Sunday, June 28, 2015

#563: Wagon Master

Directed by: JOHN FORD
1950, TSPDT Rank #524

This film was made during a creatively fertile period for John Ford at Argosy Pictures, where he made some of his most personal and beloved work - including the Cavalry Trilogy, The Quiet Man, The Sun Shines Bright, and this film (which was supposedly Ford's favorite of his westerns). After making Rio Grande (the last film of the Cavalry Trilogy) later the same year, he didn't make another western until The Searchers in 1956 - and by that point, there had been a major shift in tone and in his general approach to the genre. Most of Ford's later westerns were darker, melancholic, and morally ambiguous, but none of those characteristics exist in Wagon Master - arguably one of the  most lighthearted and idealistic of his westerns. It tells the story of two wandering horse traders (played by Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) who lead a wagon train of Mormons on a perilous route through the desert to a new settlement, and having to deal with Navajos and outlaws along the way. Ward Bond (one of many John Ford regulars in the film) plays the Mormons' church elder, a character which gives him a good showcase for a lot of trademark shouting and bellowing, along with a lot of near-cursing which serves to provide the majority of the film's comic relief, as Bond is continually rebuked by one of the other Mormons - "Elder!!!" All of this adds up to a hugely enjoyable and beautifully-made western - with all of the John Ford trademarks present in their purest and most unfettered form, and the lines between good and evil clearly visible. The fact that all of Ford's subsequent westerns were shot in color rather than black-and-white probably shouldn't be taken as mere coincidence.

#562: Some Came Running

1956, TSPDT Rank #551

Speaking of operatic cinema, this mid-'50s melodrama from Vincente Minnelli has to be one of the most prominent examples of Hollywood artificiality being consciously manipulated to produce a film which goes beyond narrative and instead ventures into an entirely manufactured world of pure color and raw emotion. Starring Frank Sinatra, Shirley Maclaine, and Dean Martin, the film uses almost every stereotype in the melodrama textbook - there's an alcoholic novelist, a dangerously clingy and childlike woman, and an intelligent and attractive woman who has repressed her capacity for romantic desire, among others - to fill out a bare-bones plotline which is really nothing more than the traditional love triangle set-up that's been used countless times before. The interesting thing about this movie is that you won't even notice the plot at all unless you consciously look for it. The plot is so basic and predictable that it just melts into the background and becomes almost unrecognizable amongst the film's hysterical tone and elaborate sets - which serve to give the film a very theatrical look and feel. Basically a melodramatic fever dream, this film could easily be either your favorite film or your worst nightmare depending on where your cinematic tastes lie. With the cinematic beauty of Douglas Sirk's infamous 1950s melodramas replaced with garish theatricality, Some Came Running comes off as a very strange film today - truly a relic of a specific time and place in cinematic history.

#561: Casino

1995, TSPDT Rank #536

After the huge success of his epic gangster biopic Goodfellas in 1990, Martin Scorsese made Cape Fear, a highly experimental and Hitchcock-influenced remake of the 1962 film noir classic, and The Age of Innocence, a period piece featuring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. However, as the 1990s wore on, Scorsese decided to return to the crime genre, coming up with a film which appears to be an attempt at a bigger and better version of Goodfellas. This broadly-drawn tale of Italian gangsters moving to Las Vegas and making it big is fittingly excessive for a portrait of excess, but ends feeling more like overblown self-parody than anything else. Everything that Scorsese did in Goodfellas is taken to operatic extremes in this film - including ridiculously profane dialogue, constant voiceover narration, gratuitous violence, and a soundtrack crammed so full with Scorsese's 50s and '60s rock, pop, and blues favorites that at times it feels more like watching a three-hour music video rather than a narrative film. For some reason, Scorsese saw fit to include almost an entire album's worth of Rolling Stones songs in this film (rather than just a few like he did in Goodfellas). Not that there's anything wrong with the Stones, or that the film is any less enjoyable for it (at least on the surface), but the overall indiscriminate excess of this film means that nothing really sticks out or makes much of an impact in the final analysis. It mostly just feels like an overblown mess - albeit an entertaining one. See Scorsese's recent film The Wolf of Wall Street, for another similar (and possibly more successful) exercise in this genre/style. Personally, I'm looking forward to The Age of Innocence.