Sunday, August 24, 2008

More Humane That Way

As I was heading into the John Ford double bill on Friday at the New Beverly, I was talking on the phone with my friend Elina and when I told here what I was seeing she replied, “No giallos?” In spite of what Elina thinks, I don’t only watch giallos these days, although I won’t tell her what I’d just been watching on DVD the other night. Anyway, this particular John Ford double bill consisted of films that aren’t usually screened, so it caught my interest. Plus, I’m still technically on vacation, so I’m trying to stay relaxed. And I should see more John Ford films anyway.

1935’s THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING stars Edward G. Robinson as a meek clerk named Jones who, as it turns out, is an absolute dead ringer for the vicious crook ‘Killer’ Mannion (also Robinson, of course) who has just escaped from prison. Soon Jones is apprehended by the police and though they eventually realize their mistake and release him amidst a swarm of press, it’s only a matter of time before Mannion turns up to take advantage of the resemblance. Jean Arthur co-stars as Wilhelmina, the girl in the office Jones has a mad crush on.

The Columbia logo and presence of Jean Arthur make it seem as if this could have been directed by Frank Capra and though the film is essentially a comedy, Ford deals with the situation Jones finds himself in with the utmost seriousness. At one key stage when Jones approaches his apartment, as well as possible death, the stark lighting his building hallway is given looks like something out of a nightmare. The overall approach of the film, landing in that valley between screwball comedy and early film noir (make that very early, considering in 1935 film noir didn’t really exist yet), makes it somewhat unique. Considering the director, I assume it was the particular humanistic touch that Ford had which lends the film its own distinct tone which would no doubt come off differently in other hands. Actually, it’s not too hard to imagine the basic premise being used a few years later as either a total screwball comedy (possibly done in madcap style by Preston Sturges) or playing up the fatalistic aspect for a full-on noir ten years down the road when that genre was in full bloom. The script, by Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, isn’t airtight—the first few scenes of the film seem strangely like the beginning of an entirely different scenario and when Robinson rushes out of his apartment leaving his bathtub faucet running it turns out to be a setup for a punchline that we never get (this feeling of odd disconnection seems to happen in some 30s films but it would take someone more knowledgeable than myself to expound on it). Arthur’s character is also thinly sketched, never becoming much more than a fast-talking 30s gal which, granted, was a role the actress was pretty well suited for. But these minor issues for a film that contains as much funny, fast-talking patter (“And Howe.”) throughout as this one does. And even though the weak nature required of Robinson’s lead character is at times frustrating, the story remains engrossing and unpredictable until the end. A running gag which threatens to become annoying turns out to directly effect the outcome near the end, a nice bit of construction. The effects that present both Robinsons onscreen at once—calling it simple split screen doesn’t do it justice—is excellent for the time with a particular shot involving a mirror getting a “How the hell did they pull that off?” out of me. Robinson, who of course played versions of both these parts throughout his career, is excellent. THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING may be minor Ford, but it’s still very enjoyable and worth a look for anyone who might be interested.

Jumping forward twenty-six years in Ford’s career, second on the bill was 1961’s western TWO RODE TOGETHER, starring James Stewart and Richard Widmark. Joseph McBride’s excellent Ford bio quotes the director himself as calling it “the worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years,” and McBride himself refers to the film as “one of the lowest points of the director’s career”. Which, I suppose, means I should have looked the title up in that book before I went to see it. Stewart and Widmark are a U.S. Marshal and Cavalry officer, respectively, who wind up on a mission to rescue whites captured years earlier by Indians. Widmark’s love interest is played by a young Shirley Jones, as in “Hey, that girl’s kinda cute---holy cow, it’s Shirley Jones!” As I sat there in the New Beverly while the plot unfolded I began to think, isn’t this just THE SEARCHERS slightly rewritten? This feeling was only compounded when the Indian Chief is revealed to be Henry Brandon, playing essentially the same role he had in that earlier film. And it is, but this film turns out to be so uninteresting, lacking in incident for long stretches of time that it comes off not as another attempt by the director to explore themes that interest him, but just a movie being made by somebody who didn’t really have any ideas beyond simply going out on location and shooting footage with these actors. There’s no real consistent tone or approach to the material and though there’s a hint of the genuinely darker cynicism that would come on full bore in his masterpiece THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, his film immediately following this one, it doesn’t really mean much in the end because the movie has no real effect, complete with a ponderous score by George Duning which seems to grind away, unending, through scene after scene. The likes of Andy Devine and John McIntire play essentially the Andy Devine and John McIntire roles. Woody Strode, who had played the lead role in SERGEANT RUTLEDGE the previous year, plays an Indian savage which seems like a step down but Ford was certainly keeping him employed. Much is made in the McBride book of a long, unbroken take between Stewart and Widmark sitting by a river bickering with each other and though it’s a pleasure to watch the two stars interact with each other (Widmark is particularly good in the film) the material just isn’t strong enough and by a certain point it feels like the scene is just going on and on. Which also kind of describes the movie. It is slightly odd that it’s a Ford western with no part for John Wayne, but as the script is it would be hard to imagine him being appropriate in either role. Since he was of course teamed with Stewart in VALANCE soon after, that’s really all that matters.

It wasn’t a very large turnout for the two films and, not surprisingly, some of the audience was older than the sort of people you usually see at the New Beverly. But it is nice to get a chance to see films which rarely get screened otherwise, another reminder how great it is to have a place like the New Beverly to go to. I went one-for-two on this pairing, but those are the chances you take. And it’s a pretty good percentage anyway.

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