Friday, December 28, 2007

Three Hollywood Classics

Some Hollywood classics that I saw for the first time recently...

The Informer (John Ford, 1935): John Ford received the first of his four best director Oscars for this 1935 film. The Informer of the title is a man named Gypo Nolan who betrays one of his friends, who works for the Irish Republican Army, to the police in return of a small monetary reward. The whole film tracks just a few hours in his life on one fog-bound night on the streets of Dublin as he disintegrates emotionally, struck by his guilty conscience and struggling and failing to come to terms with the crime he committed. Gypo as played by British actor Victor McLaglen (who won an Oscar for this role as well) comes across as a brutish clown, who acts only on impulse, without giving it any rational thought, of which he is obviously not capable of. It is to Ford's and the writer's credit, and the main element in the success of the film, that they emphasise this aspect of his character and as a result the character of Gypo is humanised and his final fall in the end becomes a tragedy, which resonates deeply long after the film has ended. This is by all accounts one of Ford's best films, even within a career crowded with great classics. The film could have been a great classic just for its sympathetic character study but what really makes it a masterpiece is its visual style. It very clearly shows the links between the American crime films and film noirs of 1940s and the German expressionistic silents of the twenties. The first ten or so minutes are without any dialogues and the story is told purely in visual terms. Also, like in many expressionist films shadow and fog play a vital part in externalising the dark and tormented subjectivities of the characters of the story. In fact the way it uses fog is absolutely stunning. Some shots even look like parodies (Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog for example), specially quite a few scenes in which Ford shows the shadows before the characters enter the frame. Or the shot where the camera tracks the poster drifting on the streets. There are also wonderful tracking shots which shows the influence of Murnau. Film history aside, it is quite simply a marvelous and a deeply haunting film, not to be missed.

How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941): Ford has often been accused of sentimentality, a very "masculine" kind of sentimentality by some critics. They probably must have been thinking of this film. It is sentimental no doubt but the sentiments are well-placed, natural and honest, they never come across as made-up. Ford really makes us believe that these people are good people, people with lofty and noble sentiments and then shows how these sentiments don't really have a chance against the vagaries of fate and the passage of time. The film is the story of a hard-working family set in a mining village in Wales as it tries to struggle with one crisis after another. Ford is also sometimes criticised for his conservatism, traditionalism and political quietism but watching this film made me realize how wrong this really is. He does celebrate traditions, religious values, the institution of the family, the role of the patriarch (even when showing its weakness) but is fairly explicit in its condemnation of the institutional religion for example and elsewhere showing that those old traditional values don't take us too far in this modern fast-changing world. In the end it also comes across as being on the side of workers who attempt to unionize and struggle for their rights. It is not The Grapes of Wrath by any means but still, in the context what Hollywood was at that time, this film is quite radical in its political views. This may not be in the top-tier of John Ford Classics but comes quite close.

The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943): Two cowboys, one of them played by Henry Fonda, walk into a ghostly town and find themselves embroiled in a mob which has decided to dispense instant justice to the killers of a local rancher. After some searching they find three innocent people and decide to hang them on the spot only on the basis of flimsy suspicions. The producers of the film at the twentieth century fox thought that the downbeat subject matter of the film wouldn't go down well with the audiences and they were proved right. It was made only when Fonda himself insisted on being part of the project since it was a subject close to his heart. Incidentally he doesn't have much to do in this role though as always he shines in even the small scenes. The last scene of him reading the dead man's letter about what law should be and what conscience is, is unforgettable and we don't even see Fonda's face! We just see his lips moving, it is all his nasal and husky voice and the depth that he brings to those words that make you feel that those words have really touched his soul and they are coming from deep inside. More than Fonda it is Dana Andrews who steals the show in a small but important role as one of the victims of the mob. The film also has a powerful subplot about an army man, who actually leads the posse, trying to teach his "timid" son what manhood really is by showing him the abuse of power. It also becomes a powerful critique of masculinity, which is not very typical in the western genre. It is not that the film is sentimental about gender though, there is woman in the mob too, certainly one of the most vicious and cruel one. The low-budget of the film and the fact that most of the events take place at night, both are responsible for deeply atmospheric nature of the visual design of the film. One of the main factors why it has remained a great classic after all these years.

6 comments:

puccinio said...

''How Green Was My Valley'' is actually a film with a very divided audience. Some call it sentimental hogwash while others think it's a wonderful, sad elegy. I am with the latter camp. It's not among Ford's Top ten but it's a masterpiece.

I actually am not a big fan of ''The Informer'' precisely because of it's visual style which struck me as it struck you as very self-conscious.

Ford was a great student of Murnau, the only director this un-interviewable, laconic director went out of his way to praise but in his later films particularly in ''Young Mr. Lincoln'', for my money his highest achievement, he eschewed Murnau's inter-play with light and shadow with the graceful compositional grace that made Ford such a superior artist.

But it's still a good film. I actually prefer ''The Fugitive'', a film similar in it's overtly Catholic sensibility with a similar expressionistic mise-en-scene but more toned down. That film was shot by Gabriel Figueroa, a student of Gregg Toland(''Citizen Kane'', ''The Grapes of Wrath'', ''The Long Voyage Home'') who later shot most of Luis Bunuel's Mexican films. Of course, even ''The Fugitive'' is flawed since it's a compromise of Graham Greene's masterpiece ''The Power and The Glory'' and which Greene(never a fan of any direct adaptations of his novels) repudiated later in his life. But it's still an interesting film.

puccinio said...

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Ford is also sometimes criticised for his conservatism, traditionalism and political quietism but watching this film made me realize how wrong this really is.
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Well I'm glad you cleared through that famous myth of John Ford as an unapologetic propagandist of America's values.

Ford in his own life was like a character out of a Brecht play(appropriate for the director, Jean-Marie Straub called the most ''Brechtian of film-makers), a walking contradiction.

He'd pretend to be illiterate when he could speak ten languages, pretend to be mute when he knew the entire history of America right from each and every signatory on the Declaration to each and every president, to each and every division of the Civil War and of course all the tribes slaughtered in the Indian Wars.

He was a Roosevelt Democract and later voted for Kennedy but he was friends with John Wayne and Eard Bond, as unapologetic a right winger you'll ever find. His films have survived because of that quality. That is they show human beings and American history in all it's contradictions. And when it comes to American history, contradiction is front and center at every instance of it's history.

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He does celebrate traditions, religious values, the institution of the family, the role of the patriarch (even when showing its weakness) but is fairly explicit in its condemnation of the institutional religion for example and elsewhere showing that those old traditional values don't take us too far in this modern fast-changing world.
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Especially when one of his sons tells that weasel of a preacher that the church tells them to pray and be humble but gives no practical advice on how to get out of their problems. That's straight out of Marx.

But the interesting thing about Ford and family is, that in none of his movies except for the sublime, underrated
''WagonMaster'' do families remain together. They split apart, break away. ''The Grapes of Wrath'' ends like that when Tom Joad realizes that he's no good only looking after his family and so enduring to venture out on a very ambiguous road. Of course the studios tacked on that last scene about, ''We're the people'' against Ford's wishes(who wanted to end the scene with Henry Fonda silhouetted against the mountain).

By the time he came to his final phase, between ''The Searchers'' and ''Cheyenne Autumn'', he became very pessimistic and ended his career repudiating all the myths his films partly intentionally and partly unintentionally had erected culminating in his flawed but great last film(''7 Woman'') where his hero is an atheist lady doctor who sacrifices her life for a worthless, bigoted Protestant Mission...a strong radical statement coming from a lifelong devout Catholic.(well he himself said, "I'm Catholic, but not very Catholic!")

You can read all this in a book called ''Searching for John Ford'' by Joseph McBride. My opinion towards the book is quite mixed but it gives a very good picture of the man. But then books really don't do much when it comes to Ford. It's all there in the movies.

And ''The Searchers'', ''Young Mr. Lincoln'', ''The Grapes of Wrath'', ''The Long Voyage Home'', ''Two Rode Together'',
''They Were Expendable'' and
''Fort Apache'' and of course the final film of Classical Hollywood -''The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'' which is the most Dreyeresque of all American movies are among the most passionate and intense films ever made. Of course if you get a chance(and not much today sadly) don't pass an opportunity to see it on the big screen.

puccinio said...

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It also becomes a powerful critique of masculinity, which is not very typical in the western genre.
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Well that's true but then even in Classical Hollywood there were several, quite radical Westerns which did subvert the genre. Westerns regarded as commercial entertainers also meant greater freedom than say prestige movies like the kind David O. Selznick dealt with. They're really cult Westerns, or films which film fans spread to each other like members of secret society.

Well, i'll induct you too...

''I Shot Jesse James'' by Samuel Fuller.

''Johnny Guitar'' by Nicholas Ray, the most infamous of the lot though unrestored and unavailable on DVD. This is crucial since it's one of the most bewildering colour films ever.

''Forty Guns'' by Samuel Fuller, the first avant-guarde Western in cinema. Scorsese says it isn't even a Western.

Then Anthony Mann's Westerns with Jimmy Stewart especially ''The Naked Spur''. Then one Western he made with Gary Cooper, ''Man of the West'', a film which made Godard call the director -
''SuperMann''. They're all very intelligent films made with subverting traditional cultures ideas about morality. With Mann, he made the Western a Greek Tragedy.

Raoul Walsh and William Wellman(director of ''Ox-Bow Incident'') made two brilliant Westerns starring Robert Mitchum. The former made ''Pursued'', a Noir-Western. The latter made ''Track of the Cat''.

John Ford's Westerns however have the stature of Shakespeare in that genre. ''The Searchers'' is his ''Hamlet'', a moody revenge tragedy with an insane and rebellious protagonist who like Hamlet doesn't believe in God but unlike him is condemned to a fate worse than death by the end. It's also the single greatest cinematic work of artabout American History.

KUBLA KHAN said...

Hi
Antonia believes that we could write a novel together....well, a novel novel.....what say?

Alok said...

thanks for the informative comments and recommendations. specially since I am not very familiar with the western genre... I have seen some of the most famous ones though. The Man who shot liberty valance and the searchers are of course at the top. High Noon and Rio Bravo are also great films, even though my enthusiasm for Rio Bravo dimmed a little after I read some comments by Howard Hawks about why he hated High Noon.

My favourite Ford from the films I have seen so far will be The Grapes of Wrath. I love that "I'll be there" monologue in the end. I think that added scene in the end is beautiful as well. I saw My Darling Clementine recently as well, I should have included some comments on it in this post too. May be later. I will check some of those cult westerns sometime. I have read about them at many places. I will also try to get to some more reading about his films and his career.

kubla: I have trouble writing a coherent and meanigful blog post. a Novel will be a little too ambitious for me at this stage :)

puccinio said...

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I think that added scene in the end is beautiful as well.
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So do I, I know that it's Hollywood and it's not the novel but at the time the film was made, it was I think the right decision. And Steinbeck himself was stunned at the level at which the film was uncompromising.

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High Noon and Rio Bravo are also great films, even though my enthusiasm for Rio Bravo dimmed a little after I read some comments by Howard Hawks about why he hated High Noon.
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That ''Rio Bravo'' was Hawks' conservative response to what he disliked about ''High Noon''. In any case, ''High Noon'' while interesting and good is a weaker film than ''Rio Bravo''.

Politically, that should not be correct, since ''High Noon'' is left wing while ''Rio Bravo'' is ostensibly right-wing. But the thing about ''High Noon' is that the message that it's sending about the Sheriff being a plain old good guy while the town are weak citizens is a kind of myth that actually served the establishment. It's no wonder that the film is the most frequently screened in the White House for the President. You can see Gary Cooper and Grace Kelley as first lady and Mr. President and whatnot.

''Rio Bravo'' on the other hand, made by an apolitical but very misogynist, macho director(who was also a liar and compulsive gambler in his private life) and America's favourite hero, John Wayne is actually more subversive. Since while the John Wayne character is authorative, he's flawed and he depends and needs his gang. And Angie Dickinson isn't a submissive, wife either.

That's art, the film-maker's politics often run againstthis or her's artistic integrity and that's what redeems the film. Like Hawks, was a compulsive womanizer in his life who harassed his actresses(Katharine Hepburn who made ''Bringing Up Baby'' loathed him and Lauren Bacall was very scared of him) but his portraits of women in his films are considered ahead-of-it's-time and proto-feminist.

A film like ''Gentleman Prefer Blondes'' which is ostensibly a gaudy spectacle revolving around Jane Russell and, well, Marilyn Monroe ends up being one of the most cynical films in Cinema History with an aftertaste to rival Chaplin's ''Monsieur Verdoux''.

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specially since I am not very familiar with the western genre...
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Well most people today aren't familiar with it at all. The American Westerns have always been political films whether the makers liked it or not. And some liked it a lot. How do you rebel against the blacklist? Make ''Johnny Guitar''. How do you critique masculinity by telling a tender, heartbreaking love story between men? Make ''I Shot Jesse James''.