Posted in: Actors, by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors

John Ireland Remembered

[The O Canada Blogathon runs February 1-5]

The first time I saw John Ireland must have been in Little Big Horn (Charles Marquis Warren, 1951). My dad was a sucker for movies about the US Cavalry, and made me one too. The film had a profound impression on a five-year-old me—mainly for the stunning moment when Lloyd Bridges gets tattooed straight up his right side by three arrows in quick succession (a special effect whose timing and execution are still stunning 65 years later)—but also for the face and bearing of John Ireland. Even if it would be a while longer before I learned his name, I’d point him out as “that guy” whenever he showed up in something else I was watching.

Ironically, he’d already done his best-known work by then; but I’d be well into adulthood before the benefits of film societies, rep houses, videotape, and eventually digital redistribution would afford me the opportunity to catch up with the films of his meteoric rise: A Walk in the Sun (Lewis Milestone, 1945), My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946), Railroaded! (Anthony Mann, 1947), Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller, 1949), All the King’s Men (Robert Rossen, 1949). Not a bad first five years.

Look at him in Red River as Cherry Valance, comparing pistols with Montgomery Clift’s Matthew Garth, two vital young screen actors trying each other out in a scene suggesting a future confrontation with Garth (and with Clift) that never comes. Lurking in the background of the film, fall guy for a fake set-up, Ireland’s Valance transfers his animus to John Wayne’s Tom Dunson, calling Dunson out at what he alone thinks is the climax, only to get the barest flyswat of a gunshot from Dunson, who whirls, shoots, and turns back to his relentless march toward Garth without ever breaking stride. We don’t even know whether Valance is killed or only wounded, so peremptory is his dismissal. But the strength and dignity of Ireland’s investment in Valance remain among the most remarkable features of this most remarkable film. (Of course, offscreen, he’s the one who married Tess Millay—well, Joanne Dru—his second marriage, and it lasted eight years, 1949-57.)

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Howard Hawks

Red River

Much in life makes for the anonymity of the individual human being and, not surprisingly, most people drift mindlessly with the current carrying them towards the final oblivion of death. But some men hate the very thought of drowning in the flux and flow of impermanence, of simply living and dying without indelibly marking their environment with some unmistakable signature. Whatever form it may take, that signature always translates: “I was here and it mattered.” Such men resist at any cost the drift towards oblivion by defining and delineating a sense of personal identity which can stand firm against all that would blur and obliterate its lineaments. American writers from Melville to Faulkner have been especially preoccupied with the theme of an individual at odds with whatever seeks to ignore or abrogate his assertion of selfhood: the adversaries may be nature itself with its massive indifference to human life, or other men bent on violating the self-defined perimeters of one’s identity, or even socioeconomic systems which, like nature, mostly manifest a profound disinterest in individual human existence.

John Wayne plays Dunson opposite Montgomery Clift's Matthew Garth

A man may also war with his own limitations which prevent him from measuring up to the standards he has set for himself. My guess is that the very configuration of the land in which the early settlers of America found themselves was partially responsible for the appearance of this insistent theme, with all its subsequent permutations, in American literature—and later, in American cinema. This immense sea of land, empty of the communal comfort of town or city, threaded only occasionally by Indian paths, its forests, rivers, and mountains contained both threat and promise for those early settlers. Such a country could swallow a man up without a trace that he had ever lived. Or a man might take possession of some part of that vast untouched expanse and make it subject to the shape and bent of his own mind and will. Howard Hawks’ Red River is the saga of such a man.

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Posted in: by Rick Hermann, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Reviews, Sam Fuller

“When it’s night time … “: Myth and the Geography of the Unconscious in ‘I Shot Jesse James’

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

“I wanted the camera to tilt slightly in one direction and the picture to tilt in another. So when it evens out, we have death. I wanted something weird in the beginning, but when it’s over, dead men are usually horizontal, and everything is simple, on one line.”

-Sam Fuller, discussing the murder scene in I Shot Jesse James

Sam Fuller does not really seem too preoccupied with the Jesse James story as Western myth. In all of his movies he is too busy delving into the dark corners of human nature to indulge in the more abstract enterprise of mythmaking (or its iconoclastic obverse in films like The Ballad of Cable Hogue and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) à la John Ford, Leone, or Peckinpah. I Shot Jesse James, Fuller’s first film as a director, does partake of mythic qualities, but primarily as they arise in conjunction with the psychological dissolution and imminent mortality of Robert Ford (John Ireland), emphatically the man who shot Jesse James. The term “psychological Western”—rife with Freudian undertones—seems a dangerous description, an oversimplification of Fuller’s complexly human drama; Fuller’s people are people rather than symbols. He gets at their humanness through an intensely subjective narrative, emphasizing, through an environment of airless closeups, the interior space of Bob Ford’s informing consciousness. In the process, Jesse James, the legendary outlaw, is not only de-romanticized (Reed Hadley’s abbreviated appearance as Jesse definitely makes it hard to sympathize with him)—he gets pretty much ignored. The angst of a confused man who would shoot his best friend to gain amnesty for himself is much more compelling subject matter for Fuller. The title of the film itself is a sign of this agonizing subjectivity, suggesting both confession and advertisement, the ordinate axes of guilt and potency that delineate the planes of Robert Ford’s inner struggle.

John Ireland as Robert Ford

Fuller has said that he modeled the shooting scene after a version of the legendary betrayal that most people were familiar with from pictures showing Jesse straightening a picture on the wall while Ford calmly plugs him in the back. That image becomes the core of the movie, but in an interesting and unexpected way that allows Fuller to create a delicate interplay between myth and artistic creation by introducing Kane (J. Edward Bromberg), a travelling impresario who stages “heartwarming dramas” with Cynthy (Barbara Britton), Ford’s girlfriend, as his leading lady. Fairly early in the film there is a brilliantly economical and. subtly motivated scene in which Robert Ford and Mr. Kane are in Cynthy’s dressing room playing a simple game of cards for a quarter a hand. As Ford talks on and on about legendary figures like the Dalton gang and some other Western gunslingers, Kane loses hand after hand. Finally we see Kane draw an ace of spades; he glances at Ford and says, “Four.” Ford has a nine. He picks up another two bits and tells Kane that it looks like a real streak of bad luck. Kane agrees and asks if he can see that .45 now—the .45 that killed Jesse James. As he fondles it, he says, “You know, that gun’ll probably go into a museum one day.” “Not while I’m alive to tote it,” Ford replies. While the allusions to Ford’s growing mythic status accumulate (his invoking the Daltons gives us a context of legend from which to view Ford’s ascension to that very same plane of reputed existence), the actual business of the scene—hidden somewhere behind Kane’s dissembling face when he drew the ace and called out a four—still brews unseen, until Cynthy walks in, Kane goes out, and Ford tells her that Kane is going to make him a “special added attraction” in the show. Each night, he will play out onstage the way he murdered Jesse.

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