Seeing Red

I mentioned earlier this month Suspiria masterpiece that it is and superior to everything in Argento’s impressive (at least pre-1990s) career – is really not a great gateway to his opus, given how little resembles his early giallo works. Well, that’s what Deep Red steps in for. Not solely because it was his final word on the giallo, the last one he’d make before leaning more into supernatural subject matters with the likes of the Three Mothers trilogy and Phenomena, though the reasoning I’ll give is probably more symptomatic of how everything he throws into Deep Red feels like THE ultimate quintessence of the giallo formula and I don’t know if it had that weight in 1975 when it first released but it certainly did when I first watched it over 30 years after the fact and still retains it in my last viewings earlier this year (one in which I introduced it in its Italian cut for a friend and one in which I sampled its English cut hours before finalizing this post). If I were a cruel man, I’d probably claim this vibe of Argento’s giallo apogee is amplified by the fact that save for Opera, his late career attempts to recapture his salad days by returning to the giallo have been – by most accounts as I have only seen the forgettable 2009 film by that genre’s name with Adrien Brody – lamentable. But I am instead going with how of all the prime 60s-70s giallo pictures I have seen… Deep Red lands among my very favorite, doing everything you expect from that subgenre in such a perfect way.

But I digressed majorly from that secondary reason I would explain on Deep Red being someone’s best introduction to Argento’s work beyond it being among the best of the genre that most made his name. It is that Deep Red, in its placement as his final giallo, feels like a particular mid-transformation between that era of his career and his nonsensical supernatural tales that Suspiria would crystallize as his very next picture. Deep Red is certainly more visually grounded and narratively soluble as a picture than anything that would follow in Argento’s late 70s to 80s career with a clear understanding of plot, character, and motive, but it also throws itself wholly into the desire to look and act as baroque as possible and frankly that clarity of plot is perhaps something that is attained over several viewings rather than the one.

For in its function as mystery, Argento and co-writer Bernardino Zapponi throws out all the possible twists and diversions that can disorient the viewer from getting the right sense of things, beginning from before the credits even conclude as we are interrupted from the white lettering on black underscored by Goblin’s bouncy prog rock theme song (the first of their collaborations with Argento; I believe I’ve indicated in the Suspiria review that that film had one of my all-time favorite scores and you will excuse for indicating this film as well as their third work Tenebrae are not that far behind) to have a playful children’s la-la song butt in as a scream cuts through and we watch in a single static shot against a wall the shadow of somebody being stabbed to death, the bloody knife thrown on the tiled floor before us and a child’s dress shoes walking into the frame in view of the knife before it just goes right back to finishing the credits with that Goblin cue like nothing just happened. There will be a consistent sense of wrongness on that level throughout the atmosphere of Deep Red – not in the disregard for aesthetic logic in Suspiria‘s case, but because we don’t have all the pieces to the tale.

But I’ve gone this far without even elaborating on what a giallo is for anyone not as so informed on the Italian horror cinema, so I digress once more to provide that context. Giallos are basically murder mysteries in the narrative style of an Agatha Christie novel, vehicles for which we witness normally morally dubious men or beautiful women get killed by knifing or some other elaborate method as an outsider tries to hone in on who’s committing all these killings and why. They are essentially the precursor to the slasher movie of 1980s American and Canadian cinema (Deep Red comes in on the heels of one of the formative slasher pictures, 1974’s Black Christmas, and just before another one, 1978’s Halloween which openly owes an amount of its approach to Argento’s work*), with perhaps just a bit more respectability on account of being made for more money than the pocket change that many slashers are put together with and just having that European polish to its look and sound where slashers are happy to slum in poor video and sound quality all the time.

To return back to that premise of Deep Red and indicate what’s to be expected from a given slasher: once the interrupted credits complete, we are introduced to English jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings, who between this, Barbarella, and Blowup, certainly had a habit of showing up in the Italian cinema back in the Groovy London times) as he rehearses with a Turin-based band before berating them for being too perfect for a musical genre that needs to feel loose and disreputable. Unless you’re watching off of the English-language cut, in which case you jump right to the following scene where the camera moves past a red curtain to a large auditorium where his neighbor, the German psychic Helga Ulmann, is discussing and demonstrating her powers. Unfortunately, one of those demonstrations happens to be learning that one of her audience is a murderer, broadcasting it to the entire room as well as her knowledge that the murderer will kill again! Poor Helga ends up being next in line for that act as Marcus witnesses from streets below her being brutalized by meat cleaver and jagged window glass and takes it upon himself to find the responsible killer.

So pretty much par for the giallo course: an unknown murderer (right down to their leather gloves) on a spree, very much vivid gore effects (as should be the case for a movie with a title that has the word “red” in it; this is a particularly lavish-looking movie without being as striking as Suspiria or Opera. There is very appealing color, but save for the bloody red it is not as conspicuous.), and an outsider looking to find out what’s going on. But the devil is in the details when it comes to how Deep Red stands out: starting from that interruption in the credits (which is sadly less impactful in the English-cut than the Italian-cut, it’s real deep into the credits when it shows up for the latter) and moving on to how openly unpleasant Marcus is as a protagonist where he treats virtually everyone with irritability with an added dose of sexism towards his romantic foil, the unflappable reporter Gianni Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, who during this production started a 10-year relationship with Argento that produced the controversial actor Asia Argento). Then there’s the kills themselves which are more upsetting the more related to mundanities they are: an elevator turns into a steel trap, the corner of a shelf is used as a weapon, an ostensible drowning turns out to be a violent boiling where jump cuts force into stages of reddishness for the poor victim’s face. And there’s the aggressively modern design of the film: the exterior of Marcus and Helga’s apparent building features a bar that closely resembles Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks on one corner (to the point that it looks like the inhabitants are pantomimes performing stillness in shots) and a giant foreboding horizontal statue against a fountain on the other corner that lends to an excellent wide shot between Marcus and his drunk friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia).

But it’s specifically the energy of the movie that keeps whipping back and forth between languidness – watching Marcus chip through sheetrock for a particular scene, for example – and zaniness like Marcus’ nervous chemistry with both the laidback lead police detective Calcabrini (Eros Pagni) and with Gianni. The latter practically transforms this into a screwball romantic comedy everytime she arrives with wacky car rides, phone calls, and arm wrestling matches and for that and other reasons I find Gianni’s presence to be among the best unusual pleasures of this movie. Even one of the kills, a climactic one no less, accomplishes its function through a ridiculous set of slapstick contrivances but of course lands with an outrageous close-up of shocking gore effects. This energy never wavers in its sense of propulsiveness – even with the differences between the two cuts, where the Italian cut seems more willing to fill in the moments between moments while the English cut is more blunt-force – and feels like quite the perfect accompaniment to the wild rock stylizations of Goblin’s music.

While in the meantime, Argento sees fit to include the essential visual associations with the horror genre. Not just those aforementioned leather gloves or the image of a bloody knife up and down in the air or the regrettable appearance of animal torture (which, knowing the way Italian horror movies were made, I suspect are unsimulated and therefore unethical) or the camera moving with predatory smoothness that makes us recognize we are seeing from the killer’s eyes (phenomenally smooth for a movie that predates the invention of the Steadicam!), but the images we associate with horror movies in the broader sense: creepy dolls eventually broken up into porcelain machinery, a decrepit decomposed corpse hidden in the shadows, and those shadows belonging to a late haunted house where we watch from below opening gates as approach in the dead of night or step unwisely through a set of stairs with our way too courageous protagonist. The creepy visuals and the shocking kills together retain that grounded realism that distinguishes the picture from Suspiria and beyond in Argento’s career – a shambled mansion in cobwebs can exist in our world, the dolls are of course just presented in understandably prepared ways (one of them is hanging off the ceiling by string), we are meant to understand THAT is what scalding water does to a face and THAT is what a cleaver does to a torso – but they never stop feeling just a little wonky in how abrupt their arrivals are.

These are the things that stand out to me more than the pro forma plotting of Deep Red but of course that plotting is not something to scoff at. It is perhaps the most Hitchcockian in a very Hitchcockian genre – added moreso if you watch the English cut where you’d get that brief misdirect in terms of protagonist (one of the two elements I’d say the English cut has over my preferred Italian cut; the other is David Hemmings is an Englishman and is getting David Hemmings’ voice attached to his character) – with a very pivotal choice of sequence to continue hanging onto the further we get into the runtime, aligning us with the psychology of Marcus feeling like he just absolutely missed something and has to keep trying to visualize properly the moment he got mixed into Helga’s brutal killing. Basically through that setup, it delivers that same vibe that you forgot something very important and it is a niggling sensation that I hate to encounter in my day-to-day life but feel comforted by having a controlled context that delivers it. It is a move that could only possibly be done by filmmaking and more specifically by a confident casual arrangement of shots (credit to Franco Fraticelli on that merit) and the payoff is absolutely magnificent***. The clues are certainly given to us by Argento and Zapponi, but they’re banking on us not being able to catch them and the fact that I didn’t until the denouement is what makes Deep Red so addictively rewatchable as I go “ah that’s what that meant” and “oh that’s what we were supposed to be looking at” within the hallways and rooms and streets this explores.

So what to say of Deep Red at the end of this overlong review? It is what a movie looks like when it is at once typical and unorthodox. It is an effortlessly watchable thing that finds different methods to breeze through its thrills. It is the logical missing link between The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Suspiria, taking in the rational recognizability of the latter but imbuing hints of weirdness in tone, sound, and visuals to prime Argento up for the irrational in his future career. It is horrifying to watch and yet exciting to revisit. It is a set of contradictions and inexhaustible for that, a movie that has retained its space in my head ever since I first saw it and therefore ends up making the most of living in my mind over the many years to define itself as one of my favorite horror movies. It is – as I opened with – the last word on the central subgenre of Italian horror and a movie has to be a masterpiece to accomplish that.

*It also comes on the heels of fellow 1974 proto-slasher The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but as opposed to Black Christmas and Halloween, I can’t think of much that that movie shares with Deep Red. Maybe Bay of Blood but not Deep Red.**
**I have performed the disorienting act of giving a footnote within a footnote because I just figured maybe the one thing Deep Red and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have in common is revolving most of their climactic action on a one intimidating looking isolated house.
***In fact, in the earlier watch this year, I was introducing the movie to a friend and he had quickly caught on to the specific image without prompt and asked me to rewind, a request I declined. Sadly, he ended up falling asleep halfway through (we started the movie at 1 am), but I guess the movie wasn’t talking to him when the end credits opened with “YOU HAVE WATCHED DEEP RED“.

All Work and No Play Makes Jacques a Dull Boy

It is exactly how it says on the tin: Jacques Tati’s fourth feature Playtime is a means for him to play around with a scope of production hardly ever seen of a movie before. Sadly since as well, given that the amount of personal investment Tati put into it was not returned to him financially. But what he did have to show for it is an unexpected marvel and something that just as much engages with the viewer’s sense of play as it does with the director’s. Playtime has a sense of ambition and eagerness that I consider very few movies to matched up with, giving us a fleeting vision into a cold world that Tati certainly had a healthy amount of pessimism towards but still found a way to make the experience a buoyant one every minute we spend there.

That ambition is met on both Playtime‘s production design (by Eugène Roman) and the choreography of the cast populating that very same production design, a working city with electricity and roads and all practically created wholesale (with the help of some model work for certain shots) by Tati, Roman and the rest of the crew by the name of “Tativille” and certainly the raison d’etre of Playtime as a work of art. The Paris of Playtime is a cold and sterile geometric zone, one embodied by straight lines and a muting of colors only occasionally punctuated by color as a joke such as a lamp light blasting pink or such (the one exception – at least for the first half – being a flower stand relegated to a street corner and treated as quaint by certain passers-by). This is the case from the outside, with the two buildings in which the first half of Playtime takes place, a pair of business centers so indiscernible from each other to the point of one of our characters getting lost between them. This is the case from the inside, as in the middle point where we get to meet the quiet domestic life of another character in little glass squares alike his 3 neighbors in the building. Squares and boxes are in fact kind of a visual cue into what to look out into in this movie’s vast 70mm widescreen compositions by cinematographers Jean Badal and Andréas Winding, made up exclusively of wide shots with various foregrounded elements. And certainly the reflective surfaces are a basis in so many of Tati’s blunt critiques of this industrial future, providing invisible barriers between characters or sadly reflecting the Paris’ most iconic landmarks in more than once. But it’s not just the design and composition that meets Tati’s ambition.

It’s also the way that people move around in those between those lines just maintains the rigidness of it all. Tati, of course, is of the screen’s great physical comics and his control over these ecosystems in which we watch the movements of characters pass through angles and go through motions with synchronicity to the alienating environment is quite a miracle to see performed on such a large scale. And it seems like every single inhabitant of this world Tati’s crew built from the ground up is perfectly positioned to perform their tiny little gags in whatever corner of the screen they’re relegated to, whatever box they’re contained in whether their home, a cubicle, or a window. It’s like a perfect exacting dance between the lines of the screen. And there’s so much going on that it makes Playtime such an essential big-screen watch (and rewatch and rewatch, as my latest viewings that inform this review were two theatrical screenings within 6 days of each other) as it’s the best way to have the imagery send you every bit of information possible and let your eyes just explore the frame (as well as a proper presentation of the film’s 6-track stereo sound which delivers several of the gags on its own separate plane over the continuous dialogue laying out a sea of population. Gags are even made out of the incongruousness of the visual and the sound like a man walking down a long hallway and a character getting up expecting he about to approach because he hears the echoing footsteps or the distraction of where a baby’s cry is coming from).

There will of course never be a single viewing in which you will see every single joke that Tati and his collaborators have fit into this movie, which makes it all the more impressive where one single man was able to marshal the motions and behaviors of the actors with impressive business that feels human and natural in this inhuman and artificial environment (my particular favorite is a sequence where one man is sliding on a rolling chair along a long help desk for an ostensible travel agency – one that features posters of exotic locations focused on the exact same looking building in each location – and we see from behind a map that his legs are dancing and jittering from end to end to serve every customer at the desk and calling on the numerous phones. By the time, he gets to calmly walking from one end of the desk to the other with the chair slowly following him, I absolutely die).

And it is at this point I realize how much I’ve talked about Playtime without even feinting towards the screenplay and what it’s about.

But, to discuss Playtime in terms of plot is an exercise in futility: Tati, co-writer Jacques Lagrange, and satirist Art Buchwald (the latter recruited specifically to write the occasional English dialogue we catch) are clearly less concerned with the particulars of narrative in their writing. Certainly there’s structure and there’s characters we definitely recognize all throughout (although there’s also one specific character we keep misrecognizing, Tati’s famous character Monsieur Hulot, whom we lose track of among fellow bypassers in hats and mackintoshes). There’s even characters we enter this city with at the beginning of the movie and leave likewise with at the end, as is the case with a throng of American housewife tourists who land in Orly airport and waste no time exploring the central buildings that make up the film’s setting. But the real concern is allowing the perspective to flow naturally from one place to the next after hovering around and watching them run for a while. The closest we have to protagonists are Hulot or one of the housewives Barbara (Barbara Dennek) and they are more or less just amble into our view to follow before the camera determines there’s another point of interest to linger on.

As for that structure I’ve referred to, there are essentially three major movements to Playtime outside of the prologue at Orly Airport (in which the third plays as a sort of how-to instruction on watching the film, beginning with a nearly empty hallway and slowly introducing characters and sounds and gags so that we’re eased into the rhythm of all the stuff that’s going to be going on for the rest of the movie) and an valediction. Those three basically being the exploration of those maze-like business center interiors, the voyeuristic viewing of the apartments where the television-esque presentation of all the spaces gets played with by the observative behavior of their inhabitants and the attempt to use angles hiding the presumed wall between these homes (and in a movie that feels like a lot of its themes are developed from Tati’s musings in his previous film Mon Oncle, this one feels the most vestigial from that picture while still more belonging in this one), and the third and undeniable high-point of Playtime:

The climactic dinner at the Royal Garden restaurant, ostensibly on its opening night as we first watch it while construction workers and electricians are still putting on their finishing touches to the place and then rushed off to the kitchen out of the view of the first of the posh guests arrive, regardless of if the dining room is ready or not. Obviously, it’s very much not, initially communicated to us by a wonderful visual gag that has a black negative spot on a white tile floor (the warm browns of the walls are perhaps an early indicator of how different this will be from the scene’s virtually colorless predecessors). But then, the more movement starts coming in as guests flood the dining room and waiters start dancing around the table, everything just gets more and more chaotic to the most frantic track of Francis Lemarque’s jazz-infused music and frankly the building starts to collapse all around them: short circuits, demolished ceiling fixtures, and shattered glass doors all in between the ruining of suits from faulty chairs or waiters’ uniforms from hectic movements. It is the dizziest and most engaging part of the movie, the moment where Tati’s criticism of modernity just lets the faults of modernism speak for themselves and includes an arched eye towards classism (I am most impressed by a gag where the maître d vehemently refuses a black man entrance, which the man takes in stride and turns around to leave revealing the suit that the house band is expected to wear and forcing the maître d to shift gears to hospitality), a barrier that is broken down by the very destruction of scenery which invites all sort of “unrespectable characters” like drunks and bohemians and teenagers and the growing gregariousness of a particularly loud American businessman (Billy Kearns) who begins to hold court and invite all the possible misfits in this place.

That sequence is a jolt of electricity alike the neon signs throughout (including one in a pharmacy/bakery next door that looks hilariously too sickly in its green lighting to feel particularly comforting or appetizing) to the point that before we know it, the final minutes of Playtime in the wake of the party feel more relaxed and it’s probably not for nothing that its final major sequence is literally a makeshift carousel in a roundabout (Lemarque’s music once again giving according score to that mood) as we follow the housewives en route to the airport, doing away with the rigidness of when we entered and focusing on the smoothness of the circle and featuring the strongest colors in the whole movie. The movie has become looser and at ease, less anxious over this previously alien landscape we saw. And I think it’s this final playful beat that causes me to assume that there’s maybe the slightest optimism in Tati that we can make it work as long as we’re willing to embrace humanity and its flaws and let it overpower the need for things to be perfect and orderly. It is one of the few elements that I think prevents this from feeling like a work of cynicism.

There are plenty of movies that demand the audience work with it to create their own story in between the moments and many of those ambiguous works make for some of my favorite watches. But none of them make it nearly as fun and inviting as Playtime and the true joy of watching this is how much of it is just inexhaustible on an aesthetic level, inviting us to revisit Tativille as many times as we like and pick and choose what we’d like to see from it. Jonathan Rosenbaum has said that Playtime (his favorite movie) is a different movie depending on where you sit in the theater and given the two differences between my theatrical viewings… I get it! But you will always receive Tati’s sense of glee at creating this world, his consideration of how the future of things looked circa 1967, and his desire to make sure no matter where this world goes, we never forget to find room for play.

Suzy, Do You Know Anything About Witches?

I think I’ve been on record as feeling I did not exhaust Suspiria, Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural horror film, when I first reviewed it ’round these parts. I’m not sure it’s a movie that CAN be exhausted nor should it: it gains its power from the inability to truly qualify what exactly is going on, like the best horror movies. If you come in desiring to leave the film with a sense of normalcy, you are going to leave the movie massively disappointed. Even when you put yourself in the mindset of Italian cinema ’round the time of its release, its very storytelling is a disruption of the standard giallo that dominated the country’s horror cinema within the 1960s and ’70s (one of several reasons I don’t recommend this as someone’s first Dario Argento – there’s a whole third of his career we associate as emblematic of giallo that Suspiria truly refuses to resemble), teasing at belonging to this genre in its initial murder scene. Of course even before we watch poor Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) and the friend kind enough to take her in for the night succumb to what starts as a gruesome kniving that escalates to an elaborate multi-colored sunroof breaking into several beautiful shards below her body that lodge into the skull of that kind samaritan below the hanging corpse of Pat, there is a superimposition of green bright eyes hovering in the darkness that simply has no place in real-world logic that giallo abides by.

But I get ahead of myself here. Even before we are introduced to that elaborate apartment building of lines cutting through shades of red and mirrored staircases, flattened by the direct wide angle Luciano Tovali shoots from, we are introduced to our protagonist Suzy Bannon (or Benner if you watch it with Italian audio, though I am not inclined to do so with the way that I am now used to Jessica Harper’s voice with the character… Harper also being the actor who portrays Suzy on screen) the moment she arrives in Freiburg, Germany to attend the Tanz Dance Akademie overseen by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (an unrecognizable Alida Valli, who has an vicious wide-eyed demeanor the whole time that gives further authoritarian vibe to her masculine suit and straight posture). And as Suzy heads towards the exit of the airport in the first few minutes, we have the soundtrack of a busy terminal cut off by the sliding doors opening as the tinkling opening music box notes of prog rock band Goblin’s famous theme (as part of one of the all-timer of horror movies scores) peeks its head in and then shuts off as the doors close. Once again in that anticipating early steadicam shot heading to the door from Suzy’s perspective, the doors open and we hear those notes continuing where they left off and then they cut off as the doors close. And then finally Suzy goes through that doorway and into a blasting rainy storm and there is no way back from there as she manages to grab a taxi and reach the school in question, only to be rejected by a frightened voice on the call box and witness Pat’s fleeing from the school to her doom.

It’s a cliché to say this, but to discuss Suspiria in terms of plotting is a futile game. I feel like I have finally gotten the hang of elements ’round my tenth watch of the film but that’s missing the forest for the trees as the experience of Suspiria is not to rationalize what is happening to Suzy and her classmate Sara (Stefania Casini) as she learns just how shifty and untrustworthy and dark the matrons of this school are, but to lose our footing the same way Suzy does. On the narrative level, Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi have no interest in coherence as they create an experience of associative horror clichés (the violent murders, a sequence of creepy maggots dropping, blood-based imagery, etc.) based partially on a nightmare Nicolodi had while the two of them were dating and partially on Thomas de Quincy’s poem Suspiria de Profundis. That nightmare atmosphere is exactly what comes through in the final film with the sort of momentum that makes the viewer feel like its slipping under and the abstraction of Argento and his crew’s imagery refuses to give us any anchor through which to catch ourselves and maintain some stability.

That’s the main thing: Argento and Nicolodi’s script is good enough for a pretext of Suzy losing her balance in all the horrors that leave her wide-eyed, but Argento’s direction is what takes Suspiria to another level of wrong-headedness. Nothing about it makes sense on a film vocabulary level: starting from the soundtrack, which has the particular benefit of the Italian film industry’s of soundtracking during that time, where the post-synced ADR means that the sound is always untethered from the image no matter how close it gets. Suspiria is perhaps the one foreign-language film that gains a lot from how the dubbing does not feel natural to what we’re seeing on-screen (and this is something retained in the Italian audio thankfully, because again that’s how Italian soundtracks were put together). And of course, Goblin’s iconic music is the cherry on top, punctuating the disorienting sound design with its loud pumping dread-filled rock scoring.

Following up on that, the cutting of the film is not as bravura as the sound: certainly the general structural shape of events put together does not lend itself to clarity, only insomuch as “this is happening and then this is happening” but it does take subtle rule-breaking of film editing vocabulary to constantly allow Suspiria as an object to be part of the unreliability: sequences where the eyelines will not match, the abruptness of one moment moving to the next particularly once we’ve lingered on a dead body long enough, the refusal to establish spatial clarity particularly when it comes to the relative position one character has with another predatory character. How else can we be shocked when a gloved hand enters the frame out of nowhere to take a life? Indeed, when we do have some kind of establishing into the killer’s point of view, that’s when Argento and Tovali employ the still-then-new Steadicam, giving its inhumanly smooth surveying of a space the same kind of silent purposefulness as Halloween would bring to its opening scene a year later or the eerie expectation of something horrible (such as in the early airport shot I mentioned above) that The Shining perfected 3 years later. It is those moments in which editor Franco Fraticelli makes patience insufferable, whereas once things get truly maddening, he turns things up and takes us aback (a moment where a man has his throat ripped out from an unexpected assailant being the best employment of what Fraticelli brings).

But most of all – More than the angles it chooses to dizzy us with even at its most sedate late exposition scene. More than the ways that the movie finds framings of Suzy that make her feel isolated or trapped in various ways, particularly with a utilisation of reflective surfaces that either box her face in an off-center corner or use the translucency to make her look faint and barely present in the shot like her own ghost. – it’s the colors. The colors of Suspiria are at once why I love Suspiria deeply enough to be one of my favorite movies and at the same time why it works impeccably as a confusing dive into a world separate from ours with zero explicability. It is not just that its selection of colors with which to light its subjects or shape the interiors it takes place in are not logical by our own means, what with greens and reds and blues coming in deep vibrant tones shaping characters in their presence or assaulting the visuals completely until it numbs you up. It’s that the colors also doesn’t make any sense by the logic of Suspiria‘s internal world, constantly feeling like part of what takes characters aback and shocks them until it feels like a language towards the viewer more than the character that something bad is about to go down. Not that the colors individually have a specific mood assigned to them, but the intensity of their appearance and strength of their hue (aided by the 3-strip Technicolor process which the movie was printed off of, but not shot) is an emotional thing to witness. Besides which it makes Suspiria just absolutely beautiful to look at, pleasurable to the eye in spite of how alarming and inexplicable it all is.

In these ways, Suspiria works as a befuddling experience, a movie that fundamentally refuses to work itself, only get close to a clear picture before breaking down again in maddening ways and throwing us in a whirlwind of sound and color (something it curiously shares with another horror movie released around the same time, Obayashi Nobuhiko’s House. I really should remind myself to one day double feature those two). And there is a cause and motivation behind Suzy’s haunting in the wall of the school, the school belongs to an evil coven of witches (a spoiler certainly, but one that seems to be common knowledge on the film. I did use THAT review title after all) so they’re breaking down reality and Suspiria as a film is not just a window but a doorway for us sitting in the middle of that breaking unreality up until its explosive climax. The images and moments are themselves upsetting in context like a horrible shot of a face pressed violently against a window, a close-up of a throat slit from a poor soul trapped in a room implausibly filled with razor wire, a dead body risen to giggle as it approaches us with a knife, etc. but the violence is only a punctuation to the movements in this symphony. Within the context of the film, they are just stops on a spiraling descent through a nightmare, “a bedtime story for the damned” I appropriated* in the last time I discussed Suspiria ’round these parts. And in that same review series, I closed discussing another favorite movie Blade Runner as one in which “my best dreams take place”. I open this loose review series in the same vein that Suspiria‘s world is where my most memorable nightmares slip into, dazzling and inhuman and altogether alienating.

*From Stephen King and Blue Öyster Cult, as I only quote from the best.

1989, The Number, Another Summer

It has been 32 years and I don’t think cinema has ever produced something as incendiary as Do the Right Thing since its 1989 premiere at Cannes. Definitely nothing in the mainstream American cinema, sadly nothing writer-director Spike Lee has made since (even with the ambition he threw 3 years later behind Malcolm X), and the closest analogues I can think of – Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine and Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables – are sadly written off as “French Do the Right Things”. The fact is that the fire lit by the Do the Right Thing is still burning enough to keep us heated all these decades later and honestly given the state of American society as it is today, it is sad but true that that fire has to keep burning. And the brightness of that fire has of course scared a-plenty of viewers at the time of its release fearing that the movie was genuinely dangerous and was going to cause race riots on the streets from its content, a modern-day Rites of Spring. And even when that fear was unfounded, the movie’s lack of interest in providing a straightforward answer regarding the issues it casually depicts apparently struck enough of a nerve with viewers to engage less in the conversation that Do the Right Thing was inviting and more in a desire to validate their own pre-existing notions.

Maybe it’s simply the charged energy of the picture that truly took audiences aback before the fiery climax even occurred, since Do the Right Thing opens on one of my favorite opening credits sequences I’ve ever seen – bombastically providing what looks like a studio-set version of a Brooklyn brownstone set with black shadows between green and red lighting and dynamic cutting for one of the film’s actors, Rosie Perez dancing with aggression to the angry declarations of Public Enemy’s anthem “Fight the Power”. One could absolutely see how a movie providing such bold imagery and rhythm from its very first frame, not even giving us a breather, could intimidate an audience and get them outside of ease before Lee begins weaving us through the variety of charged stories that take place in Do the Right Thing‘s Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant or Bed-Stuy for short.

The film famously portrays a day and change in Bed-Stuy, except it has a particular distinction of being the hottest day of the summer. Insofar as the movie has a protagonist, it would be Mookie (Lee himself) as he starts another day at his job delivering pizzas from Sal’s (Danny Aiello) restaurant, a cornerstone of that neighborhood for a very long time. And as Mookie heads on down his deliveries to his leisure (occasionally one leading him to his girlfriend Tina (Perez) and their infant son Hector), we meet and hang with several different characters on that street: the local drunk Da Mayor as he occasionally disputes with the matriarchal Mother Sister (played by real-life couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee respectively) being one of the more important strands for us to pay attention to, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) who alienates everyone with the large boom box he carries around blasting the same Public Enemy song from that opening credits being another, but mostly doing its relaxed best to sift through Bed-Stuy as a place of diversity that’s not entirely welcome: the tension between Korean shopkeepers, West Indian immigrants, and Puerto Rican folk among all the born-and-raised-in-Brooklyn Black Americans already brings about a nervousness to the energy this movie starts with without adding in the Italian-Americans and police presence intruding on a neighborhood that the movie takes care to note are not from there. While Do the Right Thing is about watching that tension just continuing boiling in a pot over and over under the hot sun above before the pressure just blows the lid right off, the fact is that most of the racial antagonism was there from the start and the movie wants us to know it: one of the first incidents is a low-scale explosion where Da Mayor – one of the film’s most lived-in and agreeable characters – blows up on the Korean family and delivers some racial remarks simply for not having his brand of beer.

If there is any real inciting incident to the picture, it’s the moment where one of Mookie’s friends – the outspoken Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito – there was a time where this movie and Breaking Bad were my only conscious exposures to Esposito and it was outright impossible to reconcile Buggin’ Out and Gustavo Fring were played by the same actor) – dares to challenge the Wall of Fame in Sal’s pizzeria and how it only has Italian-Americans and no black people on it. And yet it escalates from the temperaments of both Sal and Buggin’ Out so quickly that shortly after Sal steps out from behind the counter with a baseball bat simply from Buggin’ Out’s loaded question and has to be held back by his openly racist son Pino (John Turturro) as opposed to his more black-friendly son Vito (Richard Edson). And that sort volatility is revealed before the halfway point of a two hour film: so what we see is just characters letting the heat get them soured enough to spit invective in any which direction and it seems like the only character who has not a single antagonist hostile bone in his body is the DJ who occasionally describes the state of affairs before his giant window in his air-conditioned radio booth, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), to the point that he personally interrupts a centerpiece sequence of four different characters spitting the most venomous racial remarks in direct address with an accelerated wide-to-close-up dolly that really grinds our nose in that hate. Everything that happens by the explosive end of Do the Right Thing was a brewing a long time in the hearts of the characters, even while it all comes as a mixture of shock and disappointment and Spike delivers it all with a rage that shakes the viewer violently.

Anyway, the thing about Do the Right Thing – at least the takeaway I’ve had in the 12 years since I first saw it – is that it is a movie about NOT knowing everything, even and especially when you’re under duress both environmental and social. And more particularly an attempt to subvert the camera eye as something so omniscient towards its subjects but providing a story that has absolutely no easy answers and even impishly gives conflicting attitudes about its own things: it ends with two contradictory quotes by the late civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, characters whose dichotomy we are constantly reminded of by the disabled character Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) and his attempts to sell pictures of their handshake to people who just aren’t interested. Do the Right Thing is a very cinematic picture with its choice of camera movements by the great Ernest Dickerson such as those afore-mentioned direct address dollys or the placement of the actors in the grand space of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in a way that plays well with how often Dickerson seems to decide one type of scale per shot is not enough (the Radio Raheem “Love-Hate” monologue swaps from profile to its own direct address and then back to profile; a long-take boombox battle between Raheem and the Puerto Ricans switches back and forth in tight close-ups before visually announcing the victor with a grand rise of the crane; another interior medium pulls out into an exterior crane late in the film). It’s also just as cinematic the rapid way Barry Alexander Brown switches between tangeants like a continuous thought to the point that some scenes cut in the middle of a character’s last word, sometimes in association like when a delivery from Mookie to Señor Love Daddy leads to a needledrop that catches the attention of the Puerto Rican boys leading to their conflict with Raheem. And it’s of course most intense when it comes to actual heated conflicts: the climactic ones between Raheem and Sal are shot in bizarre canted angles that look like medium shots with the direct focus of close-ups so the intensity of Sal and Raheem within the frame gives the sense of big emotions with physical smallness.

And that’s just in regards to what Do the Right Thing does with its visual ambition to communicate the sense that we are looking all over the people of Bed-Stuy in a novelesque way. There’s another function to the movie-ness of it all: because Do the Right Thing has to feel real fucking hot and just cramping up interiors with fans or drenching the actors with screen sweat won’t just cut it, Dickerson and the color editors have seen fit to favor the reds and oranges that remind us of that hot sun above (and I don’t remember if there’s even a close-up of the sun, meaning that it’s through that color that we are meant to live in the heat with the characters) while in the meantime, the lights seem positioned specifically to favor the brightest white spots on the heads of the actors like a negative chiaroscuro so that we understand exactly what that temperature is falling on. The walls of the neighborhood and the costumes fill in as much white and blue as they can while still playing along with that color temperature serving as the visual translation of the REAL temperature.

It’s of course to be expected that someone like Spike Lee – whose open film scholar-ness isn’t discussed on the same level of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, but absolutely reaches their levels – would be happy to engage with the extent to which he and the crew can move the camera around to the sweet jazz score of Bill Lee and watch these characters bake in the summer. Him pouring his love for the movies (lest we forget that Raheem’s “Love-Hate” monologue is pretty much an appropriation of a similar monologue in The Night of the Hunter amongst other cinematic quotings sprinkled throughout) is just one of several areas that makes Do the Right Thing an obviously personal film: it’s practically a family affair on the level of The Godfather with Bill Lee being Spike’s father (who was also responsible for Davis and Dee getting cast) and Spike’s sister Joie playing Mookie’s exasperated sister Jade, Spike being a longtime native to Bed-Stuy and portraying the neighborhood with the sort of loving intimacy only someone so close to that place could have (to the point that even the constructed pizzeria and Korean shop feel well integrated), and even inching in an anti-Celtics joke with a cameo by John Savage. It’s basically indulgent in the ways that somebody pouring their heart into a depiction of a place and an issue that matters deeply to them would have to be, casual enough to be a pleasant watch but not to undercut the urgency of the climactic violent moments that probably most horrified viewers of all sorts.

And it feels hard to discuss Do the Right Thing without discussing the ending, which I’m trying not to do for anyone who might want to run to see this movie immediately after reading this (and you should have been running to it yesterday) but basically SPOILER ALERT: that climax is where Spike as a writer lays all his sucker punches while portraying how easily the thread can snap for people and a combustion can be catalyzed. It’s not all that much a surprise to the right viewers that Sal turns out to be a racist just the same as Vito is, but we did spend an hour and 40 minutes in his company watching him happily chat up Jade or Da Mayor or letting the kids in after hours to have one more slice before he leaves for the night (the fact that those same kids are behind Sal when Raheem and Buggin’ Out confront him during closing time and then turn around in shock when Sal throws out the n-word is indicative of how well embedded he was in Bed-Stuy as a community and how easy it was for him to betray that). And it’s not just Sal who has a rapid shift, Mookie is relatively placid during the movie when Buggin’ Out is causing a scene with Sal (though that may just be Lee’s… lack of acting ability. It works though!) and yet once he sees Raheem dead on the ground is when he recognizes action must be taken and throws that garbage can through the window of Sal’s pizzeria in another long take. Or the manner in which a community that frequently mocked or confronted with Raheem and respected Sal throughout the movie is willing to put all that aside in solidarity against Sal in recognition that he caused Raheem’s death at the hands of the police (who characteristically leave scot-free). Or simply the fact that ML (Paul Benjamin) – after holding a verbal grudge against the Korean grocers (Steve Park & Ginny Yang) – is inches away from invoking his own violent wrath on their store in the heat of the riot receives clarity at the last second and leaves them be. In any case, the chaos of that climax is where Do the Right Thing pulls the curtains back on what all the characters were truly feeling and lets it sprawl on the streets like a wildfire.

And if Spike decided to just leave us in that emotional sprawl, maybe I’d get why audiences were scared of this movie to the degree that the Oscars ran all the way in the other direction that year to award Best Picture to the cravenly placating Driving Miss Daisy (a move I’m certain Lee considers a personal insult with all the critical acclaim and discussion Do the Right Thing was getting that awards season). But this is a movie about a place he loves and that we can assume he doesn’t want to see torn down and it’s telling that the next morning’s final sequence is not just the character recognizing they’re still standing but Mookie and Sal specifically still standing and at a mutual recognition with each other. It starts hot – a shot-reverse shot that involves Mookie and Sal’s heightened emotions regarding Mookie’s pay and what happened to Sal’s pizzeria – but it ends by the end of it with the wide two-shot that could only come once the two of them got it all out of their systems and walk away not friends but not at each other’s throats either. That Lee saw fit to allow Sal that dignity as opposed to any other character in the film is telling, a mood of restoration that is essential if Mookie or Sal or the rest of Bed-Stuy is gonna be able to survive last night with the memory of Radio Raheem strongly surrounding it, a memory invoked by the last spoken line of the film by that one calm, cool, collected voice of reason Señor Love Daddy.

Anyway, none of that final cool down stopped audiences from feeling that this movie was dangerous and I agree that it’s dangerous. Just not dangerous in the same way that people realize. It’s the last dangerous picture, not no Joker that has nothing social to really say or agitprop films that try way too hard to deliver THE POINT. Do the Right Thing is dangerous because it’s ostensibly about people just living in one spot for 24 hours and it just builds up in an organic way to the violence it depicts: a violence that indicts systemic imbalances and horrors that remain relevant and grave to this very day and age, a violence that comes with a righteous rage that was on 11 from frame one, and a violence that interrupts an otherwise survivable but hot day in a very vibrant and colorful place lived-in by vibrant and colorful people whom we don’t have room to hate (outside of the police and Pino). It’s a movie full of humanity that ends up casualty to that violence, constructed and depicted as a realistic place amplified by the movie’s craft. And that craft may be the subject of Spike’s indulgent and compromised perspective on Bed-Stuy in an ostensibly “Day in the Life” overview of the characters, but somehow all that indulgence and compromise and inconsistency just piles into the humanity of Do the Right Thing to make it not only that dangerous movie that people feared but an unexpectedly perfect object – arguably the only PERFECT movie of a filmmaker who is not interested in perfection and never pursues – and in turn the greatest American movie of the 1980s. In my humble opinion you see, for if there’s one thing Do the Right Thing teaches me, it’s that I don’t know everything.

Only an American Would Have Thought of Emerald Green

When I began this writing project on John Ford’s 7 masterpieces in Marshall’s memory, I knew that I wanted to revisit his 1952 film The Quiet Man despite having already given a review a couple of years ago that I still stand pretty well by. For the continuous momentum, for the blunt fact that 6 reviews over a week does not look as good as 7 reviews, for the fact that it WAS a movie Marshall loved, and most of all just to give myself an excuse to rewatch it the way I am always looking for an excuse to rewatch my old favorites. But of course, that comes with wanting to talk about The Quiet Man without really knowing what to talk ABOUT. And then a few hours before I was freed up to pop my blu-ray in and revisit that beautiful green land of Innisfree… I found myself scrolling through a few of our old facebook messages together and found this…

An angle of The Quiet Man that I didn’t even feint towards in my past review and so – with thanks to Marshall directly for guiding me here – my rewatch occurred looking at the ways in which The Quiet Man is very much about this. Which should be obvious in its authorship – John Ford being an American with Irish ancestry born John Feeney or, to his claim, Sean Aloysius O’Fearna – as well as in its premise. You could just read the back of your DVD or blu-ray case to identify this in its plot summary. Sean Thornton (John Wayne, also of Irish descent and did you know his real name is Marion?) returns to his birthplace of Innisfree, Ireland after a hard life in Pittsburgh trying to bury his past in America with this idealized version of his homeland. But let’s go a bit deeper into how A Quiet Man is about this…

Everything we learn about Sean’s life in America is of hardship and most of that established from the beginning. His grandfather died in an Austalian Penal Colony, both of his parents dead before he was 12 years old, grew up in destitution next to a “slag heaps” (a piece of dialogue that calls back specifically to the imminent coal rundown future of How Green Was My Valley). It’s important to note that two of the figures that raised him ended up dying outside outside of their homeland – Sean’s mother and grandfather – and his father of a “bad accident” before America, implying Sean’s barely has memory of him. And so he is brought to feel like what little memories and stories his mother told him of Innisfree and his childhood home White O’Mourn, he recognizes Innisfree as “another word for Heaven”, something instantly shot down by the local Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) as “Innisfree is far from being Heaven, Mr. Thornton” as well as her immediate assumption not that Sean wishes to live once more there but that he seeks to create a monument or memorial of the shack.

Nevertheless, Sean tries to build his own heaven and it’s a little bit more of the fantasy version where he reconstructs White O’Mourn with rusticity that is greeted not necessarily with condescension but with some amount of surprise. His choice to paint his home door green at one point is treated as a charming perculiarity – “Only an American would have thought of Emerald Green”, as this review’s title quotes – and there is a later scoffing at his choice of things to plant once he makes to create a garden on the lands. Which is to say that Sean is trying very hard to fit with an image of Ireland that might be more in his head than in the land before we even reach the major conflict of the film, where Squire “Red” Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen, for this is obviously Ford’s most Irish film since The Informer and that of course means McLaglen will be front and center)’s deep grudge at Sean for claiming his birthright of White O’Mourn just before Danaher was aiming to purchase the home and the complications that ensue when Sean and Will’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara, returning among other actual Irish Ford regulars like a never-better Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields) court and marry.

But this is talking more explicit narrative evidence and if there’s one thing I hope I’ve indicated John Ford does, it’s how he says things a whole lot better through aesthetics. The primary one being that Sean – despite our noting that he very much born in Ireland – does not have an Irish accent. And it can be safe to say the reason is practical, as Ford and Wayne’s earlier collaboration The Long Voyage Home indicated that accents are probably not Wayne’s strongest suit. Regardless, the result is strong: when even Ward Bond is able to put on an Irish brogue in his delivery, Wayne is going to look plenty out of place amongst this otherwise friendly company (let alone when it’s actually antagonistic to him like Red and Mary Kate).

Beyond that, The Quiet Man still feels somewhat an autocritique of Sean’s mindset returning home as it appears to be Ford’s mindset making the movie, being born in Maine and to my knowledge this being the first time he was in Ireland, creating his own image of how the land should look. I’ve never been to Ireland (though Odin help me, I will try to make that not the case* before I die) and it is sad to say I know very few Irish people, but I think it’s safe to say that the manner in which Ford presents the land and its people is… shall we say animated? It indulges in a multitude of stereotypes about drinking and impishness and throwing fisticuffs (which of course we will get back to) and fiery redheads of the sort, but it doesn’t lack one bit of sincerity and it seems as better a home for that loving jabbing at Ford’s ethnic background. Besides which, I can’t imagine that mindset also didn’t inform Ford and returning cinematographer Winston Hoch to make green by far the most saturated of the colors in The Quiet Man, though plenty more are prevalent with one we will particularly note.

Back to the complications of Sean and the Danahers. Those complications are the basis of when Sean starts to recognize that Irish customs of domesticity don’t exactly match up to his expectations and to deal with that. Red particularly is spending most of his appearance trying to goad Sean into a physical fight but this is something Sean is adamant on preventing, but it’s more Mary Kate whom he has to look out for. In a movie full of greens, Mary Kate is almost exclusively set in blues and reds, normally the former when she’s at her most agreeable and red when she’s at her most confrontational with Sean and a balance of both the scenes that require the most complexity out of O’Hara’s performance. Either way, her visual color palette cuts particularly through the greenery (including and especially her introductory wide shot) in a manner that interrupts the exact sort of Irish landscape that Sean was looking for when he arrived. Eventually, this becomes more or less a visual struggle between green and blue – when Sean tries to adapt to Irish customs of courtship is where we see him most in blue and outside of the third act, it is an outright fish out of water look. Just consider this hilarious two-shot of them in marriage…

Later on a mixup causes Red to be so infuriated that he refuses to provide Mary Kate’s dowry and that’s the real kicker in Sean and Mary Kate’s marriage. To Sean, he’s abandoning materialism and possessions in the US – particularly after a life of having none – but Mary Kate’s possessions of her own earning from her own hard life and Sean does not seem to truly understand that, causing the biggest hurdle for them two as a couple. Particularly Mary Kate’s frustration that Sean doesn’t care to integrate her way of life with his and will not fight for her, something Sean really needs to be convinced of and where his status as an outsider truly brings him at a divide.

The moment that indicates Sean’s reason for not wanting to fight and for leaving America in the first place is a flashback distinct in both being the only sequence we see set in America and the only one that’s abstract: the backdrop is darkened beyond a backlight for Sean’s stunned posture and when we see him taking a seat and being covered in something comforting… what is important to note is that his name is embroidered in green of all things in that one flashback sequence. A visual anchor right back to where we meet Sean and a moment of personal contention before making his decision to finally accept and engage the fight for his identity and his new home, a moment where he cuts along through the field of green marching and dragging along with Mary Kate in a blue shirt. And his blue shirt matches up well against Red’s own blue when they finally have their phenomenal and unforgettable fisticuffs match (on top of being the moment where Victor Young’s score, the best ever made for a Ford film, get most indulgent in traditional instrumentation after previously just sprinkling Irish airs whenever Sean seems to get closest to getting it) which ends specifically with a dissolve to the two of them side by side, blue sleeved arm over the other’s back, embraced like brothers now… no decisive result of the fight, just that it ended with Sean’s acceptance. And blue-shirted he remains in his final shot as well when we literally say farewell to every character with their own direct address close-ups and two-shots.

So there you have it: John Ford took the opportunity with The Quiet Man to imbue his own sense of what Ireland would look like to the mind of someone whose heart belongs there but does not come from there. And in turn that informs The Quiet Man‘s tale of an Irish-American trying to have Ireland fit into his foreign idea of the land before taking solace in being a part of the culture itself and reclaiming his heritage. And like all of Ford’s best masterpieces, he lets this psychology fit just as well into the strong and striking visuals even in a movie as easy-going and easy-on-the-eyes as The Quiet Man.

*in this asterisk, I shall hide my shame that I was at one point in consideration of an internship at Cartoon Saloon before pulling out.

She Wore It in the Winter and the Merry Month of May

For Marshall

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – the second entry in John Ford’s informal Cavalry trilogy – is not Ford’s first rodeo with color filmmaking or even his first rodeo with the famous early three-strip Technicolor process. That privilege belongs to Drums Along the Mohawk ten years prior to Yellow Ribbon‘s 1949 release. But that movie doesn’t yield nearly the amount of ambition with this development in cinema as our current subject, so we shall forgive She Wore a Yellow Ribbon for doing it first as it does it best. Because whoa nelly does it do it best, well enough to win the year’s Oscar for Best Color Cinematography at the very least but that’s hardly a worthy award for the sort of formidable imagery we are granted as our window to the mythic West.

One such reason is because of what it is capturing in brilliant color: John Ford’s favorite shooting location Monument Valley, the very image of the West now transformed to more immediate presence and making a great leap from Fort Apache‘s cracked texturing of that landscape into bringing more awareness to the brush and the shadow in relation to the warm colors of that mountainous desert environment. And another is the fact that as the second film of that Cavalry trilogy, now we truly get to watch the proud bright blue and yellow of their uniforms in those lovely landscapes.

But it’s not just the colors and shapes of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon but what they are representing: it perhaps moves past How Green Was My Valley as Ford’s most sentimental film but if it is not as surprisingly fatalist as that movie or Yellow Ribbon‘s earliest predecessor Fort Apache, Ford, returning co-writer Frank Nugent, and co-writer Laurence Stallings – adapting TWO Saturday Evening Post stories by James Warner Bellah – bring an awareness of the end of things to come and the place of the cavalry and their duties in the scope of the world. Nugent and Stallings’ screenplay follows the last days of Fort Starke’s Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne), which happen to overlap with the days after Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn (making this a spiritual sequel to Fort Apache is a more direct way) and so the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes are emboldened by their victory to combine forces against the US and move for war. Brittles’ order from Major Allshard (George O’Brien) for his remaining five days is to quell the Native Americans’ desire for war and in the meantime accompany Allshard’s wife Abbey (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanne Dru) to an eastbound stagecoach.

And so for most of the movie’s runtime, we are instead brought to watch the Fort Starke Cavalry prepare for the journey and then just move on the road alongside them as a passenger and Ford’s aim appears to be just enjoying the company and miniature dramas of each of these men, whether the rivalry for Olivia’s romantic affections between 1st Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar) and 2nd Lieutenant Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.) or Victor McLaglen’s boistourous default Irish drunkard now taking the form of 1st Sergeant Quincannon or Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson)’s reconnaissance mission or just Brittles dealing with the fact that he is going to have to walk away from this life very soon and his adventure is over.

Which seems as good an avenue as any to say that while Fort Apache is Wayne’s best performance… Brittles is a very able to challenge to that being the case. Part of that is how well the makeup – with its lines on his face and the broad white streaks in his hair – does to transform him into an aged man (Wayne was only 41 years old at the time) and the manner in which, without particularly changing his regular performance method in a big way, Wayne is able to modulate a sense of regret and looking back that anchors this movie’s fondness for the characters he finds his sense of belonging with (and I think that most of these actors had already worked with Ford amplifies that familiarity for a regular viewer of Ford’s). And particularly the level of emotion he would display according to who was his screen partner crafts together the image of Brittles of a man who is a big softie but cannot stand to let anyone see it, something performed in subtle places where Wayne can fit in honest reactions to loneliness or disappointment or tenderness… all things that will turn out to be necessarily present in Brittles’ character arc as his final steps towards retirement do not appear to go in the direction that he hopes. And in turn She Wore a Yellow Ribbon turns out to be an analysis of where warmth and gentleness belong in masculinity – the idea that it is ok to apologize, even in spite of the famous line “never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness” and to feel for a man – something that isn’t acknowledged nearly as much in this world of toxic masculinity and in which Ford was known to live by in his life despite trying very hard not to betray how easily emotional he could become.

And yet then there is all of these magnificent nature-based wideshots in all the wonder the camera was capable of providing for the painterly scenery that is the American Southwest. For even in the immortalizing of the cavalry’s soul as men, it is small in the face of this magnificent untouched desert land and Ford with cinematographer Winston Hoch never run out of ways to transform these panoramas into magnificently romantic variables of light and surface, particularly in a famous central scene set in a thunderstorm where ever hue is captured with the sort of straightforward darkness that a overcast sky could blanket upon the day but allowing each crack to make the colors burst ever so aggressively each second. The awareness of how light responds to the vistas differently in color than in black and white is something Ford and Hoch were expected to get hold of if She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was going to work, but their ambition with changing the lighting of not just each sequence but within the shots themselves is extraordinary. To say nothing of the gorgeous red-mixing sunset silhouettes that come at She Wore a Yellow Ribbon‘s most sentimental.

Even more so in the manner that while the colors of those cavalry outfits proudly call out in the vastness, the movie visual gives the encroaching Cheyenne and Arapaho confederacy the same distinguished space within this vast framing of this land as the Cavalry… maybe a manner in which John Ford did not want to roll back on all the progress of Fort Apache interrogating the United States’ history of relations with Indigenous people. I’ll confess even the most progressive Western picture – which Fort Apache may very well be among – still gets a bit dubious for me on its treatment of Native Americans, but I’d forgotten how clearly Ford seems to be willing to favor and even understand the objections of the Native Americans in this picture (giving them a blunt voice in the form of Chief John Big Tree’s performance as Pony-That-Walks). The major thesis of this movie is not that the Cheyenne or Arapaho are wrong (and while it is easy to make the mistake of Custer’s death and defeat being something that provides foreboding in this picture, the context of Fort Apache instantly disabuses that), but that war is not something favorable for anyone. Even when Major Allshard moves for war and the early third act of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon embodies a sort of resentful regret on what could not be done and what may very well be on the horizon, Brittles is looking for a way to circumvent that by any means necessary (there is other things that Nugent & Stallings’ script tries to circumvent at the last second and it leads to the ending being the single biggest mark against the movie, but it takes up so little runtime and the movie is over before I know it that the movie still remains a masterpiece in my eye).

There’s a humanity throughout She Wore a Yellow Ribbon welcome to any presence within it, no matter how big or small the part (I honestly am surprised that Johnson makes the biggest impression on me as a performance outside of Wayne), and it’s through there that Ford is able to fill this ostensibly simple color western with awe of the land, sobering reconsiderations, musings on how to be a man, and camaraderie with others. The movie that most betrays the soul of John Ford is a very tough bet to make (especially considering how much of his 100+ movies I haven’t seen and ESPECIALLY with the knowledge that Fort Apache and The Quiet Man exist) but She Wore a Yellow Ribbon seems most characteristic of Ford as a person to give the impression of a big tough guy and still break down before the picture or grave of a loved one and try to find the words to express personal failure. And it is through that personality that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon becomes more than just one of the most gorgeous films ever made… it becomes an extremely dense character study on top of it.

Here Come the Cavalry

For Marshall – Whose Unprompted Discussion on this Film Played a Huge Part in Considering the Complexity Behind John Ford, The Man.

Between How Green Was My Valley in 1941 and My Darling Clementine in 1946, America entered World War II and subsequently John Ford served in the Navy Reserve during that time as well as in the OSS, photographically capturing The Battle of Midway (the film he made out of the footage being among the 4 winners of the very first Best Documentary Oscar*), D-Day on Omaha Beach, and the conditions of the Nazi concentration camps. And based on his account of how these men he came to personally know and photograph began to die before him, Ford was shaken by the experience and the memory of his fallen comrades for the rest of his days.

I can’t help thinking that his famous Cavalry trilogy was something of an attempt to tribute the memory of these fallen men while also grappling with what his personal objections with both the history of the United States and its fascination with valorizing itself for even the most craven or dishonorable military actions on the part of men who decide the fate of people beneath them solely on the justification of rank. Maybe I’m just playing dimestore psychologist a bit too much and Ford’s longstanding memories of documenting the battlefield is seldom connected with his later reevaluated outlook on life and subsequent probing of the Western genre’s attempt at mythologizing US history are completely unrelated. But one thing that is undeniable is that Ford’s 1948 film that opened the Cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache, is the most morally complex film that I have seen out of his films yet. Even moreso than The Searchers, which is a whole lot more pure in its cynicism, and even moreso than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which walks where Fort Apache ran.

The script – the first written by film critic-turned-screenwriter Frank S. Nugent as well as the beginning of his long working relationship with Ford – adapts James Warner Bellah’s Saturday Evening Post short story “Massacre” which in turn takes inspiration from Lieutenant Colonel George S. Custer’s infamous Last Stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn. And if there’s one punch Ford and Nugent pull, it’s that their Custer stand-in is not nearly as repulsive a human being as Custer appeared to be, though Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is never anything less than an antagonistic figure among his peers with an undisguised resentment at his sending off to the Fort Apache cavalry post. This is no less disappointing to the men already stationed at Fort Apache as everyone was expecting command to be taken by Captain Kirby York (John Wayne) who is significantly more relaxed in his handling of the troops than Thursday’s obsession with image and dignity.

A good amount of the film watches York and Thursday quietly joust on what genteelness matters when it comes to treating others, where Fonda projects an elitism that is satisfied more with its façade of properness and in the meanwhile we see the ease with which York may handle responsibility with men he understands whilst making room for something like a hang out picture within the cavalry (embodied particularly by John Agar’s square-jawed Lieutenant Mickey O’Rourke and Mickey’s father Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke, played by Ward Bond but given even more ease by the presence of Ford favorites Victor McLaglen and Hank Worden as well as Pedro Armendáriz and particularly George O’Brien as the one true bridge between Thursday’s decorum and York’s principles), where Ford and cinematographer Archie Stout keep a clear awareness of which between the two major cinematic icons Fonda and Wayne are favored in their shared coverage and the men of cavalry are covered from chaotic early sequences of indiscipline to later developments of visual pageantry with their organization within the frame.

And yet the biggest clash between York and Thursday comes about halfway through the film when they are to investigate the remnants of a ravaged supply wagon and uncover corruption on the part of government agent Silas Meacham (Grant Withers). Meacham was responsible for the supply of the Apache people on the reservation but York is pretty quickly able to illustrate to Thursday how Meacham was, knowingly and possible even with the US government’s approval, neglecting and betraying their trust. This is a betrayal and mistreatment severe enough to facilitate the wide-scale death of the Apache people and necessitate their defiance of the United States government by fleeing to Mexico. At which point, Thursday shows his true colors by addressing Meacham with his gentleman manner despite showing almost as much contempt for him as York while York speaks freely of the way the United States government betrayed and displaced the Indigenous people for its entire history. And I mean FREELY, York’s monologuing leaves no room for misunderstanding when makes clear that the United States is responsible for the near-eradication of Native Americans and continues to maintain this violence in passive-aggressive ways.

Thursday’s demeanor and posture to Meacham will particularly have its foil when the cavalry inevitably comes face to face with Cochise (Miguel Inclan) as Thursday refuses to favor even the slightest compromise with the Apache people or consider them on equal footing, calling them “savages” as the favored term of many anti-indigenous racists. A treatment of the indigenous that York outright declares to find dishonorable and potentially lethal. And those who know what happened to Custer can probably guess where Fort Apache is going with this, yet nevertheless I think I will give the courtesy of SPOILER WARNING as it’s impossible to discuss the power of Fort Apache without discussing its landing blows. But suffice it to say that the ending moments are where Fonda’s rigid arrogance and combativeness with anyone beneath him gets at its most tragic and what was already an excellent usage of Wayne’s screen soulfulness to depict a man who will find ways to bend his duty serving everyone as they should be served becomes richer and his career best performance, even beyond the obvious need to be convincing as someone who believes the Apache people were wronged and should be treated with honor**.

For one thing, the finale portrays much of Thursday’s strategically inept commands in the final battle with some detached ambiguity. We are aware that Thursday is leading men to their deaths for the “glory” of it and the refusal to accept the Apache as people but that’s specifically because York gives lip service to it. And yet Ford shoots the cavalry’s preparations and marches with no less the sort of painterly iconography as any other piece of art that rhapsodizes history, particularly taking advantage with Stout of the horizontal axis with the frame. It is the tinge of fatalism, only explicitly delivered at the very last moments of the fight in a pair of shots that is outright chilling in its desolation, that determines the dark disenchantment with how the Cavalry builds these men up only to have them die very avoidable deaths. And even in that fatalism, Thurday’s arc as a character gives just the slightest tone of nobility to his final decision when an opportunity is offered to him to return back alive to his daughter Philadelphia (former child actor legend Shirley Temple, Agar’s wife at the time, who is a perfect screen partner for Fonda’s few times where he reveals Thursday’s heart***).

And before I move on from this sequence, it is the moment where the extra textures in the infrared film with which Fort Apache was shot pay off magnificently, showing off the crags and lines of Monument Valley with more intimacy than Ford’s previous films shot there and particularly with a heart-stopping final wide shot to the scene where York marches into a miniature sandstorm kicked up by Cochise’s horse with a pregnant tension for us to watch all that grain swallow the entire frame before settling into an image that is shattering in its firm punctuation.

And then there is the true final scene – the one that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would later absolutely remake in its own context – and Wayne’s muted responses to the reporters’ questions regarding and the neutral tired face of his when he confirms the most romanticized stories of a fight we saw Thursday lose hard with a stony two-shot close-up that just leaves me numb when I see it, insisting that there’s nothing that can be done to salvage the truth about what Thursday did. And then he moves on to take his command in a similar fashion as Thursday but not before delivering one last accolade regarding the bravery of the less-decorated men in the cavalry and a hope that York will use his power to bring the Apache back as the government orders under terms of decency and regained trust of his own accord, with a final sequence returning to that pageantry in a more optimistic tone that manages not to undercut all we just watched 20 minutes ago.

This is a movie with a lot of unexpected relevance up to the year 2020: Thursday’s actions reflecting the manner in which the oppressors are treated as opposed to the oppressed so that the cries are never heart and the status quo remains the same. The final sequence reminding us of how even to this day, the United States will pat itself on the back for accomplishing nothing except so many graves (and I almost forgot to mention how this one of the few John Ford movies where the comic relief works, specifically because of how the amicability of the characters contextualizes the horrors of watching some of them die). The maintained ego of the nation in expecting that their most disenfranchised will take their meager supplies and like it as well as how it will twist any fact to make itself took good.

One last note for what is turning out to be a much longer review than I anticipated. You have seen above myself refer to Wayne’s personal disagreements with what Fort Apache posits regarding the Native Americans and the unnecessary nature of war (which is ironic given that unlike Ford, Wayne was a draft dodger). Ford is probably a bit more complicated to claim: he has long held good relations with several Indigenous Nations (indeed, that’s how he was able to shoot in the Navajo country of Monument Valley for most of his career), used his military connections specifically to supply food and resources to Native Americans, while also fighting and enforcing equal pay among his Native American and Black actors during his career, but I also just can’t help being dubious of anyone who was even cursorily involved in The Birth of a Nation (in which an uncredited Ford was an extra as a klansman!).

Nevertheless, this feels more than anything like his reckoning with the mythologizing that the Western brings to some of this country’s darkest historical acts with an evidently immortal positive light, ostensibly for the founding of the nation but realistically at the cost of summarily killing the Indigenous people. And it’s not a straightforward reckoning – Fort Apache is pro-cavalryman but somehow anti-cavalry and certainly indulges in some classical cowboy on the horizon imagery for the heroic – but it is nevertheless a reckoning most aware of the casualties and enraged by the institutionalized and historical dishonor on the part of the United States with Ford’s willingness to indict himself. Because I don’t think it’s for nothing that the very same people Ford portrayed as stereotypical barbarity in Stagecoach are the ones that are given a much clearer light as civilized men fighting back against blatant injustice and persecution with this film. Ford did not choose the Apache people to be in this movie by accident anymore than he chose to craft a massive tragedy to reflect in scope off of what may be his sharpest auto-critique against the Western genre he had a hand in building to the esteem it was in 1948.

*Which would later be joined by a Best Short Subject, Documentary Oscar for an agitprop doc about Pearl Harbor’s attack.
**John Wayne was a fucking racist, among other things. That is an undeniable truth about the actor that may very well have been apparent before his infamous 1971 interview with Playboy magazine, but as someone who was not born until well after John Wayne was laid to rest, that was the smoking gun for me. There is no context in which the words “I believe in white supremacy” is an ok thing.
***And honestly, I can’t think of a more knowingly iconic casting of parent and child than having Henry Fonda be the father of Shirley Temple.

…And The Valley of Them That Have Gone

For Marshall – who was one of the first people I’d met who’d push back on this movie’s ill-deserved legacy

We all know the infamous results of the 14th Academy Awards in 1942, where How Green Was My Valley won 5 Oscars including the third Best Director win for John Ford and Best Picture. And that happened at the cost of Citizen Kane, thereby leading to nearly 70 years of backlash that insisted because How Green Was My Valley was not worthy of that award because the win was stolen from “The Best Movie Ever”. What this post pre-supposes is… maybe this win was deserved.

It really was. Certainly, How Green Was My Valley is not better than Citizen Kane (likewise, Orson Welles is my favorite director where as John Ford is only my favorite American director) but not being as good as Citizen Kane still leaves room for being one of the best movies ever made.

And I get how it may feel like the sentiment inherent in How Green Was My Valley‘s storytelling from a script by Phillip Dunne adapted from the novel by Richard Llewellyn was being awarded as a reaction to Kane‘s cold cynicism but if you may permit me the chance, I’d like to propose that How Green Was My Valley accomplishes that sentiment of a child’s memory but from the eyes of an adult that clearly came to recognize the beginnings of what is a darker and immediate present. That’s after all the first thing we are faced with before anything: an unseen narrator voiced by an uncredited Irving Pichel observes with us the audience a blackened and smoke filled hillside Welsh village as he prepares to leave this place for good. The very shot has us hover past his hands preparing to leave and exiting out the window of his home where blackened ground and smog from the nearby colliery greets us by filling an place in the frame where the sky could be visible with gray toxicity.

After Pichel delivers his defiant monologue for remembering the valley the way it was over the way it now is, we fade into a view of the major road where young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowell) and his father Gwilym (Donald Crisp) are able to view mountains as far as seen filled with trees and brightness in Arthur Miller’s glowing black-and-white cinematography but even within that opening introduction to our narrator’s – who is identifiable as the adult Huw – childhood reminiscences, the beginnings of that “black slag, the waste of the colliery” is visible (including a shot where it takes up a third of the frame at the top of the village’s adjacent hill. That slag is introduced to us in the frame narrative with practically half of the village’s homes buried beneath it, thereby even from the start of Huw’s voiceover waxing we are reminded grimly that the destruction of this village has already begun.

And before I go on, if I may note something I really love about the way these first three minutes (for indeed, I’ve only JUST described the first three minutes!) invite us to watch Huw’s memories with him: the introductory montage in the present brings us to face the remnants of the village with straightforward cuts from James B. Clark to each reveal but then once we fade into the past, a single moment – Huw and his father walking to the coal slag before Huw’s sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) calls out to them through song and Huw calls her back with the same tune – features crossfades between the shots, giving it more of the sense of something associative rather than continuous. Which is an outstanding usage of editing a single event to tell us how this is a movie communicating moments popping into the mind of a man rather than an active history. It will not return for most of the film, but as mental place-setting, it did all it needed to in those 3 minutes.

Something else that won’t necessarily return until later is the sense of things becoming for the worse, since this is in the end a movie about adult Huw’s attempts to maintain nostalgia as Pichel’s narration never ceases to be warm and wistful no matter what the scene be. Even while the central colliery remains hovering over the village with its smoke and its waste taking up one isolated quarter of the landscape shots involving that lovely and cozy village main village road (a studio set* designed by Richard Day and Nathan Juran in a manner that greatly favors Miller’s full frame and Ford’s attempts to resemble 19th Century British landscape paintings), Huw plays softball selecting early memories like his eldest brother Ivor (Patric Knowles)’s marriage (and Huw’s immediate infatuation with his sister-in-law, Bronwyn (Anna Lee)), the men working that colliery that make up that village’s entire economy singing proudly in Welsh at the end of the working day as they prepare to wash up the soot covering their bodies, and the pleasant domesticity of dinner together with the family.

And yet before very long, we are faced with the first major conflict: the wages of the coal mine workers has been cut and the remaining four of Huw’s brothers that were living in the Morgan home clash with their father on the matter of creating a Union to protect their rights as workers. And then further on more quiet conflicts occur at the margins of Huw’s happy memories until they start taking over the narrative structure. That’s the most impressive thing about Dunne’s writing here: the way it lets the events play episodically until they catch together as something like momentum to the inevitable around halfway through. It is also one of the ways this movie allows Ford to slip in as much of his socialist politics as possible: the union business, the lingering presence of capitalism and the awareness of its coming effects, and even fits in environmentalism in the quietest (though not subtle) ways.

In any case, just as much as Pichel attempts to provide resilience to the early signs of his village and his family’s future, there is still one more formal element to provide reinforcement to that swell and it’s Ford and Miller’s favor of wide shots and wide angle lenses. Which certainly makes sense for exterior sequences that add to the sense of community when we witness all the workers filling the streets and the screen, singing together or marching together or even just need a reminder of what is at stake with the shots of the entire village and what is coming with the colliery standing in the back. But the interior sequences – those particularly in the Gwilym home though the chapel in which Pastor Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) preaches between acting Huw’s secondary father figure has a significant presence and there is also an incredible usage of a schoolhouse hallway that stresses the out-of-placement of certain characters – give up the game by abiding by the same angles and lenses where we see just how tightly fit together the Morgans are in their own home, particularly when they get to pull Ford’s favorite trick of capturing the ceilings (introduced earlier in Stagecoach). Yet even within those homey walls, there are battles to be lost: the forces of the colliery ruining the livelihood and home of these people move back as the interpersonal conflicts take center stage, some of which are the acts of good people not knowing right (such as the afore-mentioned tension between Gwilym and his sons on unionizing), some are complex (as in the romance between Gruffydd and Angharad), and some are just the cruel acts of the vindictive (the deacon Mr. Parry (Arthur Shields) is the closest this movie has to an antagonist).

It is perhaps through the characters (and the ensemble’s lively way of playing them even at their most significant hardships) that Huw most finds his memories faced with a lack of pure sweetness. The perspective of which we are particularly watching Gwilym beckons the sort of uncontested admiration a son would have of his father, aided by the firm human patience with which Crisp (in an Oscar winning performance) fills Gwilym. But yet there are moments where Gwilym is fundamentally wrong and while it is admiring to recognize the manner in which Gwilym holds tightly to patience and manners, the course of events eventually locks on what his second oldest son Ianto (John Loder) declares “If manners are what keeps us from speaking the truth, then we shall be without manners”. Gwilym’s demeanor and role in the family are idealized tenfold especially from the eyes of a child, but it is not the answer in all cases and it unfortunately leads to the inevitable dissolution of the household by the end of it all (and maybe the best function of Sara Allgood as Gwilym’s wife Beth, the matron of the family, is how she gives by far the most emotive performance and the sadder moments in her performance give way to a better knowingness of where we are being led to than anybody else on-screen). Meanwhile, Gruffydd himself is a more grounded figure in Huw’s life who – even in his capacity as spiritual leader – leads the people to more down-to-earth perspectives and matters. And yet in the first of essentially two climaxes in this film, he finally betrays himself to an emotional outburst that promises all bridges burnt against the hypocrisies of the church he works in, something the film finds extremely unmanned even in the truthfulness of it all.

And so here I declare that How Green Was My Valley, even as blessedly affectionate and romantic about the past as it may be, is doing so in a defiant struggle against the clarity of what the real implications and consequence of the times Huw lived in as a boy. And the result is something as effectively bittersweet as anything else could be when introducing a boy’s dearest recollections the sort of gravity only a mature mind can recognize, something more complex than I feel the detractors give How Green Was My Valley credit for. Can it truly be blamed for wanting to indulge as much as possible in its maudlin sympathies? Can a man truly be condemned for wanting to remember simpler times, especially as he recognizes they were not so simple at the same time as the viewer does? That the very final moments of How Green Was My Valley fights the grimmest tragedy with the comforting fact of the affable homeliness at the very beginnings of this memory’s journey (including recalling the sing song calling in a new context) and refuses to return to that initial frame narrative before the credits gives me the sense that even if the past is distant and the present is impossible to escape, perhaps Huw’s battle was not in vain. And that is impossible for me to disparage in any capacity, especially in how it stands as memorable to me as any of Ford’s Westerns.

*An outlier amongst Ford’s pictures, which are usually shot on location. Unfortunately, the ongoing Second World War – which Ford would later famously be involved in the documenting of just after this movie was released – made shooting in Wales out of the question.

The Journey Is The Destination

For Marshall

It is the most tempting thing to approach Stagecoach in terms of where it lands with John Ford’s career and John Wayne’s career, both of which are slightly overstated by history considering that Wayne was already trying very hard to break as a star and Ford had already been so well-established as a Hollywood filmmaker that he even had a Best Director Oscar under his belt. This IS a pair of men who collaborated on a movie that ends with the message “print the legend”, but in any case the legend has some amount of truth to it: this is, more than any other shot at stardom that Wayne took, the one that made him the face of American cinema for the next 20 years at least. And while it wouldn’t be too accurate to call this the movie where Ford came together with his own style, I am tempted to say that as John Ford’s most perfect film… it was a necessary launchpad of his legacy into further masterpieces. Indeed, why – in a chronological series where I am talking about the 7 films of Ford’s that I give five stars ratings to – this is the first movie I’m talking about.

Indeed, it would be tempting to talk about Stagecoach as a John Wayne movie but that would slightly neglect the excellent manner in which Stagecoach functions as an ensemble piece, even while it definitely favors Wayne as a screen persona (who is solely billed under Claire Trevor). In a genre like the Western that is more often than not seen as a metaphor for society and adjacent topics, Dudley Nichols’ screenplay – adapted from the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox – functions efficiently in that utilisation. The characters in Stagecoach are archetypes before they are flesh-and-blood, but lived in archetypes that feel real in the confines of the story from the collected performances: There’s Dallas (Trevor), an ousted prostitute from the Arizona town of Tonto, accompanied on the coach proudly by fellow disgrace Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell). As Boone is an alcoholic, he very easily takes a liking to the fretful whiskey salesman Peacock (Donald Meek), and as a Union veteran, he takes conflict with the ex-Confederate gambler Hatfield (John Carradine). Hatfield himself joins the stage at the last second-to-last second as a gentleman to accompany the Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt) as she journeys to reunite with her cavalry hero husband and secretly carries a child in her womb. That actual last-second passenger before the stage departs from Tonto ends up being the windbag banker Gatewood (Benton Churchill), attempting to embezzle money. Driving the carriage to Lordsburg, New Mexico is the unceasingly talkative Buck (Andy Devine) while riding shotgun is Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) in the hope that he’ll have a chance to catch the recently escaped prisoner The Ringo Kid, who seeks revenge in that same destination. Very early on the road, Curley gets his wish and catches up with Ringo as his prisoner and one final additional occupant to the coach…

This is probably the only time here where I’ll talk about Stagecoach like the John Wayne show, but Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon (who worked together the same year on Young Mr. Lincoln) truly knew how to make the camera fall in love with Wayne’s face. And the introductory sequence of The Ringo Kid – which, as you can guess, was Wayne’s role – is the best example of this: we get an off-screen sound cue of a rifle blast (meant to get the wagon’s attention) and cut to a medium shot of Wayne before the frontier mountains, saddle in one hand and performing the dynamic action of spinning his Winchester to reload with the other as the camera zooms so fast into a close-up that it loses focus for a noticeable split second. It is a movie throughout excited to present Wayne among other things where Ringo ends up superseding Dallas as the movie’s ostensible protagonist by Ford’s fiat and an excellent example of how Ford is able to use the form to favor certain characters over others.

And yet though Wayne is the STAR, I maintain that this is a movie whose strengths come from the collective adoption of the ensemble storytelling. Nichols’ script has thrown several distinct personalities into a stagecoach and just let them interact with each other as the actors throw in their own personal non-verbal reactions to their interacting: the manner in which Hatfield favors Mallory but ignores Dallas when it comes to his principles on how to act before a lady, Doc’s continuous pestering of Peacock for whiskey samples to Peacock’s discontent, Buck’s endless yammering while Curley tries to maintain vigilance as the coach enters Apache country without the cavalry’s escort, Gatewood’s constant blustering to the annoyance of everyone, and so much more. This is a movie about forcing characters in spatial relation to one another and responding towards the others’ presence and seeing if the length of the ride is enough to see a change in any of them. Ford, Glennon, and editors Otho Lovering and Dorothy Spencer are excellent at keeping us aware of the spatial relation when using the frame to box the characters within the coach (mostly in sets of twos) and relying on eyelines to make it clear who is speaking to whom and TOWARDS them too, but a dinner table scene around the 1/3 mark takes full advantage of that wide open space to explore just how far of a length these characters wish to maintain between each other depending on their disrepute. It is in the moments of the stage’s stops where we are most beholden to the blocking as much as Ford and Glennon’s containment of that blocking in the frame.

It’s also the case that Ford and Glennon have no problem applying that same visual favor to the rest of the characters as they do to Wayne, given that this is also a story about the hypocrisies and gatekeeping of society. Dallas is the most sympathetically presented character – even ahead of Ringo – as we watch her being practically chased out by a hovering cluster of old women with judging eyes. Doc Boone is given no less a framing of dignity than his sober fellows. In fact, the most evidently unfavored of the Stagecoach inhabitants is Gatewood, playing as an example of the manner in which Stagecoach has a disinterest in proper society and the way it treats its outcasts. Gatewood is ostensibly the most distinguished figure there and also the most blatantly crooked and bullying. Meanwhile, Mallory and Hatfield – being the second and third most distinguished (distantly third for the gambler) – have their moments where the film looks down on their attitudes towards Dallas and Boone but also allows nuance that lends itself to the most interesting arcs for the characters.

Within the two towns where this movie starts and ends, there is nothing but dismissal for Ringo, Dallas, and Boone and the film’s shots are no less dynamic – as Ford had an eye for composition like no one else in the game – but feel less eye-catching than the actual journey that takes wide fascination with the landscape and the image of a lone coach traveling through these lands (particularly Monument Valley*, Ford’s favorite location and it is so easy to see why) and the place where Ringo and Dallas can dream of a better life together beyond the border of “civilization”. Particularly the moonlit night sequences where they stand with a fence between them as the celestial glow lands on them talking romantically, obvious in its symbolism but nevertheless striking. Personally, I find it fascinating that a director who takes care to establish Native Americans as a presence beyond white society is so eager to condemn white society as lacking any place for these characters that Stagecoach gives its heart to and if there is one wish I had, it was that Stagecoach extended that grace to its exclusively hostile depiction of the Apache people.

The only time this balance doesn’t work out is something Stagecoach gets away with because it is also the most exciting and conventionally entertaining scene: a climactic action-packed chase from the Apache warriors packed with tracking shots of fierce stampeding and several of the most mind-blowing stunts from the legendary Yakima Canutt. I imagine only someone clinically dead could not have their heart-stopped watching Canutt climb under the coach harnesses or running with the camera across this terrain trying to dodge or even feel helpless in a late beat between Mallory and Hatfield, but maybe I’m just too taken by Ford’s sense of action and adventure and character drama complimenting each other.

For Stagecoach is not Ford’s best movie in my eyes, but it gives a good argument for being my favorite Ford movie and thereby one of my favorite movies of all time. It is a good amount of so many things, all of them constructed so efficiently that you can hardly notice the time passing by you or how conventional it is at the end of it all, while many of these things are communicated with the most memorable broad strokes possible on the level of imagery, performance, and storytelling that it stands as a quintessential work of Hollywood’s most noteworthy year of filmmaking.

*Come to think of it: That’s the one “FIRST” of Stagecoach, the First Western to use Monument Valley’s iconic imagery. Look up Harry Goulding when you get a chance, as that man is responsible for the way we see the Wild West in a manner that is not appreciated enough.

For God’s Sake, How Do You Stop It?!

There’s an observation within two horror franchises that I’ve seen communicated to a point that I can sort of meet them halfway: When it comes to the Resident Evil games’ entry into over-the-shoulder shooting gameplay around the time of Resident Evil 4 (technically its sixth entry) and to Aliens’ release as a runner-up to Alien, it simply makes sense that the franchises have now delved away from horror to becoming outright action. We’re not scared of there being monsters behind the door, we know they’re there and we’re going to hit them first (though I maintain that Resident Evil 4 is still a very scary horror game).

Evil Dead II turns that thing all the way around. As far as director/co-writer Sam Raimi was concerned, the only real evolution from horror now that we know the monsters are there… is comedy. To laugh along with them as they take out their torments on poor Bruce Campbell’s Ashley “Ash” J. Williams. While still retaining a lot of the overt yet solid creepiness of the horror genre.

If I may be frank, I honestly believe the comedy shift favors Evil Dead II more than the action shift favors Aliens or Resident Evil 4. It is as a result one of my favorite movies and one that I consider superior to The Evil Dead.

This certainly wasn’t an opinion I was willing to jump to immediately, simply based on nostalgia. While I saw The Evil Dead for the first time in middle school and so was able to latch unintended nostalgia onto it, I didn’t see Evil Dead II until I was in college. Yep. But I did see it in 35mm when I first saw it, so it had that going for it. Which is nice.

Before I go any further, I really need to be a stickler for something – constantly I see Evil Dead II referred to as a remake and it is most certainly not such a film, but it’s easy to see where the misconception comes from. Originally the screenplay by Raimi and Scott Spiegel (drafted in the middle of the production of Crimewave – a noir parody film that was Raimi’s sophomore film and written by the Coen bros. I made it sound better than it is) called for the film to be opened up with the recap of the original film using its footage, but rights issues in one way or another got in the way.

As a result, Evil Dead II opens up with a newly-shot and cast re-run into the main events of The Evil Dead sped through in the first 15 minutes – Ash is in this version of events joined solely by his girlfriend Linda (Denis Bixler replacing Betsy Baker) albeit because who wants to start a movie with the protagonist killing his four friends within the first few minutes? Like the previous film, Linda becomes possessed from the now-renamed Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (soidifying the book’s presence as a Lovecraftian Element rather than just implying it). Ash reluctantly dismembers her to save her soul and is tormented for it. And we reach the end point of The Evil Dead where the force actively rushes for Ash next right before the ending credits.

Except THIS is where Evil Dead II really starts for all intents and purposes. If you haven’t seen The Evil Dead (in which case, go watch it now! Why are you reading this?) You may use the preceding minutes in Evil Dead II to fill in where we are in Ash’s story, but if you have seen the previous movie, that opening only serves as a refresher. The editing even gives the frame a frozen-frame zooming-in motion as if to motion to the audience that NOW we’re really getting into the story.

And just as we’re left with Ash realizing he is so fucked, the first third of the movie proper has one character and one character only – Ash. By himself. In the Cabin. As one would expect, such a premise would need a charismatic and able lead actor to guide the audience through the various psychological and physical torments Ash goes through, especially one that could allow himself to be at once victim and clown to take hold of Raimi’s intent of turning this demon possession story into a Three Stooges Halloween Special without making the joke on the ghouls themselves. It’s certainly not going to be that bland handsome face who was more of a function than a character in the first movie so I guess Evil Dead II is kinda doomed.

Except Bruce Campbell is exactly that kind of actor who can perform all those demands of mugging and slapstick and jumps through those hoops ably, making me kind of mad the movie moves on to the arrival of four other characters pretty quickly. I could watch Campbell throw himself about all fucking day if I have to. When his evil hand begins having a life of its own, Campbell is so perfectly able to make his own appendage distinguishable enough in movement to be its own character and especially a threat to himself. When the hand begins to turn against him slamming plates on his head, it’s hilarious. How could it not be? But right before that, when Ash lies on the floor crying “give me back my hand”… Campbell doesn’t make it any sort of joke. He’s seriously scared and alone, his voice quavering and weak.

Maybe a trained mime or clown would know how to do it better than Campbell does it, but it fools me and that’s enough to – alongside his energetic frenzy at both fear and laughter – to make this Ash one of my favorite performances I’ve seen in a motion picture and needless to say my favorite Campbell turn (I haven’t seen his 1997 Running Time though, which Bruce would emphatically call his favorite performance he has done. Maybe it’ll change my mind).

It’s not exactly where one could say Campbell developed his awesome ability as a magnetic (if one-note) lead who isn’t used half as much as he should (I’d claim it was just prior when he played Renaldo “The Heel” in Crimewave; maybe Cleveland Smith if we really want to go back), but the amount of over exaggerated caricature in a single eyebrow arch or drop of a jawline is what makes Campbell one of my favorite actors.

Anyway, that’s a lot of gushing for Campbell alone and there’s still plenty of movie to talk about. Maybe I’ve remained on it because for the most part, Evil Dead II still does all the things The Evil Dead did right: Peter Deming’s cinematography re-incorporating all the fog, the motion of the camera with off-kilter angles, blue lighting (this time without ever letting us see the light sources). But now with a decent budget, funded by Dino de Laurentiis – thanks to Stephen King’s vouch – giving designers Randy Bennett, Philip Duffin, and Elizabeth Moore much to up the theatricality so we don’t have moments where we catch it being a movie so much as a ride. Such showcases of their newfound budget includes the movie having stop-motion (most notably the undead Linda dance Ash witnesses) that looks like something out of Ray Harryhausen’s nightmares or the bigness of scenarios like the final battle where the house and woods become a living breathing monster set and completely go against Ash and his new sidekick Annie Knowby (Sarah Berry), the only other character who doesn’t seem to just be there for the sake of body count and the daughter of the Professor whose voice is heard in the tape recording found in the cabin played throughout the film. It should be thrown in that even if the characters of Evil Dead II don’t have weight, they are all stock types to its immense favor of at least cannon fodder having personality within it (I wonder if Bobbie Joe would have been better if Holly Hunter, a friend of Raimi and Campbell’s who B.J. is based on, instead of Kassie Wesley DePaiva – though if I have to admit, she’s at least second-best in the small cast even above Berry. She’s got attitude at least.).

But Campbell and Raimi’s glee at just throwing the movie into whatever tonal gear they feel like without making it clunky (praise to editor Kaye Davis for keeping up) is undoubtedly the biggest anchor that turns Evil Dead II into such a one-of-a-kind movie that could only be made by the sort of folks that at once just love to make movies for the fun of it and yet at the same time know exactly what about the elements all together work to give the experience it needs. Going whiplash from psychological terror to live-action Looney Tune to underground trapped with a zombie to bloodbath to outright heroics in the end (everybody’s gotta love when Ash gets his chainsaw arm and shotgun it’s just so g… no, I won’t say it) and just when it makes the most unexpected turns of design and direction (the final beats are obviously De Laurentiis-esque though I don’t doubt they were entirely of Raimi and Spiegel’s invention), it leaves itself ready for another adventure of fear and laughs.

Maybe the biggest element that personifies Evil Dead II as a movie is where Ash is still in the cabin by himself and the Cabin elements – the lights, the windows, the boards, the cabinets, most ghoulishly memorable of all a single deer head mount with eyes as white all the possessed characters in the franchise – begin laughing at him, cruelly and cartoonishly, jerking around in sync with their giggles. And Ash, absolutely appalled by this point at how much he’s been messed with, goes into hysterics laughing along with the cabin all around and joining them before those bellows of delirious laughter become anguished screams and cries of despair without Campbell missing a beat.

That really is Evil Dead II in a nutshell and maybe the finest scene in both Raimi and Campbell’s career and watching it by itself as a short film makes a pretty obvious tell towards both how viewer will react to the movie (I’ve seen rooms of people laugh at it; rooms of people silent in horror) and to how certain and dedicated Raimi and Campbell are to leaving you just as crazy and exhausted as Ash, but completely fulfilled out of pushing through it all with him.

On a final note only vaguely related to Evil Dead II that I can’t discuss anywhere else, the 35mm screening I saw the movie in for the first time still had all of its trailers attached to the print and one of the things that played right before the movie began was a Loews Theater bumper of theater etiquette.

Featuring. Fucking. Sesame Street characters. And I am an unapologetic Sesame Street enthusiast. It was so awesome to watch it right before an Evil Dead movie.

Man, if the print burned up right before the movie started but after this video I would have felt like I got my goddamn money’s worth.

Oh, sorry, I probably should’ve ended this post about laughing scene. Yeah, we’re done here, I’m gonna watch this video again and again.