Review: My Darling Clementine (1946)

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The first time I ever saw My Darling Clementine I couldn’t get over how unimpressive it seemed. If nothing else it certainly didn’t give off any self-aware sense of its own importance. There was nothing that struck me as outright epic and monumental. And yet this western has been a heralded favorite since its initial release in 1946. People love this movie. I think this time around I understand it better.

Maybe it’s all those reruns of the M*A*S*H classic “Movie Tonight.” Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) eases the camp’s aggravations with a showing of his favorite horse opera which, of course, is My Darling Clementine.

But while the reels are spliced and diced for poor Klinger (Jamie Farr), the audience still gets something impactful out of the experience spilling out into their shenanigans together which makes for a quality evening. Because for once My Darling Clementine is a western with many moments that feel unextraordinary in the most human of terms.

Surely there was no greater and more prominent mythmaker of the Old West than John Ford. The key is in the realization Ford need not push anything, allowing everything to unwind in a way that’s the cinematic equivalent of organic action. The director goes with his proclivities of narrative scope, pairing down dialogue, focusing the story instead around activity — and those moments don’t necessarily have to be the perfectly suited sequences for instigating incendiary drama.

Ford’s actual meeting with the real Wyatt Earp on a film set back in the 1920s was a seminal moment for him. One could say he was imparted the blueprint and the inspiration for this picture and that is enough. Because the western never thrived on facts but the embodiment of romanticized figures and ideals. Wyatt Earp was such a figure.

Here Earp (Henry Fonda) is herding some cattle with his brothers when they pass by the town of Tombstone and leave the baby of the family to hold down the fort. In the most simplistic terms, their cattle get rustled and there’s little need to guess who the perpetrators are. The grizzled Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) is right there with his boys, a most obvious culprit. He needn’t even bother denying it. He never does nor does Earp ever accuse him outright.

Instead, Earp decides to stick around for a while and takes up the tin star for marshaling in Tombstone, that illustrious hell hole, emblematic of western lawlessness. Straightaway he shows a bullish tenacity in running drunks and troublemakers out of town but there’s still something more to him.

Ward Bond and Tim Holt act as his brothers and his constant companions. They don’t have a whole lot to do but stand behind their brother at the bar or eat their vittles at dinner tables. But then again, you could make the case most everyone has a fairly unostentatious part.

There is no standout performance and that seems very purposeful. Surely Fonda is the glue holding it all together but it’s not due to flare so much as an ever-steady portrayal that never feels like it’s vying for attention. He leads by example and yet this does not mean the film doesn’t have moments that leave an impression.

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Linda Darnell gives him a slap and he proceeds to dunk her handily in the watering trough for her part in a crooked poker game. She’s the devious, saucy, and unfortunately named Latina Chihuahua. There’s the introduction of her man Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) that clears the bar and would have ended in a gunfight in most any other picture. Wyatt Earp smooths things over allowing life to sink back into the status quo.

A local theater production evokes a particularly rowdy atmosphere where Fonda gets a hat thrown his way which he promptly tosses right back while Darnell looks to whop someone over the head. The locals are aiming to make their displeasure known to the actor who has run out on them on multiple occasions. Earp and Doc go to fetch the man who is being harried by the Clanton boys. In one of the most articulate and entrancing sequences in a western to date, we are treated to Hamlet on the range. You know the words but never have they come out of a man such as Doc Holliday — suggesting that there is a side of him even an amount of breeding that we fail to comprehend.

Finally, Clementine comes to town (Kathy Downs) and we begin to understand. She was Doc’s girl back east when he was still practicing and known in circles as Dr. John Holliday. He’s different now, plagued by illness and alcohol-fueled demons while emphatically wanting her to go back from whence she came. It’s Wyatt who stands by with all sincerity. Getting up, tipping hats, and opening doors for her. The peaceful countenance she wears coaxes him in the direction of the church bells and a dance social.

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We know what must come in the end. It’s all but inevitable: The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In all truth, My Darling Clementine’s shootout is not the most climactic and I could readily name numerous others I prefer. But in capturing it the way he has, Ford has remained true to the essence of the narrative thus far. What strikes me is it is by no means a sensationalized picture. It never even feels like drama or caters to the theatrical. But John Ford has made it cinematic and though it might sound like some form of paradox, I do not think it is.

We are acutely attuned to the moments with no music intuitively because there is little auditory manipulation or further distraction. Everything of import is derived from figures placed up against Monument Valley or staged in crisp interiors. Likewise, few words need to be put to any of it. Because we are fully aware, almost subconsciously. We have just seen a microcosm of the West being tamed and made livable for common folk. The old world is being undone and churches and schools now find a place in the new social order provided by men like Wyatt Earp — embodied by the likes of Clementine as the new schoolmarm. All of this is evoked not by dramatic shifts but a near meandering rhythm of scenes stacked one on top of another.

Again, we go back to the indelible image that everyone instantly conjures up of Henry Fonda with his feet propped up against the post leaning back and just resting his feet a spell. And of course, he’s our hero and the same man who will enact this change. But Ford makes him a laconic figure and one he seems content as anything just to relax.

He’d rather get a shave at the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor or carry the bags of a pretty gal than get into a gunfight any day. True, he can be ornery when he wants. Still, only as a last resort. Fonda’s the perfect man for the part because there’s nothing burnished about him but he comes off honestly with a straightforward sense of integrity. This allows My Darling Clementine to induce a generally optimistic portrait of the West from a picture that could have otherwise dwelled in the depths of near noirish cynicism.

However, even with its strains of the mundane — far from feeling prosaic — the film is blessed by Ford’s mastery of the image. Because what is Film if not a visual medium? The West was by far the most American canvass and Ford one of the finest masters of the art form. There need not be a better reason to relish My Darling Clementine. Aside from my expatiating, I would be amiss not to acknowledge this film as good old-fashioned communal entertainment. M*A*S*H 4077 is the case and point.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: I watched the Pre-Release cut which was restored by UCLA with slight differences from the theatrical release (arguably closer to what Ford originally intended).

The Tin Star (1957)

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You can master a gun if you have the knack. Harder to learn men.” ~ Henry Fonda as Morgan Hickman

A veteran bounty hunter rides into town with a corpse slung over the rear of his horse and gets the whole town gawking. They don’t quite fancy this entrance because they’re about law and order in these parts. Paid guns have no place in the western utopia that they have envisioned.

Obviously, no one in town wants to house such a reprobate and he has no place to bed down his horse at the livery stable either. Finally, he finds room and board with the only folks who have enough congeniality to welcome in a man like him. Because in one sense they are ostracized too, living on the outskirts of town as local pariahs. The single mother Nona (Betsy Palmer) gets by doing needlework in the evenings and trying to keep her son out of mischief. He’s half-Indian. Hence the reason no one wants anything to do with them.

But in this man who seems little more than a hardened killer, they find someone genuine and compassionate when you get to know him. Though initially surprised by the boy’s paternity his kindness doesn’t slacken admitting only that many others grow up hating Indians. They are preached as much by their parents and take it to heart so they can’t hardly change their ways. It’s unfortunate.

I’m not sure if I dare use the term “revisionist western” lest viewers get the wrong idea but seeing of all people gun shy Anthony Perkins as sheriff over a town you realize that something is gravely different with the film’s character types — at least this crucial one. His skittish nature is perfectly-suited along with his boyish looks because, as he soon learns, being a sheriff is not only about what you do but how you look doing it. Being smart, working your mind, and projecting a certain image.

At first, Ben Owens (Perkins) is like everyone else. He sees Hickman only at face value. But soon he gathers there is much to glean from this veteran who is handy with a gun and holds a wealth of knowledge. Most impressively he’s lived long enough to talk about it and that means he must be a pretty smart fellow. He’s become well-versed in human nature.

He looks at Owens, a young gun beholden to the duty thrust upon him, and he sees a dead man walking. He’s not going to last long. Hickman knows it. Ben’s girl (Mary Webster) knows it. Perhaps deep down Ben knows it too.

Finally, he asks the bounty hunter to be his mentor and reluctantly Morg agrees to it because his pupil still has his training wheels on as it were. He’s not ready to stand down the town or confront a hulking heavy like the local bad boy named Bogardus (Neville Brand).

One of the film’s finest creations is the local Doctor Joseph McCord (John McIntyre) who not only pulled strings to get Mrs. Mayfield work but he is keen to play matchmaker with two of the fast-growing babies he brought into the world. Indeed he is well-liked by all on every side.

Mann pulls another stunt, not unlike the one in The Far Country (1954) with the Doc making a grand entry with his horse into town to much fanfare on his birthday. It’s one of the film’s most indelible sequences.

A pair of half-breed brothers are also on the lamb and wanted for a couple of crimes. Bogardus gathers a mob of his own to go after them. But begrudgingly following the advice of Morg who has remained hands-off, the Sheriff decides to track them alone.

Morg lingers behind and ultimately ends up being the one who smokes them out without any bloodshed. He delivers the McGaffey Brothers (including Lee Van Cleef) over to the Sheriff so that justice can be implemented first in the jailhouse then in the courtroom.

But that is just the beginning. The final act takes on an uncanny turn toward a High Noon-like allegory. One man faced with a major opposition and yet resisting to back down. But whether or not that motif is McCarthyism incarnate or not, Mann’s handling of the sequence is arresting.

He sets up the action in such a way that we are standing behind Perkins peeking past his solitary frame. He’s unimposing and spindly standing there on the jail steps with his shotgun but he is a better man than me. The question he must grapple with is where the line between a good man and a dead one exists. Sheriffing is a nervewracking business and most men die young in such an occupation. Mann makes us comprehend exactly why that is.

And yet, in the end, it’s all for naught as the picture collapses too easily lacking that typical hard-edged savagery of Mann’s other pictures with James Stewart. While Dudley Nichol’s high-minded script might be quality stuff for a minor picture, it’s not necessarily the script best-suited for Mann.

He was never one for moralizing. In fact, his best films about isolation or outsiders never seemed to make a point of a racial divide or any other societal issues. It felt like they were very much implicit in the story at hand. They never were didactic instead choosing to viscerally speak to us delivering any themes through mere osmosis.

By no means does that downplay the fine chemistry between Henry Fonda or Anthony Perkins both seemingly impeccably cast. However, The Tin Star is a picture that could have been even more resonant.

3.5/5 Stars

Daisy Kenyon (1947)

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Otto Preminger always moves through space so fluidly with his camera, and Daisy Kenyon is introduced with a single scene, but it’s the perfect post for the film to hang its hat on.

There’s Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews) trying to get the cabby to keep the meter running only to relent when the cabby gives him the statistics on New York’s taxi shortages. Joan Crawford’s punching pillows as Daisy Kenyon, a successful artist who has had an amiable fling for some time with the man. He already has a wife and kids. It’s not where she wants to be. She’s not looking to be a homewrecker. But it’s partially O’Mara’s fault, a successful lawyer who walks in and grabs himself a cup of coffee as nice as you please — all part of his normal routine.

Moments later, another cab appears with Henry Fonda, the understated G.I. Peter Lapham, who winds up on Daisy’s doorstep to call on her for a date. In this opening moment, it takes us so long to know how these characters relate to each other. Maybe it’s the fact that for two people not married to each other Crawford and Andrew’s characters have such a casual, even comfortable, relationship. This isn’t the passionate tryst we’re accustomed to seeing. That’s a beginning and it only gets more fascinating as time marches on.

Henry Fonda feels like he should be the third wheel of the picture and though recognized as a phenomenal actor, he had been out of the game so long like his buddy James Stewart; it’s hardly possible to know what to expect from him. We have My Darling Clementine (1946) and that’s about all. When he pops up, we almost lose him behind the personality of Crawford and Andrews’ own brand of charisma.

But that’s why I’ll always admire Fonda as an actor, because his natural delivery leaves an impression that’s a perfect counterbalance, almost to the point of undermining what his costars are doing.

Meanwhile, Dana Andrews doesn’t appear to make a very convincing father, because every time you hear him say “Baby” to his daughter, a noir dame like Gene Tierney or Linda Darnell springs to mind. The associations have already been made long before this picture. It makes it hard to go back now. Remarkably, in all other respects, he fits the bill and he hardly places a foot wrong. It’s the side of Boomerang (1947) that’s rather more interesting. A big-time lawyer’s family life going to shreds outside the courtroom, spilling into his work as well.

Thus, Daisy Kenyon rolls out the carpet in the fashion of a romantic love triangle and we can make that assumption right off the bat with the stars whose names flash above the title. But what sets this picture apart mostly has to do with the account of the ensuing melodrama. Because it’s hardly melodrama at all, or at least, it’s a more authentic, even honest strain that feels noticeably genuine compared to what Hollywood generally seemed capable of in the 1940s.

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Case and point is a very simple sequence around a table at a bar. Our three stars are gathered there together to talk things out like rational-minded adults. They’re the kind of conversations that can be unpleasant and most certainly of a private nature. Still, in another picture, they might have continued the dialogue as the waiter comes up without a second thought, but here the conversation ceases because that’s more like real life. The film itself seems openly aware of this fact as well.

What becomes equally noticeable is the lack of the kind of soppy manipulative scoring we might see in other works. Embraces and kisses and sweet nothings but none of the same mood created. Again, a little like the real world. Choirs only play in lovers’ heads.

I do greatly appreciate David Raksin’s score, his work in Laura (1944) being transcendent, and here it fits the mood with its sparing arrangements around certain moments to accent nightmarish attacks and more tranquil interludes. It’s almost counter-intuitive if not refreshing.

Subsequently, we witness the most painful sequence of infidelity. Just watching things unravel gives me a heavy heart and I want to grieve even if this is only a cinematic space within which the events are taking place. Because it feels so brazenly real as the lines get crossed and irreparable damage is done.

A part of this messy process is the ensuing complications like divorce, settlements, splitting up custody of the kids, and all the future roadblocks that make people more embittered and jaded when it comes to life.

Though by title and content alone it doesn’t let much slip, there were also murmurs that Daisy Kenyon featured Japanese-Americans in its storyline and as one myself I usually jump at the chance of any such story. Because normally, they are few and far between in Classic Hollywood. That makes any picture with such content a minor revelation for me whether it was Preminger’s impetus or not.

At any rate, The Civil Rights Association comes a calling on O’Mara to represent a Nisei war veteran named Tsu Noguchi who came home to find his farm had been legally taken away from him. We never see the man and there’s not that much more said on the issue except that “It isn’t anyone’s kind of case” but Dan takes it up, assumedly because he wants to impress Daisy and there’s an inkling that he has a shred of decency in his being too.

Now here is another picture to add to that modest but still formidable list including The Steel Helmet, Go for Broke!, Japanese War Bride, and The Crimson Kimono. It proves to be a victory for even conceding that such a world and such a history existed. That is enough for me.

It’s an extension of the entire film really, constructed of minor intricacies that succeed in making this picture an unprecedented example of 1940s Hollywood. It’s ending is wonderful for how it defuses everything we expect from a courtroom drama or a woman’s picture or any other genre convention. It ends on a natural, smooth note like a nice glass of bourbon cradled in the palm of your significant other. Like clockwork, there’s Henry Fonda again. The man we should never, ever write off. What is the age-old adage? He who laughs last, laughs loudest? Yes, indeed.

4/5 Stars

Advise & Consent (1962)

Advise-&-Consent-(1)This is an Otto Preminger film about politics. That should send off fireworks because such a divisive topic is only going to get more controversial with a man such as Preminger at the helm — a man known for his various run-ins with the Production Code. All that can be said is that he didn’t disappoint this time either.

Who knew a film revolving around the seemingly simple task of passing the president’s nomination for the new Secretary of State could be so complicated and lead to such turmoil?  True, the nomination of Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) might be controversial, but there’s a lot more to it than we initially conceived.

There’s the obvious political angle on Capitol Hill involving a Subcommittee chaired by majority member Brigham Anderson from Utah (Don Murray). Meanwhile, the majority leader is working behind the scenes to gather the necessary support, since he is loyal to the president, despite his share of doubts. However, old curmudgeon Seeb  Cooley (Charles Laughton) is prepared to unleash all his fury and political wiles to stop the nomination in his tracks. Soon it seems to be working well enough.

But that ends up being hardly the half of it. There’s perjury, the aging president (Franchot Tone) is biding his time, and Brig begins to receive threatening telephone calls at home. At first, they seem wholly unsubstantiated, but it seems there really are some dirty little secrets to be drudged up on him. As one who is faithfully looking to uphold their position and do a credible job accessing Leffingwell, it looks like someone really doesn’t want him to reject the nomination. Brig doesn’t end up having time to find out.

And so the day of decision in the Senate Chamber turns out to be an eventful one, bringing old rivals together and resolving the issue of the nomination once and for all. It seems that so much legwork was done all for naught, but that’s politics for you.

Advise & Consent is a fascinating representation of the political system because it involves so many interconnected, intertwining conversations and interactions going on behind the scenes. There’s the pomp & circumstance, the traditions that go with these posts, but it’s actually all the side conversations behind closed doors, in private, where the real work seems to get done. Preminger uses extended shot length to allow his audience the luxury of watching events unfold methodically while using a fluid camera to keep them from being completely stuffy. And his laundry list of stars great and small lend a depth to Capitol Hill.

Although Henry Fonda might be the headliner the film’s focus is wonderfully distributed by the well-balanced cast of players. In fact, you can easily make the case that this is Walter Pidgeon and Don Murray’s film with the decrepit-looking Charles Laughton (who unfortunately passed away months later) falling close behind. Murray is the principled tragic family man, while Pidgeon is wonderfully cast as a veteran white knight of politics. Laughton while beleaguered, still manages a wry performance worthy of his final screen appearance.

Preminger also includes his longtime collaborator Gene Tierney in her return to the screen in a small but crucial role and Lew Ayres as the benevolent V.P. Harley Hudson. Even Peter Lawford is involved in a role supposedly inspired by his real-life brother-in-law incumbent president, John F. Kennedy. Some notable inclusions in the cast include the formerly blacklisted actors Will Geer and Burgess Meredith. One notable part that didn’t end up being cast was Martin Luther King Jr. in a cameo as a Senator from Georgia. Although it truly would have been a lightning rod of a political statement, in reality, Preminger didn’t end up needing it. His film already used words and covered topics hardly touched previously thanks to the watchful eyes of the Production Code. It didn’t need more dynamite.

While Advise & Consent may not be the greatest of political films or the most stirring, it still certainly has its share of riveting moments. Most anything from Otto Preminger is bound to be interesting and this one is no different.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Lady Eve (1941)

theladyeve3“You have the darndest way of bouncing a fellow down and bumping him up again” ~ Henry Fonda as Charles Pike

The story goes that screenwriting wunderkind Preston Sturges penned The Lady Eve with Barabara Stanwyck in mind. He promised her a great picture and he most certainly delivered a stellar screwball like only he could. It plays off the archetypal biblical temptress with comic effect, and it finds the greatest of comic couples in Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. They both are iconic stars, but the narrative works so well, due to that, but also the fact that the film constantly undermines the typical plotting. As the title suggests the woman is really the focal point of the film — she’s the one in control.

In this instance, Stanwyck is shady trickster Jean Harrington, who joins forces with her equally conniving father (Charles Coburn) to take people to the cleaners in any way possible. They’re real smooth operators with cards and any other type of con you could think of. A luxury ocean liner seems like the perfect place to set up their business. Out of all the many high profile passengers, one man stands a head above the rest. His name is Charles Pike (Henry Fonda). He keeps his nose buried behind a book, tries to avoid the gazes of all the pretty girls, and has a penchant for reptilian wildlife after getting back from a long expedition. He also just happens to be the heir to a gargantuan Ale fortune. That’s what catches everyone eye, including the beautifully sly Stanwyck.

theladyeve2In fact, we have a brilliant introduction to her as she narrates the scene unfolding in front of her with the aid of her compact mirror. She trips up the bumbling bachelor and their introduction is the first exclamation point in a bumpy relationship. She’s ready to play him and marry rich and famous, because he’s a pretty naive fellow, and stiff around the ladies. Fonda’s nervous charm proves the perfect recipe for success as he is constantly being overwhelmed by Stanwyck’s frenetic barrage. His defenses are down and he hasn’t the foggiest what has hit him. Either he was really that uncomfortable or otherwise, he does a superb job of faking it since there’s never another moment where he’s not being fondled or manipulated.

Jean is very quick to get cozy with “Hopsy” (after alcohol and not a rabbit), but something strange begins to happen. For some strange, ludicrous reason she begins to fall for her mark — this goofy guy with loads of cash. That certainly was not in her cards, yet she doesn’t seem to mind. What follows are some wonderful card playing antics between Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck as she tries to stave off her father from pulling one over on her new beau. But of course, just as Pike is getting his sea legs he catches wind of the whole charade quite by chance, and he’s quick to turn off Harrington for the fraud he thinks she is.

theladyeve4The story could end there, but Sturges has set his story up perfectly for a killer second act. Jean plans a perfectly sneaky revenge plan to get back at “Hopsy” by posing as the British niece of another con man (Eric Blore). He uses his own wily charm and influence to get them an invitation to the Pike household for dinner. There we see several other great character actors in action including Horace Pike (Eugene Pallette), and the perennial sourpuss Muggsy (William Demarest). Jean shows up now as the Lady Eve and successfully convinces her “Hopsy” that she is a completely different individual. The film works wonderfully on this axle of ludicrousness because  young Pike is completely befuddled and awestruck again. He goes thudding, clanking, and crashing all evening long, a true victim of love. Pike thought he lost one girl for good and here’s another even better prospect. A whirlwind romance follows and everything is falling into place beautifully. There’s a frantic montage in preparation for the big day and then it happens. They get hitched. Afterwards, it’s all done and the two lovebirds are on a train barreling down the tracks interspersed with the long laundry list of all Eve’s beaus from Angus, to Herman, and Cecil and so on. It’s Charles’ worst nightmare, and he hopes to get out of it as quickly as possible.

But then by chance, he runs into the first girl, who is, of course, Stanwyck as well. He’s genuinely happy to see her, and they embrace like nobody’s business. Being the honorable man that he is, Pike acknowledges that he is, in fact, married now, but the joke’s on him. She is too! It’s an entirely irregular ending, but that’s screwball comedy for you.

theladyeve1What makes Sturges’ film so wonderful is all the parts making up the whole. His script is perfectly contrived mayhem. He sprinkles it with his typical slapstick, his loudmouthed stock company lends an added layer, and his typically lightning-quick repartee is brought to life by his leads. Stanwyck was the quintessential leading lady of the 1940s and in 1941 she was in fine form (Balls of Fire and Meet John Doe). She can dance so effortlessly between dynamic comedy to heartfelt drama that is positively palpable.  She overshadows Fonda in a sense, but they still work together, because he is her perfect foil, the precise innocent fool to fall into her web of feminine wiles. She can muss up his hair, manhandle him, and completely manipulate his feelings. Yet we still like both of them in spite of it. They are a hilarious match, and there’s space for some passionate canoodling as well. It’s probably one of the most perfectly wonderful, utterly dysfunctional relationships we could ever hope to see put on screen.  By continually whipping out punch line after punch line to the very last quip, Sturges makes this comedy look positively effortless.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Grapes_of_Wrath,_The_-_(Original_Trailer)_-_01The Grapes of Wrath is in special company with a number of literary adaptations where film and source material are both so highly regarded and culturally significant. A few other names spring to mind such as Gone with the Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

However, even more so than all of those stories John Steinbeck’s novel of exodus during the Dust Bowl has a universal ring reverberating for the common man. The Joads are a humble, simplistic Oklahoma clan, but they are only one family out of many who are forced to make the migration out to California. The Dust Bowl and big business push them off their homes and their only hope is the distant promise land of California. They cling to that hope which keeps them going resolutely onward toward the Orange Groves.

Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) who has just gotten out on parole is the figure from which we see the story through. He’s the focal point certainly, but he is defined by all those around him. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) is the rock of the family, keeping them together, civil, and spirited even when the worst hardships of life hit.

Grandpa dies on the land that he called home. Grandma dies without the company of her lifelong partner. Rosasharn’s husband cuts out when prospects look bad. The family is slowly drained of money, food, gasoline, and hope when they see that the prospects in California are far from good. The book has so much to say politically and socially, using the Joads as a universal parable to reflect the reality of a great many people.

Obviously, John Ford’s film cannot contain all the exposition and commentary of the novel, but he uses the visual medium brilliantly and the Nunnally Johnson’s script fills the screen with all sorts of folks. There are no true villains and the only heroes are those who maintain their humanity and treat others well on a day to day basis. Ma Joad is one, offering food to starving children because it’s the right thing to do. A roadside waitress comes off brusque at first before extending a true act of kindness. You have the genial caretaker (Grant Mitchell) of the Wheat Patch Camp, who is angelic in comparison to so many of the other gruff people the Joads come in contact with.

There’s the scum of the earth. People just doing what they’re told, men just worried about profit, and crooked cops looking to run Okies out. There are those who just grin and bear it to feed their families. They’re part of the problem too and finally, you have Jim Casy and then Tom following in his footsteps.

Former preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine) is a critical figure because he, like so many of the other characters, has lost himself and yet over the course of the film he finds his purpose again. He’s the film’s Christ-like figure (with the initials JC), and yet he seems counter-intuitive to what we expect. But he has the most important things down. He fights for justice and lays down his life for his friends.

Rather like an extensive Dorothea Lange exhibition, cinematographer Gregg Toland shoots the film in beautifully austere and gritty black and white, which feels like a test run for Citizen Kane. However, it remains iconic in its own right with the ways in which it makes the plain, simple, and ordinary cinematic. It’s truly a visual snapshot of Americana with Henry Fonda as our All-American poster boy.

Speaking of Fonda, how could I have lost sight of his character here? Fonda in many ways synonymous with Tom Joad, and I always equate him being a kindly, true blue American. But that’s only part of him. That’s how he acts around his family, but he’s a young man disillusioned by the world. He speaks his mind and is not opposed to fighting back against the injustice. Because that’s what he sees around him. That’s why he kills the man who beats Casy and that’s why he goes out on the road; to be a champion of justice where there isn’t any. It’s an ending more suited for Hollywood at the time than Steinbeck’s original denouement, but it no less poignant or powerful. It doesn’t just stop with the Depression, but it ends up being a whole lot bigger and more universal than that. This is one of the great tales about the human condition, courtesy of one of America’s greatest directors starring one of America’s most legendary actors.

4.5/5 Stars

“I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.” – Tom Joad

Review: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Once_upon_a_Time_in_the_West 2I’m not well versed in Spaghetti Westerns, but I certainly do not need someone to tell me that Sergio Leone’s film is a sprawling epic. That’s an understatement if there ever was one. The cast, the score, the visuals. Everything about it fits together so marvelously. All the moving parts succeed in developing a majestic piece of cinema that really is awesome. I try not to use that word lightly.

Recently I saw Tarantino’s Django Unchained which of course pays homage to the Spaghetti Western, and it undoubtedly exhibits the Tarantino style. However, Leone’s film lingers as well, but with Once Upon a Time in the West, I didn’t mind. The film, after all, has a cold open that lasts 13 minutes and most of it is spent staring at Jack Elam and Woody Strode. Except the way Leone captures it all, I don’t really mind. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy it. Whereas Tarantino’s film felt like it was dawdling, Leone’s film didn’t seem to dawdle. It was just stylish in its makeup.  The pacing at times feels like a lazy Sunday afternoon underlined by dread for something to come. Then for a brief blip, the trouble comes violently and then just like that it’s gone. Everything’s back to the status quo except this structure makes every killing and gunfight seem all the more dynamic.

The main players are Claudia Cardinale, James Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda. Cardinale, of course, is one of the icons of cinema, and here she feels like a wonderful embodiment of this woman who helps bring civility to this land. Whether it’s simply her immense beauty or some emotion behind her eyes, it’s hard not to watch her every movement. First, as she learns she is a widow, next when she is introduced to the other main players, and finally when she sees her dead’s husband’s dreams forming all around her.

James Bronson as the aloof, but deadly “Harmonica” has to be at his coolest. He hardly has to say anything because that ominous harmonica music is his calling card. Every time we hear it we know he’s around and also his eyes are so expressive. Sergio Leone is never squeamish about lingering on his star’s faces. In fact, that paired with landscapes is one of his signatures that helps define his iconic style. The contrasts stand out and the interludes often lacking dialogue somehow help make his characters even cooler. They take on an air of mystery and in the case of “Harmonica”, we only understand his vendetta near the very end. It all starts to make sense.

Robards is the outlaw Cheyenne, who is pinned with the murder of McBain’s wife and children. A posse is after him and his gang, but he was actually pinned for the rap. He is cast in the light of a scruffy anti-hero and Robards plays him rough around the edges, but most importantly with a heart. He’s one of the few characters who seems to get Jill. He knows enough that none of the men around her are worthy of her, because she is a special class of woman, in spite of what her past may say.

Perhaps the most striking of casting choices was Henry Fonda because by now he was well along in his career and most certainly best known for his plain-speaking heroes. That’s what makes Frank such a great character because dressed in all black and armed with a revolver, he guns someone down the first moment we see him. It’s a shock and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. He goes on to backstab his sickly employer and continues to put pressure on Mrs. McBain to give up her land. It goes so far as taking advantage of her at her home. He’s a monster, but the part is such the antithesis of the Henry Fonda we know, making it a pure stroke of genius.

At least for me, you soon forget about the dubbing of certain characters and just allow yourself to become fully engaged in the dynamic West as envisioned by Leone. After all, since there isn’t a whole lot a dialogue, in some scenes it loses its importance. It’s often about the desolately depicted visuals. The wry smile on a face. The buzz of a pestering fly or the squeaking of a windmill. That’s another thing. This film puts sound to use so wonderfully. Whether it’s the harmonica, Morricone’s engaging score, or diegetic sounds. In fact, the score evolves and reprises in concordance with the pacing of the film. It can be ominous. It can be playful. And sometimes it’s nonexistent.

When it all comes down to it, we get the final showdown between “Harmonica” and Frank, but the film is a lot larger than that. After all, we have been following multiple characters. Jill finally sees the world around here coming to life, and she has weathered the Wild West as an independent woman. As for Cheyenne, he ends as a tragic hero of sorts. There’s no question, Leone’s film, arguably his greatest alongside The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, helps define a version of the West, with iconic characterizations placed up against striking pictorials. It’s one of those film’s that despite the length, never feels like a labor. A smile is constantly forming on my face, to mirror the visage of James Bronson. I really wish I could play the harmonica now. It’s so ridiculously cool! That’s what I really took away from this film.

5/5 Stars

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

youngmr1Hailing from a year laden with numerous American classics, Young Mr. Lincoln is undoubtedly overlooked in deference to other titles like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Even John Ford’s own Stagecoach, starring John Wayne, overshadowed this autobiographical work headed by Henry Fonda. Then the next year they came out with The Grapes of Wrath and that title garnered praise for both men. But again, it seems like most have forgotten about Young Mr. Lincoln.

It really is a shame, because this is a quintessential Ford film, and Henry Fonda gives an iconic turn as one of the great historical giants of all time. Except instead of focusing on his major accomplishments, trials, or fatal death, this story contents itself with a simpler story. The focus is the fledgling law career of Abraham Lincoln, who back in 1857 is only a lanky country boy with a hankering for learning. He sees tragedy at a young age when people pass away around him and yet out of those formative years rises a man who is wise beyond his years, because he understands his fellow man and cares deeply about justice.

Lincoln is hardly a lawyer of any repute, and he seems hardly a political figure compared to the likes of the great Stephen Douglas. But the people respect him because he wins them over with his common sense and homespun witticisms. Aside from his ubiquitous top hat, he willingly judges pie eating contests, and play the Jew’s harp with feet reclined at his desk.  One of his dear admirers is the young socialite Mary Todd who takes an immense liking to him. He’s the kind of figure that the elite and common folk alike can truly respect.

So when two brothers are accused of murdering another man after a fight one night, it is Mr. Lincoln who avoids a lynching and appeals to the morals of the locals. He, in turn, promises the mother of the boys that he will do his very best to win their freedom and he does all he can to gain her trust.

When the trial begins he carefully picks the jury and faces off against a venerable prosecutor with much greater experience than himself. The mother of the accused saw the squabble, but she cannot bear to implicate her sons. Lincoln pleads on her behalf.  It also looks like the key witness and friend of the deceased man will put a seal on the case, but young Mr. Lincoln is not done yet.

Thus, the film ends and Lincoln is most certainly on the rise, but we get to imagine his future knowingly, on our own, because none of that length of the story is told. In that way, it’s rather interesting to juxtapose Ford’s film with Spielberg’s more recent biography Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. They represent different generations of filmmaking, because the latter film takes a monumental moment in history, the passing of the 13th amendment, and places a magnifying glass to it. Focusing on all the individuals involved, and it is certainly going for an amount of period realism, starting with the impressive performance by Day-Lewis as our 16th president.

Young Mr. Lincoln is a lot simpler because it does not need to focus on the highlights. It takes as great of an interest in Abe’s origin story so to speak. On his part, Henry Fonda plays the role wonderfully using his mannerisms and plain speaking delivery to give a homey quality to Lincoln. He’s believable, but in a different way than Day-Lewis. It’s not better or worse necessarily, just different. That being said, Young Mr. Lincoln deserves a place among the exulted classics of that legendary year of 1939. Hopefully, it will continue to receive the respect that it deserves, because it is a moving and surprisingly very witty film. Probably in the way Abraham Lincoln was.

4.5/5 Stars

You Only Live Once (1937)

youonlylive1There are two types of lover-on-the-run narratives. There’s the Bonnie and Clyde/Gun Crazy extravaganza full of shoot-outs and bloodshed. Then you have the more sensitive approach of a film like They Drive By Night. You Only Live Once fits this second category thanks to two bolstering performances by Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney. Fonda is forever known for his plain, naturalistic delivery full of humanity. He has that quality as 3-time loser Eddie Taylor certainly, but he also injects the role with a somewhat uncharacteristic rage. In many ways, he has a right to be angry at a world that so easily writes him off and is so quick to pronounce guilt. There is very little attempt to rehabilitate the reprobate and Taylor is an indictment of that.

youonlylive2Secretary Jo Graham (Sylvia Sydney) is positively beaming the day they are releasing her boyfriend Taylor because he is finally getting the second chance he deserves. A glorious marriage follows soon after until reality breaks into the lovers’ paradise. Few people aside from Father Dolan and a few forward thinkers are willing to give Taylor grace. He is prematurely fired from his job and has no way to make the payments on the house that his wife has been sprucing up for him. Adding insult to injury, a brazen bank robbery is committed which he is wrongly accused of. It’s back to the clink and then the electric chair.

Jo is beside herself and Taylor is angered at the way the law deals with him. This justice is the most unjust imaginable, and he is about to pay the price. But Jo desperately gets him help and he tries to make a break for it.

youonlylive4That’s what makes a wire proclaiming his innocence all the more ironic because he will have none of it. He takes a man’s life and now his acquittal goes down the drain as quickly as he got it since he has a murder to his name. Eddie and Jo go off on the road together, looting banks and surviving the best they can with their newborn son. This is not two joyriding youngsters trying to get rich without an honest day’s work. Fritz Lang develops a more complex story with people who tried to live by the rules and found they were dealt an unfair hand.

As one of Lang’s earliest works in America, you can see some remnants of German Expressionism exported here with foggy clouds of mist engulfing the screen at times. His tale also has an interesting ambiguity suggesting that crime is not always black and white. Perhaps it has less to say about the moral degenerates or corrupt individuals in our society and more about the faulty structures that our justice system often get built around. It’s mind-boggling to think that this film came soon after the Depression meaning the bitter taste of those years was still fresh in peoples’ mouths. Nevertheless, this film is an interesting crime-filled character study.

4/5 Stars

Review: 12 Angry Men (1957)

ebd81-12angrymen1With a title like 12 Angry Men you might come away with the false idea that all the characters in this film are the same, emotionally and otherwise. That is far from the truth. The reason a film like this stands up even today is because the fellows who sit down around that table are everymen that each and every one of us can relate to in some way. Yes, they are all male and all white, but they reflect little bits of us and our own humanity.

But getting down to the specifics, what is 12 Angry Men really and truly about? If you want to break it down, all it boils down to is 12 men gathering in a room to talk out a murder case. It sounds pretty dull and it had the potential to be so. In fact, calling it a courtroom drama is partially a misnomer because we hardly spend five minutes there before the jury is deliberating. We see the members of the jury, hear the final statement of the judge, and get a last look at the young defendant.

What comes next is the beginning of the decision-making process and seeing as it looks like an open and shut case, an initial vote is called for. If everyone agrees, this boy will be sent to the electric chair for killing his father. The vote is taken and it is 11 to 1 with one man holding out. Juror Number 8 (Henry Fonda), an architect, cannot bring himself to send the boy off without talking some more and so, begrudgingly, they do talk.

That is where the true heart of this film comes out, through the discussion and back and forth of the characters. They get around to evidence like the switchblade which the boy supposedly dropped. There were two witnesses: One being an old man living downstairs and the other a middle-aged woman who lived across the train tracks. Then, there is the business about the boy’s flimsy alibi about going to the movies. All are hotly debated and quarreled over.

It just happens to be the hottest day of the year and about an hour in it starts pouring cats and dogs. Tempers reach their apex, feelings are hurt, and major prejudices are revealed. The beauty of this film is not simply the sentiment that the jury switches its decision. The beauty truly comes from this wonderfully colorful ensemble of actors under the direction of Sidney Lumet in a confined space. But before mentioning the direction it is important to acknowledge the players because they are the heart and soul of this story.

Juror # 1: (Martin Balsam) He is the foreman who moderates, and he tries to keep the discussion civil with a relatively calm demeanor. All we know about him is that he is an assistant coach for a high school football team.

Juror # 2: (John Fielder) He is one of the younger members of the jury and a quiet individual with a timid voice. He is a banker.

Juror # 3 (Lee J. Cobb) The main driving force of conflict, he holds out when everyone else switches their vote. He is a businessman who also has familial issues with his son that come into play.

Juror # 4 (E.G. Marshall) A rational and measured broker, he holds that the boy is guilty until some facts are laid out that make him think otherwise.

Juror # 5 (Jack Klugman) A meek man and Baltimore baseball fan who also has a fiery side as well. It comes out that he grew up in the slums when he was a kid.

Juror # 6 (Edward Binns) A straightforward and kindly painter who is respectful in his conduct.

Juror # 7 (Jack Warner) The jokester of the group who makes his living selling Marmalade. He is looking forward to a Yankees baseball game and tries to push the proceedings forward as fast as possible.

Juror # 9 (Joseph Sweeney) The eldest member of the jury and the first to side with Juror # 8. He has a fighting spirit and also some thoughtful observations on the case.

Juror # 10 (Ed Begley) A loud-mouthed older man with a penchant for insults and unsavory remarks about foreigners.

Juror # 11 (George Voskovec) He is a watchmaker and the foreigner in the group. However, he is obviously quite intelligent and passionate about American democracy. He takes seriously the duty that comes with being a juror.

Juror # 12 (Robert Webber) Lastly comes the wisecracking man in advertising who tries to lighten up the conversation. He is the major flip flopper in the group.

A mention now must be made of Sidney Lumet’s direction, because for his first film he was extremely bold to film it essentially in one room. He does it so wonderfully, however, because the confined space only heightens the drama thanks to his progressive change in camera angles. They start above eye level and slowly get lower as the drama increases. He is very rarely stagnant either, having the camera on the move or cutting to different characters. A great example of this is the tracking shot as the jurors enter the room. We are introduced to almost every character in such a fluid, natural way that sets up the story nicely.

There is so much else that could be said about Fonda’s performance and individual actors who I admire, but I will leave this discussion by saying that this is one of the greatest ensembles I have ever seen brought together. The intensity they created makes me want to get up right now and serve on a jury. Too bad I already served my jury duty this year!

5/5 Stars