My Pierre Etaix piece, an epic career overview, is now up at The Criterion Collection website.
Archive for John Ford
John Ford’s 1927 Fox comedy UPSTREAM starts off in a theatrical rooming house — and stays there for half its running time. The scenario allows Ford to have fun with stereotyped theatre types, and a little fun with space, too.
The movie has that early Fox look, all smoky and grimy yet luminous, to which Time has added a loving filigree of nitrate decomposition, dancing away at the edge of frame like the fingerprints of a jellyfish.
In this dinner scene, the whole cast is gathered around a table — we see that the landlady is at the head of the table and her lodgers are arrayed along both sides. News comes that an important booking agent has arrived at the front door, and each struggling ham briefly imagines that the call is for him or her. And here Ford does something very strange.
Tracking laterally along the table, he captures the reverie of each of his cast — in a single, straight line.
The weird thing about that is that it’s impossible, since we’ve already seen that half the actors are at one side of the table, half at the other. But since Ford wanted an unbroken, linear track, he’s brought in a table twice as long as the one in the establishing shot and sat everybody along one side, like in The Last Supper.
Oddly, this abandonment of elementary continuity isn’t off-putting. I doubt if everybody even notices it, so compelling is Ford’s tracking shot (a bit like the starry crab dolly along the canteen tables in SHOW PEOPLE). The idea is consistent with the German expressionist approach at Fox. Edgar Ulmer claimed that the expressionists would build a new set for every camera angle, to get their compositions to work out just the way they’d drawn them. In Frank Borzage’s masterpiece SEVENTH HEAVEN, how many viewers have any problem with the glaring fact that the garret where Janet Gaynor lives is apparently reached by two completely different stairwells, one that’s angular, for the crane shot, and one that’s spiral for the overhead angle?
This kind of vigorous warping of the physical universe was continued by Hitchcock in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, when he had different shapes and sizes of dinner tables used to allow him to group his actors as tightly or loosely as the compositions required. One table was egg-shaped, so that the cast could be clustered at the sharp end and all appear in a shot representing the mother’s POV. But that isn’t near as bold as the Fox examples — you aren’t meant to notice it, and you don’t.
I would like to see more of this kind of creative craziness.
From HANGMAN’S HOUSE, included in the epic Ford at Fox box set. I’m still holding out for a Hawks at Fox box set — quite apart from the crying need for a good release of A GIRL IN EVERY PORT, there’s my own perhaps excessive and unjustified need to see TRENT’S LAST CASE, or what’s left of it. The combination of Raymond Griffith as star and Hawks as director speaks to me. Plus, Hawks at Fox — it rhymes!
John Ford is a bit embarrassing about Ireland, isn’t he? It’s OK for those of us who aren’t Irish, or more or less OK (I find THE QUIET MAN a bit hard to take in places), but rather a burden for the Irish, who have already suffered so much, what with Neil Jordan and everything. You can feel it in actor Donal Donnelly’s interview in Lindsay Anderson’s terrific study About John Ford — the discomfort with Ford’s strange nationalistic-touristic attitude to his purported homeland, and also the awkward fact that Ford undoubtedly liked and admired Donnelly, but Donnelly wasn’t quite so sure about Ford. Oh, he greatly respected Ford’s work as filmmaker, he just wasn’t so sure about those aspects of it pertaining to Ireland. And I’ve just noticed that Donnelly was actually born in Yorkshire. If he could find Ford’s sentiment for Ireland embarrassing, I wonder how Jack MacGowran felt?
I’m off to Dublin now — Shadowplay will continue, perhaps a little erratically, for the month of November, before bouncing back in December with The Late Show: The Late Films Blogathon. Get scribbling, you scribblers!