Monday, October 5, 2020

"Straight Shooting" (1917)

John Ford's first feature film as a director, Straight Shooting (1917), is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics in an unbelievably beautiful 4k restoration from Universal. I never expected to see this movie looking this good. It's always a pleasure to see silent films presented restored so carefully—around 75% of all silents are lost, according to the Library of Congress, including most of the early work of John Ford. Which makes this Blu-ray of Straight Shooting all the more historic and significant. Finally we can see that from his first feature, all the artistic facets of John Ford are already on display. His majestic eye for compositions, a bold use of nature and architecture for framing, an intuitive sense of rhythm for both action sequences and quieter moments of contemplation, moments of near-slapstick revelry, and of course a loner, anti-hero protagonist.

From the moment that Harry Carey pops out of a hollowed out tree to see a WANTED poster that was just nailed to the trunk, I knew I was going to love this movie. And how. Frankly, Straight Shooting is astonishing—both the quality of Kino Lorber's Blu-ray, but also the quality of the movie. Despite being Ford's debut as a director, and him being only 23, it's remarkable just how mature an artist Ford already was at such a young age. Ford had been in Hollywood for a few years by this point, assisting his brother, director Francis Ford, and appearing as an actor in smaller roles in many films. But as Straight Shooting shows, Ford was a natural behind the camera, with an understanding for how the camera captured action and created worlds on screen.

Harry Carey was 39 years old at the time that Straight Shooting was made. The son of a New York City lawyer and judge, Carey had pursued acting instead and entered the nascent film industry in 1910. He had already made 133 identified films (mostly shorts but some features) by the time Straight Shooting was released. He reprises his role of Cheyenne Harry, a character that he had inaugurated the year before in A Knight of the Range (1916), which he also wrote, and would ultimately play a total of 29 times.

In Straight Shooting, Cheyenne Harry is hired by cattle baron Thunder Flint to drive off homesteader Sweetwater Sims. But after Harry witnesses Sweetwater burying his son, Ted, Harry switches sides to help protect the family. "I've done some killin' miss," Harry tells Sweetwater's daughter, Joan," but I ain't the kind what makes war on kids an old men." And when the Sweetwaters ask Harry to stay, he must decide where his heart truly resides: within the confines of the home, or roaming free in the outdoors.

While the plot is rather simple, Harry's underlying internal struggle is much more complex. "You're a settler, old man," Harry tells Sweetwater, "so you can't understand the little voices that are always callin' an' callin'." The conflict between civilization and wilderness—between domesticity and wildness—is one to which Ford would return time and again throughout his career, most noticeably in The Searchers (1956). And this theme is not the only connection to Ford's later masterpiece. In the penultimate scene of Straight Shooting, Harry and Sweetwater discuss Harry's future in the foreground; in the midground, Molly leans against the doorway, half bathed in shadows, half showered in light from outdoors; and in the background, outdoor light floods through into the darkened interior of the Sweetwater home. This predicts the final shot of the searchers, with the doorframe symbolically representing two worlds: inside and out; wild and settled; good and bad; light and dark. What's most interesting about this shot is actually the placement of Joan (played by Molly Malone, herself positioned between the two worlds. Are we supposed to interpret her a symbol of domesticity, in conflict with the draw of the wilderness—or perhaps is she, too, caught between the two worlds? Ford privileges Joan's presence with a long, pensive close-up that he doesn't give to the other actors in the scene. Considering that Harry's conversation is the dominant plot-point of the sequence, it's striking that Ford gives such attention to Joan—and I think it's on purpose, he's calling attention to something in her character that hadn't been articulated before, signaling an internal struggle that will inform the ambiguous final scene.

Here's the part where I say SPOILER ALERT.

I think the ending of Straight Shooting is deeply ambiguous and subversive to convention. Harry sits on a log, pondering whether to go back to the Sweetwaters, or to head out. We see him go to his horse, ready to leave, when Joan appears behind him. They embrace. And the movie is over. Is this a happy ending where Harry has given up his past as a killer and converted to a homesteader? Or is this a goodbye embrace? By not showing where Harry or Joan goes, Ford undermines any sense of closure. Harry never even fully renounces his former life anywhere in the movie—he only sets limitations on his capacity for violence. I also think it is significant that it is Joan who has left her home to find Harry, and not the other way around. She has left the symbolic home and entered the wilderness in search of him. Could it be that she is ready to leave the home behind and join Harry on his journeys? I think it's a distinct possibility. Since Ford doesn't give any conclusive answers, there's no way to know for sure. But Ford's rich use of visual imagery and symbolism is striking and impressive in such an early film.

While all of the acting in the film is top-notch, Carey in particular shines. Even for a silent movie, Carey was a man of few words, but his body language is extraordinarily expressive and full of subtle nuances and quiet touches. Carey's little gestures—the way his eyes are looking downward or off-screen; the frown on his face; the way he grips a porch post on his way out the door; his sighs; his way of scratching his chin; even the way he holds his hat suggests an emotional and psychological experience going on within him. Watching Carey today, it's easy to spot the influence of his body language on Wayne, especially his slightly down-turned face, his eye movements, the way he seems a little distracted during scenes by something unsaid or unseen, and especially the way that Carey grips his own arm, a gesture that Wayne famously repeats in The Searchers.

Body language is so crucial to Ford's films, and he's already exploring posture in Straight Shooting. In Carey's second scene, he's slouching in a chair in a darkened saloon. It's a posture that we see throughout Ford's films—most iconically Fonda in My Darling Clementine, but also Will Rogers and Jimmy Stewart, among others, as Ford scholar Tag Gallagher (author of John Ford: The Man and His Films) points out in his excellent video essay that is included as a special feature on the Blu-ray. Additionally, Joseph McBride—author of the spectacular biography Searching for John Ford, provides audio commentary to the movie. There's also an insightful essay by Gallagher in the liner notes, a nice touch that I hope Kino Lorber will continue in future Studio Classics editions, and an fragment from Ford's otherwise lost 1921 film Hitchin' Posts.

There is lots to praise about Straight Shooting, such as Ford's incredible compositions that take advantage of natural landscape, or his characteristic sense of humor, interjecting moments of near-slapstick physical comedy, such as when he and another of Flint's hired guns get loaded before taking shots at their target from a rooftop and then, suspicious of one another, try to pass through a window at the same time with guns still drawn. This is a terrific silent western, and I look forward to rewatching it many more times.

1 comment:

  1. Another one to look for, from the earliest days of a master filmmaker.

    ReplyDelete

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