Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Hired Hand (1971) - Directed by Peter Fonda

Following Fonda’s involvement with the classic counter-culture film, Easy Rider, he was amazingly given basically free reign over his directorial debut. The result was this trippy and mellow, acid-western that was little appreciated upon release. A few years following its theatrical release, it played on NBC with an additional 20 minutes of footage added, as a sort of “director’s cut”. It was after this that the film drifted into obscurity until it saw its release to DVD during the 2000’s. Fonda’s directors cut footage is relegated to the extras on the disc that I saw, and the film is the original cut as Fonda removed this footage that originally aired on television. I’m not sure why the film strikes quite so well. It has something to do with it being this sort of clairvoyant and atmospheric mood piece. It also has something to do with the minimalist dialogue, the brilliant cinematography and the memorable score written by Bruce Langhorne. I’m not sure the plot is anything fully developed, but there’s a high degree of feeling to this film nonetheless.

Fonda stars as Harry Collins, who along with his pal, Arch (Warren Oats) have been wandering around the west, working and doing who-knows-what for years. While discussing the prospects of heading to California for work, Harry professes a desire to return to his wife whom he left 7 years prior. So Arch and Harry travel together to find his old home. When they reach the homestead, they find his wife, Hannah (Verna Bloom) and a daughter that he didn’t know he had. Hannah doesn’t welcome him home very easily….but she decides to allow Collins and Arch to stay on as hired hands. Ultimately, past and present begin to merge in a slowly escalating series of conversations….wracked by regrets and desires. Toward the end of the film, the beauty of true reconciliation between Hannah and Collins is threatened when some thugs who’ve hounded Collins and Arch in the past step in to cause trouble.

This remarkably simple and straightforward plot is nonetheless rife with interesting characters. Harry is a rather meek and humble individual….feeling like he has honestly made a huge mistake in his life when he left his wife. This concept of the deadbeat dad returning home after many years allows for an interesting characterization of womanhood and motherhood to appear here…..Hannah, a single mother has spent several years on her own taking care of her child. She is tough-minded, aggressive and matter of fact, seemingly the opposite of Harry’s quiet and rather coy cowboy. Often the film will frame Hannah standing or seated above Harry or Arch, displaying her superior psychological development and maturity level above theirs. These signs of power from Hannah are not limited to psychology either. Not only does she admit to having affairs with multiple men who have worked her farm for years, there’s this amazing monologue she has where she details how her body craved being with a man for so long that she just couldn’t take being alone anymore. Her sexual liberation certainly reflects a more modern 1970’s sensibility than 19th century. But, her flagrant and burning sexuality, subverts the cliche of the chaste prairie woman. This characterization is one of the film’s most memorable aspects, as a battle of the sexes is undergone between Hannah and the men.

Fonda’s utilization of the soundscape-acid-country-folk twang of Bruce Langhorne’s works for the film is fairly mesmerizing, particularly in the opening sequence which is a tour-de-force of cinematography and musical mood. We’ve got the lush, shimmering, slow motion of the river; the images of two men, one fishing and one swimming, then the overlays and the slow fades of the images, all with Langhorne’s lilting, droning, chiming banjo and fiddles intertwining. Langhorne’s music continues to impress throughout the film adding a beautiful melancholia. Vilmos Zsigmond contributes his considerable photographic talent as well, finding moments of spiritual rapture and moments of quiet stillness. Fonda’s emphasis on allowing for long fades and overlays makes the film feel very slow paced, which suits the plot well, as everything is about buried subtext rather than overt exposition. In the end, the film questions the ability of the loner cowboy to be able to settle down, the question that continues after films like Shane, Will Penny etc. Here it’s not so much Harry’s personal choice, but the code of ethics of friendship that puts his domestic pursuits in jeopardy, reminding us that in the west, life was cheap and life was short.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Westward the Women (1951) - Directed by William Wellman

This William Wellman classic defies genre expectations and has a unique tone throughout. Written by Frank Capra, it has the inherent sentiment and good-hearted nature that much of his work is founded upon. But because Capra didn’t have time to direct and instead got William Wellman to helm the film, it is distinctively stark and gritty to the core, exemplifying the kind of toughness found in his other classics like Yellow Sky and The Ox-Bow Incident. It’s also one of the best westerns as far as portraying women in non-stereotypical roles. But ultimately, it’s just a darn great western in its own right, portraying the hardship, toughness and resolve required to get a wagon train to California….except this one is a wagon train full of women.

Set in 1851, Capra’s script centers on a newly settled valley in California, that just so happens to only have men there at the moment. A man named Roy Whitman (John McIntire) who founded the settlement wants to have women arrive to marry the men and start families to populate the area. He hires Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) to go to Chicago and recruit women for the trip. Through a screening and interview process, he finds 138 women who decide to take the trip….many of them for different reasons of course. They each pick out a picture of the man they want to marry and soon they’re off on the California Trail. These women can do a variety of jobs….some can shoot, some can ride horses, some can drive the wagons. Buck also has with him a small handful of men to help guide the trip, and tells the men to stay away from the women. One man doesn’t listen, and gets himself shot. Slowly some of the other men and some of the women leave the trail and turn back. But for 3 men Buck, Roy, and Ito (Henry Nakamura….a Japanese cowboy who at first seems like a Hollywood cliché but in the end defies stereotypes), they’re in it for the long haul with the women as they travel to California.

Part of the success of this movie lies in the fact that it is tough as nails. Wellman does not pull any punches in this film about women and rarely lets sentiment become overbearing. There are Native American attacks, rattlesnakes, flash floods and storms, stampedes, accidental deaths, fisticuffs….it’s a long and brutal wagon train, in fact one of the toughest, maybe the toughest portrayal of a wagon train on film that I’ve personally seen. There’s also no music in the film except for the opening credits and at the very end. This keeps the emotions from swelling artificially, and gives an element of realism to the whole thing. I particularly love the camera work and the location shooting, apparently filmed a great deal in Utah. William Mellor’s camerawork and framing in the traditional academy ratio is some of the best framing and scenery shots you’ll ever see. He also photographed a few other renowned classics of the genre like The Naked Spur, Giant, Bad Day at Black Rock. What’s so fantastic is the way he employs the low angle shot of groups of women as they look toward the horizon. This effect gives the women a larger-than-life heroism, allowing for a stoic characterization to come forward, almost a bit like traditional Russian cinema, when there is often low angled shots that emphasize a certain powerful, architectural dynamic. So too here, the power of these women are given a respect throughout the film, both from the script and the camera work.

Ultimately it is the women that are most memorable about this film. So many parts are well acted: Denise Darcel as the French woman Fifi; Julie Bishop as Laurie, the girl who is expecting a child out of wedlock; Renata Vanni as Mrs. Maroni, the grieving Italian mother, and maybe especially Hope Emerson as the hard driving Patience Hawley. There are many other parts here though too, and the vignette-like nature of the film allows for a variety of scenes. There is deep sadness here, and action, and comedy relief, but it’s tied together so well by the grittiness and the toughness that Wellman insists upon. The toughness and female perspective of the wagon train experience would be examined 60 years later, in Kelly Reichardt’s magnificent Meek’s Cutoff. But of course the key difference there, is that the infallible, hard-driving male at the lead of the wagon train in Westward the Women is replaced in Meek’s Cutoff by a foolish, lazy, untrustworthy man. There are images and themes shared by both films, but the degree to which the female story here can be told, and who they are led by is different. This certainly doesn’t take anything away from Wellman’s masterpiece, which of course was directed, written, and produced by men and would be subject to points of view as such. It stands today as a stepping-stone type work leading to more feminist leaning works in the future. It should be noted that the women here not only embody roles that are traditionally male dominated, it is THEY who pick their mates, and it is THEY who stand their ground and refuse to enter the town at the end of the film until they receive new clothes (an unpopular decision among the men of course, as the women command full control). Though they embody traditionally male roles in western films, they are in fact allowed to be women through it all, such that the film's perspective is that women can be women. They don't have to be "men" to get through this. This is a memorable film that needs to be seen by more people. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

True Heart Susie (1919) - Directed by D. W. Griffith

(Note: This review is being posted as part of the Gish Sisters Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and The Motion Pictures)

Lillian Gish’s work with director D.W. Griffith generated one of the best director/actress pairings in the history of cinema. Griffith had this uncanny knack for finding material that suited Gish perfectly. In turn, Gish was able to elevate the material beyond the typical stereotypes that melodramas can fall into. Griffith understood that Gish was his best acting asset and created roles for her that are some of the most iconic of the era, including magnificent performances in Broken Blossoms and Way Down East among others. But some of the lesser known films, like True Heart Susie, contain examples of Gish’s acting that are somewhat unique and also showcase some of Griffith’s smaller and less histrionic tales.

In January of 1919, Griffith released a picture with Gish titled A Romance of Happy Valley, one in which a sweetheart stays at home while her man makes it big in the world, only to return home to find things not as he left them. Griffith then made True Heart Susie in June of that year. It’s actually a far better film that has similar overtones but one of the main corrections he makes to the basic structure of the plot, is to allow Gish to stay on screen longer, especially in the final 20 minutes of the film. The other interesting development in True Heart Susie is how Griffith combines comedy, tragedy, and romantic melodrama so effectively. Gish plays Susie, the ultimate girl next door who hardly ever gets noticed. She lives with her aunt and she’s friends of her neighbor, William (Robert Harron), the dark and handsome young man with whom she pines for. He wants to attend college and little does he know, but Susie secretly pays his tuition by selling her cow and other animals. She in fact sends him a letter that makes him think that the tuition is paid by a philanthropist of great wealth. Her motivation is so she can marry a man with an education of course. He celebrates the news of this letter by running across the street and he’s so excited and is on the verge of kissing Susie but he doesn’t quite do it. In a fit of comedic timing, they bob and weave close to each other but they don't kiss in a comedic sense of romantic denial. Gish’s Susie really is just the girl he confides in despite the fact he ends up getting involved with a glamorous brunette named Bettina (Clarine Seymour) when he returns from college. Much to Susie’s dismay, William marries the woman, but in the gloriously melodramatic denouement, Susie’s “true heart” wins out in the end.

Griffith wasn’t known for his comedies. But it’s amazing to see just how adept he is at infusing brilliantly correlated jokes into the plot. Griffith’s comedic sense of timing is emphasized by his juxtaposition of images and intertitles that sarcastically comment on the rather desperate,  nonexistence of the relationship at hand. Susie is attempting to primp herself in competition for William when we read…..“Susie, preparing herself against the paint and powder brigade.” Her aunt then bursts in and says, “Powder! Do you think you can improve upon the Lord’s work?” There’s also this lovely little comedic moment where Susie stands in front of the ice cream sign…..staring at William….then slyly looking at the ice cream sign….then back to William. In another funny moment, Susie receives a letter from him where he says “so far, I haven’t found anyone I like better than the people at home.” She proceeds to kiss the letter numerous times and prance around the room, despite the lack of enthusiasm he puts into his words. Susie is in fact so naively in denial that William DOESN'T love her that even when William leaves a party with the brunette at the end of the evening, Susie remarks “Oh, he had to be nice to the stranger.” There’s this other darkly comedic moment where Susie watches William and the brunette from across the farm….she can’t bear to watch them flirting and she closes her eyes, as if once she opens them the brunette would have disappeared. Griffith turns the tables in the second half, though, turning the film into a devastating tragedy in the making, with multiple shots of Susie, desperate, with tears in her eyes. On Bettina's wedding day, we see her in her wedding dress….then the camera pans wider to find Susie is one of her attendants, in a devastating portrayal of Susie’s penchant for humiliating embarrassment.

Gish’s performance in this film is not quite like any others I’ve seen from her. She is remarkable in her ability to project a sort of deadpan melancholy, almost like the female counterpoint to someone like Buster Keaton at times. She so often presents body language to make a point, like her stilted walking down the lane as the naïve school girl, or her subtle eye movements in front of the drug store in town, or her sad-sack expressions as she hugs her cow. So often Griffith sets us up to believe Susie has no real appeal whatsoever by her rather uptight form of dress, as compared to the free-wheeling women of the city. But he contrasts this with her knowledge of practical things: farm life, cooking, caring for the sick. Yes it’s a bit stereotypical, but it’s notable that William sees the prospect of Susie’s fresh roasted chicken and baked biscuits as far more sexy than the cold meat that his wife presents to him every day. Gish makes all of these elements come together so well because we care about her and believe her, whether she’s giddy over a letter she has just received, or caring for her sick aunt, or sad over William cheating on her, or vengeful and ready to punch Bettina in her sleep. She also has a significant acting moment that occurs at about the 49 minute mark, after Susie has primped herself and gone over to William’s house, only to find him with the brunette. She retreats to the hallway, and Griffith goes in for a close-up. What happens over about the next 30 seconds is pure and elemental Gish. Every single emotion that one could think of comes rushing to her face….one after another. It is remarkable stuff and no one ever did this better than she. Gish doesn’t quite have the large, meaty role, filled with desperation that she would get in Orphans of the Storm, or Way Down East, but her comedic timing here and immense range is a definitive look at her talent.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913) - Directed by D.W. Griffith

(Note: This review is being re-posted with some additional thoughts as part of the Gish Sisters Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and The Motion Pictures)

Griffith’s rousing and exciting western adventure 2-reeler is a wonderful early example of the genre, 
featuring some terrifically filmed battle sequences, a wonderfully exciting cliffhanger and a sensitive, heartwarming happy ending, the likes of which stands as one of Griffith's most fantastic endings.... an ending that makes me grin from ear to ear. The fact that the film contains a point of view decidedly centered around the experiences of a woman and some small girls makes it something of an early feminist western, positioning the female experience in the active role, rather than the passive, spectator role that they are so often relegated to, and in the process relegating the men here into almost comical inconsequentiality. It's also one of Griffith's best works prior to his longer films....filled with brilliantly executed cross-cutting and editing, magnificently staged action set-pieces and a very densely plotted 2-reels, not to mention a fantastic performance from Lillian Gish in one of her earliest roles.

This short film features a plucky and expressive Mae Marsh as Sally, who with her younger sister is sent west to live with their 3 uncles. As part of their luggage, they bring 2 young puppies with them. On the same stagecoach is Lillian Gish as an unnamed mother who is traveling with her husband and their young baby to the same town where the girls are to live. The girls worry about their puppies, whom their Uncles say must live outside the cabin. Some Native Americans happen to steal the puppies for food. But Sally, in a fit of crazed mania, chases after them, snatching the puppies from their clutches, and even knocking one over in the process! The Uncles intervene, shooting one Native American dead. The other returns to the tribe and convinces the tribe to attack the settlers. During the ensuing battle, Gish's baby ends up in the wrong hands during battle and winds up on the battleground outside the Uncle's cabin. Gish finds herself in the cabin with the men and the young girls, while she frantically worries and searches for her baby. Sally, in a fit of "heroine-ism", steals away through a trap door in the back of the cabin, crawls across the battlefield, scoops up the baby and returns to safety! At the end of the film, all is right with the world, the mother’s worries are gone, and Sally is a heroine.

This film is so much fun. I love the distinctive focus on the concerns of the children and the mother. The men are relegated to the place of spectator while the girls and the mother propel the plot onward. It’s a refreshing sort of plot, filled with Griffith's usual melodrama and sentiment, but it’s enacted with a sort of confident understanding of this POV, and doesn't look back. Gish is fantastic in her brief role, those familiar wild eyes flaring as she searches for her baby. It's actually quite remarkable that she already at the age of 20, and in only her second year of acting had such a command of her emotions in front of the camera. My single favorite moment is that wonderful look on Gish's face as she sees Sally and the kids pop their heads out of the chest. Her expression is so naturalistic, joyful and emotive. It should be no surprise that Griffith’s portrayal of the battle sequences is particularly well done, filmed far enough back to allow the scope of battle to unfold with usual flair, and including some terrific combat elements in more close-up moments. It's almost astonishing how exciting these combat elements are here in 1913. As one of Griffith’s early masterpieces, the film stands as not only one of the best westerns of the silent era, but also a slice of life that’s key and essential to the genre, encompassing and examining the existence of women and children and showing their experience with compassion. This was the last silent western that Griffith would make and it's just about perfect.

The film can be viewed here....