Thursday, August 27, 2009

70's Bonanza: The Molly Maguires

From the film's opening ten minutes, I knew I was in for a very under appreciated treat with director Martin Ritt's "The Molly Maguires". The place is Pennsylvania and the time is 1874 when coal mining was the chief employment of the hordes of immigrants who landed on the East Coast and ventured into the more melancholy parts of the country. Aided by James Wong Howe's evocative, textured cinematography, Ritt initiates his film with slow, contemplative zooms as it follows a coal haul out of the mine and up its wooden tracks. A wordless eight minutes pass as the camera finds a group of men diligently working in the shafts below until a whistle blows. Four of the men (including leader of the pack Sean Connery) quickly break apart and set dynamite blocks around the mine before they light the fuse. They then casually wait for their cart ride out of the mine and slowly proceed down a muddy dirt road as Howe's camera faithfully glides in front, leading the way. By this time, the nerves are frazzled at the film's deliberate pace when we know explosions will pierce the air at any moment. It's a great opening that exemplifies the film's patience and devious ambiguity about the Molly Maguire's terrorist attempts borne out of downtrodden treatment.

The "devious ambiguity" mentioned above comes in the form of Pennsylvania detective James McParlan (a steely eyed Richard Burton) who goes undercover in the mines to infiltrate the Molly Maguires. Complicating matters is his own Irish pride. McParlan himself understands the tremendous invisibility of his people in this new land and in some small, unwritten ways, director Ritt and screenwriter Walter Bernstein create a tenuous relationship between McParlan and Jack Kehoe (Connery) as two sides to the same person.. a person that long ago took divergent steps in life but could easily morph into the other's life at any given moment. Two confidently, fleshed out performances, Connery and Burton have never been better. And the scene between them in the end registers with truth and complexity.

Like many films released in the early 70's, there's a residual 60's hangover- a feeling of (sometimes) safe studio production values and status quo stuffiness. Released in 1970, "The Molly Maguires" has a definitively gritty 70's feel. From its greasy, earthy tones (which must have certainly influenced P.T. Anderson for his modern epic "There Will Be Blood") to its warm, candle-lit interiors, there's nothing stuffy about it. The anger seems real. The careful relationship that forms between Burton and landlord Samantha Egger hovers realistically throughout the film. The unease that percolates amongst the Molly Maguires and their eventual acceptance of McParlan ranks with the best of the "undercover cop" themes. It's a well formed, evocative movie that hits every intended mark. My only question- why doesn't this thing get more attention? It certainly deserves it.

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