On this week’s post, I was aiming for some contrasts. I wanted to look at two films with very different perspectives on the American experience. One is optimistic, exploring one of the celebrated American heroes. Another looks at the seedy side of journalism. This week’s films are:
John Ford – My Darling Clementine (1946)
Billy Wilder – Ace In The Hole (1951)
This will be the first John Ford film I’ve done, and while I’m not as huge a fan of him as his place in history might warrant, there is one of his films that is among my favorites of all time. This isn’t one of them, but we’ll talk about that in a bit.
I’ve seen both of these films before, but it’s been quite awhile since I’ve watched either of them. In fact, the only time I saw My Darling Clementine was on the big screen at the IU Cinema. Not bad for a 70 year old movie.
Let’s get into it.
My Darling Clementine
My Darling Clementine tells the story of Wyatt Earp, famous law man of the Old West, as he visits Tombstone Arizona and ends up in a battle with a group of ranchers in what would become known as The Battle At The OK Corral. The fight was one of the great legends of the west.
The film starts the way a lot of John Ford films start, in Monument Valley. The landscape is unforgettable, and a John Ford trademark. We are introduced to the Earps, Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan and James, driving their cattle across the plains, on their way to California. Wyatt runs into Old Man Clanton who rides by, and offers to buy the cattle from him. Wyatt refuses, but we as the audience can tell something is not quite right.
Wyatt Earp is played by the great Henry Fonda, a common sight in John Ford films. Henry Fonda isn’t remembered the way John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are, two other common John Ford actors. And that’s too bad, because Henry Fonda is essentially the perfect John Ford hero. He can play tough without becoming a caricature, and he can play soft and kind without making us forget the tough side. He’s not as tough as John Wayne, and he’s not as much of an every man as Jimmy Stewart, but he can play both, which neither of them can do very well.
We see an example of the tough side early in the film. Wyatt and two of his brothers go into the town of Tombstone, leaving their youngest brother James behind, after listening to him talk about his love, and the medallion that he’s going to give her. Once in town, Wyatt goes to the barber to get a shave. While prepping, a shot rings out, breaking the mirror behind the barber. The barber runs, but Wyatt gets angry that his shave was interrupted. He storms out into the gunfire to find out what happened, complaining about the city, and finds the current Marshal and his deputies all resigning, rather than having to deal with the problem, a drunken Indian (excuse the unfortunate stereotyping). Wyatt Earp takes matters into his own hands sneaking into the building and knocking out the drunk from behind.
All through the sequence, Wyatt is in full command of everything. Others are scared, or hesitant, he takes charge. As soon as he’s dealt with the problem, he goes back to demanding his shave and complaining about the sorry state of the town. He’s offered the Marshal job, but refuses.
But when he returns to the camp with his brothers, he finds the cattle gone, and his youngest brother James dead. He returns to town, and asks if the Marshal job is still available. He must find out who killed his brother. Of course, we as the audience have already been given all the information we need. Of course the Clantons are the villains. But Wyatt shows his honor and values by searching for evidence, rather than jumping to conclusions.
As the film progresses, we’re introduced to Doc Holliday, another famous figure in this story, played by Victor Mature. Doc Holliday owns a bar and poker room in town. He’s an angry man, and drinks too much. We learn as the film goes on about his troubled past. Doc isn’t a nickname, he’s trained as a surgeon. He also has a very bad cough. Historically, we know that he suffered from tuberculosis, though the film doesn’t make it explicit.
Doc and Wyatt meet early on in the film, as Wyatt plays poker in Doc’s bar. Doc invites him to have a drink, and digs for information about how he will handle it if he breaks the law. When Wyatt tells him he’s already broken the law, Holliday pulls a gun on him, threatening him. Wyatt reveals that he’s not carrying a gun, and Doc asks for someone behind him to provide one. Someone obliges, and Doc realizes that he’s being covered by Wyatt’s two remaining brothers, who he has deputized. Doc realizes he’s outsmarted and outgunned and backs down.
The relationship between Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp follows a pretty common trope of classic Hollywood films. The two male leads start out as antagonists, but slowly gain respect for each other. John Wayne practically made a career out of this trope. But we see it clearly in this film. Doc and Wyatt spend almost the entire film fighting with each other, to the point where we almost feel like Doc Holliday is the villain.
They clash over the authority that Wyatt now holds over town, and the women that come between them. Chihuahua is a woman that works in the bar, and is dating Doc. She clashes with Wyatt early on as she tries to help another gambler cheat at the poker table, which causes friction between the three of them. Things get even more tense when a woman from Doc’s past arrives, Clementine, and Wyatt falls in love with her.
Even though Henry Ford is the star, Doc Holliday has a much more interesting storyline. While Wyatt is trying to solve a mystery that the entire audience knows the answer to in the first ten minutes, Doc Holliday is a man with a dark past dealing with his demons. When Clementine arrives, she tells Wyatt (and us the audience) about his work as a surgeon. Wyatt sees the degree and medical bag in Doc’s room, almost set up like a shrine. When he sees Clementine, he demands she leaves town or he will.
Meanwhile, Wyatt continually has run-ins with the Clantons, slowly discovering evidence that links them to the cattle rustling. The major piece of evidence comes the next day, after Wyatt has spent the day with Clementine. He sees Chihuahua wearing the pendant that was stolen from his brother James during his murder. He demands to know where she got it. She claims Doc gave it to her. Doc has left town as he promised he would if Clementine didn’t leave.
This sets up a major chase scene. We see Doc riding a stagecoach out of town, as fast as it can go. Wyatt follows, picking up fresh horses along the way, eventually catching him. For the audience, this definitely doesn’t feel right, and when Wyatt gets him back to town, Doc confronts Chihuahua asking her why she told him he had given it to her. She finally breaks down and tells us what the audience must already know, it was given to her by Billy Clanton. But as she reveals this information, a shot comes through the window, hitting Chihuahua. It’s one of the Clantons, trying to cover up the evidence. He fires a few more shots, and then runs. Wyatt sends his brother Virgil after him, while the others prepare to treat Chihuahua. The doctor is too far away, Doc will have to operate.
We cut back and forth between the operation, and the chase with the Clanton. At the end, Virgil arrives at the Clanton ranch, where Billy has died from shots Virgil fired at him on the way out of town. Old Man Clanton lets Virgil think it’s over, but then shoots him in the back as he leaves.
Back in town, the operation is successful, but Chihuahua dies anyway. The Clantons arrive and tell Wyatt they’ll be waiting at the OK Corral, dropping Virgil’s body on the ground.
This sets up the final, famous confrontation at the OK Corral. Doc joins, having failed in his moment of triumph, and Wyatt takes on the Clantons. In the end, Wyatt triumphs, but Doc dies. Wyatt says his goodbyes to Clementine, who has become the local school teacher, and promises to return after visiting his father and telling him of the two sons he’s lost.
This isn’t John Ford’s best film, but it’s a great one nonetheless. I didn’t spend much time talking about Henry Fonda in the rundown of the film, but he’s really exceptional here. He’s believable as the tough Marshal who can outsmart and outfight anyone, and he’s believable as the man falling in love with the visitor from afar, trying to figure out how to woo Clementine.
There’s a great little moment in the film that’s become one of the most recognizable moments of the film and Henry Fonda’s career. Wyatt Earp is sitting in a chair on the wooden sidewalk. He leans back and puts his foot on a post, balancing there. He switches his feet back and forth, just passing the time. It injects a playful aspect into the character of Wyatt Earp.
The gunfight scene is also done really well. One thing to keep in mind was that action was done differently back then. I don’t know about this film in particular, but in a lot of films of the era, when a scene like this would happen, in the script it would just have a note like “Chase on Horses” or “Shootout at the Fort”. It would be up to the director to figure out what to do in that time. A ten minute fight scene would all have to be figured out on set by the director, the actors, and the stuntmen. John Ford was great at this, as evidenced by this film, and others like Stagecoach.
Wyatt Earp is played like a true American hero, trying to do his best to uphold the things he believes in. He could have accused the Clanton’s immediately as soon as he had the authority, but he waited and built evidence, rather than jumping to conclusions. How would an action star look today if they waited and built evidence before acting? Superhero films don’t work this way. Batman always knows who the villain is immediately, the Avengers don’t wait for permission before attacking the aliens. Their subsequent movies explore this strange tension that superhero movies have with the elected authorities. They don’t come to a conclusion. Wyatt asserts his authority as the law against Doc, who has a penchant for trying to throw people out of town on his own. In a modern film, any authority figure that questioned a superhero film would be treated as the villain. We so rarely question the values of modern films, but the values in My Darling Clementine are clear as day.
Ace In The Hole (1951)
Ace In The Hole is about a disgraced newspaper reporter trying to make his last chance work in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at a small newspaper. He’s covering local news, and chafing at the slow pace of his new environment. When he stumbles onto a man trapped in a cave-in, he suddenly sees the opportunity to get back on top with a big story.
The film stars Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, the frustrated reporter. He arrives in New Mexico in a car that’s being towed and stops at the local newspaper. He sets up his character early, making a big pitch to the newspaper owner about what a great newspaper man he is, and how he’s worth 250 a week, but he’ll work for 50 a week. The newspaper owner, Mr. Boot is no fool, and questions him about his past, learning that he’s been fired from several newspapers for his drinking and philandering. But he decides to take a chance on Tatum, allowing him to work at his small newspaper.
We flashforward a year, and Tatum is restless. He prowls the newsroom, lamenting the food, the news he’s covering, and the people around him. He wishes for a big story to cover that will let him get back to a big city newspaper. But Mr. Boot sends him to a rattlesnake hunting festival a couple counties over, sending the young photographer with him. But when they stop for gas at a local sightseeing spot, they see a police car and a crowd gathering at a set of burial caves, and decide to investigate.
They learn that a man named Leo, who owns the nearby gas station has been trapped in a cave-in, and needs help to get out. We see the wheels start turning for Tatum immediately. He tells the young photographer about a similar story in Kentucky that lasted for a week and made national news. He volunteers to go into the cave to take Leo food and a blanket and uses the opportunity to get close to him, gaining his trust. Leo’s legs are trapped under some rubble, but his upper body and arms are free. We see dust fall from the cave roof as things shift around.
When he comes out, he takes charge, setting the wheels in motion. He knows that to make it a big story, he needs to make it look like a big deal. He brings in an engineering team, and demands the sheriff come tend to the matter immediately. With the power of his pen, he begins to make things happen. When the photographer objects, he claims he doesn’t make the news, he just found it. But as time goes on, we’ll see this change.
When he sees the wife try to leave the next day, giving up on the marriage, he convinces her to stay, because it will make a better story. As he talks to her, he sees his story begin to have it’s intended effect. A family on vacation pulls up, hoping to see the cave where the poor man is trapped.
Tatum keeps writing, sending the reporter back to Albuquerque to publish the photos that have been taken, and starts taking control of everything. People continue arriving, including the sheriff. Tatum makes a deal with him to treat him well in the papers, helping him get reelected if he keeps the other reporters away.
When the reporter returns, there are hundreds of people there, both workers and onlookers. People have begun to set up camps, and Lorraine, Leo’s wife has begun charging admission to the site, which was previously free. We see a doctor exiting the cave to check on Leo’s health, while engineers work to shore up the walls of the cave.
As Tatum talks to the Sheriff, the head engineer comes in to update him on the work. He explains that it will take time to shore up the walls so that the cave won’t collapse when they dig out Leo. He apologizes that it will take 16 hours to get Leo out. But Tatum knows that isn’t enough time for this to become a national story. He asks if it’s safe for the men to be in the cave, shoring up the walls. The engineer responds that they’re perfectly safe, and only getting safer as the work continues.
But Leo asks if it wouldn’t be safer for the workers if they drilled from the top of the mountain. The engineer is shocked, claiming it would take a week to do that kind of job. The Sheriff backs up Tatum, claiming that he was the one who got the engineer his job and he should do it the way Tatum wants. The engineer relents, and in the next scene, we see a large drill looming over the mountain.
Each time we return to the cave site, we see the crowd growing. At this point a small tent city has been built. The admission price has gone up as well. Tatum has begun to influence Herbie, the young photographer as well, telling him to take Lorraine, Leo’s wife to church and take pictures of her praying. As he explains what he wants, Herbie starts offering his own suggestions how to make the pictures more compelling, ignoring the truth. Tatum tells him that they’ve both quit the paper, and from then on will work for the highest bidder.
On the way for Tatum to see Leo, they stop by the press tent, who are complaining to the Sheriff about not having access to the site. The Sheriff tells them that only Tatum can see Leo, with the excuse that Tatum has been made a deputy. Tatum takes the opportunity to gloat to the other reporters, some of whom he worked with in the past, telling them that his stories are now available to their papers for whoever can pay him enough. Later, he gets a job offer from his old newspaper in New York, and needles the editor before accepting.
Tatum seems to have everything set up just as he wants it, but we can see Leo is suffering. He’s being drivin mad by the sound of the drill pounding away above him, while the dust falls from the ceiling. He’s worried about his wife, and feels he will never leave the cave. Tatum reassures Leo while they are together, but is only worried about appearances from the outside for the purposes of his story. He’s directing his own little movie, and all it needs now is a happy ending.
Tatum works on Lorraine, the wife to ensure that happy ending, but Lorraine isn’t interested in Tatum’s plans. She is happy that she’s making money at the service station finally, but she sees it, and Tatum, as her ticket out of the marriage and the New Mexico desert. But when she flirts with Tatum, he slaps her, telling her to act like a wife. He knows his story isn’t as good if Leo loses his wife. For appearances sake, he needs her to be the loving wife.
But things slowly begin to fall apart. Leo develops pneumonia, and the doctor says he needs to get to a hospital in the next 12 hours or he will die. Leo knows without a happy ending, his story is worthless. The engineer tells him the drill will take too long to get to Leo. He demands they go to the original plan of shoring up the walls, but the engineer tells him it’s too late. With the way the drill has been pounding, the cave is too weak. If the men enter now and begin working, the entire thing will collapse.
Tatum is despondent. For the first time we see him begin to not just worry about his story, but about the man he has doomed. He goes to Lorraine, finding a present that Leo had planned for their anniversary. He gives it to her, a mink stole, but she refuses to wear it. He puts it on her anyway and begins to lose control, choking her and throwing her down on the bed. He might have killed her, but she manages to stab him in the stomach to get him away.
He ignores the injury, and goes to get a priest, which Leo has asked for. He returns, taking the priest into see Leo immediately. The priest blesses Leo, and when they exit, Tatum climbs to the top of the mountain, where the workers are still drilling, and takes on a PA system, announcing to the crowd that Leo has died. He knows that he is ruined. He demands the crowds leave, decrying the circus that he created himself.
As this goes on, we see Tatum’s injury get more and more serious. After learning that he has been fired from the New York newspaper, he returns to the Albuquerque paper, telling Mr Boot that he can be hired for nothing, before collapsing, presumably dead.
This is an incredibly engaging film. Kirk Douglas is one of my favorite actors, and in this film he is at his best. He takes control of every scene, and you root for him at the same time you loathe him. He represents the worst instincts of every person. He wants what he wants, and he sees a way to get it, and he doesn’t care who gets hurt. He convinces himself that he’s doing good for everyone involved. He sees the young photographer and takes him under his wing, teaching him the opportunistic side of journalism, but seeing him have success with his photographs. He sees the gas station suddenly become successful, and earn some real money, which is a good thing for Leo and Lorraine. He sees the Sheriff getting what he wants, moving towards re-election. He doesn’t care that the Sheriff is corrupt, and is only interested in power. He just sees ways to get back on top. Once he’s there, he can worry about who he hurt.
This is one of those films that works every time you see it. There’s not a down moment in the film. Even a simple car ride becomes interesting, as Tatum tells Herbie how he would write a story about snakes being loose in Albuquerque. He would cover the panic of the residents worrying about where the snakes are, covering the triumphs of each snake captured. But then, there would be only one snake left. Where is it? How can people rest if it’s not caught? But Tatum would know where it is, in his desk drawer, where he’s been hiding it until the right moment in order to get maximum value for the paper and for himself.
Tatum is a fascinating character. There are other people in the film, but it’s barely worth talking about them. This is Kirk Douglas’ film through and through. I don’t know what other actor could have handled it. Wonderful film.
The Double Feature
This week is a tale of contrasts. We see Wyatt Earp, American hero, and the way Henry Fonda plays him as an American ideal. Only interested in truth and justice. Wanting the evil to be punished and the good but damaged to be repaired. Meanwhile, Chuck Tatum is the darker side of the American dream. He sees big opportunities and goes for it, but he knows how to manipulate events to his advantage and isn’t afraid to do it. He’s not concerned about whether his allies are good or evil, only what they can do for him. A villain with some power that can help him is just as good as a saint with the same power.
Tatum’s only redeeming feature besides his talent is his genuine concern for the life of Leo. While his decisions did lead to the death of Leo, he always needed Leo to survive, he wanted Leo to survive. We get the sense that if he had any impression of Leo dying, he would have done things differently. But his decisions did lead to his death, and Tatum suffered for that death himself.
And it would have been easy for Wyatt Earp to take vengeance on Old Man Clanton and his family for what they did, but his only concern is justice for the crimes they’ve committed. He doesn’t go off on a hunt, he goes to get the Marshal job with the authority to arrest the men responsible. It’s possible that the real Wyatt Earp did want vengeance, but the fictional one never does. To the point where he has the chance to kill Old Man Clanton at the end, but decides against it, telling him to leave town. Old Man Clanton only dies when he tries to turn and fire while riding away, being shot down by Wyatt’s last remaining brother.
It’s a great contrast that works great for a double feature. I’ll definitely be exploring more like this in the future.
Only a couple more weeks until school starts. I think I’m ready for it. I’m spending my time right now keeping my schedule open, and reading ahead for my quals. I’ve got most of my reading list done. I just need to get the last few things figured out, and then of course, read it all, which will be a pretty big job. But I’m going to go for it. But my health comes first from here on out. I think I’ll be ok. I have a better understanding of what’s going on in my life, and how to stay on top of things.
So, next week’s films. What shall it be? There’s a film I’ve been wanting to do for a bit, but haven’t found something to pair it with. But I think I finally found a decent match. Next week’s films will be:
Keisuke Kinoshita – The Ballad of Narayama (1958)
Terry Gilliam – Brazil (1985)
The Ballad of Narayama is one of the most visually striking films I’ve ever seen in my life, and finding something to match up with it was a challenge, but I think Brazil is a good choice. It’s full of interesting imagery and visual choices.
Should be a good pairing.
See you then.