Archive for the ‘Classic Hollywood’ Category

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“The Night of the Hunter,” dir. Charles Laughton

November 8, 2010

You have to be careful with the kind of expectations you set up for this film. I’ve seen some people, critics included, who build this up as a scary horror flick, like Halloween, but it’s not like that at all. This isn’t the sort of edge-of-your-seat suspense movie that’s meant to terrify you, but something more twisted and strange. It reminds me of the cheap, flimsy children’s books I used to read in churches, only warped and deranged from a good dose of German expressionism. Imagine if Disney pursued a less commercial direction after his initial triumphs; he would’ve wound up here.

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“Citizen Kane,” dir. Orson Welles

April 6, 2010

The most common appraisal I hear from non-majors and casual filmgoers – “Yeah, I can SEE why it’s supposed to be great, but I wasn’t crazy about it.”

So why do I love it? First off, pervasive influence has a bad habit of dimming originality, but the layered virtuosity of how this picture was put together frame-for-frame is still astounding. But stylistic virtuosity means nothing without substance, and a few detractors say Kane is a bit hollow, not much more than a bag of tricks. I think this is partly due to the story, and many say the answer to Kane’s last words simply betray a lost childhood or innocence. I couldn’t disagree more, I think Kane’s life was always empty and shallow.

In the earliest flashback, as his future’s determined inside his parents’ home, he’s playing outside by himself, shouting political slogans he couldn’t possibly understand. When he gets older and powerful, he thinks he’s a crusader for the underprivileged, and he tries convincingly, but it’s not really what he is. As his first marriage grows cold, he tries to be the romantic again, but again, he overidealizes this affair – he even puts too much stock into Susan’s vocal talents.

Whether it’s something small, like trying to be the life of the party, or something grander like romance, professional ambition or reaching for something greater than his own personal interests, Kane never does anything that’s completely and naturally him, it’s always forced. His public stature grows, but he remains as a hollow as ever. Fittingly, his surroundings grow cavernous and empty, and as he slows with age, he drifts further and further from everyone around him, and the people that remain in his inner circle grow fewer as they do distant.

A composite of two shots - notice how the image goes soft around the archway even though it remains sharp deep in the background as well as the foreground.

When he mutters his last word, he’s really grasping at one more illusion. Maybe that explains everything, being denied a normal, loving home as a child…but you know it isn’t true. It sounds too easy, too simple, and I think Thompson himself would agree, even if he found that sled. So in one way, “Rosebud” doesn’t explain anything, because it’s just another lie Kane tells himself. But, as the last and perhaps most romantic fabrication he’s made of his life, maybe it does.

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“The Searchers,” dir. John Ford

October 29, 2009
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Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) sees her brother-in-law, Ethan (John Wayne)

Despite its canonization, The Searchers has had its share of detractors, and I always felt that the skeptics outnumbered the devotees in my generation. Compared to many of the Westerns made in the past 20 years (the revisionist Unforgiven, the off-beat Dead Man, the politically correct Dance with Wolves), I can understand how someone can dismiss it as “off-putting to the contemporary sensibility.” But such a statement betrays some historical arrogance in one’s taste.

The first time I saw The Searchers, it looked uneven – I thought there was too much shlock, and I believed Ford’s approach was too broad. When I saw it again a few years later, and again a few days after that, all those alleged flaws appeared deceptive, and that’s when I really noticed a subtlety in craft that was powerful as it was economical. The build up to Lucy’s terror, the traumatic moments that are never seen but completely felt, the hatred conveyed in one chilling close-up…Ford knew how to get under your skin without any emotional bullying. But Ford could also be sentimental without crossing the boundaries of taste, and The Searchers can be surprisingly moving. One of the most tender scenes comes near the beginning, when you realize what’s there between Ethan Edwards and his brother’s wife, Martha. A silent, understated miniature, it’s all the more poignant in the way Sam Clayton chooses to witness it. Classic Hollywood has always been lauded for its “invisible style,” an approach to editing and composition that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but this scene is an extraordinary example of this.

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Unfortunately, films with a reputation like The Searchers are often burdened with misguided expectations of perfection, and to be fair, there are some awkward moments in The Searchers. (The wedding near the end comes to mind.) But the biggest mistake you can make is to count the number of flaws instead of appreciating the weight of its merits. For me, it’s one of the first great depictions of racism in a Hollywood film – ambiguous but unflinching and accurate in its complexity. Some critics have even accused the film of racism, a credit to the film’s lack of didacticism.

The story of two men who look for a girl kidnapped by Comanches, The Searchers makes it clear that if she’s alive, the Comanches will probably make her one of their own. As the picture shows the lengths some will go to preserve what’s acceptable in civility, the division between what’s savage and what’s civilized appears more and more precarious.

That wedding may have been clumsy, but it leads up to a startling confrontation between Laurie Jorgensen, arguably the sweetest character in the whole picture, and Martin Pawley, the adopted brother of the kidnapped girl. One-eighth Cherokee, Martin and Laurie are/were lovers, and it’s all the more disturbing that she would say those things to Martin considering who he is.

If there’s anything else I’ve grown to appreciate about The Searchers, it’s John Wayne’s brilliant performance, proof he can be great despite his limitations. No one else could have brought the same weight to Ethan Edwards, one of the most fascinating, enduring characters in cinema. He’s the embodiment of everything mythic and virulent about the Old West – every bit the alpha male while flirting with psychosis.

But when the film ends, he appears unexpectedly vulnerable. Ethan and Martin put everything on the line to find Debbie, sacrificing years without knowing how many more would be spent. They’re the ones who restore their family, but unlike Martin, Ethan can’t be a part of it. He’s always known it, that this was a way of life could never be his, but that doesn’t stop him from ever wanting it. That one small gesture, grabbing his arm before he turns and leaves, tells you everything you need to know. Not many people would consider it a desolate ending – he’s found some measure of peace – but it always seemed tragic to me. Ford films it beautifully, mirroring the beginning, and I don’t think any film has ever had an opening and closing shot more perfect than The Searchers.

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