Thursday, May 24, 2018

An Appreciation: John Ford

Straight Shooting (1917) **½- Ford’s first still available film, most interesting for its milieu and yes, some shots of people in and out of doorways that would qualify as his visual motif for decades.

Bucking Broadway (1918) *** - Strong early effort that combines melodrama and romance as a cowboy (Harry Carey, who’d act in so many of Ford’s earliest silents) tries to marry the daughter of a landowner. Cutting back and forth between the frontier and urban landscapes, “Bucking Broadway” builds to a terrific conclusion.

By Indian Post (1919) ** - Short (only 13 minutes) trifle that plays with the prejudices of Native Americans to instigate a bumbling comedy that sees a cowboy run away with the daughter of a wealthy landowner. A if Ford didn’t get this out of his system with the previous film.

Just Pals (1920) **½ - Covers all the bases of extended melodrama, heartwarming friendships and dastardly collusion to make a hero out of the town bum and his equally downtrodden young friend.

The Iron Horse (1924) ***½ - Masterful telling of the building of the transcontinental railroad from the Great Plains to Northern California. What begins as an intimate examination between a dead father’s dream and his son’s legacy to endure that vision becomes a mosaic portrait of sweaty western living and frontier life, complete with shadowy landowners, upright workers and beautiful childhood sweethearts. It also features plenty of sweeping vistas (such as two people calmly standing amongst a throbbing horde of sheep and dour faces atop a slow moving train) and Ford’s first real handle on depth of field and panoramic landscapes that often dwarf the people in them.

Lightning’ (1925) ** - Still stuttering through amiable and ordinary narratives, “Lightnin” follows a drunkard who straightens up and flies right to help his family save a hotel built on the California/Nevada border. Yes, it’s about as hokey as it sounds, but Ford’s distrust of American elite and his overriding affection for the common man/do-gooder professional is slowly becoming a theme in these early films…. Themes that would transfer onto the American frontier in later films. Not on DVD.

The Shamrock Handicap (1926) ** - Inconsequential film except for its Irish-American milieu and personalities. Even that, though, pales when dealing with a horse jockey and his entrance into the world of American horse racing.

Three Bad Men (1926) *** - Expressionism has begun creeping into Ford’s visual style, none moreso engaging then the first appearance of the titular 3 bad men, shadowed against a cliff and overlooking the territory they aggressively hunt upon. Even better is the grand opening of the west sequence, complete with an Odessa-steps like abandoned baby in the midst of the charging horses. It’s a film that hits all the right notes of compassion, humor and thrilling action.

Riley the Cop (1928) ** - There's one shot of someone watching something else happen in a reflection that's tremendous. All else, pretty forgettable comedy.

Hangman’s House (1928) *** - The best aspects of  “Hangman’s House”- a film which involves an array of subplots including genteel love, awol Irish soldiers seeking revenge and the dastardly bad guy Ford loved to root against-  are the allusions to the IRA and its subtle, shadowy staging of men living by a strict code of conduct brought out later in “The Informer”.

Four Sons (1928) *** - A downer of a tale about the hardships and fatality of four brothers at the outbreak of World War I, but its not a cheap or exploitive melodrama. The way in which Ford overlays the ghostly images of a mother’s four boys- eating and having fun at a dinner table as she remembers the better days- reveals the growing confidence in Ford’s visual style.

Salute (1929) * - Completely devoid of any authentic feeling of ownership or specialty, I can only imagine Ford was so engulfed with the technicality of sound that he forgot everything else. The story- about two brothers competing against one another in an Army/Navy football game- features so many diversions and lifeless anecdotes that it can be forgotten in Ford’s oeuvre. Not on DVD.

The Black Watch (1929) **½ - Adventure yarn that sees British soldier Victor McLaglen go undercover and tangle with Myrna Loy in the Arabian desert. What’s most striking about “The Black Watch” is Ford’s dispassionate mise-en-scene of soldiers opening fire on a crowd of opponents or the attention to ritual as a group of men sing songs before going to war. It’s not one of Ford’s early best, but its competent.

Born Reckless (1930) ** - When one hears modern cinema making fun of the stilted, dated dialogue of the 20’s and 30’s, “Born Reckless” surely stands as the placard for that fun. Full of lines like “you couldn’t keep your nose clean” or “I tell ya they’ll never frame me behind bars”, it’s a film that shoehorns a lot of material into its slim 76 minute running time, mostly centering on the life of hoodlum Edmund Lowe and his aversion to “going straight”. I’m sure it meant serious business in its day, but its like watching a comedy now… and Ford and company still don’t seem to have a firm grasp on the technicalities of sound and movement, which is to be expected.

The Brat (1930) ** - A time capsule of 1920's America as any you'll ever see, complete with boisterous New Yawk dialect and a simple view of the gender wars. It does eature one nifty little tracking shot, though.

Men Without Women (1930) *½ - If this film had just been about the heroics onboard the submarine in the second half, then we might have a terrific short film. Otherwise, the first half with the sailors on leave (and a film that alternates between silent and sound film) feels overtly pointless. Not on DVD.

Up the River (1930) **½ - Perhaps best regarded as the most innocent prison picture one could imagine, “Up the River” is pretty entertaining as complete fantasy comedy in the way hard nosed prisoners commingle both with each other AND the warden’s ten year old daughter, Plus, they all love baseball! Never mind the fact that Spencer Tracy escapes every prison they seem to incarcerate him in, then welcome him back with smiles and cajoles each time he’s caught. It’s best to shut off the mind and take this film as some alternate reality 1930’s comedy and just go with it.

Pilgrimage (1930) *** - Growing in emotional complexity and scope, “Pilgrimage” is a solid (almost impressionistic) tale of an elderly woman (Henrieta Crosman) traveling to France to visit the grave of her dead son during World War I. It often slides into easy sentimentality, but its soft images and mother-son dynamic that would become a staple of Ford’s cinema for years to come are intact.

The Seas Beneath (1931) ** - A submarine film that rarely goes beneath the surface, choosing instead to stay focused on the personal subterfuge that occurs on land after a group of American naval men encounter their German foes in a port town. An awkward flirtation between American George O’Brian and the sister of a German U-boat captain (Marion Lessing) only complicates things. The shots of a fixed camera on the deck of a submarine actually rising and falling beneath the water is pretty cool, though. Everything else, not so much.

Arrowsmith (1931) ** - There’s not much distinctive about this medical drama starring Ronald Colman as the titular doctor giving his life to medical research. Filmed in bland medium shot, the most exciting thing in it is the Fritz Lang-esque medical corporate office that looks like a leftover set from “Metropolis”.

Air Mail (1932) *½  - Set largely in and around a mountainous air mail plane station, Ford’s spirited view isn’t microscopic enough to allow any one character to stand out (even though there’s the usual romancing and divergent personalities) or dynamic enough to care about the final dashing plane rescue. All around a bust. Not on DVD.

Doctor Bull (1933) **½- The first of two films starring Will Rogers as an important social figure within a lazy suburban town (followed by “Judge Priest”), the folksy attitude of the entire film is whimsical but far from anything outstanding in his career.

Judge Priest (1934) *** - Better than “Doctor Bull”, despite some atrocious racism and yet another appearance by Stepin Fetchit, Will Rogers this time portrays the town judge, trying to survive personal attacks from political rivals while maintaining honesty on the bench. The final trial- lackluster in its realism of course- is out shadowed by the film’s more pointed memoir style of its writer Irvin S. Cobb and quite an odd reverie for Civil war veterans.

The Lost Patrol (1934) *** - Nifty, claustrophobic little effort that, ironically, takes place in the desert as a troop of British soldiers are cornered by a sharpshooting Arab tribe. Though it does drag in a few spots, its very fun to see Bela Lugosi in a non-horror film role and Ford manages to wring every drip of sweat and dust out of the scenario.

The World Moves On (1934) ***½ - Spanning a century in the life of one family business and their counterparts on 4 continents, Ford makes this seemingly sprawling narrative seem quite intimate in the way he focuses on the relationship between Franchet Tone and Madeleine Carroll as romantically entangled souls. Eventually broken apart by World War I (including some devastatingly staged battle scenes that amplify war is nothing but explosions and dirt), “The World Moves On” is an apt title for a film that opens and closes on a wooden crucifix.

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) **½ - If nothing else than for its visual trickery, “The Whole Town’s Talking” stands alone in the early Ford canon. Edward Robinson plays a dual role- one as a mild mannered businessman and the other as an escaped mobster- and the ramifications their appearance has on the entire city. Mildly amusing at times but dreadfully dull at others, it’s a mixed bag.

The Informer (1935) **** - Ford’s first real masterpiece, it’s a powerhouse of borrowed German expressionism combined with the deep moral complexity that didn’t quite exist in films just yet. The heights Victor McLaglan reaches in desperation, exasperation and misguided ambition as he stumbles towards a confession falling out of him is exceptional.

Steamboat Round the Bend (1935) *** - Breezy comedy that pretty much ignores the common sense rules of how the real world actually works after such a deadly serious film like “The Informer”, this marked the final collaboration between Ford and actor Will Rogers. Sure, let’s delay a hanging to watch the boat race. Of course we can hitch an anchor to a fellow ship and they never notice until the morning. If this weren’t delineated as a parody of river life existence from the very beginning, I’d call foul.

The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) ***½ - Beginning on a figure that Ford would revisit later in his career (Abraham Lincoln), the film only uses his assassination as a springboard for an action adventure prison-break film that’s constantly surprising and entertaining.

Mary of Scotland (1936) *** - Far from a stiff, Masterpiece Theater style of drama, Ford’s telling of the infamous Mary Queen of Scotland tale feels modernized with 30’s melodrama, mostly because of Katherine Hepburn’s leading role as the mischievous, irreverent lady… full of acidic jabs and a natural independence from the male flotsam. Entertaining and swift moving.

The Plough and the Stars (1936) ** - Very short (just over an hour) film about the separation of man (Preston Foster) and woman (Barbara Stanwyck)through the call of duty for the Irish Army. Seeing it on a very rough print with fading audio probably didn’t do the film any justice, but it’s a relatively flat and lifeless affair.

Wee Willie Winkie  (1937) *½ - Shirley Temple has two levels of cuteness. Precocious cute and pouty cute. I can’t stand either one of them, therefore, Ford’s partnership with her as a little girl spending her days in the confines of a British military base in India (and based on a Rudyard Kipling novel) grated on me from the very beginning.

The Hurricane (1937)  *** - Partnered with the previous year’s “Wee Willie Winkie”, “The Hurricane” is Ford’s foreign adventure duo, this time charting the doomed relationships between South Pacific island natives and the British government when one of their own (John Hall) gets imprisoned for hitting a white man. Human feeling gets (literally) washed away in the second half when Ford flashes his filmmaking brawn and the titular natural disaster takes over. Impressive in theatrics, less so in its human interaction.

Four Men and a Prayer (1937) *** - The Hardy Boys-meets-Clue as four brothers try and solve the mystery of their father’s death right after being dismissed unfairly from the military. Things pick up dramatically in the second half as adventure and Third World realpolitik combine to create an action-filled whodunit. Also, Ford is yet to meet a firing squad inadvertently opening up on a crowd he doesn’t like.

Submarine Patrol (1938) *** - If one gets past the quite annoying main character (played by Richard Greene) as rich playboy turned semen just for the fun of it, then “Submarine patrol” is a solid actioner. As close to a World War II movie Ford ever made (alongside “They Were Expendable”), perhaps because he saw the brutality and savagery of it up close and personal through his own service, “Submarine Patrol” features some startling seafaring action and a cast of motley crew members that makes the whole thing quite entertaining.

Stagecoach (1939) ***½ - Much as its lauded as a masterpiece, watching it in succession with Ford’s other films, “Stagecoach” does feel like a huge leap forward in his career. Sure, the technology is better, but it’s a film whose fluid, expressive camerawork says just as much as the acting or narrative. The way in which Ford glides behind a table of people, segregated by class…. Or the jarring quick zoom onto John Wayne’s first appearance…. Or especially the Apache attack that feels weightless and implanted right in the action…. All of this exemplifies Ford leaving the shadows and adventure stories of the 30’s behind and focusing on something grander.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) **½ - Portrait of an iconic American figure through the generous fragments of his early life, dominated by a pro-bono case for a poor family whose two boys are accused of murder. As Abe Lincoln, Henry Fonda teams with Ford for the first time and his “gee whiz” homeliness is on full display, which negates a bit of the film’s heartiness and replaces it with undue folksiness.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) *** - Notable for being Ford’s first color picture, “Drums Along the Mohawk” is a sturdy but somewhat formulaic tale of Revolutionary American life with Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert as the virginal couple trying to adjust to frontier life, full of Indian attacks and colorful personalities. Mostly forgettable with the exception of some tremendous sound design that features the booming echoes of guns being fired among some tall trees.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) ***½ - Cultural and social commentary aside, “The Grapes of Wrath” is a film teeming with heart, sweat and layman’s pride. Not since “The Informer” has Ford felt so attuned with the atmosphere of the times.

The Long Voyage Home (1940) ** - Based on Eugene O’Neill stories, Ford fuses them together as the crew on board a ship during World War II transport dynamite back to England. It actually sounds more exciting than it really is. Getting bogged down in consummate drinking…. Or the wish to drink…. Or the fighting between men as they drink…. Its pretty depressing human nature.

Tobacco Road (1941) *** - Quite the odd beast from Ford. Based on a play (re-written by Ford compatriot Nunally Johnson) about an impoverished family in Georgia, “Tobacco Road” plays like a farce “The Grapes of Wrath”. Hysterical acting and dubious narrative shifts eventually won me over, though, and I went with the film’s pretty crazy tone.

How Green Was My Valley (1941) ***½ - It’s hard not to initially see “How Green Was My Valley” and recognize it as a clichéd piece of family drama spanning the short lifetime of a coal mining Welsh family… then realize this is the template for such moving family dramas to come. Handled with genuine empathy and a strong sense of setting and place, it’s a film that earns its gut-punch ending of finality and lost innocence.

They Were Expendable (1945) *** - Made immediately after his return from service in World War II, “They Were Expendable” follows an array of Navy men on torpedo boats and their continual displacement as the war rages closer to them. Hewing much closer to examining the personalities and irreparable damage done to the human body during war than outright action (which there’s very little), it’s a film that’s probably more anti-war than anything else. Nicely fatalistic is the doomed romance between John Wayne and Donna Reed. In earlier Ford films, this might have had an happy ending. Not so much here.

My Darling Clementine (1946) *** - Classy telling of Wyatt Earp’s assimilation and partnership with the abrasive Doc Holliday in the crime-laden town of Tombstone. I know this is probably sacrilege, but Kevein Costner’s expansive “Wyatt Earp” remains my favorite variation on this story. Watching Henry Fonda lean back in his wooden rocking chair and twiddle his feet against the post beam is an iconic moment though.

The Fugitive (1947) *** - Bearing a striking resemblance to Shusaku Endo's novel "Silence", Ford's rendering of a Catholic priest (Henry Fonda) forced into hiding when the Mexican army wants to wipe out Catholicism in their country is heartfelt and full of striking imagery. I think the most purely visceral shot of Ford's career may be this film's final shot, which description can't do it justice.

Fort Apache (1948) **** - Besides being a visceral western, “Fort Apache” is one of Ford’s most dense efforts, tackling both the shifting façade of the west and the inefficiency of man’s dominant presence in said landscape. The dominance is embodied in Henry Fonda’s curt, by-the-book colonel who takes over Fort Apache and not only alienates young love between his daughter (Shirley Temple) and her suitor, but everyone else en masse. His deliberate adherence to old-school methods of fighting a band of Apache Indians also ends up with disastrous results. Expertly framed and paced, “Fort Apache”- like his later masterpieces “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “The Searchers”- dares to question the mythology of the west and the place of man within it.

3 Godfathers (1948) **½ - Good natured western, but it seemingly wears its religious allegory out pretty quickly. The sudden pivot from a straight up bad-guys-chasing-good-guys-western to paradoxical life altering discovery  is jarring for 1948. Ford overdoes it a bit in the finale however.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) ** - Perhaps this is a victim of my own lofty expectations after all these years, but its amazing how much this film doesn’t do. As a companion study to “Fort Apache” and one leader’s surreptitious finale (one in death the other in retirement) , the film registers well. As an involving narrative (or development of deeper themes) I pretty much missed the point. Lots of posturing within Ford’s Monument Valley setting but little in the way of emotional or character investment. I didn’t care one flip about any of it… or anyone.

When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950) **½  - Slight comedy about a man whose posted to war duty in his own hometown. Themes of emasculation hiding behind broad comedy feel a bit out of place after Ford’s more trenchant, respectable works on World War II.

Wagon Master (1950) *** - I kind of wish Ben Johnson would’ve been the man for Ford that John Wayne became. Alas, revisionist history, but he still steals the movie as one of three cowboys helping a Mormon group of settlers traverse dangerous Indian country.

Rio Grande (1950) ** ½ - Taking place in the same universe of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”- insomuch as Victor McLaglen again embodies his role of Quincannon- “Rio Grande” suffers mostly from the derivative devices of other Ford films. Monument Valley….  U.S. cavalry solders and their squirmish with local Indians…. John Wayne posturing….. It all looks good but feels like the continuation of something else.

The Quiet Man (1952) ***½ - Perhaps it’s the Olive Films blu-ray transfer, but this film had me gasping about 5 times within the first ten minutes on its glorious beauty. The entrance of Maureen O’Hara, spying the lanky John Wayne in the distance and then slowly shuffling out of the frame, feels like a beautiful way to transcribe the immediate love/hate between the two. Outside of their tumultuous relationship (hindered mostly by O Hara’s brother played by Victor McLaglen), Ford gives preeminence to the swooning, brazen and ebullient personalities of village settled Ireland without a hint of cynicism.

What Price Glory (1952) ** - Odd combination of war movie and screwball comedy with James Cagney and Dan Dailey as two soldiers who really don’t get along, often coming to blows while their men watch on.

The Sun Shines Bright (1953) *½ - A continuation of “Judge Priest” stories with Charles Winninger in place of Will Rogers, and this one is just plain bad. It’s first half- full of awful racial stereotypes and good ‘ol boy reverie between Civil War soldiers does nothing to endear the viewer. The second half fares a little better, if only because the mood lightens a bit.

Mogambo (1953) ***½ - Outside of it adventure story background (including a safari game master and his exotic African backdrop) in which Ford feels at home with a certain type of western expansionistic atmosphere, “Mogambo” doesn’t really need that crutch as its central concept of two women (the beautiful Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner) vying for Clark Gable would have been marvelous enough on its own. Oh, to be Clark Gable.

The Long Gray Line (1955) - **** - Ford revisits one shot over and over throughout his epic portrayal of an Irish immigrant (Tyrone Power) who finds his home for fifty years as a father-figure to cadets at West Point in the early twentieth century- the shot being a dusk embattled street with people either coming or going, and someone watching intently from the porch of a house. It’s a central idea in a very powerful, sensitive film about the process of time, the futility of war and the uniquely moving surrogate family that forms due to the simple presence of a gentle figure in a landscape. Plus the relationship between Power and wife Maureen O’Hara is pure greatness. Her death gently composed in the frame of (yes, you guessed it) a doorway.

Mister Roberts (1955) **½ - Really more of a seafaring comedy as good natured Henry Fonda does moral and verbal battle with hardnosed captain James Cagney at the helm of a cargo ship, “Mister Roberts” features very little of Ford’s trademark. Perhaps because Mervy LeRoy ultimately finished the picture, the whole thing feels a bit stretched out and episodic. A young Jack Lemmon doing his thing way before old Jack Lemmon is interesting though.

The Searchers (1956) **** - Ford’s pretty much agreed upon masterpiece, it’s one of the rare films whose reputation doesn’t do it justice. I saw it for the first time when I was 14, pouring through those Sight and Sound Ten Best films of all time lists and its ingrained itself into my memory ever since. Brutal, complex and riveting.

The Wings of Eagles (1957) **½ - I suppose the first half of dick-swinging and machismo sets up the second half for John Wayne (portraying real life Navy man and screenwriter Spig Wead) to reconcile this lifestyle and settle into a contemplative state of old age. Regardless, that first half almost ruins the (much stronger) emotional catharsis. Maureen O’Hara is also wasted. I almost would’ve loved to see a film just about their tumultuous relationship, but alas, this is swinging for the fences to idolize an old friend of Ford.

The Rising of the Moon (1957)  ** - Triplet of stories that are far more engaging thanks to the Irish scenery than any real characters or storyline.

Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958) **½ - What a day for Chief Inspector Gideon (Jack Hawkins) of Scotland Yard, who has to deal with crooked cops, murder and a payroll robbery all in one day. Handled deftly (if not fairly pedantic) by Ford, the film is worth watching only for his handling of the stiff, tight-lipped manner in which most British film of the 50’s and 60’s were shrouded in.

The Last Hurrah (1958) ** - Watching Spencer Tracey move methodically around the set is always a joy to behold, his frame hunched and his eyes in somber thought. He does a lot of that as a righteous politician trying to hold off the new breed of media savvy candidates running against him. Outside of his performance, “The Last Hurrah” is an especially dry and stoic affair, though.

The Horse Soldiers (1959)  *** - A return to the western after a few years of embroiling himself in personal stories of gallant men, “The Horse Soldiers” works best when examining the push-pull relationship between warrior-like Wayne and the strong headed doctor played by William Holden. Their personal conflict- as it often does in most of Ford’s westerns- provides more conflict than the seemingly suicidal Confederate ranks that continually throw themselves at the horse soldiers. Solid stuff.

Sergeant Rutledge (1960) **½ - The only reason to see this film is for Woody Strode as the pillar of a man accused of murdering a Caucasian woman. Told in hamfisted flashback as the trial plays out in military court, like most Hollywod films of this time period, its ludicrous enactment of a courtroom and perfectly scripted interruptions of “I object” or long pauses feels disingenuous.

Two Rode Together (1961) ***½ - As the titular men who ride together, James Stewart and Richard Widmark make for a compelling duo as they seek out kidnapped children from a band of Indians. Unlike “The Searchers” and that film’s seething resentment of identity and the passage of time, “Two Rode Together” is terrific because it begins in once place, meanders a bit and fleshes out its characters (and their love lives) in another, before returning to its central idea of what exactly is a “savage”. It’s a very good late Ford film that probably doesn’t get the credit it duly deserves.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) **** - There aren’t enough platitudes to extend to my very favorite of Ford’s films….. An incisive and smart demystification of storytelling, attitudes and the very foundation of Ford’s many westerns.

How The West Was Won (1962)  ***½ - Though Ford only directed portions of this alongside Henry Hathaway and George Marshall, it’s a terrifically expansive view of America shifting its priorities and ideals westward. It actually strikes quite brilliantly at the heart of themes Ford had been gestating for years and its ironic that he directed the “Civil War” portion while Hathaway and Marshall chiseled away at the more laconic and humane elements of the story.

Donovan’s Reef (1963) *** - A bit of comic relief from Ford as a New York socialite travels to a sunny island and falls in (regrettable) love with journeyman John Wayne. There are some allusions towards the discrimination of “native people”, but overall it’s a fairly forgettable exercise.

Cheyenne Autumn (1966) **½ - Ford’s last western deals with Wayne’s calvary unit making their way through stronghold Confederate country to reach a Louisiana port and sail home. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but even that revisionist magnifying glass yields little grandiosity in the film. It does its job and that’s that.

7 Women (1967) *** - As his final fictional effort, Ford lines up a dandy. Subverting his lifelong obsession with the masculine mythmaking of the West, “7 Women” focuses on, well, females as they struggle to survive an Asian invasion of a missionary. Each woman is given strong personality and the film, while not exactly illuminating as a beacon for feminine equality, gets points for never widdling down its violence or aggression towards its female protagonists.

Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend (1976) ** - I’m not sur e how much of this Ford really “directed” besides placing a stationary camera on John Wayne talking mixed in with some fictional re-creations of military training, all in the name of supreme respect for Lewis “Chesty” Puller. Ad Ford’s final film, it has to be seen, there’s just not much there.

Unable to view: Upstream, North of Hudson Bay