Directed by John Ford, Updated

DATELINE:  America’s Master Director

Johns Wayne & Ford

Johns Wayne & Ford

A documentary on the career of American film master John Ford really came about shortly before he died in 1971. A few years ago, Turner Classic Movies produced an update with newer interviews to go along with the original insights into Hollywood contrarian Ford.

This is one of those documentaries that will send you scurrying to watch the classics of the past: Directed by John Ford.

The result is to bring back Peter Bogdanovich decades later, with other modern masters like Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorcese, and Steven Spielberg, noting the importance of Ford to history.

The original narrator was Orson Welles—and his voiceovers continue with some amusing anecdotes added by Bogdanovich.

The heart of the film is always the clips of an endless 140-movie filmography of sheer brilliance, legendarily American.

We could fill the page with notable titles to remind you of what you have missed or should see again. If John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda, are not enough, you might also ask Maureen O’Hara, another staple of his movie stock company of actors.

Use of musical motifs transcend his films whether set in Ireland or the Old West. His panoramas and vistas show invariably minor characters against the progression of history. And, Ford covered it all: from Revolutionary War, Old West, to World War II, as settings.

His films have composition that give peace and still-life of painting with deep emotional wallops. Color movies only gave his canvas more depth, but black and white looks documentarian.

Spielberg, among others, give more than cursory interviews. You have here insights into what challenge there was working with a genius of the first order: the belligerent, irascible curmudgeon who was John Ford.

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Russian Agents in The Serpent

DATELINE: Cold War Star Vehicle Still Resonates

the serpent

If deals with the Russians worries you, we found the perfect movie: The Serpent, a movie from the height of the Cold War that you may have missed. We are not sure it even played in American theatres.

We remain stunned by the stellar cast:  Henry Fonda, playing the head of the CIA, a version of Allen Dulles; his counterpart from England, in the person of Dirk Bogarde, and Farley Granger as Fonda’s aide-de-camp. Also around is 1940s star Robert Alda (yes, Alan’s father) as an interrogator of Russian defector Yul Brynner. Virna Lisi is around as  femme fatale. This concoction was directed by French master Henri Verneuil.

This is wishful John LeCarre, pulled from the bottom drawer of your spy genre. Yet, it is compelling to see the stars walking through the CIA headquarters in the age before computers.

We loved the scene of Brynner wired up for a lie detector test. He has more cables on him than an Xfinity technician, including a facial harness that Mr. Ed once wore.

We are shown the hard-working CIA agents at Langley—and it is hard work because they have to read stacks of newspapers and listen to radio broadcasts. There are computers in the CIA, but forget unobtrusiveness. These computers pre-date Marshall McLuhan. Not one is smaller than a two-story house.

Brynner plays one of the Kremlin bigwigs thrown out of power by Brezhnev in the mid-1960s—and he has plenty to tell the Americans, if they deign to trust him.

The Russians were pulling the wool over the eyes of Americans when Trump was a young entrepreneur without a thought of collusion.

By lending their considerable presence to the shenanigans, you have something more than a low-budget spy drama. We hesitate to call it a thriller. It could more rightly be labelled a sleeper. We certainly enjoyed it.

Once Upon a Time: The West Reconsidered

DATELINE:  NOT Young Abe Lincoln!

not-young-abe-lincoln

When last we watched Sergio Leone’s grand epic, Richard Nixon was president.

It’s time for an updated opinion. Oh, yes, this Western is still longer than the Nixon Administration and more opera bouffe than operatic; however, we now admit this is a masterpiece of filmmaking.

Once Upon a Time in the West was Leone’s attempt to escape the spaghetti and meatballs and go directly to the steak and potatoes of American Westerns. He succeeded with a Dead Man’s Hand of storytelling.

From the magnificent faces of stars like Woody Strode and Jack Elam, to the star power of character actors Keenan Wynn and Lionel Stander, Leone avoided the dubbed spaghetti mess of the ripoff westerns made in Europe in his name.

His film gives stars Henry Fonda (as a sociopathic killer as bad guy) and Charles Bronson (as sociopathic killer as good guy) some startling moments on screen. What a joy to find these actors together in a movie that gives them free reins.

We now forgive Claudia Cardinale as she seems rather good as a New Orleans madam come West for the money. We also liked Jason Robards in the Eli Wallach role.

Leone could have made this with Clint and Lee, as a fourth in his Eastwood series, but the casting here is inspired—matching the staggering scenes of desert, grit, and horse opera. Editing and music mesh perfectly.

Those stunning blue eyes of Henry Fonda become weapons—and his transformation into his younger self in a climax flashback (30 years earlier) is a sight to behold.

Everything is exaggerated and hilarious, but not quite a disrespectful spoofing of his own spaghetti westerns. Homage is a delicate exercise, and master filmmaker Leone succeeds here.

 

 

From Dust to Ash Wednesday

DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP

ash wednesday

 

Back in 1973 Elizabeth Taylor did a movie directed by Larry Peerce that Richard Burton hated and told her not to do. She did not listen, and they were divorced (again) shortly thereafter.

The movie was Ash Wednesday about a fat, aging rich matron (Taylor) who undergoes plastic surgery and emerges as thin, beautiful, stunning Elizabeth Taylor, up to her shoulders in mink, jewels, and a bon vivant lifestyle.

For starters the movie begins with a montage of Taylor and her husband Henry Fonda in youth (early photoshopping of the two stars) as lovers, friends, and then married. The photos slowly reveal Fonda growing older and then Taylor growing fatter.

We have to give Miss Taylor credit for poking fun at her own image. All this suffering happens to a gorgeous, sensitive and delightful film score by Maurice Jarre.

Taylor is also done up in early scenes with plenty of wrinkles and weight. She looks like she was doing a reprise of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The movie used actual scenes of plastic surgery, which put people off their popcorn back then. It is still mildly gross to see, and then Elizabeth is wrapped up like Claude Rains in the Invisible Man.

However, the transformation is stunning—and delightful. She expects to reveal herself to her old hubby Fonda as the beautiful girl he married. Therein lies the tale.

A year later Fonda actually did undergo surgery and took 25 years off his face. He then did Once Upon a Time in the West and played himself as a 25-year old villain in flashback scenes.

Who says movies don’t reflect real life?

This is a gem, but only available on VHS. Why? It deserves a wide audience on streaming video. We hooted audibly several times.