Review: Stagecoach (1939)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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 Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

treasureofsierra2If you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away.  Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add ten thousand more.  Ten you’d want to get twenty-five, twenty-five you’d want to get fifty, fifty a hundred.  Like roulette. One more turn, you know.  Always one more.

If there’s anything to take away from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre it’s that wealth never satisfies, it only serves to compound our anxieties. John Huston’s film is without question an American classic pure and simple, and it maintains that distinction because it has lost very little of its power to this day. Huston returned from shooting WWII documentaries with this project waiting for him back home. He partnered once more with Humphrey Bogart, and he even cast his father in a role that proved to be the standout in the film. Also, he shot most of Sierra Madre actually on location in Mexico, while also hiring locals as extras. It adds to the gritty realism and it was a trend that was slowly becoming more popular.

His prospecting adventure film with shades of western or even noir follows three men who join forces to prospect for gold in the mountains. They first cross paths in the town of Tampico where they’re strapped for cash and barely scraping even. Fred Dobbs meets Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), who shares a similar predicament and they stick together. Upon hearing the tempting tales of gold and riches from a loquacious old prospector (Walter Huston), he plants an idea in their mind. And with nothing to lose the three partners embark on this grand undertaking.

Humphrey Bogart is undoubtedly our main protagonist. In fact, he had been playing them ever since dropping the supporting roles and donning the fedora of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (his first collaboration with John Huston). But down-on-his-luck, scraggly-faced Fred C. Dobbs is probably one of Bogey’s greatest performances. He’s a sourpuss and a bum, who’s begging for money and telling the local kids pestering him to beat it. These early sequences include a cameo from the director and young Robert Blake. I can also debunk a myth by confirming that Ann Sheridan is not the eye-catching woman walking down the street early on, at least not in this cut of the film.

These early moments set Bogart up in such a way that we feel pity for him, even if we are not completely sold on his moral character. Tim Holt’s Curtin likewise is a sorry fellow, and he’s far more understated which makes us want him to see success. Walter Huston steals his scenes because he fits his part so beautifully. He talks and talks and talks. Laughs, gives sage advice every once in awhile, and does a jig if he feels like it. He’s a completely free-spirit, comfortable in his years, and perhaps a little less invested than the other two. He’s in for the gold, but he realizes the transience of life.

Their treasureofsierra4journey is plagued by harsh terrain, heat, banditos, and even a nosy fortune hunter from Texas named Cody. But Howard’s premonitions were right and they begin raking in a mother lode. It’s hard work, but it’s coming slowly but surely. This is the key turning point in the film and the keystone to Bogart’s whole performance.

The early warnings of Howard seem all too pertinent now, “Murder’s always lurkin’ about. Partners accusin’ each other of all sorts of crimes. Aw, as long as there’s no find, the noble brotherhood will last, but when the piles of gold begin to grow, that’s when the trouble starts.

And so it does. Dobbs is the perfect embodiment of what avarice does to a man. The paranoia builds up. Friends become foes, everyone is out to get him, and Reason no longer has any presence in his life. First, he wants to turn on Cody, who by all accounts wasn’t a bad fellow. Next, it’s Howard and then Curtin, who once was his closest companion. By the end of the film, “Dobbsie” has been so totally wrecked by greed, he no longer is the same person. In fact, Bogart has a similatreasureofsierra3r trajectory to Gollum except he is not redeemed. The implications here are not simply some conclusion on wealth and gold, but more importantly what it does to the hearts and minds of men.

However, with all the darkness and corruption pulsing through Sierra Madre, there also are some comedic undertones mostly delivered by Walter Huston. In a sense he was the mediator between Curtin and Dobbs, keeping things civil and so when he left them, they were left to their own devices. He also is the one who is able to look at the cruel hand that they are ultimately dealt and laugh it off. Thus, Bogart gave a wholly aberrant performance, Tim Holt was more morally steadfast, and Huston was the standout with his lively turn. Humor and treachery make strange, but thoroughly entertaining bedfellows indeed.

5/5 Stars

The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948)

4d2bb-treasuremadrePutting Humphrey Bogart in his element once again, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre is another wonderful adventure film. Directed by John Huston, it tells the story of three men who join together in their search for an elusive treasure in Mexico. At the beginning, they are in good spirits eager to become wealthy. However, when they finally strike it rich they find it is not all it is cracked up to be . The situation escalates and they become paranoid of each other. Finally, Bogart’s character Dobbs is pushed over the edge and commits a malicious act out of desperation. Seemingly as an act of karma, he meets with another form of justice. However, it seems that by the end no one actually wins. A surprisingly good film, Sierra Madre takes your usual treasure hunt and realistically depicts man’s greed which often can overpower everything else. Bogart was supported nicely by Walter Huston (the father of the director) and Tim Holt.

5/5 Stars