John Ford

Rio Grande (1950, John Ford)

Rio Grande doesn’t have much going for it. The best performance is probably Ben Johnson, who isn’t even very good, he’s just not as bad as everyone else. Harry Carey Jr. and Victor McLaglen aren’t good, but they’re likable. Carey’s performance is just weak, while McLaglen gets saddled with the silly, comic relief role of drunken Irishman.

The three leads–John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Claude Jarman Jr.–all have their own problems. Wayne and O’Hara have poorly written roles and no chemistry with Jarman, who plays their son. James Kevin McGuinness’s script is a mostly boring melodrama about too young Jarman enlisting and ending up at estranged dad Wayne’s calvary post; O’Hara shows up to bring him home. Meanwhile, Wayne’s got to deal with the escalating Native American attacks. He desperately wants to invade Mexico but the dumb Yankee federal government won’t let him.

Forgot–Wayne and O’Hara are estranged because she’s a Southern Belle and he’s in the U.S. Army post-Civil War.

There’s a lot of protracted exposition–and lots of songs–to cover the lack of story. Director Ford’s completely checked out. He directs much of the film like it’s a silent, which would be preferable given McGuinness’s lousy dialogue and the actors’ weak delivery of it.

Technically, Grande doesn’t do much better. Jack Murray’s editing is awful and Bert Glennon’s photography is flat. Glennon concentrates on the Monument Valley backdrops, even though Ford doesn’t.

Awful supporting performance from J. Carrol Naish.

Grande’s tediously lame.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by James Kevin McGuinness, based on a story by James Warner Bellah; director of photography, Bert Glennon; edited by Jack Murray; music by Victor Young; produced by Ford and Merian C. Cooper; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring John Wayne (Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke), Maureen O’Hara (Mrs. Kathleen Yorke), Victor McLaglen (Sgt. Maj. Timothy Quincannon), Claude Jarman Jr. (Trooper Jeff Yorke), Ben Johnson (Trooper Travis Tyree), Harry Carey Jr. (Trooper Sandy Boone), Chill Wills (Dr. Wilkins) and J. Carrol Naish (Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan).


The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)

The Grapes of Wrath starts in a darkened neverland. Director Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland create a realer than real Oklahoma for protagonist Henry Fonda to journey across. The locations and sets aren’t as important as how Fonda (and the audience) experience it. It’s actually rather hostile for this beginning. It’s all about Fonda getting settled, not the viewer.

Even though Fonda is the protagonist throughout and the whole show for the first twenty minutes–with John Carradine along to keep him company–Grapes is about Fonda’s family, specifically his relationship with his parents–Jane Darwell’s mom, Russell Simpson is dad.

Slowly–after Fonda does find his family–director Ford broadens the film’s focus. There’re just too many people to stick with him and get the story right. Later, as the third act approaches then arrives, Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson bring the spotlight back to Fonda but gradually fill out even more of the surrounding situations. It’s a wonderful balance.

Fonda and Darwell get the showiest parts–well, except for Carradine who gets even showier–and all three do great work. Ford knows how to shoot them too, with he and Toland going almost for scares at times. For Darwell, Ford occasionally shoots the film like a silent. He’s carefully, brilliantly, all over the place.

Everything about Grapes–directing, photography, editing, writing, acting–is a singular achievement on its own. Each vingette-like scene works perfectly. Put them all together and Grapes of Wrath is a relentless, devastating odyssey.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by John Steinbeck; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Robert L. Simpson; music by Alfred Newman; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Henry Fonda (Tom Joad), Jane Darwell (Ma Joad), Charley Grapewin (Grandpa), Dorris Bowdon (Rosasharn), John Carradine (Jim Casy), Russell Simpson (Pa Joad), O.Z. Whitehead (Al), John Qualen (Muley Bates), Eddie Quillan (Connie) and Zeffie Tilbury (Grandma).


The Searchers (1956, John Ford)

John Ford is never trying to be discreet with The Searchers, he’s just not willing to talk down to the audience. In the first ten minutes of the film, he and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent quickly establish John Wayne’s character and his relationship with his family. Ford, Nugent, Wayne and the rest of the cast make it clear–one has to wonder what kind of direction Ford gave the actors (Ward Bond in particular)–but there’s no such thing as expository dialogue in The Searchers.

There are a handful of moments where Wayne is talking to someone and he eschews the idea of going into exposition. The one time he does it–right at the end–is with co-star Jeffrey Hunter, whose character has needed some expository explanation the whole time. More than anything else, the film hinges on their relationship. The film positions Hunter and Wayne against one another while they search together for the same thing–kidnapped Natalie Wood. Their differing reasons, never fully explained, and how they collide with each other throughout the search drive the film.

Almost every relationship in the film is complex–Ford gets magnificent performances out of the cast–just because Wayne’s character is so intentionally out of place amongst the settlers. Meanwhile, Hunter goes through a big, quiet character arc. He has some great courtship scenes with Vera Miles, who’s sort of the unspoken third lead.

Beautiful direction, photography from Winton C. Hoch, editing from Jack Murray.

The Searchers is remarkable.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Alan Le May; director of photography, Winton C. Hoch; edited by Jack Murray; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring John Wayne (Ethan Edwards), Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley), Vera Miles (Laurie Jorgensen), Ward Bond (Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton), Natalie Wood (Debbie Edwards), John Qualen (Lars Jorgensen), Olive Carey (Mrs. Jorgensen), Henry Brandon (Scar), Ken Curtis (Charlie McCorry), Harry Carey Jr. (Brad Jorgensen), Antonio Moreno (Emilio Gabriel Fernandez y Figueroa), Hank Worden (Mose Harper), Beulah Archuletta (Look), Walter Coy (Aaron Edwards), Pippa Scott (Lucy Edwards) and Dorothy Jordan (Martha Edwards).


The Whole Town’s Talking (1935, John Ford)

The Whole Town’s Talking has some peculiar third act problems, but it also has this extraordinary first act set over three scenes and twenty-some minutes, which evens things out.

Some of the problem might stem from Town’s plot–mild-mannered office clerk Edward G. Robinson just happens to look like a famous gangster and is falsely arrested. The actual gangster shows up and Robinson gets to act off Robinson. The second half of the picture is often just Robinson. He can carry it–and cinematographer Joseph H. August excels at the process photography (though not the projection shots)–it’s just odd.

Also, the gangster doesn’t come into the film until the second act; he’s not a predicted permanent fixture. Not like Jean Arthur, the omnipresent love interest whose vanishes signals the awkward finish. She and Robinson are great together; director Ford introduces most of the main cast quickly and then uses repetition to establish them. No one has a deep back story but they’re all fully drawn.

As for Ford’s directing of a gangster spoof–he does really well with the actors. Robinson, Arthur, Arthur Byron, Donald Meek–Edward Brophy is good in a small part. Ford does okay with the backlot shooting, but he’s a little unsure with the mellow scenes. Lots of people standing.

Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin’s script is strong, though they do forget a joke.

The finale also redeems itself with Ford letting Robinson eschew the comedy for moral complexity.

Town’s unique and good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, based on a story by W.R. Burnett; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Viola Lawrence; produced by Ford and Lester Cowan; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Edward G. Robinson (Arthur Ferguson Jones), Jean Arthur (Miss Clark), Arthur Hohl (Detective Sergeant Boyle), James Donlan (Detective Sergeant Howe), Arthur Byron (Spencer), Wallace Ford (Healy), Donald Meek (Hoyt), Etienne Girardot (Seaver), Edward Brophy (‘Slugs’ Martin) and Paul Harvey (‘J.G.’ Carpenter).


Steamboat Round the Bend (1935, John Ford)

The best scene in Steambout Round the Bend is the wedding between Anne Shirley and John McGuire. Neither Shirley nor McGuire is particularly good in the film, but McGuire’s about to be hung and so they’re getting married. Steambout is often a comedy and Eugene Pallette–as the officiating sheriff–tells some really bad jokes at the beginning of the scene. Ford creates this devastating scene between Shirley, McGuire and Will Rogers (Rogers plays McGuire’s uncle). Pallette has ninety percent of the dialogue in the scene, Shirley and McGuire are almost entirely silent, but Ford captures their despondence beautifully. It’s an amazing scene.

Steamboat is often fun–that wedding scene doesn’t even come at the finish (there’s still got to be time for Rogers to try to save McGuire)–but it has a strange sense of humor. Stepin Fetchit plays one of Rogers’s crew members, so there’s some cheap racial humor… but the film also mocks white Southerners. Except Rogers is playing a Confederate veteran. Only white trash Southerners are acceptable targets.

So while that humor doesn’t work, the stuff with Pallette often does. Irvin S. Cobb is outstanding as Rogers’s nemesis.

The third act is too rushed, like screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti needed more time to close gracefully. Oddly, the pacing’s weak throughout–their dialogue’s often outstanding, but the plotting is off. Steamboat doesn’t have room for subplots and it needs a couple.

Still, Rogers is appealing and Ford does a fine job. It’s problematic, but decent.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by Ben Lucien Burman; director of photography, George Schneiderman; edited by Alfred DeGaetano; music by Samuel Kaylin; produced by Sol M. Wurtzel; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Will Rogers (Doctor John Pearly), Anne Shirley (Fleety Belle), Irvin S. Cobb (Captain Eli), Eugene Pallette (Sheriff Rufe Jeffers), John McGuire (Duke), Berton Churchill (New Moses), Francis Ford (Efe), Roger Imhof (Breck’s Pappy), Raymond Hatton (Matt Abel), Hobart Bosworth (Chaplain) and Stepin Fetchit (Jonah).


The Long Voyage Home (1940, John Ford)

John Wayne gets first billing in The Long Voyage Home, but the picture really belongs to Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond and Ian Hunter. The film’s a combination slash adaptation of four one-act plays–which is somewhat clear from the rather lengthy sequences tied together with shorter joining scenes–and while Wayne gets one of his own, it’s Mitchell who’s the constant. I remember the first time I saw Mitchell in something besides It’s a Wonderful Life and was astounded he was in other pictures (to save a little face, I’ll point out I was fifteen or sixteen at the time… hopefully). But I don’t think any other film of Mitchell’s I’ve seen really showcases him the way The Long Voyage Home does. The film ends when Mitchell leaves; it’s impossible to imagine it without him, something Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols must have realized. The film begs for one ending–the John Wayne ending–but doesn’t give it, maybe the only time the film betrays its ominous foreshadowing.

The foreshadowing’s only a problem in the last act, when The Long Voyage Home gets tedious. There are some narrative surprises, but they come after ten or fifteen minutes of scenes Ford would have done better to cut or somehow recap in expository dialogue. They’re predictable and boring… there’s occasionally flourishes of life, but only because the cast is so strong. The film’s a downer, but it’s such a continual downer–following the opening sequence, involving the crew’s shipboard soiree with some Caribbean prostitutes (it’s frequently amazing how the film is able to depict code-prohibited ideas clearly), which is just a slice-of-life piece–it’s hard to get upset at any point. The ominous foreshadowing, even if it doesn’t ripen, slams the viewer so constantly, it’d be impossible to get the heart rate up. It’s clear nothing good’s going to happen in the picture.

I love John Ford’s films with cinematographer Gregg Toland (a friend once scoffed at this appreciation, telling me to compare it to Toland’s work for Welles) but The Long Voyage Home is better-looking than any other Ford film I can think of. The composition is so continually stunning, it turns the picture into a more abstract piece of visual art–the narrative isn’t important, just the way the film looks. I accidently muted the film for thirty seconds and didn’t even realize it. The visuals are incredible. It’s such a deliberate film (and knowing Ford was not someone to lollygag around when composing shots, it’s unbelievable to think he was able to pick these shots with any speed).

All of the acting is good. Wayne plays a Swede (something he was worried about) and doesn’t get a lot of lines until the end, when it wouldn’t matter if he were good or not (he’s fine), just because he’s such a familiar face as the character. Ward Bond and Ian Hunter are fantastic, Hunter with the more difficult role, though Bond does get the one of the film’s monologues. Barry Fitzgerald and John Qualen are both good. Wilfrid Lawson is also good as the captain, who doesn’t get a name. It’s a solid, familiar Ford cast all around.

At some point in the first twenty minutes, when the film’s established itself as being narratively sturdy and visually stunning, it’s clear it’s never going to pick up. It’s a tad boring (in, unfortunately, the pejorative sense) but still a fine film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by John Ford; screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on plays by Eugene O’Neill; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Sherman Todd; music by Richard Hageman; released by United Artists.

Starring John Wayne (Olsen), Thomas Mitchell (Driscoll), Ian Hunter (Smitty), Barry Fitzgerald (Cocky), Wilfrid Lawson (Captain), John Qualen (Axel), Mildred Natwick (Freda), Ward Bond (Yank), Arthur Shields (Donkeyman), Joe Sawyer (Davis), J.M. Kerrigan (Crimp), Rafaela Ottiano (Bella) and Carmen Morales (Principal Spanish Girl).


Drums Along the Mohawk (1939, John Ford)

Every eight years or so, I watch Drums Along the Mohawk to see if it gets any better. According to my cursory notes from my last viewing, it apparently has gotten a little bit better. As the titles rolled, I was hopeful–it is John Ford after all (his first color film) and screenwriters Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien have both written some excellent films. But it’s rocky from the start. The most film’s most rewarding aspect is seeing Ford get comfortable with filming in color. His composition for the opening is problematic, like he’s trying to fit as much into the frame as possible to showcase the lush colors. For the first fifteen or twenty minutes (one of the nicest things about Drums is how fast it moves), it looks like Post-Impressionist. The colors are so vibrant, they distract from the actors.

And the actors are where Drums Along the Mohawk has problems. The film starts with Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda getting married. The rapid-fire pacing gives them a few minutes–a scene working together in the fields and it’s a fine enough scene–to get a reasonable chemistry going. They don’t. The fault seems to lie with Colbert, who’s either entirely wrong for the role or just terrible. It’s hard to tell, because there isn’t a single moment where Colbert doesn’t appear to be a porcelain doll. Her hair and make-up are always perfect (until the scene where she has to shoot at the attacking Indians–and by then, in the third act, it’s far too late to make up for it). Fonda fares better, but only because Trotti and Levien give him an amazing monologue about the nature of war. But Fonda’s not the film’s focus and in many ways, Colbert isn’t either.

Drums Along the Mohawk is a melodrama; it’s event after event after event. There’s some implied nuance–like Jack-o’-lanterns at a wedding–but the film’s sets and costuming are fantastic, so it’s a totally different department working on such additions. The script only approaches subtly a couple times–first, during that field scene and, second (and fair more successfully), with Edna May Oliver and Ward Bond. Oliver’s the feisty widow who can’t stop talking about her passed husband and–in a great scene–makes a couple marauding Indians preserve her bed while they’re burning down her house. Bond’s comically flirtatious in their first scene together, but it soon develops into what appears to be a discreet and touching romance.

The rest of the film’s acting is fine. Jessie Ralph’s in it, she’s always good. John Carradine’s wasted as a villainous Tory.

As the film progresses, Ford’s use of color flourishes. There’s a magnificent chase scene with Fonda on the run, the action only taking up the bottom fourth of the screen, the rest filled with clouds. The film’s eventually unimaginable in black and white, it simply wouldn’t make any sense–quite a difference from the opening scenes.

There’s a general competency to the script, combined with a good performance from Fonda (the script really doesn’t give him much to do save that one scene) and Ford’s direction, Drums Along the Mohawk passes. It’s just a shame they didn’t get a female actor appropriate for Colbert’s role… who knows how it would have turned out.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien, based on the novel by Walter D. Edmonds; directors of photography, Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan; edited by Robert L. Simpson; music by Alfred Newman; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Claudette Colbert (Lana), Henry Fonda (Gilbert Martin), Edna May Oliver (Mrs. McKlennar), Eddie Collins (Christian Reall), John Carradine (Caldwell), Dorris Bowdon (Mary Reall), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Weaver), Arthur Shields (Reverend Rosenkrantz), Robert Lowery (John Weaver), Roger Imhof (Gen. Nicholas Herkimer), Francis Ford (Joe Boleo) and Ward Bond (Adam Hartman).


They Were Expendable (1945, John Ford)

They Were Expendable has a gradual pace. Not knowing the film’s subject matter–just genre–going in, it all unfolded quite deliberately in front of me. The opening is a PT boat exercise. The film’s special effects are spectacular; it’s impossible to tell what’s an effect and what’s an actual boat in the water. These scenes–there are only a handful of them in the film–are breathtaking. There’s an attack on John Wayne’s boat from multiple bombers, which is the final action sequence, but earlier there’s the PT boats shooting at bombers, with only one visible composite shot. It’s stunning work–and one could easily let it overshadow the rest of the film.

Robert Montgomery and Wayne share the spotlight. It oscillates from man to man, but they’re great together and those scenes, with their concise dialogue, do a lot of work for the film. Montgomery’s performance is amazing–the best in the film and the best I’ve seen from him. He’s already weary trying to convince his superiors the PT boat is a valuable asset and following the start of the war and the subsequent losses, his stress becomes visible. Montgomery looks with tired but determined eyes–he has an amazing scene with a fatally injured sailor, probably the film’s most powerful scene….

Well, maybe not. That scene has a lot of dialogue (Frank Wead writes some great dialogue–something I was worried about when the titles rolled), so maybe the scene where there isn’t a lot of dialogue is more powerful. Wayne’s story arc has him romancing nurse Donna Reed–their scenes together and the whole handling of the romance is singular–and invites her to dinner with his fellow officers. It’s an almost silent scene with the men inexpressibly grateful for the female company. It reminded me of The Grand Illusion.

Wayne’s arc isn’t just the romance, he’s also dissatisfied with being in the PT boat squadron (not for any good reason, just because he wants the glory assignments). Wayne develops through the picture, softening first due to a friendship with Louis Jean Heydt and then with the Reed romance. The film doesn’t spend any time discussing Montgomery and Wayne’s lives before the Navy, which is an interesting move. It makes everything about how they act and react to the situations around them.

The script’s got a lot of humor in it, mostly from Ward Bond (whose expression following the kid asking Macarthur to sign his hat is fabulous), but also from Montgomery and Wayne. The film establishes their characters as friends who are amusing watch right off, so whenever they get together, there’s going to be something good.

Ford’s composition is flawless here. There are his early indoor shots, but when he gets outside, he really flourishes. He shoots low to high a lot here, creating a substantive mood. It ties the battle scenes together with the romance scenes and so on.

In some ways, though, They Were Expendable isn’t exciting. Going into it, I thought Ford was going to do a great job with a war picture and he does. He might do a little better than I expected….

It’s a fine film, full of quiet beauty. Ford doesn’t engage with this beauty, but like the swaying palm trees, he’s certainly aware of it. The film takes a step back from its content, allowing the viewer to fill the space in between.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by John Ford; screenplay by Frank Wead, based on the book by William L. White; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Douglass Biggs and Frank E. Hull; music by Herbert Stothart; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Montgomery (Lt. John Brickley), John Wayne (Lt. JG ‘Rusty’ Ryan), Donna Reed (Lt. Sandy Davyss), Jack Holt (General Martin), Ward Bond (‘Boats’ Mulcahey C.B.M.), Marshall Thompson (Ens. ‘Snake’ Gardner), Paul Langton (Ens. ‘Andy’ Andrews), Leon Ames (Major James Morton), Arthur Walsh (Seaman Jones), Donald Curtis (Lt. JG ‘Shorty’ Long) and Cameron Mitchell (Ens. George Cross).


Mary of Scotland (1936, John Ford)

Even with the overbearing music and the strange lighting for emphasis (play-like, it dims to concentrate attention on an object or person), lots of Mary of Scotland is rather well done. Ford’s got some excellent shots and, at times, creates anxious scenes. It’s hard to get particularly excited during most of the film because, while there’s always something going on, it’s more interesting as history than drama. Katharine Hepburn and Fredric March are both good–Hepburn’s got some extraordinary moments–and they’ve got good chemistry, but it’s hard to sustain concern for their problems. Ford seems to get it–or maybe the source play got it–and makes everyone but Hepburn and March, and some of the supporting cast, absolutely evil. Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth, for instance, comes off slightly more inhuman than Emperor Palpatine. Moroni Olsen’s clergyman comes off even more soulless.

The wickedness of royalty raises a lot of questions about the film and historical filmmaking in general–the scene where Eldridge finally confronts Hepburn plays like something out of a Universal horror film of the era. In order to get sympathy for one royal, all the others must be abjectly inhuman. It’d be fine–I wouldn’t have even noticed it–if Mary of Scotland had a story going on. But it really doesn’t, it just sort of ambles along, killing the excellent momentum of the opening–Hepburn’s first night as queen is eventful and sets up the film with a lot of potential. But there’s so little visible interest from Ford’s part. Once he gets around to the lighting effects, he just keeps doing them; it’s a pragmatic way to get things over with.

There’s some excellent supporting performances–John Carradine’s great as Hepburn’s loyal secretary (playing an Italian no less). The scenes with Carradine are some of the film’s most enjoyable, because they’re fun. Also, a lot of March’s early scenes–fun. Donald Crisp’s early scenes, fun. Later on, there’s only Douglas Walton to provide any amusement (and we’re supposed to laugh at him, not with).

By the end, Ford would have been better served with title cards explaining events then trying to tell them scenically. Hepburn and March keep up, but the story’s rote. Regardless of historical inevitability, Dudley Nichols and Ford really should have found some way to vivify the last act. Instead, there’s the dour meeting between the two queens–which the viewer’s been waiting the whole film to see–and the pay-off… leaves a lot to be desired. And then the end, which leaves even more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson; director of photography, Joseph H. August; music by Nathaniel Shilkret; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Katharine Hepburn (Mary Queen of Scots), Fredric March (Earl of Bothwell), Florence Eldridge (Queen Elizabeth I), Douglas Walton (Lord Darnley), John Carradine (David Rizzio), Robert Barrat (Lord Morton), Gavin Muir (Earl of Leicester), Ian Keith (James Stuart, Earl of Moray), Moroni Olsen (John Knox), William Stack (Lord Ruthven), Ralph Forbes (Lord Randolph), Alan Mowbray (Lord Throckmorton), Frieda Inescort (Mary Beaton) and Donald Crisp (Lord Huntley).


The Last Hurrah (1958, John Ford)

While the title refers to politics, The Last Hurrah also, unfortunately in some cases, provided to be the last hurrah of a number of fine actors as well. It’s a fitting–I can’t remember the word. It isn’t eulogy and tribute seems intentional. I don’t know if Ford knew he was making the last film like The Last Hurrah, and there are a number of films like it. Watching it, the mood, the politics, and James Gleason reminded a lot of Meet John Doe. Jane Darwell, for some odd reason since she wasn’t in it, reminded me of The Informer. The Last Hurrah is very much the last film in style–and not the exact style, Ford was a fluid filmmaker–Ford pioneered in the 1930s. While Touch of Evil is, I suppose, a later stylistic descendent, The Last Hurrah‘s the last in the storytelling vein.

Ford’s direction here, his composition, his camera movements, are all very assured, very confident, but also very sentimental. He ties the composition to the story content, letting the frame express what sometimes Spencer Tracy cannot verbalize. I meant to start with Tracy, then I thought I’d save him, but now’s as good of time as any. Tracy’s performance, down the way his nose moves when he breathes, is perfect, so perfect it’s hard to remember he’s Spencer Tracy and was probably in a hundred movies. He’s nothing like any of them. He and Ford, whether by design or accident, create something amazing–Ford for constructing the framed arena capable of supporting Tracy’s performance–but also needing nothing less–and Tracy for filling this field.

The other performances, starting with Jeffrey Hunter, are excellent. Hunter’s great as the film’s emotional reference. He’s new to it, so is the viewer. The rest of the characters have all been around a while; Hunter doesn’t lead the story or even provide an access point, he just shows on screen what the viewer is experiencing. Frank S. Nugent’s script’s something fantastic, but in the story it tells, and the way it tells it. Everyone’s good so it doesn’t make sense just to list them all, but Basil Rathbone’s great as a villain, Carleton Young as Tracy’s assistant, Dianne Foster as Hunter’s wife and Edward Brophy. Brophy’s role’s hard to describe and what he does for the film. Pat O’Brien too, in maybe the least flashy of the film’s roles for good actors.

The way Ford finishes it. Coda. Is coda the word I’m looking for? Maybe The Last Hurrah is coda for certain kind of film, the adult drama of the 1930s and 1940s. Anyway, Ford’s last shot in the film. The pace, the sound, the shadows. It gets blood from a stone. It reveals a deeper capacity for feeling. It’s his best close.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by John Ford; written by Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Edwin O’Connor; director of photography, Charles Lawton Jr.; edited by Jack Murray; production designer, Robert Peterson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Mayor Frank Skeffington), Jeffrey Hunter (Adam Caulfield), Dianne Foster (Mave Caulfield), Pat O’Brien (John Gorman), Basil Rathbone (Norman Cass Sr.), Donald Crisp (Cardinal Martin Burke), James Gleason (‘Cuke’ Gillen), Edward Brophy (‘Ditto’ Boland), John Carradine (Amos Force), Willis Bouchey (Roger Sugrue), Basil Ruysdael (Bishop Gardner), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Weinberg), Wallace Ford (Charles J. Hennessey), Frank McHugh (Festus Garvey), Carleton Young (Winslow), Frank Albertson (Jack Mangan), Bob Sweeney (Johnny Degnan), Edmund Lowe (Johnny Byrne), William Leslie (Dan Herlihy), Anna Lee (Gert Minihan), Ken Curtis (Monsignor Killian), Jane Darwell (Delia Boylan), O.Z. Whitehead (Norman Cass Jr.) and Arthur Walsh (Frank Skeffington Jr.).


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