Sunday, February 23, 2014

Westward the Women (1951)

John McIntire is Roy E. Whitman, the mayor of a prosperous mining community in California, who notices there's something missing in his small paradise: women. He therefore travels to Chicago to find marriageable women for his lonely men and hires a trail boss, Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor), to lead the wagon trail along the California Trail to the promised land in the West. 

Based on a story by Frank Capra, of all people, this is one of the most brisk and cheerful movies in the wagon train genre, and at the same time one of the most wistful: virtually all characters in it are lost and lonely, longing for a new start in life. There's the single mom, the aging widow of a New England sea captain, the recently widowed Italian immigrant woman, hoping to find a new father for her young son, and the two saloon girls, who quickly change their clothes when they notice that Whitman only accepts 'virtuous' women. Their journey is not only a rite de passage in which the women prove themselves to be worthy of their future husbands, but also a quest for the true adventurous spirit that once brought people to this continent, and now leads them further West because the pioneer spirit is lost in the town of Chicago.

I had seen the movie some thirty years ago, and was afraid it would look hopelessly old-fashioned, and of course there are a few silly jokes with a funny talking Japanese aid and a couple of melodramatic moments, but the script elegantly meanders through the genre clich├ęs, avoiding the worst and most obvious pitfalls. The movie is as enjoyable today as it was back then, funny, exciting and sexy. It glorifies the courage and perseverance of the woman, but never fails to underline the drama and downside of the venture: to restore his authority Taylor is forced to shoot one of the men in cold blood  (after he has raped one of the saloon girls), and several women never reach the promised land because they're killed during the various physical tests they have to endure. Some of the most dramatic moments - an Indian attack, the accidental death of the young Italian boy - are off-stage, but they only seem to be more hard-hitting because of it.

Capra got the idea for the story after he had read a magazine article about South American women making a long and dangerous journey to join a colony of male settlers. Like Buck Wayde in the movie, director Wellman told the female cast the job would be dirty and tiresome; he also gave every one of them a chance to back out in the last minute. They received a three weeks training before shooting started (1). The cast is excellent, with Robert Taylor turning in one of the very best performances of his career and Denise Darcel deliciously cunning and seductive as the French mademoiselle taming him.

Cinematographer William C. Mellor was asked to abstain from filters whenever possible, in order to give the movie a glaring look. Some of the compositions are reminiscent of paintings in the style of heroic-realism, popular in Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century. The woman are often filmed from below, silhouetted against the sky, as if the underline their greatness and bravery; it's a technique that was also applied by the controversial - but influential - German film maker Leni Riefenstahl (2).  Some of the scenes with the women washing themselves in the river, their skirts strung up, seem inspired by the famous neo-realist movie Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice - 1949, Giuseppe De Santis), which was a great success in both Europe and the US.

1951 - Director: William A. Wellman - Cast: Robert Taylor (Buck Wyatt), Denise Darcel (Fifi), John McIntire (Roy E. Whitman), Renata Vanni (Mrs. Maroni), Beverly Dennis (Rose), Hope Emerson (Patience), Julie Bishop (Laurie), Lenore Lonergan (Maggie), Marilyn Erskine (Jean), Henry Nakamura (Ito), Guido Martufi (Tony Maroni).

(2) Riefenstahl is best known for her propaganda movies (Triumph of the Will, Olympia) for the Nazi Party, and for this reason her work was rejected by many commentators, but the aesthetics of her movies are generally considered as outstanding and het photographic techniques as groundbreaking; she experimented with different camera speeds and shooting angles, often with dazzling effects, and is often called the greatest female film maker of the Twentieth Century. Her work was studied by such prominent film makers such as Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Paul Verhoeven, Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

When released theatrically, 3.10 to Yuma was well-received by both audiences and critics and it has remained a  popular movie over the decades. In 2012 it was selected for the inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress (1). It's safe to say that it's an undisputed genre classic, and yet the movie and its director hardly ever appear on top of people's lists with favorite westerns or western directors. Some have explained this paradox by the nature of Delmer Daves' work and his image as a conventional artist who didn't fit the auteur theory that dominated the professional analysis of (western) movies in the second half of the Twentieth Century. He was neither a maverick nor a subversive, and his characters, even when they are outsiders, are more interested in reconciliation than destruction (2). All these aspects are constituent elements of 3:10 to Yuma. 

The movie tells the story of a rancher, Dan Evans (Van Heflin), who accepts to escort an arrested criminal, Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to the train that will bring him to Yuma. The $200 reward matches  the sum he needs to save his ranch after two years of drought. Wade's men are ready to save their boss, and the train will only arrive the next day, so Evans is forced to spend some 24 hours in one small hotel room with his prisoner. Tension rises when the volunteers who have promised to help him shy away from their task one by one, and Ben Wade starts a psychological war, offering Evans an ever increasing amount of money if he just let him go ...

The script was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, but the escort in Leonard's story is a deputy sheriff, not a farmer, and the reason why he risks his neck while all the odds are against him remains unexplained. By giving the character a ranch and a family, the stakes have become much: early on in the movie we learn that Dan Evans once was a feared gunman, the best shot in the region; he's a man who has given up his gun to become a farmer, a family man, but in this new life, he threatens to become a total failure. His two sons still boast of his reputation as a gunman and his wife seems to blame him for his passivity in the face of their downfall. Evans risks to lose everything: his honor and self-respect, his ranch and his family. He can accept Ben Wade's offer and get away with it (he's even asked by the man who hired him in the first place to give up), but his life will never be the same, his wife and son will never be proud of him again. 

The movie was praised for its stark black & white cinematography, tense storytelling and strong performances, but it was also criticized for plot improbabilities. For instance: In the hotel Van Heflin threatens to shoot Ford when he comes closer than 8 feet but he let him sit next to his small children and his wife in his own house! Overall, Dan Evans doesn't do a very good job as a guard and escort:  on various occasions (especially on their way to the station) his prisoner could have easily taken the shotgun away from him. He's also an easy target for those snipers on the roof. The surprise ending - Ben Wade all of a sudden helping Dale Evans to fulfill his task - is particularly disconcerting. 

Apart from this seeming illogical ending, the movie's shortcomings are easy to overlook. What is so fascinating about it, is the combination of two narrative structures that are hardly ever used at the same time, the so-called 'outsider looking in' and 'the insider looking out'. Heflin is the insider, a family man deeply rooted in society, who catches glimpses from the outside world when Ford tries to bribe him, telling him how easy his financial ('social') problems can be solved; Ford is the outsider, the outlaw, who catches glimpses from the inside word, family life, children, a loving wife, and becomes aware of the fact that he is longing for these things. 

The ending - probably dictated by the studio (3) - has been described as a cop-out ending; one of the fiercest statements about it says: 

"Now there ain't no way in hell that a criminal would spend all day devising a way to escape, only to be given a clear shot at freedom and squander his chance. No way in hell. That is so nonsensical, it makes a mockery of the audience" (4). 

Slovanian philosopher and psycho-analyst Slavoj Zizek, has proposed a different reading of the movie and the psychological battle centre to the plot (5). Usually this is interpreted as an ethical ordeal: Dan Evans is exposed to the temptations of Ben Wade's proposals, but Zizek claims that the one who has suffered an ordeal throughout the movie, is not Dale Evans, but Ben Wade himself, the apparent agent of temptation. In other words, the bandit was putting himself to the test. In this reading, this seemingly illogical ending all of a sudden makes sense. I think Zizek is right, but I have slightly different ideas about Wade's motivations: Zizek thinks Wade is won over by Evans' integrity and sacrifices his freedom for him; in my opinion the true reason for Ben Wade's about face is the attraction of the 'inside world': he wants to become, like his escort, a family man, he desires for a home, and a woman who's waiting there for him. 

The narrative offers enough indications to justify this reading, the most important one an early scene with Ben Wade not being able to say goodbye to the local barmaid (played by Felicia Farr); his hesitations (his right hand man, Richard Jaeckel, urges him to hurry up) lead to his arrest and set this whole process of temptation in motion: Wade has already taken the decision to leave his violent life, but he doesn't know it yet, he still has to convince himself. The ordeal he submits himself to, becomes a purification ritual in which he projects his own fears and desires on the other man, who appears to be his opponent, but is in fact his likeness, who's a step ahead of him, somebody who has already made the transformation from an outsider (gunman) to an insider (farmer). Whereas Dan Evans will lose everything if he yields, Ben Wade must give in to get what he desires: after he will have paid his debts (not to society, but to himself) this barmaid will be there, waiting for him. 


Elmore Leonard's short story 3:10 to Yuma is avaible in .pdf


* (1) LA Times, National Film Registry selects 25 films for preservation, December 19, 2012
* (2) See for instance: Kent Jones, 3:10 to Yuma, Curious distances
* (3) Paul Simpson, The rough guide to westerns, p. 134 - In Leonard's original story the ending is different: there's a brief shootout, with the deputy marshal killing two of the bandit's men.
* (4) Forum member drinkanddestroy on the Sergio Leone Web Board
* (5) Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the desert of the real, p. 73-74
Zizek has often written about this movie or westerns in general, but always in the context of his socio-cultural and political elucidations; following French philosopher Alain Badiou, he sees westerns as illustrations of ethical courage, about people making an (existential) choice. The plot of 3:10 to Yuma and the behavior of the protagonists is used to comment (in negative terms) on the position of so-called progressive leftists in modern society (both Badiou and Zizek are by the way themselves leftists)

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