Wednesday, 29 April 2020

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Henry Fonda is here to enforce justice in My Darling Clementine

Director: John Ford
Cast: Henry Fonda (Wyatt Earp), Linda Darnell (Chihuahua), Victor Mature (“Doc” Holliday), Cathy Downs (Clementine Carter), Walter Brennan (Newman Haynes Clanton), Tim Holt (Virgil Earp), Ward Bond (Morgan Earp), Don Garner (James Earp), Grant Withers (Ike Claton), John Ireland (Billy Clanton), Alan Mowbray (Granville Thorndyke), Roy Roberts (Mayor), Jane Darwell (Kate Nelson)

In John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a journalist says “When legend becomes fact, print the legend”. It could almost be a commentary on My Darling Clementine, a lusciously romantic retelling of the story of Wyatt Earp and his Gunfight at the OK Corrall between the Earps and local cowboy gang the Clantons. John Ford’s film is a perfect slice of Americana, in which the West is seen at its glorious best, and almost no fact in it is true.

In 1882 retired Marshal turned ranger Wyatt Earp’s (Henry Fonda) brother James is killed outside the town of Tombstone, shortly after Earp had turned down an offer to buy his cattle from Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan), the family patriarch. Earp suspects foul play, but decides to stay in Tombstone as its new Marshal, with his brothers Virgil (Tim Holt) and Morgan (Ward Bond) as his deputies to reinforce the law. In town he meets local gambling man “Doc” Holliday (Victor Mature) and falls for Holliday’s former girlfriend Clementine (Cathy Downs), in town searching for Doc. Will Wyatt find out who killed his brother and find contentment?

My Darling Clementine is almost entirely invented. Virtually nothing in it is true, from the year it’s set (the actual gunfight happened in 1881) to what happens in the actual gun battle. The fates of nearly all the characters have been changed (James, whose death kicks the film off, actually died in 1926) and a host of characters have been invented, not least Clementine herself. The action has been moved to Monument valley from Arizona. Its comprehensive myth-making on screen, with Earp himself changed from an unhappily married man probably “carrying on” with an Irish actress into the pillar of moral decency that is Henry Fonda. 

But does it really matter? Not really. If you run with the film has being part of Ford’s tradition of reworking the past of America into a grand origins myth for the United States, the film works perfectly. It’s directed with great visual skill by John Ford, who creates some luscious shots of Monument valley and some glorious skylines that dwarf the actors into the machinery of myth. His visual storytelling is perfect at communicating character, from the boyish leaning back on his chair from the boy scoutish Earp to carefully building the tentative, ]barrier filled relationship between Earp and Clementine. 

My Darling Clementine features a romance plot line, but it’s played in parallel with a story of feuding that leaves large numbers of the cast dead. Aside from Earp and Holliday there is virtually no overlap between the romance plot and the events leading to the gunfire. Clementine never refers to it, and you can almost imagine this as two films skilfully and gracefully cut together. Perhaps this is Ford’s intent: this is a film about community in the West, about the building and creation of a town and the shaping of relationships and friendships around it – that just happens to have as well a gang of murderers that Fonda needs to take down.

Tombstone is emerging from the Wild West – at a key moment half way through the film, Earp and Clementine dance (Earp with a surprising grace) at an outside ball to celebrate the opening of a church. It's just one sign of civilisation arriving in the town, with theatre on the way and even Holliday’s gambling den slowly becoming something a little bit less violent. Earp himself is a reluctant but honest lawman, repeatedly asking at the start “what kind of town is this?” and seemingly deciding to stay to sort the place out as well as find out who killed his brother. 

It’s telling in any case that Earp’s reaction to his brother being killed is to pick up a badge not a gun, but then you would expect nothing less from Henry Fonda. Fonda is at his most decent, and bashful, his most just and moral, the embodiment of law and justice. Fonda pitches the performance perfectly, a shy man who knows what’s right, but has the guts to go the extra mile to get it. Fonda also gets some wonderful chemistry from his interactions with Cathy Downs’ Clementine, each scene between them dripping with longing but a sad knowledge that nothing can come of it.

There are a whole host of reasons for that, not least her past relationship with Doc. If there is a second heart to the film, it’s the uneasy semi-friendship that grows between Holliday and Earp. It’s a beautifully judged, wordlessly expressed mixture of regard, respect and suspicion, of two men who have taken very different paths in life but recognise in each other a common world view, a yearning for peace and poetry under the guns. Holliday – dying although you wouldn’t think it considering the hale and hearty look of Victor Mature – is a dangerous man but a fair one, not like the arrogant destructiveness of the Clantons. He’s even able to juggle respectful relations, not least with Linda Darnell’s showgirl. Mature gives a decent performance, hampered by his essential earnest woodenness from really exploring the depths of a TB suffering physician turned gunslinger, but able to express a basic decency and touch of poetry.

It’s a film about small moments between these characters that culminates in parallel with a gun fight that burns out of the clash between the Earps and Clantons. The Earps are of course all thoroughly decent, upright sorts while the Clantons are unclean, unshaven (first thing Wyatt does in the film is get shaved!) types, led by a bullying Walter Brennan. The gunfight is spectacular, but it’s part of one of two films, followed as it is with Earp’s sad departure from the town and the culmination of the unspoken love between him and Clementine. But isn’t that part of the myth? And with its romance, its heroic stand against injustice and its epic sweep and brilliance, My Darling Clementine is a celebration of the myth and power of the West.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Jack Nicholson is superb as McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Director: Milos Forman
Cast: Jack Nicholson (Randle P McMurphy), Louise Fletcher (Nurse Ratched), Will Sampson (“Chief” Bromden), William Redfield (Dale Harding), Brad Dourif (Billy Bibbit), Sydney Lassick (Charlie Cheswick), Christopher Lloyd (Max Taber), Danny DeVito (Martini), Vincent Schiavelli (Bruce Frederickson), Dean Brooks (Dr John Spivey), William Duell (Jim Sefelt), Scatman Crothers (Turkle)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of the landmark films of the 1970s, one of those films that’s on everyone’s list for great masterpieces. It lifted all five of the Big Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay), one of only three to do so. It’s widely loved for its celebration of rebelliousness and individualism, but there is more to the film than that. It’s as interesting for the things it doesn’t explore as much as the things it does.

Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) has himself sent to a mental institution rather than a prison farm, under the belief that serving his time in the institution will be far easier than doing hard labour. However, he finds the ward he is locked into is under the authoritarian control of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), a passive-aggressive bully with a strict interest in the rules at the cost of all humanity. The inmates are cowed, but McMurphy encourages them to express themselves and seize their freedoms – little realising that his freedom is dependent on being signed off by the doctors, not the length of his original short sentence, and he has made no friends in the hospital authorities – or that Ratched is determined to break his influence over the other patients.

Forman was a perfect choice for directing a film that directly echoes his own iron-curtain upbringing. OFOTCN is a film that celebrates the freedom of the individual – but also recognises that authority and the state always wins out in the end. The hospital ward is cold, oppressive, a white-lined world where Ratched observes and quietly controls everything from her booth, softly issuing directives that carry a quiet menace. The film rotates around clashes between McMurphy wanting to do his own thing and Ratched stridently reinforcing a fixed hospital agenda. At one point Forman’s camera tracks from McMurphy on the basketball court, up to Ratched watching behind a full length window like an imposing Stasi officer. Forman totally understands the struggle of expression and free will in oppressive regimes, and it’s this that has given the film such a rich life – who doesn’t want to land on the side of freedom?

It helps as well that representing freedom we have possibly Jack Nicholson’s finest performance as McMurphy. A roaring, bubbling, manic, burst of nature, an impish anti-authority figure who rips through every scene with intense energy. It’s a marvellous, inspiring performance. And it makes McMurphy exactly the sort of rebel without a cause we would like to be, the guy who can inspire and lead through force of will alone, who refuses to be cowed or crushed. 

Nicholson’s performance however is a perfect mixture of larger-than-life drama and moments of reflection. The film splices in a few conversations between Nicholson and the doctors that, over the course of the film, change more and more from spry defiance and mockery towards a quieter, more despairing resignation as he slowly begins to realise how trapped he is. Not that he wants to show any of that to his fellow inmates, or to Ratched with whom he keenly engages in a battle of wills.

Ratched herself is exactly the sort of cold, rules-bound, inflexible authority figure we are naturally placed to hate. Louise Fletcher is wonderful, with her softly spoken iciness matched with certainty about her moral position. Is she even interested in curing the patients? Her focus seems to be completely on controlling and running the patients’ lives rather than changing the status quo. 

This battle of wills drives the film, but it’s interesting as well for what it tells us about McMurphy. He seems to have no understanding of the fact that, while his fellow inmates are cowed, they are all to some degree mentally ill and certainly all frightened and unpredictable. McMurphy sees them as people who need to be encouraged to seize their own destinies, but these are people who are incapable of really understanding what McMurphy is trying to do or have any interest in it. He shakes up their world, but has little real impact on them in the long term.

It’s not a film that engages in any great understanding of mental illness, but suggests that perhaps McMurphy and Ratched are in their own ways as insane as the people they are fighting over in the asylum. McMurphy is a self-destructive force who pushes for small things with huge passion, but then drifts through the major things. He acts without thinking and doesn’t try to understand the people around him. Ratched meanwhile is so obsessed with controlling her own small universe, she has defined her entire life around her governance of the ward.

The film has a slightly troubling relationship with women – which is not necessarily a criticism, but an observation since the film’s only prominent female character is Ratched and all the inmates are men. The things that Ratched stops the men from doing are the sort of typically “male” activities that McMurphy delights in – gambling, sports, girls – while McMurphy himself is (in what is the only truly dated moment in the film) in the slammer partly for having under-age sex with a girl, which he eagerly describes to his doctor. McMurphy pushes all the inmates to become more like the sort of man he understands men should be, and while it is a freedom of expression, it’s also one that has little place for women in it, other than as sex objects.

But that’s not the real aim of the film, so you can forgive it. McMurphy is not an intellectual or a man on a mission, he’s an unthinking burst of energy that burns up the world around him and demands the freedom to not be told what to do. That’s what gives the film its real emotional impact and why it spoke so much to Vietnam era America, and continues to speak to us today. And of course it’s linked to the fact that the film is a massive tragedy.

Because in the end the forces of oppression do win and McMurphy’s spirit is crushed. Sure McMurphy more than contributes to his own failures – he allows his own to drift away, and his pushing of his own agenda of what he feels men should want dooms poor Billy Babbit (a stuttering slice of timidity played by Brad Dourif). The film has a Pyrrhic victory in his inspiring the “Chief” (William Sampson), a giant native American flying under the radar by pretending to be deaf and dumb, into carrying out McMurphy’s dreams.

But for our hero it’s a bust. Forman’s film is a brilliant celebration of the energy and futility of lords of misrule like McMurphy, with a commanding performance from Jack Nicholson that’s one for the ages. A wonderful piece of ensemble playing in a set that becomes a metaphor for oppressive regimes, it’s remained remarkably undated and a force to be reckoned with on any top ten list.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

William Holden falls under Gloria Swanson's spell in Billy Wilder's superb Hollywood satire Sunset Boulevard

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: William Holden (Joe Gillis), Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond), Erich von Stroheim (Max von Mayerling), Nancy Olson (Betty Schaefer), Jack Webb (Artie Green), Fred Clark (Sheldrake), Robert Emmett O’Connor (Jonesy), Lloyd Gough (Morino); as themselves: Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, HB Warner

Imagine if Charles Dickens had been born a hundred years later. He would surely have headed to Hollywood – and if he had, surely would have written something like Sunset Boulevard. Because who is Joe Gillis but another shallow Pip, dreaming of fortune and wasting his brains, who turns up at Satis House but stays on to become Miss Havisham’s live-in lover? Sure Wilder is more cynical and bitter than Dickens, but I guess even optimist Dickens killed off Little Nell so maybe he too would have had Joe Gillis end (and start) the film face-down in a swimming pool with three bullets in his back?

The cops arrive to find Joe (William Holden) exactly like that, while we hear Joe’s acidic commentary outlining exactly how this state of affairs came about. Joe is a screenwriter in Hollywood (he’s in the second tier of a second tier profession in the movies) who can’t get his latest script made for love nor money. Dodging the debt collectors set on reclaiming his car, he pulls into the drive of a mysterious house. It’s the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a forgotten silent film star who now lives out her days in her mansion, dreaming of her past glories and planning for a return to stardom that will never come, tended to by her loyal butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). Joe is roped in first to rewrite the (terrible) script she has been working on for her comeback, and then to become her live-in lover. But can such a situation survive Hollywood’s cold heart and Joe’s own self-loathing and desires to restart his screenwriting career in partnership with ambitious young studio script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson)?

Billy Wilder’s poison-pen love letter to Hollywood skewers the coldness at its heart. It does this with a triumphant mix of the grotesque and the heartfelt, the surreal and the coldly realistic, an insider’s guide to the world behind the magic of film-making and a story about those shut out of that very world. Hollywood is a shallow, bitter town where you’re either top of the bill or no-one at all. Would people from any other profession write such a bitter denunciation of their job that is also laced with affection and love? Maybe it has something to do with this being a unique profession which you have to love to enter, but once there you work with people who see it as a business.

The smell of desperation is there from the start, with Joe peddling his dreadful sounding baseball movie The Base Is Loaded to a polite but uninterested producer. Dropping a host of names and accepting any number of changes to the story (including changing it into an all-female sporting musical), Joe might once have had a talent but, as he says, “that was last year, this year I need money”.  William Holden was a late choice for Joe, but he is perfect in the part, capturing the air of the self-loathing cynic, a man bright enough to understand he’s shallow, a hack and desperate for any touch of the fame and fortune Hollywood can bring him.

Just like Pip, Joe is a young man who feels he is entitled to a life he scarcely seems to be qualified for. No wonder he settles into a life as Norma Desmond’s gigolo – it may well damage his sense of masculine pride to be an emasculated house-boy, but my God the suits are nice. And what talent does Joe even really have anyway? The script he is peddling barely seems to have any merit at all, and his extensive polish of Norma’s vehicle is still so alarmingly bad it never even gets the slightest consideration from Cecil B. DeMille. But Joe can’t let it go because he’s like a moth drawn towards those bright Hollywood lights.

And those bright Hollywood lights have consumed forever Norma Desmond. Wilder pulled Gloria Swanson out of an enforced semi-retirement to play the silent screen siren, whose career her own so closely parallels. It’s easy to remember Norma as a sort of Psycho-ish grotesque, a demented Miss Havisham living in her own crazy patchwork world of memory and delusion. Swanson certainly channels brilliantly the expression and body language of silent cinema into the part, and Desmond’s use of the sort of exaggerated gestures from that era in everyday life hammers home how her life hasn’t moved on from her glory days. 

But that would be to overlook the immense skill in Swanson’s performance. Norma may be sad, desperate, probably more than a little unhinged – a larger than life Miss Havisham to whom the “the pictures got small”, but she’s also a real person. Swanson makes it clear she genuinely loves Joe, she’s generous when she wants to be, devoted in her own way and immensely fragile. She takes a delighted pleasure in entertaining – a sequence of her reliving her glory days for Joe’s amusement (he couldn’t give a toss, making it all the more painful), capped with a charmingly delightful Chaplin impersonation shows a Norma who loves entertaining, loves putting a smile on people’s faces. Sure she’s obsessed with fame and desperate to reclaim it, but she’s also deep-down a real person.

But then that’s part also of Wilder’s romantic look at cinema. He can totally understand the bitter, destructive “business” part of it, but he still loves the show. His insiderish film is full of loving tributes to old Hollywood. Norma sits and watches real film footage of the real Gloria Swanson. The visit to Paramount Studios delights not only with its “backstage pass” feel, but also in the excitement with which the ageing extras and stage hands greet Norma. Norma’s weekly card games are staffed with genuine silent movie stars like Buster Keaton. Cecil B DeMille even pops up as himself (on the set of his film Samson and Delilah), kindly trying to guide Norma out of the studio even as he lacks the guts to tell her that her dream of a comeback is stillborn.

So how can you not feel sorry for Norma, who is clearly locked up in her haunted house on the outskirts of town, a million miles from reality, surrounded by endless reminders of her past glories. It’s so all-encompassing it traps Joe as well – at one point Wilder shows him trying to storm out, only for his pocket watch to literally get caught on the door. This place of dreams is staffed by the butler Max, a beautifully judged performance of Germanic chill mixed with doe-eyed devotion from Erich von Stroheim, also playing a dark version of himself as Norma’s pioneering former director (and husband) now reduced to protective butler. The entire house is a mausoleum without any escape.

The only character who seems truly positive is Nancy Olson’s wonderfully sweet Betty Schaefer, passionate about crafting a career for herself in the cinema. But even she is ruthlessly ambitious, a woman quite happy to consider jilting her fiancĂ©e for Joe’s attentions and has her eye on the price of success. She may have the talent, but she’s also got the sharpness.

Billy Wilder’s film brilliantly explores all these divides and contradictions in Hollywood and its history. Because what is Hollywood but a town that pays lip service to the past, but only has eyes for the future? Particularly with women. Female stars have a short shelf life and then they are dispatched. Poor Norma is still glamourous, still clearly has star quality – but as far as Hollywood is concerned she may as well be a million years old. No wonder Joe, used to these attitudes, is so ashamed to be kept by her – a woman he constantly refers to as a middle-aged friend. 

The dialogue, as you would expect from Brackett and Wilder, is superb from top to bottom with zingers and well-constructed dialogue exchanges so well placed they will survive for as long as there are movies. The film is beautifully shot by John F Seitz – part gothic horror, part dark romance, part neo-realist. Its pacing is perfect, its four act construction perfectly put together. All four of the principals (all Oscar nominated, none winning) are pitch perfect, sketching out characters that feel real and mixed with tragedy and loss as much as they are larger-than-life otherworldliness.

It’s the mixture of the freak show and the heart, in the massive Havishamesque estate, that marks this out as Hollywood does Dickens. The astute understanding of central characters, with enough depth to understand their shallowness, the grotesques that revolve around them but still have their humanity, it’s all there. Wilder mixes it with his own Hollywood emotions and his dry wit and cynicism to create a damn near perfect movie.