylor takes a rare turn as a villain and he’s fine, though I couldn’t help feeling the movie might have been even better if he and Stewart Granger (who carried a tinge of self-contempt in his bones that came out of his eyes when he put on a cowboy hat) had switched places. The best performance in a solid cast is from Lloyd Nolan as an aging buffalo skinner. The plot is unusually existential. Civilization is not at stake. It’s barely felt. In that respect, it’s more noir than western. In one other respect it’s pure western: Death is real, right down to the last, genuinely chilling scene.

April 21–Drum Beat (1954, Delmer Daves, First Viewing)

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Alan Ladd as an Indian fighter trying to make peace among his enemies, in this case the Modocs of the Pacific Northwest, on orders from General Grant (played, not badly, but rather improbably by Hayden Rorke, who would make his last mark a decade later as the forever flummoxed base psychiatrist in I Dream of Jeannie). A bit staid, but, as one might expect with Delmer Daves at the helm,  it certainly has its moments, not a few of them provided by a very young Charles Bronson as the never-surrender Modoc war chief. Ladd is his usual fine, laconic self, but, a mere three years after Shane, he looks twenty years older in a part that might have been better served by his younger, more energetic self. Worthwhile for fans of Daves, Ladd or Bronson.

April17–Fury at Showdown (1957, Gerd Oswald, First Viewing)

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This one gets where it’s going. There is no especially striking aspect, but the story is a good one (good brother/bad brother, with bad brother trying to straighten up for his brother’s sake) and it’s well executed. Best performance is by Nick Adams, a James Dean/Elvis associate who has never impressed me anywhere else. John Derek is good enough as the lead. I can see why somebody thought he might be a star and I can see why he didn’t make it, though I’m sure I never would have guessed he would eventually be mostly famous for marrying exceptionally beautiful women.

April 17–Along Came Jones (1945, Stuart Heisler, Second Viewing)

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Gary Cooper spoofing himself. I hadn’t revisited this one in years and, upon doing so, I was reminded why there was no particular urgency. Cooper’s fine, but he’s saddled with an out-of-her-element Loretta Young and a script that frequently ambles when it should gallop. Still good for a few laughs, especially when Cooper’s hayseed is sparring with the ever reliable William Demarest. But, with Nunnally Johnson scripting, there was a chance for much more. A bit of a missed opportunity.

April 12–Roughshod (1949, Mark Robson, First Viewing)

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Nifty. I acquired it strictly for the purpose of investigating whether Gloria Grahame’s essence would translate to a western. It does. She’s superb and, more to the point, she’s Gloria Grahame. Oh, there’s a good story, too: Hookers…er, “showgirls,” with and without hearts of gold, try to survive any way they can while traveling from the town they’ve been kicked out of to the town where their dreams will come true (in California, of course). It’s well directed and, excepting Robert Sterling’s stolid but uninspiring presence in the lead, superbly played. Claude Jarman, Jr., one of the period’s finest child actors, is especially good in a part that could have gone wrong a hundred ways. And, after all that? Gloria Grahame is in it. She’s superb and she’s Gloria Grahame. So it’s like every other movie she was in where she was herself: A Gloria Grahame movie. There’s a reason they put her up front on the poster even if they billed her second on screen and fourth in the advertising. I might watch it again tonight.

April 11–Garden of Evil (1954, Henry Hathaway, Fourth Viewing)

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This one has grown on me. I liked it well enough when I first encountered it a few years ago. Watching it about once a year since, it’s gotten better every time. At this point, I’m almost ready to move it to the very first rank. Susan Hayward juggles a dying husband and the four hard men she’s hired to save both him and the fortune he’s excavated from a gold mine deep in Apache country. There’s a powerhouse cast, all in top form: Hayward, Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Hugh Marlowe, Cameron Mitchell, Mexican star Victor Manuel Mendoza and a red hot, if too-briefly seen, Rita Moreno. It winds and winds, rather like the mountain trails the plot traverses. That might be what deceived me into thinking it was a little slow the first time around. The more i watch, though, the deeper it gets. The climactic action sequences are of a high order. The final line is classic. And did I mention that, in a western, death actually hurts? That might be because, in the westerns Hollywood used to make, life was never merely existential or programmatic. Not even when they tried.

THE AMERICANS….WHERE IT’S ALWAYS WINTER, WHETHER OR NOT IT’S EVER AMERICA (What Impressed Me This Week)

The Americans: Season Three

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For those who aren’t familiar with The Americans, now entering its fourth season on FX, it follows the lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, both superb and now married in real life),  an attractive, All-American couple living in Falls Church, Virginia, in the 1980s. They have a travel agency, a lovely house in the suburbs, two kids and every outward appearance of respectable normalcy.

They’re also deep-cover Soviet spies.

As I’ve mentioned before here (often, on the order of a broken recorrd), I haven’t kept up with much modern television. Generally speaking it’s just too much time and money for too little reward. Among those who do keep up, several whose opinions I respect, including Steven Rubio, count The Americans as one of, if not the best, shows going.

I can believe it.

For starters, it doesn’t have any major weaknesses, something I can’t say for 24, Deadwood, Justified or even Homeland (to mention the “serious” shows of recent vintage I’ve seen at least a fair amount of…you can catch my various thoughts here, here and here) and can’t imagine ever saying for The Sopranos, The Wire or Mad Men (all of which make my ears bleed and eyelids droop whenever I try to attend them for more than five minutes). The casting, acting, writing, direction, visual style, story, conception and just plain Zeitgeist in The Americans are all compelling and have sustained beautifully throughout three full seasons, with some key elements actually improving over time. I don’t know how the show would fare on a revisit–I’ve basically binge-watched each individual season after it became available on DVD–but on first acquaintance it has the additional pull of being a thriller that is actually thrilling. A near disastrous cock-up at the end of Season One might be the most gut-wrenching “action” sequence I’ve encountered on-screen, movies included, because, for once, the danger is both palpable and personal. It wasn’t until that very moment I admitted to myself I didn’t want the protagonists, who are, after all, cold-blooded killers working for a monstrously evil cause, to be caught–not a common reaction to a car-chase.

Having scaled that height, it seemed almost inevitable that a drop-off would follow.

Instead, the series has only gotten better and better. Every potential trap that has snagged other similarly compelling sympathy-for-the-sociopath narratives around the ankles at some point has been avoided. That’s in part because somebody on this show–presumably creator and overseer Joe Weisberg–has a real feel for narrative structure which, remarkably, has not so far given way, even for an instant, to the usual crippling demands of cliffhanger plotting. It’s also in part because the cliffhanger plotting has not been undermined, even for an instant, by the considerable demands of the narrative.

Pulp narrative to be sure. This ain’t War and Peace. But true narrative just the same.

I can’t say how rare this actually is in television. I simply don’t watch enough to know.

But I can say that, until I encountered The Americans, I didn’t think it was possible at all on television, where too many cooks–producers, writers, directors, stars, show runners, network suits–are forever spoiling the stew. For me, part of the tension that set in around the middle of Season One, when I had accepted the far-fetched elements of The Americans as part of a legitimate really-no-stranger-than-life vision (much like 24, which, albeit in often entertaining ways, began falling apart almost immediately thereafter, with only Season Five managing any kind of transcendence), was in wondering just how and when it would all go wrong this time.

It hasn’t. And, after three seasons of what is apparently going to be a five-season run, I’m now convinced there’s a real chance it won’t.

One of the very smart elements that has given the show this kind of space–the key element I think–is the extent to which, in a show called The Americans, America itself is felt in every frame while being barely glimpsed visually, and then in only the most obvious and superficial ways. Since the protagonists are the spear tip of a sleeper cell which has essentially infiltrated the American security state and, with the Cold War raging under Reagan, are under intense pressure to act, the audience is drawn into a claustrophobic world which really does present itself as the unseen reality while everything going on around it, including what’s beaming forth from the ubiquitous televisions playing in background after background, is reduced to a series of illusions.

Add to that a nuanced view of the KGB which never devolves into romanticism, or lets us forget that some secret police forces really are worse than others, lots of first-rate acting (this is the kind of show where even Frank Langella doesn’t stand out), and an editing style that actually creates its own tension (any scene you enter might last thirty seconds or ten minutes and, unlike any other show I’ve actually watched, there really is no way to predict) and you can maybe begin to understand why this highly praised show has a lot of frustrated followers, now including me, who feel it hasn’t been praised nearly enough. It’s just possible that, narratively speaking, it asks too much of a world which has been preconditioned, especially and specifically in the matter of narrative, to accept much, much less from shows that rate far more chatter.

By way of example, we need only examine the element in that narrative that was most fraught with peril, which is the character development of the Jennings’ daughter Paige, who is first drawn to, then immersed in, evangelical Christianity.

Normally, even a hint of Hollywood using evangelicalism as a plot device just makes me sigh and roll my eyes. I’ve never seen anything remotely resembling a fair or accurate treatment of the world I grew up in on screen, and, to be clear, that’s not exactly what happens in The Americans either. If the show does have a weakness it’s in the portrayal of “Pastor Tim” (Kelly AuCoin). He’s a kind of reformed hippy type which was, in fact, pretty common in evangelical churches during the seventies and early eighties. But either the casting or the conception is off base. As played by AuCoin, Pastor Tim is pretty much a Hollywood idea of the type. He has none of the charisma or feral intensity (often fueled by self-doubt which was not infrequently compensated for by the loudest “halleluahs” and “amens” in the hall) that was typical even for youth ministers and choir directors (the more common positions an ex-hippy was likely to hold), let alone the occasional leader of a flock.

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This fly in the ointment is redeemed, however, by Paige Jennings’ own character and the remarkable performance of Holly Taylor who has caught, or perhaps just embodies, a certain fresh-faced American type–so at odds with her cynical, devious parents and with the ridiculous parodies of teen angst that have frequently undermined narrative in 24 and Homeland–to a tee.

For all she talks about Pastor Tim, it’s pretty evident Paige is really caught by the message, not the messenger (in that sense, Pastor Tim’s drab qualities may be a narrative strength, though I have to believe it’s accidental). Since Christian ethics are the elephant in the room in the fight going on at the heart of The  Americans, the never-to-be-admitted, two-thousand-year-old reason why some secret police forces are better than others even if it all leads to the same place in the end, Paige’s ever-greater certainty that something is rotten in Falls Church (and the KGB’s nagging insistence that her parents start training her as a second-generation agent, which presumably will mean subjecting her to the same soul-killing horrors they endured during their own “training,” of which the show offers occasional chilling flashback glimpses), it’s hard to believe this is merely a plot device. It might have started out that way–but it hasn’t stayed that way.

And so, as I watched Season Three, it became more and more evident that Paige was coming to represent something more than youthful innocence. I have to admit that, based on the seeming superficiality of the “Christianity” on display in the first two seasons, and the show’s usual concessions to graphic sex and violence (tame by modern standards but still plenty strong enough to offend what’s left of the church crowd), I assumed some serious missteps would accrue.

Not only did that not happen, but the handling of the Paige element made an already strong show measurably stronger. I won’t give away the details–no spoilers–but seeing an American teenager presented so ably and credibly on American television (let alone a devout Christian, let alone one who is now in a place where the moral shield of her faith is likely to invite real physical peril, let alone in a show that takes place in the eighties and is very definitely about the way we live now and how much cultural time has stopped and stagnated since the period in question) is refreshing to say the least.

The quality and quiet depth of Taylor’s vulnerable performance, though, presents another possibility, one that will have me on the edge of my seat a year from now when I catch up with Season Four. I don’t want to oversell the likelihood of this happening, but I wouldn’t be caught entirely by surprise if the resolution of Paige Jennings’ character arc were, at some point, to match the power and poignancy of Judith Hutter going among the British at the end of The Deerslayer, or Caddy Compson being glimpsed among the Nazis at the end of the revised edition of The Sound and the Fury.

The Americans is that good. And that unexpected.

SOME KIND OF LADY, AFTER ALL (Florence King, R.I.P.)

Florence King, one of the few professional curmudgeons (she worked the conservative side of the beat) who consistently earned both her status and her paycheck, has passed away at the age of 80.

Though I followed her column off and on, the only one of her books I’ve read happens to be this one, which is from the period when publishers still knew how to sell books:

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By coincidence, I reviewed it as part of my first monthly book report, which can be found here. I think that review gives a pretty good flavor of her strengths and limitations, but, for something better than good, by all means go here. Especially go there if the inevitable John Updike novel you just had to try (mine was Rabbit, Run) turned out to be far, far longer than War and Peace.

My understanding it that, in the end, she gave up on American politics.

If so, it’s clear evidence she kept her considerable wits about her to the last.

With luck that will count for something on the next stage of the journey.