Saturday, December 5, 2015

Scarface, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Scarface was a first viewing, the other two are old favorites.

Scarface (Hawks, 1932) Rating: 9/10 stars.

Hecht Hughes Howard Hawks Howard
This movie is insane. Makes Bonnie & Clyde look like Bugsy Malone. No wonder they started enforcing the production code.
I feel like every gangster movie I've ever seen was just taking one or two scenes from this as models for their entire plots.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra, 1939) Rating: 10/10 stars.

Never have didactic, dialectical proofs of patriotism been so sincere or so convincing. The lofty ideal is constantly contrasted with the on-the-ground real, naive faith with weary cynicism, and somehow--almost miraculously--pragmatic cynicism is what starts to seem fake. After all, all those corrupt politicians and hateful journalists are living among buildings and monuments which have stood for generations, and Mr. Smith comes from a region where the peace and beauty of nature are free and evident for everyone to enjoy. (Note that Smith already knows the skills of the land [bird calls, Indian signs]--the film is his education in the skills of politics.) The American land itself bears the ideals of liberty and honest democratic government marked upon and within it--what are the life-spans of corrupt politicians and businessmen compared to that of the country?
Still, the drama and despair of those final scenes cannot be underestimated. All that seems certain about the final triumph of justice starts to fall away, and a gaping hole of horror opens up; Smith is there on the floor of the Senate, on sacred ground, but he is cut off from the People, and the People from the truth. Victory only comes with the abdication of the enemy, when the guilt and horror become too much even for a man who had sold his soul long before. Naive faith and idealism is therefore revealed as the most desperate, difficult, and heroic thing imaginable.
Should be shown (and often is) in every Government and Civics class in America. (Perhaps with Spielberg’s Lincoln as well?)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, 1962) Rating: 10/10 stars.

This movie really does seem like a culmination of Ford's filmography, and much more than just giving a great summing-up epitaph in "print the legend"--for one thing, that line isn't nearly as affirmative as it is often taken to be.  Ambivalence and complication infuse every layer of this film.  The line might be taken as resignation, or asking with Orson Wells, How can one presume to make judgments about something like that?
The movie brings together the two halves of Ford's sound westerns/history films. James Stewart standing in for Henry Fonda roles in Young Mr. Lincoln and My Darling Clementine, the straight-arrow man of righteousness, rule-bound, reluctant, a true believer. Stewart's work for Capra is the obvious touchstone here. He's an orator like Lincoln and Judge Priest--but with a little less Western humility and a little more Eastern certainty. Remember the parodies of highfalutin' oratory in those films? Stewart and Edmond O'Brien's newspaper editor might be those figures redeemed. Or, alternatively, they might be intended to gradually recall those parodies, and become somewhat critical depictions of politicians themselves; righteous certainty can easily be corrupted to wrong ends.
John Wayne is here perhaps the ultimate tragic version of his persona for Ford: the individualist, the tough guy, the man's man, the rule breaker, a resenter of authority and pretension. He's Ethan Edwards without the cause or the hate, and hence crippled by uncertainty and choices, incapable of adapting to the changing world.
Like Young Mr. Lincoln and the Judge Priest films, this is a movie about democracy and politics, but here the arena moves beyond small town problems to become a story of territory and state politics, and eventually standing in for the whole West. More than any other, this is his film of the passing of the West, of the coming of modernity, and modernity is not well-liked by Ford. Many of his films are about the passing of an old order and values and the tragedy of change. The future is sometimes looked to with hope as people build a new country, but more often it seems ominous and uncertain. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is able to encompass both moods and so display the full extent of Ford's wisdom.

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