Thursday, December 06, 2018

Wichita (Jacques Tourneur, 1955)

A good man with a gun

(Yet another film on the soon-to-vanish (Nov. 29) Filmstruck--in this case easily found on other venues (Google Play and iTunes) but difficult to find in Cinemascope; even Turner Classic Movies resorted to showing the cropped pan-and-scan version. Filmstruck presents the film in its original aspect ratio, and if ever the term 'quietly glorious' applied to a picture it applies to this. Again the plea: make the site (or one like it) available again--and available to other countries!

Say the name 'Jacques Tourneur' and the first word that comes to mind for most folks is 'horror' (the second possibly 'cat'). Tourneur has been directing since 1931 (mainly shorts) finally made a splash in the early '40s working for producer Val Lewton in Cat People (lowbudget, eerily beautiful) and I Walked With a Zombie (despite the pulpy title, my favorite adaptation of Jane Eyre). Say his name and the word 'westerns' rarely pops up--but his westerns do in fact represent some of his finest most memorable work.

Wichita is late period Tourneur, halfway through a decade when he went freelance (before this he was with RKO, working his way up from B pictures like Cat People to A projects like Out of the Past). This was his first film in Cinemascope which unlike other filmmakers he embraced: Cinemascope he notes "reproduces approximately our field of vision" adding that the format--because of the expanse on display--"makes it necessary to compose."

Tourneur composed all right though not in the flashy manner of a Welles or a Hitchcock. Critic Pauline Kael sniffed that his films with Lewton "aren't really very good," suggesting they're afflicted with good taste; I submit they're more understated than anything--a distinct dark sensibility subtly suggested.

In Cat and Zombie and in the classic noir Out of the Past, Tourneur used shadows to great effect, creating a claustrophobic twilight world of perverse lust, supernatural transformations, and the walking undead. Wichita is in color, where shadows are less pronounced, and in widescreen, where shadows are less effective at suggesting confinement--which compels one to wonder: what can Tourneur do with a world of vistas and bright hues?

Tourneur's response can be found in the opening sequence: a cattle drive led by one Clint Wallace (Walter Sande) stops for the day, to allow the animals to feed and fatten up prior to being sold at their destination; suddenly a speck is spotted moving across the low hills of the horizon. The cowboys gaze warily, wondering if it is friend or foe; eventually one of the hands is tasked to ride out and settle the issue.

What do vast spaces evoke? Why fear--the sense of constant vulnerability. Anything can come at you from those spaces, from any direction; thanks to guns (which all plains folk carry) anyone can strike at you where you're standing. Having inflicted claustrophobia in films like Cat People and Out of the Past, Tourneur in his one major Cinemascope effort teaches us to appreciate the equally fine anxieties inspired by agoraphobia.

The speck grows into buffalo hunter Wyatt Earp (Joel Mcrea) who travels in the same direction as the drive, hoping to establish a business in town. He's grudgingly offered dinner (Tourneur has Earp on his horse looking down on the cowboys arrayed in a row, their implacably shadowed backs radiating cautious hospitality); later, brothers Hal (Rayford Barnes) and Gyp (Lloyd Bridges) Clements attempt to rob Earp, an attempt he easily rebuffs. Wallace's earlier speculation turns out to be right after all: the man does represent a threat, though not in a straightforward way.

When Earp does arrive in Wichita the camera shifts its attention to the surroundings; the buildings (painted an intriguing combination of warm wood mint green lemon yellow burnt red) keep the crazeinducing horizon out, give an impression of sheltered greenery in the middle of the Great Plains. Earp is offered not a business proposition but a job: the fast-growing town is about to receive an influx of cowboys (Wallace's crew, earlier encountered) is about to be torn apart in a fit of drunken exuberance. Would Earp consider being marshal, to help keep the peace?

Earp turns the offer down; the cowboys arrive bringing with them the wildness of the plains they spent months crossing. In a wide high-angle shot Tourneur records the teeming chaos of men running riot, a street lamp standing useless guard in the left corner; suddenly a cowboy rides across the screen, smashing the bulb.

Tragedy strikes (Tourneur's abrupt staging--hands clutching a small chest--underlines the randomness of that tragedy) and Earp feels compelled to pin the tin star on his chest and be sworn in. With the same intimidating efficiency with which he subdued the Clement brothers, the bank robbers, now the wildpartying cowpunchers, Earp declares a gun ban in Wichita.

Does the film support gun control? Yes, basically--Daniel B. Ullman's script and Tourneur's knack for sowing goose pimples whenever walls fall away--make their stance clear. But there are ambiguities: it takes guns to enforce Earp's ban, plus a double load of buckshot (as Earp points out "I can take out about five of you at this range."). It also takes--as the NRA often asserts--a 'good man with a gun' to keep the ban in place. Granted Earp was backed into taking the position of marshal and that he's a duly sworn lawman--how many Joel McCreas can you count on to ride into town?

Where other actors radiate charisma or sexuality McCrea comes across as decent--not exactly a quality you look for in a Hollywood star. But McCrea is decent in a believable way, charming and perhaps a little clueless on any subject outside of his immediate occupation, whether journalism (Foreign Correspondent) or small-town spirituality (Stars in My Crown) or this film--he's so damned likeable you can be forgiven for letting him get away with declaring martial (marshal?) law.  

McCrea's Earp like the present president of the Philippines is willing to wage a ruthless war on guns (as opposed to drugs--but it could be any issue) is also willing to do so responsibly. No careless killings (several times he had the chance and refused), no delegating the task to incompetents (at most he hands a shotgun over to the soon-to-be-equally-famous Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen)), no 'collateral damage' among civilians, at least none directly caused by his actions. Earp unlike Duterte is a genuinely good man with a gun, 'good' in the sense that he not only means well he's effective. His ban works.

It's not all about Earp; Tourneur sketches members inside and outside the community with conscientious loving care. Businessmen Sam McCoy (Walter Coy) and Doc Black (Edgar Buchanan) are the kind of elderly white men who oversee fast-growing towns, who like Earp's lawman integrity, who are dismayed when his integrity runs roughshod over their business interests. Tourneur often shoots them in groups conferring and plotting on how they would recruit Earp later muzzle him, and when they surround him your skin crawls--they're like wolves rounding a wary bull, looking for the weak spot. You want to hiss at Wallace and his gunhappy cowboys but when the cattleman learns of a second tragedy he has the decency to express regrets--besides Earp, yet another element that feels fairy-tale in this day and age: people who don't sound hypocritical when expressing regret over a gun death.

If Tourneur ultimately relegates the film to the realm of fable (the real Earp was a mere police officer not town marshal; he left because he had gotten into a fistfight with his boss' political enemy and was dismissed), at least the director gave us this particular fable: modestly scaled, gracefully told, honest in the way its characters respond to the shocks and disruptions of the narrative. The touch of fantasy actually helps bring Tourneur's yarn tantalizingly within reach--given a good man with a gun (a huge given) we might be able to have this, a legal and effective gun ban. A ban that--considering the violence erupting from either the country of my birth or the country that has adopted me--has come to look better and better by the day.  

First published in Businessworld 11.30.18

1 comment:

Anusha said...

Hi Noel! I'd love to write to you about possibly contributing to the multilingual film magazine I'm part of:
Do let me know what's the best way to reach out to you. :)
(Side note: In our first issue, we featured an essay on the Filipino movie Birdshot!)