#45 — My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)
I have an abiding fascination with and appreciation for those directors who have an uncommon mastery of the language of film narrative. Much as I might ply my modest critical acumen against certain films, willingly and unapologetically lamenting muddy storytelling or other shortcomings in the vital business of presenting a coherent, compelling beginning, middle, and end, I recognize that the task of adhering to established grammar of traditional Hollywood cinematic narrative is extremely challenging. Even coming close can be reasonably termed a feat of craftsmanship. Given that, I am even more agog at those directors who didn’t just master narrative, but also worked early enough in the development of the cinematic form that they developed their expertise while simultaneously collaborating with their peer to effectively invent the language of film, a language that remains the fundamental underpinning even today. It’s no wonder that so many of those filmmakers tapped into a special artistry when making westerns. It provided a suitable metaphor for their own place on a frontier of creativity.
John Ford directed his first film in 1917, a silent picture (in which he also starred!) while is thought to be among the countless historic works that are now lost. Entitled The Tornado, it was a western. By one count, My Darling Clementine, made during Ford’s thirtieth year in the business, was number one hundred and eight on his career film tally. The covers a portion of the time Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) spent as marshal of the fledgling Arizona town Tombstone, though there are enough liberties taken with the historical story to make the real events seem like the thinnest of excuses to get at a western tale that was already well-worn enough to feel like the comfiest dusty boots. Earp comes into the town with his brothers (Tim Holt and Ward Bond) to clean up the lawless terrain with his stalwart decency, bonding with disgruntled tippler Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and tentatively romancing a sweet woman named Clementine (Cathy Downs). As I imply above, the accomplishment of My Darling Clementine is found not in the novelty of its plot but in the sublime panache of its telling.
More so than the elegant storytelling, which has a laconic confidence that matches that of the lead character, My Darling Clementine is distinguished by an jaw-dropping visual beauty that is quite unlike the usual widescreen postcards of Monument Valley or other vaunted United States terrain. Instead, Ford’s film is a canvas of deep, devastating shadows, almost as if the lighting effects of the burgeoning film noir style wafted over from nearby sound stages of gritty urban streets. There are moments when the film practically plays out in silhouette, lending a tantalizing somberness to the proceedings, a sense that every bit of this society and the people who move through it are operating in a dimming twilight. Whether it’s an era ending or the heart-rending futility of forging human connections in an unforgiving place and time, there’s a thick aura of inevitable, enclosing finality. When it came to pure mechanics, Ford knew how to tell a story. My Darling Clementine is a reminder that he had a similar command of other, even more elusive qualities of cinema, such as mood and tone. He could make splendid westerns under the harsh sun, but Ford also found unlikely poetry in the shadows of harsh, lonely nights.