The Sunday Intertitle: Prairie Poirot

Such sloppy speech: clearly the intertitle of a desperado!

THE ORE RAIDERS (1927) is another “Worthless Willie” Wyler short of no particular ambition, doubtless churned out in a week, with a star, Fred Gilman, who’s better at staying on a horse in tricky situations than he is at expressing emotion or holding the eye.

From this historical distance, though, it’s quaint and charming to see a western hero who’s clean-cut, innocent, and shares affectionate banter with his horse (THE LONE RANGER recently attempted the clean-cut, innocent part, but didn’t give Silver enough of an active listening role).

Wyler is developing his craft. In a conversation between Gilman and a rancher who’s reluctantly in league with the bad guys, we cut from a close-up of the rancher reacting to something offscreen, to an optical POV insert of the Texas Ranger badge in Gilman’s pocket and back to the worried rancher, a quasi-Hitchcockian moment that renders psychology visible. Nothing too remarkable about this, but B-westerns typically just consist of wide-ish shots of people doing stuff, and some landscapes.

But THE ORE RAIDERS is a kind of frontier detective story, depending on the following of clues, and Wyler knows to present these signifying objects from his characters’ viewpoints rather than simply as close-ups.

The cigarettes match! Jake Petersen has been here!

Other evidence it’s a Wyler: cutting straight down the line into a scene, ignoring the 45-degree rule that angles are supposed to change. Sometimes, as when Monty Clift silently decides to ditch his lover in THE HEIRESS, this forward jolt can express a character point, dramatizing a reaction. When it just feels like the director popped a lens on because he couldn’t be bothered moving the camera round, it’s less satisfying. (Wyler was tireless in his retakes, but covered the action fairly minimally.)

Again, WW invents fresh ways to dismount his hero — at the climax, Gilman rides up to a bad guy and throws himself from the saddle before the horse has even stopped, knocking the bad guy down then dragging him to his feet and punching him out before the dust has even settled. He’s used himself as a projectile, before that was either popular or fashionable.

Wellman also has a very long lens for filming Gilman riding down steep hills, which he does A LOT. He doesn’t use it as extensively as Leni Riefenstahl or Akira Kurosawa but he does resort to it, proving this was a stylistic choice available before OLYMPIA and THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

The bad guy is not only the target of Gilman’s investigations, but his rival for the girl, making this movie almost identical to last week’s Sunday short subject, THE TWO-FISTER. Perhaps the very lack of variety in these oaters drove Wyler to be more inventive and develop his skills, whereas other directors got stuck in a rut and would still be making the same stuff when TV came in. Not a bad life if you enjoy outdoorsmanship, but no way to be remembered. Wyler was already shooting features, and by 1929 would be breaking away from westerns with THE SHAKEDOWN and THE LOVE TRAP (a part-talkie). Finally he could photograph some rooms, and take his hat off.

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2 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Prairie Poirot”

  1. BTW, off of your comments on Wyler trying to find some sort of visual interest in dull subjects, I think Joseph H. Lewis, in WHO THE DEVIL MADE IT?, talking about taking the same approach to his programmers, even if it was just shooting a sequence through the wagon wheel or at a strange angle. Like “Exercises in Style” by Queneau, but by b-movie movie directors

  2. Yes, that’s the sort of thing. You can either treat dull subjects with the respect they don’t deserve, and stultify, or attempt to amuse yourself and increase your expressive powers and hope for more worthwhile subjects to come along later.

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