Review: Stagecoach (1939)

stagecoach 1.png

While the western hardly began with Stagecoach, one could go out on a very slight limb and say it became a more fully realized version of itself in the hands of John Ford; it all but grew in stature as a genre. This progression cropped out of the prevailing assumption of the day and age that the western was low-grade rubbish meant for no-name actors and meager productions. But Ford proved they could be ripe with so many more possibilities because he had greater ambitions from the outset.

We have John Wayne making a second go of stardom as the Ringo Kid, in what would prove a career bolstering performance, after some 70 films he’d already played in. He, of course, reemerged on the screen in a bold tracking shot and subsequent closeup that has all but impressed itself upon anyone who has ever witnessed the film. In this moment, Ford all but thrusts Wayne into the limelight as his star, for better or for worse, and Duke obliges thereafter.

Ford’s first excursion to Monument Valley proved to be love at first sight as he became so enraptured with the location — and why not — he would film there countless times in the future. It became synonymous with his finest work; he used it as the perfectly mapped canvass on which to express himself. One could argue that no director ever had a better setting,  more synonymous with his vision and sensibilities.

Forget the landscape and situation for a moment. Stagecoach might be one of the premier chamber pieces ever captured. Semantics aside, the picture relies heavily on a cast of characters filled out by archetypes and yet each actor involved is able to lend such credence to each individual role. We readily accept them as a whole ensemble almost seamlessly.

stagecoach 4.png

Apaches stirred up by Geronimo are an excuse for the impending threat looming over the title vehicle. Because it’s true that the stage must make its journey at some point, though the slightly chubby, whiny-voiced driver, Buck (Andy Devine), is hesitant about such a perilous road ahead. Riding shotgun for him is the no-nonsense Marshall Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) who vetoes the other man’s blubbering.

However, if they were to go it alone with only some payload or mail delivery, Stagecoach would be robbed of some of its richness. Two of the first travelers to join them are both casualties of social prejudice and the snooty, self-righteous prigs of the Law and Order League. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is an ostracized woman of the street and then the scorned Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is constantly living in a state of drunkenness.

Contrasting with the other woman is a lady of high repute, Ms. Mallory (Louise Platt), who is pregnant and yet resolves to meet her husband at his cavalry outpost. Her presence coaxes a gentleman gambler (John Carradine) to come aboard as he holds some innate sense of duty in protecting someone of her breeding.

stagecoach 2.png

We also have the impeccably named Donald Meek as Mr. Peaccock who is constantly having his name mispronounced while his samples of whiskey are continually finding their way into the Doc’s possession. He’s a calming force just as the entitled banker, Mr. Gatewood, protests just about everything.

If the types sound familiar it’s because you can draw a line between many of them and their progeny for years to come. But the beauty of the character dynamics is the evolution they undergo. We are not simply blessed by starkly different individuals brushing up against each other in close confines. In other words, of crucial importance is how they act toward one another and ultimately how they change over the course of this joint heroes journey.

Claire Trevor, fittingly, later remembered Ford’s chiding of Wayne, “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know you don’t act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes.” Watch the film and you understand his direction in actual practice. So much is said in unspoken looks and behaviors. Trevor seems especially adept in speaking with her eyes because everything she wants to say and can’t say comes through this very avenue. And whether John Ford would agree or not, The Duke’s eyes are equally telling.

Interiors are exquisitely framed and lit in such a way allowing the actors to be so expressive while space and staging are used to accentuate those same aspects. Take for example one sequence around a dinner table where two camps find themselves moving to opposite corners. You have the outcasts and the purportedly upstanding citizens opposite one another. Not a word is spoken but it is all played out through mere body language and positioning.

However, Whether the film completely realizes it or not there are other societal casualties, namely the Mexicans shown on the screen as well as the Native Americans themselves. Chris (prolific Mexican-American actor Chris Pin-Martin) at least has a voice but not much else. Meanwhile, it does feel as if the Indians are used essentially for a plotting device. There is no depth present in this regard.

However, the pursuit undertaken by the Apaches is filmed marvelously by Ford. In one particularly memorable long take, the stage lumbers into the distance followed by first four and then an entire wave of riders on horseback. It fluidly suggests immense menace and pace which never quite leaves the sequence.

They are reinforced by a couple shots that feel as if the stagecoach and the horses after it are all but trampling the camera. The sense of volatility is accentuated by the legendary stunt work of Yakima Canutt performing death-defying feats on horseback and hanging from the stagecoach. In the era before readily available CGI, it’s the kind of movie magic still capable of stopping a modern viewer cold.

stagecoach 5.png

But the picture does not end there. The city offers other issues that must be resolved. Namely, Ringo’s final showdown with the men who killed his father and kid brother. Also, he must find out what Dallas really is or at least what she is perceived to be.

However, instead of milking the reveals for pure melodramatics, Ford does one better, creating an atmosphere of pure beauty. But within that same framework is a cringe-inducing tension. Pulling his camera away from moments to dwell on reactions as much as actions and movements as much as dialogue. Some of his actors are even given close-ups all the better for studying every expression of their faces.

Because we can write up all that happens in Stagecoach in a matter of sentences. That’s not the engrossing or remarkable part of the picture at all. It’s precisely the way Ford has cast it as only he could. It’s exciting and moving and genuinely light-hearted but it chooses when a certain mood is called for, succeeding in evoking each at the given time like the most visceral vessels of entertainment manage to do.

Thankfully we had many more outings between Ford and Wayne. The director might have given his friend hell on the set but there’s no debating the fact they crafted some of the most iconic westerns together. The collaboration was imperative. Stagecoach rides on the laurels of many people, not least among them Pappy and Duke.

5/5 Stars

Johnny Guitar (1954)

johnny guitar 1.png

“I’m a stranger here myself.” ~ Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar

In watching even only a handful of Nicholas Ray films, it’s possible to discern fairly quickly that his films are often about the marginalized outsiders. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is the most iconic example but this theme goes a lot further than that single movies. He even plays with the same ideas in Johnny Guitar his extraordinarily distinctive western from 1954.

There are other westerns that open like this. A stranger (Sterling Hayden) riding through the mountains and making his way to the nearest town. He overlooks a stagecoach robbery going down and miners blasting away at a mountain with dynamite. There must be a purpose to it all but the significance fails to resonate quite yet.

He goes to the local watering hole: Vienna’s. Except there’s no one there. It’s a ghost town. There are only a few solitary figures working the roulette wheels and the bar. No one else. But still, the stranger walks in as if he’s meant to be there. We don’t know why yet.

By all accounts, Sterling Hayden wasn’t much a cowboy but he had the presence of one. In the movies sometimes that’s enough. Here’s the eponymous Johnny Guitar, the man with his instrument strapped to his shoulder with little stake in the local goings-on.

Namely, the grudge match brewing between the hotel’s fierce proprietress Vienna (the always cutthroat Joan Crawford) and fiery western lass Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) who packs a whole posse of cattlemen including ornery John McIvers (the venerable Ward Bond). It doesn’t help matters that Vienna opens her doors to the despised Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his cronies.

We, like Johnny, have no particular stake in their quarrel though there is a sense of some past grievances. In fact, everyone seems to have a history but we are hardly ever given a nibble, never through flashback and rarely in exposition.

Nicholas Ray creates a gorgeous world in color that showcases some of the most attractive imagery of the West in Classic Hollywood on par with The Searchers (1956) and Rio Bravo (1959). And it boasts an equally colorful array of characters including quality supporting cast members like Bond, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, Royal Dano, John Carradine, Frank Ferguson, and Paul Fix.

But the subversion of all norms begins with Joan Crawford, the woman who loves the sound of the roulette wheels spinning, ever severe, packing a six-shooter in her blue jeans. While the TruColor does much to enhance not only the scenery but her performance as her piercing eyes burn through everyone she stares down. Johhny Guitar might be in our title but Vienna is our undisputed star.

The relish of the film is perfectly rendered by the complete lack of clarity initially. It’s trying to get a line on everyone in an attempt to understand what’s going on as their allegiances are made fairly evident. It’s a matter of picking a side. But the sides are incredibly difficult to decipher. In fact, even in her moments of complete innocence, it helps her character that Crawford very rarely comes off as a sympathetic person — in reality or on the screen. So if she’s our protagonist then we’re in for a tough outing.

Of course, the feud that’s central to the tale was also twofold unraveling on both sides of the camera. Mercedes McCambridge and Joan Crawford loathed each other to put it lightly. They probably wanted to tear each other’s hair out and while not the most benevolent of relationships, it undoubtedly stoked the fires of the film’s drama. In fact, it seems like there weren’t many people who did like working with Crawford. Hayden never wanted to be in another picture with her again either. Still, once more, it all functions in front of the camera exquisitely.

There’s certainly some truth in drawing up parallels with George Stevens’ Shane (1953) but the moral lines are a lot more jumbled and the intentions of the plot far less direct. Shane is a success because it’s a fine piece of classical storytelling still underlined with an imminent threat. Johnny Guitar is beguiling because it breaks with all the conventions of the West while still carrying its own amount of subtext that’s hard to figure.

Should we even care that the posse gets these men? But you see, that’s nearly beside the point. It’s not about right or wrong but this muddled center controlled by Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden. The man and the woman with a bit of a past but not enough that they will fall into each other’s arms and live a faithful life at one another’s side. That’s just not in their nature. Still, riding the fence proves to be a taxing ordeal.

We witness the most peculiar bank robbery as far back as I can remember committed by the local outlaws who until they ran off with the loot hadn’t exactly done anything wrong, in spite of being despised by a whole town. In other words, they played the roles expected of them. Then, a pair of hangings takes place but instead of your typical unrepentant criminals being strung up, you have a kid and a woman both ending up with a rope around their necks. The enforcers’ stomachs begin to churn uneasily. This isn’t how mob justice is supposed to work.

Subsequently, the battle to subdue the frontier is brought home with the most unconventional showdown in the western canon that’s fundamentally also one of the most stunning. It blows up in your face and then leaves you questioning this entire ordeal.

Peggy Lee’s title track is used to sing them out as one final note in this dazzling western courtesy of Nicholas Ray; dazzling for the very reason that it does everything contrary to what we have learned. It continually makes a conscious choice to upend the accepted script attached to the mythology of the West, rewriting its own narrative full of vivid imagery and equally blistering outcomes.

4.5/5 Stars

Fallen Angel (1945)

fallen-angel-3The film opens with a dead end drifter being ushered off a bus in the little every town of Walton, wedged somewhere between LA and SF. Although in actuality it was shot partially on location in Orange, California, serving up a perfect representation of quaint Middle America. You can almost hear Paul Simon singing from the future (Got off a greyhound to look for America) as Dana Andrews gets off the bus. Except he winds up at Pop’s instead. There he sizes up the town and gets his first eyeful of the alluring waitress Stella (Linda Darnell).

He’s dead broke but he also has a brain on his shoulders and that gets him far with a pair of traveling fortune tellers who he is able to promote throughout town, despite the wariness of the townsfolk. This moral crusade is led by Clara Mills (Anne Revere) who is suspicious of such goings-on. It’s her sister, the righteous Ms. June Mills (Alice Faye) who ascertains, “Are we to judge?” She obviously is acquainted with the Beatitudes. And what she says is true but this whole issue made out of a couple of no-name mystics seems like a strange place to try and develop a film-noir.

It’s a curious portrait. Here we have small town America, a wily drifter, two women, and a fortune teller putting on a Seance. But this is only a pretense to get to the dark heart of this film. Eric Stanton is bent on marrying Stella and he tells her as much. They’ve got something (When they lock eyes the cash register clangs). But the underlying problem is that he has no dough, no money to make anything of a marriage. Stella’s not a dumb girl. She’s just opportunistic and she wants some assurance at the end of a proposal.

As Darnell’s character notes several times, she likes the way Andrews talks and he is a real talker, he’d probably make a grand used car salesman. As the story progresses it’s easier to get a line on his train of thought and the way he thinks is insidious indeed.

fallen-angel-4Being blessed with a certain amount of charm, Stanton strikes up a relationship with the untouchable gal, the churchgoer, the book reader, the generally good human being, June. He knows how to pull her out of her shell. Catering to her necessity to get out and live life (All the things you look down on are the things that make up life. Little things, like a game of bowling..or a swim at night, or a dance, a kiss, stuff that bubbles). It works and she begins to be swayed. Conveniently she also has a great deal of money. The outcome seems obvious and yet the story twists in unexpected ways.

Linda Darnell certainly steals the beginning of the story as the beautiful brunette that every man in town is batty over. The list of interested suitors is quite long but it doesn’t matter much. The latter half of the film is Alice Faye’s and as she was supposed to be the star of this picture it’s only fair that she should get her due.

Except, understandably, she felt slighted by Daryl Zanuck who lobbied for his sweetheart Darnell and as a result, a great deal of Faye’s dramatic performance was left on the cutting room floor. What’s left as a testament of her performance, might pale in comparison to her counterparts Andrews and Darnell but it’s often true that it takes that virtuous character to juxtapose with the seedier qualities of those around them.

fallen-angel-1Fallen Angel undoubtedly gets a bad rap because it does not reach the rapturous, beguiling heights of Laura (1944) from the year prior, but it deserves to be seen in its own light. It’s true that both films are murder mysteries but while Fallen Angel isn’t all that interesting in that regard it has a surprisingly sharp script in other ways. Preminger works through his story with a certain dynamic assurance and like its predecessor, it’s the characters that are by far the most fascinating. Laura was a superior mystery, character study, etc., but Fallen Angel gleams brightly thanks in part to its classical chiaroscuro cinematography and an engaging menagerie of locals including Charles Bickford, Percy Kilbride, Bruce Cabot, and John Carradine.

Dana Andrews thrives in his element as the laconic drifter who nevertheless knows how to play people. Every time I caught a glimpse of Darnell’s hair decorated with a flower all I could hear were the refrains of Scott Mckenzie’s “San Francisco” ringing in my ears. And although Faye would not make another film until 1962, hers was not a bad performance. Above all, Otto Preminger deserves a break because Fallen Angel is still a minor noir classic.

3.5/5 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

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

472a2-wrathposters141I must admit this film directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, surprised me in a positive way. This movie seemed like it could potentially be another Citizen Kane  (a movie so inflated with praised that it becomes a letdown when actually viewed). However, The Grapes of Wrath  in fact has a fairly good story adapted loosely from John Steinbeck’s novel. You come out of it feeling the strength of the Joads as well as the inhumanity they face traveling from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma to California. Still, there is hope that they will endure it all in the end. Fonda gives a solid performance as the plain-speaking, young man Tom Joad. Jane Darwell also gives a very moving performance as his Ma . Some may say this movie has its slow parts but it also has some very good moments that reflect genuine humanity.

4/5 Stars