Monday, May 10, 2010

Reeling Backward: "My Darling Clementine" (1946)

"My Darling Clementine" is almost an art-house version of a Western, long before anyone thought to divide films into mainstream ones and "serious" ones.

Director John Ford lets his camera linger over the expanses of arid ground and the yawning openness of the Arizona sky. It's like a banner of freedom, possibility -- and threat. The Tombstone of 1882 was little more than a stopover for miners, lacking even a church or a school. Ford really makes the audience feel the lawlessness, and the possibility for to introduce some structure with the arrival of Wyatt Earp.

Earp, played by Henry Fonda, was one of the first cinematic good guys to wear black. Tall, lean and stern, he and his three brothers are just driving their cattle through the countryside when their herd is rustled and the 18-year-old brother murdered. Earp, who had just been offered the job of marshal for corralling an drunk Indian and turned it down, returns to take up the badge.

It's clear from the beginning that the Earps are not in it for the long haul. Wyatt already knows the Clantons are responsible for the crime; he just wants to hang around long enough to get his revenge. If it can have a patina of legitimacy through law enforcement, so much the better.

Wyatt spends most of the movie tangling not with the Clantons but with Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), a self-loathing gambler and proprietor of the town's biggest saloon. There's something terrible in his past, which is never revealed, and he seems to delight in gunning down any man who dares challenge him.

The Clementine of the title (Cathy Downs) doesn't show up until nearly halfway through the movie, and is really a tertiary character. I'm not sure if she has more than a couple paragraphs of lines. She used to be Doc's girl before he ran off, and has spent years tracking him down. He abruptly orders her to leave town, though Wyatt intervenes to prevent this, taking a shine to Clementine himself.

Eventually, the conflict that led to the shootout at the O.K. Corral heats up again. This famous piece of history had been depicted on film many times before, and would be again several times after. Ford shoots it not as a cliched quick-draw standoff, but a nasty little business of hit-and-run tactics.

As was usually the case with Ford's Westerns, the supporting cast adds a lot of color and texture to the tale. The great character actor Walter Brennan, who usually played world-weary cynics with a heart of gold, is chilling as Old Man Clanton.

In one amazing scene, Clanton sits mournfully in a chair next to the bed containing the body of his youngest son, who has been gunned down by the Earps (after fatally shooting Chiuauha, Doc's Mexican saloon girl). Morgan Earp (Tim Holt), who chased the fugitive back to his home, tells Old Man Clanton he's sorry it turned out this way, and turns to leave. Without even getting up from his chair, the old man triggers the shotgun in his lap, shooting Morgan in the back. It's a moment of startling violence and contempt for human, and must have been shocking to audiences in 1946.

Ford mainstay Ward Bond plays Morgan Earp, Wyatt's well-fed brother who eats more for breakfast than most people do in a weekend.

History, of course, was very different from the movie. The instigating cause of the gunfight was all about some cowboys who refused to give up their weapons, and the shootout led to a series of reprisals and assassination attempts. The Earps were eventually run out of town, never to return to Tombstone.

But as they said in another great John Ford Western, "When legend becomes fact, print the legend."

4 stars out of four

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