Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Seven

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#7 — The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)

I stand by my longtime belief that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is the tome most deserving of the well-worn honorific The Great American Novel. The appeal of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the default choice, is completely understandable given the way it weighs the toxicity of craving upper mobility along with the hollowness of wealth itself, but I find the gut-punch grimness of Steinbeck’s story to hold greater, more resonant truths. Gatsby has added layers, which tickles the inner intellect of literature aesthetes. The Grapes of Wrath gets down in the dust, almost literally, and simply relays the crushing challenges faced by those held outside of the pathways to prosperity. The Great Depression was still smarting when Steinbeck published the book, in 1939. Less than a year later, when John Ford’s film version arrived, the bruise was still aggressively purple.

At this point, I might be tempted to muse about how different this movie must have felt seeing it while the agony it depicted was still desperately fresh. That sort of mental exercise isn’t necessary with Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. The film fairly trembles with immediacy, demonstrating that nothing instills timelessness within the veins of a film quite like a ferocious commitment to telling a tale with accuracy and unwavering honesty. The pains and minor, easily thwarted triumphs within the film have correlate to those in vastly different eras because of the fearless precision brought to the depiction. As in the book from whence it sprung, Ford’s film keeps a sharp focus on the Joad family of Oklahoma, farmers who flee their dried out, desolate homeland for the feeble promise of opportunity in California. The moral core of the film is Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), recently paroled from prison and joining his clan for the journey. Injustice is something others are still adapting to, but Tom has had it pounded in to him with a uncompromising brutality. He sees the world for what it is, spotting every barrier that will keep him and his from ever succeeding, at least beyond the very limited boundaries that have been drawn by a power structure intent on preserving their rarefied place.

Ford works from a script credited to Nunnally Johnson, finding the harsh poetry within the story. The marvelous cinematography by Gregg Toland bathes the screen in shadow, as if darkness has swarmed in to take over the entirety of the national terrain. He is patient and serene, letting the indignation inherent in the work build slowly from a simmer to a boil. That’s a major reason why The Grapes of Wrath remains smart drama without ever becoming maudlin or a leaden treatise. As with the famed James Agee and Walker Evans collaboration Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which arrived one year later, Ford’s take on The Grapes of Wrath makes its persuasive argument by presenting a stern, clear-eyed portrait of the dire situation faced by those left behind in the United States rather than through delivery of some feverishly angry treatise. A well-told story, imbued with empathy, carries more weight that any political diatribe.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Thirty

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#30 — She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949)

One of the pleasures of examining the long swath of Hollywood film history is considering the ways in which the long-lasting masters of the form adapted to the technological changes that came their way. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was not John Ford’s first film in color, but it virtually quivers from the great director’s efforts to construct his film visually with all the possibilities that Technicolor had to offer as the nineteen-forties were drawing to a close. Like few of his contemporaries, Ford used the screen the way a master painter uses a canvas. While always remaining virtuous to the base requirements of his narrative, Ford typically found the most striking, moving, wise way to frame his shots, building uncommon beauty into his cinema. This was especially true of his westerns, when the vistas of untamed America provided the richest clay imaginable for Ford to metaphorically sculpt. What’s more, the directness that often came with westerns suited Ford’s storytelling preferences. There’s subtext there for those who want to search for it, but the moral quandaries are front and center in a meaty, satisfying way.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was the second of what is referred to as Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy” (preceded by 1948’s Fort Apache and followed by 1950’s Rio Grande), a group of films that put John Wayne into that particular uniform. Wayne plays Captain Nathan Brittles, who’s time presiding over a small post is nearing an end thanks to his pending retirement. He is given the storied last mission: quelling the mounting tension of Cheyenne and Arapaho tribesman following the defeat of George Custer and his men at Little Big Horn. There’s also the necessary subplots revolving around romance as Brittles and his men are also charged with transporting some women, the wife and niece of the commanding officer, to a stagecoach to take them on a journey east. The crux of the film, though, is that struggle against a changing terrain as the nineteenth century shuffles to its close.

In many respects, the film anticipates the more elegiacal westerns that would begin to appear in the following decade and would reach their peak prominence in the nineteen-sixties. Much of the film’s emotional weight is carried by the sense that a certain era is closing down, exemplified by the Brittles preparing to leave active duty. Wayne was still a relatively young man at the time — he turned forty-two that year — and it had been a mere ten years since Ford’s Stagecoach made him a major star. What must have looked like the actor stretching himself at the time of the film’s release now looks like the earliest manifestation of a preoccupation with rapidly passing time and looming mortality that would mark some of the finest works and performances in the latter half of Wayne’s career. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon succeeds on its own terms, but I suspect it endures because of the way it’s a pivot point in the filmographies of both Ford and Wayne, establishing some of the themes that would solidify in future classics The Searcher and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. By 1949, the director and the movie star had already accomplished so much. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon demonstrated they were prepared to approach their work together with the fervor and commitment of people who still had something to prove.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Forty-Five

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#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.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Forty-Eight

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#48 — 3 Godfathers (John Ford, 1948)

A common and entirely apt complaint about modern Hollywood filmmaking is the evident pronounced disinterest in the pursuit of originality in favor of figuring out ways to cram familiar brands into the CGI-shaped contours of self-perpetuating (and, increasingly, interlocking) blockbuster franchises. It’s not unreasonable to wish for more invention and less anxious opportunism in the creative choices of modern crafters of cinema, and yet any misty-eyed pining for more golden eras necessarily require a certain amount of willful amnesia. Back in the time before older movies hung around like atrophied specters on late night television and any number of handy collectibles snatched up by susceptible cineastes, filmmakers were perfectly comfortable repeatedly revisiting material that had previously proven successful. 3 Godfathers, one of two films John Ford signed his name to in 1948, was on at least its fifth feature film incarnation, following efforts released in 1916, 1919, 1929, and 1936. Future proving there was no shame in cooking with the leftovers, the 1919 silent film, entitled Marked Men, was directed by Ford.

The story centers on a trio of Wild West criminals, cattle rustlers and bank robbers in the 1948 film, whose attempt at evading the law is complicated when their escape route through a dust storm in the desert leads them to a woman giving birth in a covered wagon. They provide her support in a delivery of enough strain that she effectively dies in childbirth, using her last breath to extract a pledge from the fugitives that they will look after her newborn son. The remainder of the film covers the travails of the men, lacking in water and pursued by a posse, as they protect their charge. In many ways, it is the most conventional of westerns, complete with a standoff between good guys and bad guys. The inversion of exactly who the heroes of the piece are stands as the first indicator that a slightly different version of the story is unfolding. And then there is the presence of the child, which gives the film both humor and poignancy above the standard level of the era’s westerns. It may not be some daring genre deconstruction (that sort of thing would start arrived in earnest a couple decades later), but it does offer something deliberately different within a familiar form. 3 Godfathers hints as the breadth of tales that can be presented out on the frontier.

Ford brings his usual mastery to the mechanics of the narrative, presenting the story with clarity and moments of insight that sneak up rather than announce themselves. For a filmmaker who prospered though directness, Ford had a way with casual nuance, the threads of tender psychology that could be woven in to a whole piece to give it a more appealing texture. In that endeavor, he had the ideal acting collaborator in Wayne — there’s a reason their careers interlocked — who could find surprising layers within his standard onscreen persona. His performance here (alongside Pedro Armendáriz and Harry Carey, Jr.) as one of the three robbers is awash in movie star charisma, which lends authority to the character’s shifts in motivation, from conniving criminality to selfless protectiveness. There is added honesty to the transformation because Wayne brings such leveled assurance to every part of his self. He strides across the Technicolor vistas of Death Valley as if no one belongs there more than him, no matter what mission he’s committed himself to at the moment. Ford knew precisely how to capture that part of Wayne’s constant myth-building. Ford didn’t have Wayne for his first pass at the story told in 3 Godfathers. In a way, it’s no wonder he returned to it once he had the missing piece in the former Marion Morrison. The film seem less like recycling and more like the final draft.

 

Ford, Hancock, Huston, McDonagh, Robespierre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948). Huston’s famed exploration of greed tainting a slapdash partnership of aspiration gold miners in the Mexican mountains is so deviously ingenious that the director booming cackle virtually echoes through the most feverish scenes. The best Tim Holt can do as the most upstanding, straightforward member of the trio is stay upright against the buffeting winds of Humphrey Bogart, all sweaty paranoia and flash fire intensity, and Walter Huston, delivering a just Oscar-awarded turn as the weather-beaten old-timer whose the one member of the party who’s not a neophyte. The film is simultaneously bleakly mean and a comic marvel, flicking away at the spreading rust at the heart of the money-hungry.

My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946). This moody western offers a depiction of the Earp brothers initially unwilling relocation to the town of Tombstone, their upstanding inclinations helping to clean up a lawless town. Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp with the sort of lean ease that was his trademark. When he unfolds himself, using a deck post to lean back in an old wooden chair, he looks like a grizzled praying mantis at rest. Much of the story is just another blade on the cycling fan of Hollywood westerns, save maybe for the flintiness in the relationship with Wyatt Earp and “Doc” Holliday (Victor Mature). It’s Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography that distinguishes the film. Drenched in impossibly black shadows, multiple scenes play out in silhouette or something perilously close to it. That makes My Darling Clementine into a fascinating experiment in setting mood through visual concealment, a fairly daring choice for a director with rare skill for unfussy narrative mechanics.

The Guard (John Michael McDonagh, 2011). In its simplest interpretation, The Guard is just another variant on the shopworn buddy cop film standard, pairing temperamentally mismatched lawmen on a case that is more complicated than it appears. One in uncouth and the other is rigid and by-the-book. The even have the markedly different shades of skin, adhering to the preferred casting methodology in place since at least 48 Hrs. Two elements of the film make the difference. One is the performance by Brendan Gleeson as the slobby Irish cop who reluctantly works with a visiting FBI agent (Don Cheadle). The other is the precise sense of place and culture fostered by McDonagh. It is a quality that pushes the creation past smarts to something approaching wisdom, proving that even the most familiar material can feel fully reinvented if it plays out with an attentiveness to the world in which it is set. The Guard‘s mechanics may be tropes, but it comes across as a film that could have only been made in one place, in one way.

Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013). There’s probably a decent movie that lasts, say, around 100 minutes lurking within this bloated stab at genial prestige. Depicting the arduous process of taking Mary Poppins, the creation of author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), from book to screen, the film has some nice moments that capture the pleasures of the creative process (a brief scene showing a key development in the writing of the song “A Spoonful of Sugar” is emblematic of what the film could’ve been). The march to the screen was made especially tough by the persistent dissatisfaction and combativeness of Travers, who resisted any cheerful, Disney-esque softening of her creation. The portion of the film that resides at the studios still presided over by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) are agreeable if imperfect, shaped by the game but ultimately unconvincing portrayals of Thompson and Hanks. The real problem is that the film goes dead anytime tit cycles back to one of the the plentiful flashbacks to the youth of Travers, raised in hardscrabble Australia by a depressed mother (Ruth Wilson) and joyfully childlike but mentally unbalanced father (Colin Farrell). The background that could have been handled in a few deft strokes instead plays out as a sort of parallel film, a really dull one.

Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, 2014). Robespierre’s expansion of her 2011 short film garnered hefty praise for its frankness in dealing with abortion as an undesirable but realistic option in a woman’s life, earning further agog marveling because it did so as a sharp-edged comedy. That’s a significant part of its surprising artfulness, but dwelling on that as the film’s signal achievement requires a fairly superficial reading of what’s on screen. Jenny Slate plays a struggling New York City comedian whose rebound one night stand leaves her with a pregnancy that she never doubts she will terminate through the medical procedure that’s been constitutionally protected for over forty years. Simultaneously, much of the rest of her life is crumbling around her. Besides the demolished romance, her day job is going away and even a paycheck to paycheck existence requires a lot of agonizing stretching between the two points. Robespierre pulls it together with a vibrantly alive, caustically witty tone, correctly relying on the charismatic, lived-in, and wildly expressive performance of Slate. A couple moments of cartoonish, fantastical absurdity are the only minor mars on an otherwise roundly winning film.

Abrahamson, Ford, Lang, Moodysson, Saulnier

While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956). This noirish drama from director Fritz Lang takes aim at the seediness of the newspapers and the cutthroat competitiveness of those in the media, tiltimng at both with equal vigor. When the newspaper owner’s son (Vincent Price) takes control upon his father’s death, he uses the recent emergence of a serial murdered dubbed “the lipstick killer” to pitch his various reporters and editors against each other in an effort to preserve their jobs or even claim one of the plum new positions available. Lang’s curiosity about the darker instincts that drive people gives the film a brutish authenticity, but a lot of the film ultimately feels too pat. None of the characters really come to life as distinctive figures, despite ace actors such as George Sanders and Ida Lupino in the supporting cast. Lang is often a fascinating stylist, even in his clear work-for-hire efforts. Little of that comes through, making While the City Sleeps a fairly pedestrian picture.

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014). Inspired by Chris Sievey’s Frank Sidebottom persona and drawing further on any number of outside musicians, Frank is a consistently fascinating and amusing film. Even when its structure sometimes threatens to hit some overly familiar beats, Abrahamson (working from a scripted credited to Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan) maintains a pleasing edginess, largely by making the lead character (a fledgling musician, played by Domhnall Gleeson, who finds himself a member of a resolutely strange art rock band) more prickly, complicated, and ultimately unlikable than the expected passive protagonist agog at the weirdos he’s thrown in with. Michael Fassbender plays the title character, a damaged genius who consistently keeps his head covered with an oversized, cartoonish facsimile. Largely working without his facial expressions as an instrument in the portrayal, Fassbender injects a remarkable amount of soulfulness into Frank. It’s an offbeat and riveting performance. Abrahamson directs with a fine sense of pacing and an inspired visual panache. The cast also includes Maggie Gyllenhaal, who pushes her performance a little too hard as a combative band member who’s highly protective of Frank.

The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940). This adaptation of John Steinbeck’s monumental novel was released less than a year after the publication of the book, giving the film the same sense of immediate, urgent commentary on the devastated state of the nation. The Great Depression was still weighing on the country, the agony it was still causing distilled into the saga of the Joads, Oklahoman farmers knocked off of their land who strike out for California and the distant promise of achievable subsistence. Prosperity has been scratched off the list of options for their American dream. In bringing the story to the screen, Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson downplay some of the novel’s bleakness, especially in the later chapters. Even so, there’s astounding power in the portrait of a citizenry abandoned and abused by a system that responds viciously against any individual or group effort at reclaiming the upper mobility that is presumably capitalism’s foundational promise. Ford directs with understated visual elegance, and Henry Fonda fills the lead role of Tom Joad with a temperamental integrity.

We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2014). Lukas Moodysson needed look no further than a graphic novel created by his wife, Coco Moodysson, to find the material for his latest, a lively and marvelous film about a trio of girls at the beginning of their teenaged years who form a punk band. The conflicts in the film are wisely kept on the modest side — parental disapproval, disputes over cute punk boys — giving it a genial looseness that mirrors the simple, satisfying clash of a great punk song. All three girls are winning in their straightforward roles, with mohawked Mira Grosin proving especially charismatic. Her Klara is one of those kids whose every reaction plays out vividly on her face, especially when she’s ecstatically amused at the foolishness of others. There are already better films this year, but I’ll wager the remaining calendar won’t bring another near-great film this exuberant.

Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, 2014). The smart sophomore feature from writer-director Jeremy Saulnier is a revenge film that argues against revenge. Or it at least posits revenge as an inescapable cycle. Operating with the same sort of deadpan gallows humor the Coen brothers bring to their more downbeat work, Saulnier builds the narrative with an admirable patience and commitment to detail. As Dwight, the devastated man who sets out to even the scales in response to the murder of his parents, Macon Blair does a nice job with the emotional dysfunction of the character while making it clear how quickly the mess he’s created overwhelms him. Sharp as the writing and directing both are, the film sometimes struggles just a bit to become anything more significant than a well-executed exercise in flipping a well-established narrative. Of course, the same mild complaint could also be leveled against Blood Simple. That seemed to work out well in the long run.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Seventeen

#17 — The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
Westerns, long a staple of Hollywood filmaking, were absolutely huge in the post-War years. According to Glenn Frankel’s book on the making of The Searchers, by the time John Ford’s iconic film was released, in 1956, westerns accounts for about one-third of all major studio movies and as much as half of the slate of the independents. Surely the satisfying simplicity of a traditional good guys versus bad guys narrative had something to do that in the new reality of the nation pressed into position as the center cog in the complex geopolitical gears. And yet the surplus of westerns meant that the satisfying simplicity couldn’t last for long. Shadows crept into all those frontier towns, and the more skilled filmmakers were bound to start deconstructing the most familiar narratives, if only to stave off creative boredom. Other films from the nineteen-fifteens contain inklings of the major rending of the western that would arrive in the next decade, but none anticipate it with such simultaneous force and stealth as The Searchers.

Now clearly anointed as Ford’s greatest film, The Searchers tells the story of a grizzled gunfighter on an extended quest to retrieve his niece from the Comanches who abducted her as a child. Adapted from an Alan Le May novel and with origins in the real-life tale of Cynthia Ann Parker, the movie’s plot is positioned as the most standard of Hollywood oater fare, complete with ample excuses to point the camera at stunning landscapes, taking full advantage of the Technicolor VistaVision technologies meant to help differentiate cinema offerings from the upstart television. Despite its veneration as a great work of art, every time I watch The Searchers I’m struck by all the ways it expertly adheres to expectations of how this sort of entertainment offering works. The comic relief, the shape of the relationships, the individual scenes all have a familiar rhythm. That’s likely attributable to Ford’s easy command of film narrative at this point (he’d been making movies for almost forty years by the time he leaned back in this particular director’s chair), which would make developing a story as second-nature as driving a car. Regardless of how easily it came to him, that sturdiness of story lends greater impact to the sly, inspired ways that The Searchers is pointedly different from the norm.

With these older films, the modern habit is to ascribe intent that may not have been present in filmmakers who churned out pictures like woodworkers craft benches: with a sense of artistic price, but not necessarily aspirations towards nuanced permanence. It’s clear, though, that Ford wanted to shape the depiction of the Native Americans with a different approach. That may have been less due to political considerations or empathetic cultural sensitivity and more as a way to distinguish the work, especially since the resulting film doesn’t exactly come across as radically enlightened. Instead, Ford’s corrective for past cinematic sins shows up most clearly in the implicit judgment the film levels agains the bigotry of the lead character, played by Ford stalwart John Wayne. Ethan Edwards detests the Comanches that he tracks, endeavoring to understand their rituals and traditions only so he can use the knowledge to render the greatest indignities he can muster in battle and the aftermath. He’s a former Confederate soldier (the film’s story begins just a few years after the Civil War), and he carries the bitterness of defeat with him. Much of the character’s stubbornness is recognizable from any number of other western heroes, in films that tend to depict the quality as an admirable expression of rustic masculinity. In The Searchers, the same ethos is a pathway to devastating loneliness, a mandate to stand outside a culture that is prepared to move on without him, as exemplified by the famous final shot that transforms the triumphant exit into the sunset as a march of defeat. It’s a closing visual statement that allows for parallels aplenty, but it’s not solely the symbolic possibilities that make it powerful.