Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I take my heroes quiet

To begin with, I know you are probably trying to figure out which Western to watch for Christmas, but the answer is obvious: Three Godfathers (1949) directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne. In case you're wondering, there are no gangsters, but three saddle tramps who are analogues to the Wise Men of the Christmas story. Yes, it's heavy-handed and sentimental, but isn't that just what a Christmas movie should be?

Now that you mentioned Westerns -- you did mention Westerns, didn't you? Don't get me started; I can talk about them all day. Anyway, I finally got around to the first Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher collaboration, Seven Men From Now (1956), and I don't think there is a better lesson in narrative economy than this film. What would take three hours today in terms of story and emotion is packed into about an hour-and-a-quarter.*

Look at the beginning of this film. (Sorry, I couldn't find the clip online.) A man dismounts in a punishing rain. He stalks-staggers toward a crevice in a large rock where two other men are huddled over a fire. We see that it is Randolph Scott, who forces an invitation by the fireside. He and the two exchange perhaps 7 or 8 lines about seven men who robbed a gold shipment from a nearby Wells Fargo Station. "Did they find the fellows?" asks one of the strangers. "I found two of them," says Randolph Scott and a moment later they are dead. This is a master class in starting a film. (Screenplay by first-timer Burt Kennedy, beloved director of Support Your Local Sheriff.)

The film's structure resembles Ride Lonesome. Scott is on a journey with an undesired companion, in this case Lee Marvin. The journey is not only to catch the robbers but to avenge the death of his wife, who was the station master. Although Marvin is a villain, he is not one of the killers, and he is happy to help Scott track them down and kill them, because he wants to steal the gold himself. Life, these films seem to imply, is full of these uncomfortable alliances. Marvin threatens to steal not only the gold, but the entire movie, given that he is garrulous and charming and not as embarrassed about his attraction to the married woman they are traveling with as the gentlemanly Scott. In perhaps, the most celebrated scene, using a trope favored by scriptwriter Burt Kennedy, Marvin pretends to tell a story in order to nettle the people he is talking to. Notice how Boetticher uses the relative positions and sizes of the heads in the shots to indicate the relationships among them. This is not a straight shot-reverse shot sequence. And, as usual, Scott does as much or more with a few words than other actors do with many.

Anyone who thinks a Western is nothing but horses and guns ought to see this scene.

Of course, ultimately a great Western is about visual action set against the landscape, which describes the finale of Seven Men From Now, almost a coda to the main action of the film. Marvin and Scott have killed the malefactors. Now Scott must redeem himself from disgrace by retrieving and returning the strongbox of gold. Marvin, naturally wants it. Here they are:

"A man can do that." Again, aspiring screenwriters should be required to copy this dialogue down and study it.

Incidentally, if you haven't seen the Boetticher-Scott (and mostly Burt Kennedy) cycle and you want to, I recommend you start with this film. It's one of the best of the series and it introduces so many of the tropes and themes that will continue to be worked and reworked throughout the seven films.

I hadn't realized until this film how much Randolph Scott resembles Mark Harmon, who really should do some westerns, and the great progenitor of the serious adult western, William S. Hart. Hart's films aren't as available as they ought to be, and until recently I had only seen Hell's Hinges (1917) which is from that wonderful period in American film history just before all the rules were set and the cliches fixed in stone. The Western town looks like a real Western town, not like the movie town we're used to and Hart begins the film as the villain and becomes the hero, without ever becoming a law-abiding "regular citizen."

Tumbleweeds (1925) was his last film, made when he was about the same age Scott was when he made the Boetticher films. Both actors look as if they were carved from a very weathered piece of wood, with a long, somewhat immobile upper lip. Both played characters uncomfortable with emotion-- actually pretty uncomfortable indoors or around other people, other than a single beloved woman. Tumbleweeds is almost plotless, revolving around a cowpoke who realizes he has become too old for the life. There is a lot of atmosphere around the cowboy life and rituals that dominate the first half of the film, and I would have posted clips if the ones I could find weren't so fuzzy and awful-looking, being poorly lifted from a talkie-era reissue of the film. Silent film can look so good that there is no excuse for disseminating some of the awful looking copies around.

Of course, it is impossible to talk of Tumbleweeds without mentioning its most famous sequence, the Cherokee Land Strip Rush. It is purported to be highly authentic, but whether or not it's true, its epic and spectacular in a way that silents often do better than sound. Perhaps because silent films are unhampered by trying to maintain a coherent sound environment that they can cut in such an uninhibited way from one story thread or situation to another. Incidentally, while Hart did not do the pole vaulting stunt (check out the invisible cut there), all the riding is his, on his own horse, Fritz.

It was Hart, the Shakespearean actor who realized that Westerns didn't have to be just for idiot children, and while John Ford was making golly-gee Saturday afternoonkiddy fodder with Harry Carey, Hart was blazing the trail for the Western as a genre and form that could contain real human stories, ideas and emotions.
* This movie is listed in Leonard Maltin's "150 Best Movies You've Never Seen"

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