Showing posts with label John Ford. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Ford. Show all posts

13 June 2018

Guilty Secrets

David Edgerley Gates


I was invited by my Santa Fe pal Johnny D. Boggs, a terrific Western writer, to post a list of ten favorite movies on Facebook, one a day, in ascending order from #10 to #1, with the title and an original theatrical poster, if possible, but without explaining the choices. Every day, nominate somebody else to follow your lead. Sort of like a movie fan chain letter.

Now, this is a serious responsibility - no irony intended. For example, Johnny's choice for his Number 7 was The Grapes of Wrath, and he attached my name to it. (When we got to his Number 1, it was The Searchers.) My point being that you couldn't risk being frivolous. I had to really think about it. My first instinct was to follow Johnny's lead, and do Classics, my personal Ten Best list. The Wild Bunch, Seven Samurai, Letter From an Unknown Woman. But then I thought, No, wait. Why not Guilty Secrets? What if the criteria were, you're sitting down to dinner, you're gonna watch a movie, and saying you had the DVD on your shelf, or you could stream it live, which pictures would be your defaults? Any night, or every night?

So here's the list, which is utterly arbitrary. The only unifying conceit is that I've watched these movies over and over, and would again, tonight or any other night.

[NOTE: I put these upon Facebook without explanation, per the rules. I've added my own little cheats.]


Red Dawn (1984)
Ridiculous, knuckle-dragging claptrap, of the highest order. Then again, if you stop for a minute and consider that Milius meant it as a metaphor for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Wolverines as mujahideen, it actually makes sense. Ravishingly shot, in New Mexico locations, by Ric Waite. Powers Boothe steals the movie.


Juggernaut (1974)
It's been suggested that we're fascinated by the nuts and bolts of how to do things. Heist pictures, Rififi, or here, an ocean liner in the mid-Atlantic wired with high explosive, the bomb disposal team parachuting in, the clock winding down. Dick Lester directed. Enough star power to sink the Poseidon. Clifton James and Roy Kinnear blow them all out of the water.


The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The opening shot, as the credits fade. The camera dollies down, past the snowbound railway platform, and then a car drifts by, at ground level. You can almost see the string pulling it along. The fact that the entire scene is a model only ingratiates it to me. It's an innocent artifice, an invitation. When you catch sight of Charters and Caldicott in the waiting room, you can't help but smile in anticipation. You fall into the familiar rhythms.


In Harm's Way (1965)
Enormous, clunky, overwrought. All of the above. It gets a terrific, muscular punch from Wayne, who delivers a thoughtful, considered character that the other people in the movie seem to think is easy to read. The dramatic mechanics of the picture are pure Preminger, the formal checks and balances, but Wayne demonstrates a gravity of purpose that subverts it. You're all too aware of the labor involved, the engines and devices, the undertaking itself. Wayne doesn't struggle to be convincing. he gives his guy weight, without ever being ponderous.


The Train (1964)
Frankenheimer. What else do I need to say? The disorienting montage of Manchurian Candidate, the pulled focus of Seven Days in May. An integrated technique in this picture. The inertial, iron force of the locomotives. The fact that there's no CGI (oh, and Burt Lancaster does his own stunts). The truly amazing dolly shots, Labiche crossing the freight yards to the boat moored by the canal towpath; the colonel at Wehrmacht headquarters in Paris, the camera finding him in the chaos; the scene with Labiche casting the damaged engine part. I bow to genius.


Charade (1963)
Please. I can't imagine I have to say anything at all.


Two Rode Together (1961)
You knew there was going to be a Ford, right? This is here. of course, because of the scene by the river. "I thought she had something stuck in her teeth." For all its comedy - and 'comedy' isn't really the right word, it's burlesque - Two Rode Together is terrifically dark, much more so than The Searchers, which for all its darkness ends on a note of hope. Two Rode Together is despairing.


The War Lord (1965)
Meditative, although on paper it must have been pitched as a swashbuckler. A guy whose devotion to duty is inflexible throws it all away for love, both carnal and idealized. A very old-fashioned conceit. Terrific art direction. I love the fact that the keep is nothing like the castles in Ivanhoe, say, but a brute stone tower, damp, smoky, the horses stabled below. Guy Stockwell gets all the good lines. Richard Boone's forlorn devotion to Heston commands genuine heartbreak. Haunting score.


The Night of the Generals (1967)
Not much of a mystery, not when the biggest headliner in the cast is twitching like he's got St. Vitus' Dance. but the way they tell the story, the fractured narrative and the unreliable narrators. And the main device, a murder in wartime, where killing is every man's trade. In a movie top-heavy with brand names, the lively presence of Charles Gray in support is like a whiff of ammonia, piercing and astringent, a master class in the pursed lip and the cocked eyebrow. You want supercilious? This is ur-supercilious.


The Duellists (1977)
Ridley Scott's first feature. You're joking, right? Nope. He'd done commercials and TV, but The Duellists is his first movie. People talk about Ridley's eye. The cinematographer on The Duellists is Frank Tidy (and it was his first feature film), but Ridley is his own camera operator - he's the guy looking through the lens. Think about it. The next picture is Alien. Where did this astonishing, feverish, specific gaze come from? It seems to have simply sprung into being, already fully found. The Duellists is hallucinatory, but transparent as glass.

*

Ten runners up.
  The Professionals
  On the Beach
  Night Train to Munich
  Ronin
  Extreme Prejudice
  The Dogs of War
  Rio Bravo
  Midnight Cop
  Hour of the Gun
  Casablanca

25 January 2017

John Ford's PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND

David Edgerley Gates


I had another subject in mind, but then I spotted this coming up on Turner Classic Movies. I couldn't let it slip past unnoticed.

The Prisoner of Shark Island is a lesser-known John Ford, from 1936. It came out after The Lost Patrol and The Informer, and the three pictures he made with Will Rogers. Ford was already established, in other words. He'd won his first directing Oscar for The Informer.  At this point, he probably didn't have to take work he didn't want to, and he didn't suffer much interference. He made Shark Island by choice. Ford said more than once, "It's a job of work," meaning he did what he did for a living, but it's plain his heart was in it.

Shark Island is about Dr. Samuel Mudd, who gets caught up in the conspiracy panic that followed Lincoln's assassination. There was, in fact, a plot, targeting Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Johnson as well as Lincoln, but only John Wilkes Booth got his part right. The others made a hash of it. This didn't keep
four of them from being hanged. Booth himself was shot and killed eleven days after Lincoln's death, but his first night on the run he stopped at a local Maryland doctor's - Dr. Mudd - and the doctor set his broken leg. This was enough to buy Mudd a treason conviction and a life sentence. Was he involved? It's never been established, but Shark Island plays on your sympathies, the innocent man being framed, justice denied.

Let's get the two most serious weak points out of the way. First off, Warner Baxter plays the lead. Big in the silents, made the transition to talkies, but a little overwrought. Admittedly, the acting style goes with the period, and you can get past it. It's a lot harder to get past the second thing, which dates even more badly, and that's the racism. I never thought of Ford as being particularly racist - although a fair number of American Indians might disagree with me - and while he's of course a product of his times, and Hollywood has historically been disrespectful of black people (along with the Chinese, and Mexicans, and plenty of others), Ford is often subversive with his black characters. Stepin Fetchit, in Steamboat Round the Bend, plays it very sly and saucy. His relationship with Will Rogers could be described as two bickering old ladies, Lucy and Ethel. Unhappily, the same can't be said of Ernest Whitman as Buck in Shark Island. Still, it strikes me as an extremely difficult part for a black actor to play without falling into
caricature, and Buck comes perilously close. The real problem is that these attitudes aren't peripheral, they're built into the narrative structure. Buck isn't just comic relief. He's integral to the story, he's a major piece of the action, and he has to walk a very fine line between pretending to Tom it up and demeaning himself. I'm a white guy. I can't step into Ernest Whitman's shoes, or get inside his skin. Maybe he simply figured it was a job of work. I'd like to think he did the best he could by a part that didn't give him much wiggle room - and I wish I could say the script or the director helped him make up for it. Not.

How about what's right with the picture? For openers, Bert Glennon's cinematography. It's the first of eight movies he made with Ford (including Drums Along the Mohawk, Ford's first color feature), and it has one of the most breathtaking pulled-focus shots I've ever seen. Ford's known for not calling attention to himself, or using obtrusive effects. He seems to prefer a static frame, but he moves the camera when he wants to. You see plenty of mobility in his tracking shots. I don't remember a single example of zoom, though. Ford's camera is always the human POV. When he breaks stride, it's doubly startling.

Here's the set-up for the defining moment. Booth slips through the door into the back of Lincoln's box at the theater. You hear the laugh line from the play on-stage, "You sockdologizing old man-trap." Booth shoots the president, and jumps from the box to the stage, but his foot gets tangled in the flag draped from the box. He calls out, "Sic semper tyrannis," and limps off. Lincoln, mortally wounded, is slumped back in his chair. The camera holds. It's a medium shot, Lincoln's upper body and shoulders, his face in three-quarter profile. A curtain falls across, in front of his face. It's lace or embroidery, so you still see Lincoln behind it, slightly blurred. Then he comes into focus, but the embroidered curtain creates a pointillist effect, fragmenting his image, breaking it down into dots, like an engraving. Your eye needs to catch up, and reconstruct him. In that one brief image, Lincoln passes from life into history, leaving a retinal memory. It happens while you're watching.

I first saw Prisoner of Shark Island late one night on a UHF channel, just a programmer they used to fill a time slot. It was some years later that I got to see it in a theater, a Ford revival series at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge - a labor of love, they actually screened something like forty of his pictures over a couple of weeks, and I didn't miss too many. Shark Island drew a capacity crowd, a lot of them film students who hadn't seen it before, and more than a few who were unacquainted with Ford except for the big-ticket movies. Shark Island starts out on a note of low comedy, a joke about the number of kids Buck has, with its obvious racial slant, and Buck asking his mule what the mule thinks, which isn't any too subtle, either. Remember, we're talking about wiseass college kids here, everybody goofing and groaning and poking fun at the picture's dated political attitudes, and when Booth slinks on-screen, practically twirling his mustaches, you've still got people laughing at the exaggerated histrionics of it all. But then. Booth steps forward. He shoots Lincoln. Lincoln sinks back. The curtain falls. Everybody in that movie theater went dead silent. Literally. There wasn't a murmur. Not an embarrassed giggle, not even a gasp. Nothing but absolute, stunned shock.

Okay, the gravity of the event. And maybe these kids were of an age to remember the Kennedy assassination. But there's more to it. Because after Lincoln's murder, the movie goes on to show the courts-martial. You heard that right. The conspirators were tried by military tribunal and without constitutional protections. We see them hooded and shackled during the trial. We see them hanged. The hysteria isn't soft-pedaled, and if the Grassy Knoll is any part of your vocabulary, you feel a familiar dread.

I don't think Shark Island is supposed to be taken as some kind of allegory about the Red Scare or the rise of Fascism or anything like. It's meant to be a rousing yarn, and no more. There is a shark-infested moat, too, but since we're in the Dry Tortugas, that's gilding the lily. And the Yellow Fever epidemic, and the mutiny, no reason to doubt. Dr. Mudd was later pardoned. Whether he was in on the plot has never been decided one way or the other.

TCM is showing The Prisoner of Shark Island on Tuesday, January 31st, at 10:45 PM. Program your DVR's. It's also available on the Ford at Fox boxed DVD set, a collection of Ford's pictures that gives good weight for the money.

12 March 2014

VistaVision

by David Edgerley Gates


Brando's ONE-EYED JACKS showed at the Lensic theater here in Santa Fe this past week. It's something of a curiosity, the only picture Brando ever directed, but more to the purpose, it was last major release shot in VistaVision, a widescreen process that lasted about seven years.


First of all, let's explain "aspect ratio." This refers to the shape of a movie's screened image, and for many years, the standard aspect ratio was 1.33 to 1, horizontal to vertical, so the image is a little wider than it is tall. (More or less the size of a television screen, back in the day.) This was the negative size of a 35MM film frame. Widescreen had been used, for example, THE BIG TRAIL, released in 1930, which was shot in 70MM, with an aspect ratio of 2.10:1, and a projection process called Grandeur, but most theaters didn't have the equipment to show it, and there was an alternative 35MM version.



Widescreen didn't really catch on until CinemaScope, and THE ROBE, which came out in 1953. The aspect ratio was 2.20:1.  Again, not to try your patience, another technical explantion. Scope is an "anamorphic" process, meaning that the lenses do the work. The image is compressed, when the picture is shot, to squeeze it onto a 35MM frame, and then opened up again when it's projected. Scope lasted well into the 1960's, when it was overtaken by Panavision 70. Now, this too has fallen out of favor, with the introduction of digital, which is a story in itself, but technology eats its own young, and that's where I'm headed.

VistaVision was different because it wasn't
anamorphic. Instead of compressing the image, it opened it up, to fill two frames of film. The nuts-and-bolts, oversimplified, are that the film traveled horizontally through the camera, and exposed twice the image area. The result is a print with finer-grained detail. You increase the depth of field and get far more color saturation.


Directors loved it. Ford used it for THE SEARCHERS. John Sturges, in a couple of pictures. Anthony Mann, always contrary, shot with it in black-and-white, the blacks coming out deep and crisp. Hitchcock used it five times, most strikingly in VERTIGO, where the color becomes part of the story.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_VistaVision_films

But the format was doomed. Even as careful and canny a director as Ford or Hitchcock, who shot only and exactly as much as they needed, still had to shoot twice the footage, because of the double-frame. By the time Brando came along, and famously went through a couple of hundred miles of film, it was the kiss of death, and Paramount pulled the plug. The studio never used VistaVision again.

The process had a half-life, though, for another fifty years, primarily for effects work and process shots, and then CGI took over. It's interesting that even on DVD, with a good digital transfer, you can still see why so many directors and cinematographers liked working with it. You got a lot of bang for the buck, particularly when you wanted to make it appear

you were shooting in low light. The seduction scene between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in
TO CATCH A THIEF is a good example, or the chase across the rooftops at the end of the picture.


The technology is never static, and we keep pushing the envelope. There was a time when VistaVision was state of the art, and this post isn't intended to be elegiac, but you get the sense that something is lost. There's a plasticity, a word I've used before, to film, as opposed to digital. Not to be a Luddite. I don't want to go back to using a manual typewriter. We shed our old skins, we reinvent ourselves. Still, among the discards and the hand-me-downs, there might be a few things you decide not to put out at the next yard sale, some talisman or another, a vintage bottled in the past.