INTRUDER IN THE DUST
(Clarence Brown, 1949).
This adaptation of a William Faulkner novel is one of the very few
Hollywood films of the studio era to deal with race in a mature way.
It was made during that brief period after the Second World War when
"social problem" films (along with what later came to be known as "film
noir") were getting the green light from producers. For most of its
history, Hollywood depicted blacks with condescension at best, and at
worst, contempt. But here is a wonderful exception.
An aging black farmer named Lucas Beauchamp (played with great dignity
by Juano Hernandez) is arrested for murdering a white man. His lawyer
(David Brian) believes in his guilt, but the lawyer's young nephew Chick
(Claude Jarman, Jr.), who was once treated with kindness by Lucas, seeks
- with the help of a courageous old woman (Elizabeth Patterson) - to
prove his innocence before the mob can storm the jail and lynch the
This story could easily have become overwrought in the wrong hands.
But screenwriter Ben Maddow is faithful to the mood and cadences of
Faulkner's book. There are no bombastic speeches or righteous moralizing,
just ordinary small town talk with a pinch of understated humor. The
racism of the townspeople is portrayed without softening - as something
assumed, a part of the fabric of daily life - and its potential to turn
into vicious savagery is presented with complete candor and believability.
Best of all, the black man at the center of the story is not only proud
and fearless, but recognizably human as well. Hernandez lets us see
the stubborn and ornery side of this difficult character, rather than
making him into some sort of saint.
Filmed in Faulkner's home town of Oxford, Mississippi, the picture
has a genuine Southern look and feel, and Brown's sense of rhythm and
his skill with the actors makes this arguably the greatest movie in
his long and illustrious career. The murder plot strains credulity at
times, but the picture sustains its interest through the integrity and
honesty of its style. With awareness of the complex nature of human
beings, combined with respect for the audience's intelligence, Intruder
in the Dust shows us exactly how a film with a social conscience
should be done.
THE LOVE OF JEANNE NEY
(Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1927).
Jeanne Ney (Edith Jehanne) is the daughter of a French diplomat in
the Crimea during the Russian Civil War. She falls in love with a soldier
named Andreas (Uno Henning), but her life is shattered when her father,
who was assisting the White Army in espionage, is killed by her lover,
who turns out to be a Bolshevik. Still in love with Andreas, she flees
to Paris to work as a secretary to her uncle, the dissolute head of
a detective agency. But she is followed there by the lascivious spy
and villain Khalibiev (Fritz Rasp), who seduces Jeanne's blind cousin
in order to be near her.
As is evident from this summary, the film's plot is rather complicated,
and Pabst uses as few intertitles as possible, which requires the viewer
to pay close attention in order to follow the story. Yet, despite a
certain shapelessness in the material, and a bad performance from Rasp
(who chews up the scenery as the bad guy), the film is a stunning exhibition
of cinematic style, and represents something of a breakthrough in technique
for Pabst. Brilliant camera placement and dynamism (including some daring
camera angles), inspired use of objects and setting, and an editing
style that cuts on the actors' movements to create a feeling of flow
between scenes - all combine to engulf the viewer in a visual experience
that was rarely equalled in films of that time.
Jehanne has an alluring presence, although her title role is more of
a passive field of conflict for the male characters than an active person
in her own right. The picture is sexually frank, while expressing a
certain repugnance at the decadence prevalent in Europe after the Great
War. It's remarkable that the hero - if the film has a hero - is a Bolshevik
who organizes a sailor's rebellion in Toulon. Pabst was working with
Karl Freund and Heinrich Mann to make German film more progressive,
but he was still operating within the relatively conservative framework
of the German production combine UFA. As it turned out, The Love
of Jeanne Ney was a smash hit, doubtless because of its combination
of romanticism, intrigue, and bold visual style. Overshadowed by Pabst's
later work featuring Louise Brooks, this movie deserves to be better
MR. HULOT'S HOLIDAY
(Jacques Tati, 1953).
If I had to pick one filmmaker who was most probably an alien from
outer space, it would be Jacques Tati. In his movies, people are viewed
as the most awkward and absurd creatures imaginable, like weird puppets
who are made to dance in arcane, goofy social rituals. The humor is
drier than dry - a viewer is just as likely to gape with an open mouth
and puzzled expression as he is to laugh.
This film introduced the character of Monsieur Hulot, played by Tati
himself - an overly courteous, middle-aged bachelor who walks with a
peculiar half-step, smokes a pipe, and acts decisively even though he
has no idea what's going on. He goes on holiday to the beach in an odd
little car that is constantly backfiring, and we follow him as he interacts
with the other vacationers at a seaside hotel. There is no plot. The
camera just observes the curious behavior of people "enjoying themselves,"
often with the accompaniment of an inspid "easy listening" type musical
There are laugh-out-loud moments, as when a collapsible canoe snaps
shut over Hulot while he is rowing in it, or when his spare tire gets
mistaken for a wreath at a funeral, or the brilliant ending sequence
involving a small shed full of fireworks. But more often, Tati simply
focuses on little details of daily behavior, with maniacal precision.
The exaggerated body language exhibited by the holiday-goers as they
play cards, stroll about, or bow to one another in greeting; the punctuating
sounds of routine, such as the squeak of the dining room door as it
opens and closes (the soundtrack is as full of amusing sound effects
as it is almost empty of dialogue); Hulot's hesitant navigation of the
simplest physical actions, such as sitting or taking his hat off; all
produce the effect of seeing human interaction divested of customary
meaning and invested with the ridiculousness of distance. But never,
I should note, with contempt; there is no hatred or anger in Tati's
universe, only a blind, well-intentioned lunge forward to the next challenge.
When Buster Keaton was asked what he thought of Tati he said, "I don't
know what you'd call him. He is just out to be artistic." This, of course,
was not meant as praise. Indeed, Tati violated the time-tested rules
of comedy. He deliberately ignored the idea of building up to a gag.
In Mr. Hulot's Holiday he takes the gags apart, presents set-ups
without payoffs, gags without set-ups, deflates the gag before it can
build, or does without set-ups or gags altogether, playing with the
audience's expectations that there should be some. I think one needs
to be in a certain frame of mind in order to really enjoy the film -
relaxed, unconcerned with schedules or appointments, and free for the
time being of any rancor or resentment, especially towards oneself.
Yes, Tati is something of an acquired taste, but well worth the time,
if you can spare it.
THE FRONT PAGE (Lewis Milestone, 1931).
This first film adaptation of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur stage
comedy has faded into obscurity because of the later, well-deserved
success of Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940), but it's a great
deal of fun in its own right - fast-moving, packed with hilarious wisecracks,
and rather more faithful to the play.
A group of jaded reporters sits in a press room near the courthouse,
covering the impending execution of a man convicted of shooting a cop.
One of the reporters, Hildy Johnson (Pat O'Brien) is giving up the journalistic
life to get married and move to New York. But his manipulative boss
Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou), who will do anything to get a story,
is plotting to upset Hildy's marriage plans so that he will continue
working for him.
The play takes place entirely in the press room, and the movie mostly
follows suit, although Milestone takes the action outside a few times,
while using some inventive camera movement, and even a few clever tricks,
to keep the story from becoming too static. Menjou, playing a different
sort of role than was usual for him, is a revelation - a marvelous amoral
schemer. O'Brien is fine as well; it's too bad that he's come to be
identified with sappy priest roles, because he really showed energy
as a performer in the early 30s, although I can't help but wish that
the producer (Howard Hughes) had agreed to try to get Cagney or Gable
for the part, as Milestone wanted - now, that would have been something.
The best thing about The Front Page, however, is not the duel
between Menjou and O'Brien, but the hilarious banter of the supporting
actors playing the reporters in the press room, including Edward Everett
Horton as a neurotic germ freak, amiable Frank McHugh, and the marvelously
deadpan Walter Catlett. Here is the real flavor of Hecht and MacArthur
- the worldly-wise cynicism, the complete disrespect for authority and
public opinion, along with a certain cold-heartedness that was a refreshing
antidote to sentimentalism and the uplifting falseness of offical rhetoric.
Although I flinched at the mention of "pickaninnies" (a symptom of
an all-too-common cultural failing in films of that era - here mercifully
brief), the picture as a whole serves to remind us of an American tradition
of tough social comedy/drama, that was not afraid to evoke rude social
awakenings. The picture trails off on a vaudevillian note, but the wit,
the brisk recognition of political corruption as a reality worthy of
our laughter, has hit its mark.
THE BIG TRAIL (Raoul Walsh, 1930).
In the early years of the sound era, when innovation was in the air,
Fox decided to invest in a 70mm widescreen process called Grandeur Film.
The first movie slated for this process was to be the biggest western
ever made, and John Ford would direct. But Ford, unhappy with the script,
passed it on to Walsh, along with his recommendation for the lead -
a bit actor named John Wayne. (The studio's huge cash outlay on the
film prohibited the additional expense of big-name stars.) The result
was The Big Trail, a film whose failure at the box office halted
the widescreen idea for two decades and prevented Wayne's emergence
as a star until Ford's Stagecoach, nine years later. Although
it is difficult to fully appreciate the film without seeing it on a
big screen, its merits are evident enough on video to justify its reappraisal
as one of the best westerns ever made.
The story is reminiscent of James Cruze's The
Covered Wagon (1923) and probably a host of other westerns
about wagon trains heading to Oregon, and featuring a good and bad guy
fighting over a woman. Here the woman is played by Marguerite Churchill,
the good guy is a knife-throwing scout and friend of the Indians named
Breck Coleman (Wayne), and the bad guy (or one of them) is an outlaw
pretending to be a plantation owner (Ian Keith).
Coleman is looking for the men who killed an old trapper friend of
his. He suspects that the wagon boss (Tyrone Power, Sr.) of a train
heading west is the culprit, so he signs on as the scout. The wagon
boss is in cahoots with the outlaw, and along the way, they make several
attempts to kill Coleman. Meanwhile, the train encounters raging rivers,
Indian attacks, a buffalo hunt, scorching deserts, blinding snowstorms,
The romance/adventure plot is standard stuff, but on center stage is
the saga of the wagon train, and it's magnificent. A river crossing
in the middle of a rain storm is as real as they come; the scenes where
the settlers chop their way through the forest or lower the wagons and
animals over the side of a cliff with ropes, are stunning. Walsh knows
how to fill the frame with action. When people talk to each other in
this film, the rest of the world is moving around them at the same time.
There is very little dubbing, if any, so the sound is remarkably realistic
too - background conversations, horses, babies crying - Walsh makes
the picture seemed inhabited rather than staged. And the black-and-white
photography is just gorgeous. (The picture was shot twice, once in 35mm
- the great veteran Lucien Vandrot - and once in 70 - ditto for Arthur
Edeson; the non-letterboxed video I saw must have been Vandrot's version.)
Tyrone Power Sr., a great bearded lunk, grumbles and growls like a
volcano. The ubiquitous Tully Marshall plays the grizzled sidekick role,
showing much more range as an actor in talkies than he had in silents.
Ed Brendel is the inevitable comic relief. But then you have John Wayne.
It's obvious now that it was too early for Wayne to be thrust into a
lead role, especially in a two-million-dollar blockbuster. He's handsome,
dashing, innocent, and incredibly youthful looking (he was only 22).
But you can see him acting - remembering his lines and then saying them.
In other words, he doesn't seem natural. In his scenes with Churchill,
for instance (a minor actress who never made it big) you can tell that
she knows what she's doing - she makes you believe that she's in love
with Wayne, but then you look at Wayne and he's just trying to act.
Well, it's not a terrible performance. Certainly not by the standards
of the day. It's just not good enough to carry a major motion picture
like The Big Trail.
Yet, with all its faults, its sometimes awkward script, the picture
is entertaining, and at times achieves something close to the epic form.
Walsh was already one of the greats by then, but he would struggle to
regain his momentum after this, only coming into his own again after
he joined Warners at the end of the decade - the same time when Wayne
would finally climb out of B-movie hell and into real stardom.
©2003 Chris Dashiell