Godard once said that every tracking shot is a moral statement. 
This is true and worthy of much meditation.  Another way of
putting it might be “where a director moves his camera, there will his
heart be also”.

It occurs to me that the pacing of a film and the length of its shots
also involve moral choices.  There are vast areas of human
experience which cannot be addressed with the kind of fast-paced MTV
editing that many films today employ, and moral choices come into play
when excluding these areas from popular culture.

These thoughts are prompted by a recent re-viewing of How Green Was My Valley,
one of the greatest works of American cinema.  The film is not
really slow-paced — it's full of incident and movement — but it's
episodic and it pauses often to record the precise and deliberate way
certain incidents unfold.  It's the story of a particular family and a
particular community but it's also a poem about family and community as
phenomena.  It concerns itself, as Ford's films often do, with
process — in this case the process by which family and community are
constructed, the practical ways they function.

This involves showing the ways that mundane activities are ritualized,
so that everyone's role in them is clear.  It involves showing the
ways that mutual consideration is shown — which might include a rude
jest or keeping one's peace, joviality or silence, singing and dancing
boisterously or slowing down the pace of a social interaction to
accentuate its gravity.

Modern films — which people in Hollywood are fond of referring to as “rides” — can feature families but they cannot be about
family in the way that Ford's films were about family.  Families
can certainly go on rides, but family life is not constructed like a
ride.  Family life is what happens between rides — and so is the
real story of How Green Was My Valley.

The family in the film, like all families eventually, comes apart —
through kids leaving home, disagreements between the generations,
external social pressures and death.  The film's narrative is
almost a litany of
ordinary tragedies.  But these are not the things that sum up the
film in your mind after you've seen it.  It is not a tragedy, nor
a soap-opera ride.  It's a movie about the creation of a miracle,
a work of art — a family.  It's about the deathless essence of
family — the highest achievement of human civilization.

In Hollywood today, moral choices masquerading as aesthetic, stylistic
preferences virtually insure that this subject can never be presented
on the screen — though I would guess that there's hardly any subject modern audiences are hungrier for or more in need of.


1941 John Ford, as a contract director at 20th-Century Fox,
made two films for the studio.  One was the sublime How Green Was My Valley.  The other, made right before Valley, was a bewildering misfire — Tobacco Road.

You just have to throw your hands up at Tobacco Road
It's clear why the studio would be interested in the property — based
on a novel by Erskine Caldwell but derived more directly from a
theatrical adaptation which at the time held the record for the
longest-running Broadway play of all time.  The movie pokes
merciless fun at the same class of sharecroppers who were treated as
almost saintly characters in The Grapes Of Wrath, made only a year before. 
The film's humor is extremely broad but rarely funny.  Ford
lets his actors mug and jerk around like puppets — they might as well
be shouting “look at me, laugh at me!”  It's only the occasional
throwaway gags that actually elicit chuckles.  At the end of the hi-jinx Ford tries to summon up some pity for his
rustic clowns, but they aren't real enough to pity.

The film is
beautifully shot and its perversity is impressive if not exactly
entertaining.  (Some might find the whole thing worthwhile just
for the chance to watch a scantily-clad Gene Tierney slithering
lustfully through the dirt like a sex-crazed slug — surely the strangest thing she was ever
asked to do in Hollywood.)  It almost seems as if Ford was
indulging his worst
instincts — to get them out of his system before tackling How Green Was My Valley
Apparently it worked — in the latter film he hardly makes a single
wrong move, and takes the poetic possibilities of filmmaking about as
far as anyone ever has.

If he did indeed need to root around for a bit on Tobacco Road to create the miracle of How Green Was My Valley you'd have to say that, on balance, it was a road well-taken, though not much fun to revisit today.


In the present age of extreme political and cultural polarization, it can
be hard to read John Ford.  He worked in an era when it was
possible to revere military culture with an almost religious fervor and
hate political war-mongering at the same time, when it was possible to
traffic in racial and ethnic stereotypes and subvert them at the same
time, when it was possible to worship the family and family values and
see the oppressive role of families at the same time, when it was
possible to be at once a social conservative and a political
progressive, a deeply religious artist and a man with a profound
suspicion of organized religion.

In our own either/or age, Ford’s complexities can be confusing, with
what seem to be conflicting cultural signals.  This is due partly
to Ford’s rhetorical strategies, in which the obvious pieties of his
stories could be completely undercut by their emotional undercurrents
— and it’s due partly to Ford’s comprehensive sympathies, essential for a great dramatist, which wouldn’t allow him to judge anyone based on an ideological position or
professed beliefs.

Many people are distressed by the presence of Stepin Fetchit (above) in several
of Ford’s films.  Fetchit specialized in impersonating what was on one level a most objectionable stereotype of the slow-moving, slow-witted African American.  But
he was usually, in Ford’s films, far wiser and cannier than his image
suggested, in itself an interesting comment on the stereotype, with its
inescapable implication that it might be no more than a mask.
(Fetchit was also a brilliant physical comedian and Ford showcased his
art with great care — which has to count for something.)

Even more remarkable, in a film like Judge Priest (above), starring Will Rogers in the title role, is the way the Rogers character subverts the stereotype — by treating Fetchit as a
peer, with total respect.  You search in vain in Rogers’ performance for
the slightest hint of paternalism or condescension — it’s simply not
there.  Since Fetchit-like characters were used in large part to justify
paternalism and condescension, Ford is subverting the phenomenon at its

The same phenomenon is at work in another scene from Judge Priest
when Hattie McDaniel (above), a “mammy” stereotype, starts singing a silly
song about the judge to a Gospel-sounding tune. The judge chimes in
with heartfelt responses of “Oh, Lord!  Oh, Lord!”, in full,
joyful voice, again without a trace of irony.  He likes the way he
and she sound singing together — he treats her “quaint” musical idiom
as a serious medium of communication, and also as a medium they share
and rejoice in equally.

For the judge, the character we most identify with, to see through the
most extreme stereotype to a real person behind the facade, is radical.
It’s like the way Priscilla sees past the racial stereotypes and
imperialist assumptions in Wee Willie Winkie, the remarkable collaboration between Ford and Shirley Temple.

In a superficial reading of that film one might see it as a celebration of the
British Empire and its mission — unless one remembered that Ford was an
Irishman, with a built-in grudge against the British Empire.  When Khan
laughs hysterically at the idea that Queen Victoria wants to help his
people, he’s probably expressing Ford’s truest feelings on the subject.

Ford was both a subtle artist a wily old son-of-a-bitch — taking anything he does too much
at face value is always dangerous.  It risks missing the deepest meanings of his films.


The World Moves On, starring Madeleine Carroll and Franchot Tone (above),
is a fairly undistinguished and only mildly entertaining John Ford film
from 1934.  One might be tempted to see it as an assignment in
which he had no great personal interest, except for the fact that its
themes are ones that preoccupied him all his life — family, war and

The film is an epic family saga that begins in 1825 with the setting
up, in New Orleans, of an international textile combine.  After
this lengthy prologue the film concentrates on the first third of the
20th Century — showing how war and greed destroy not only the combine
but the family that runs it and, by not so subtle implication, the
fabric of civilization itself.  There are chilling and prophetic
hints of the war to come — with documentary images of Hitler reviewing
marching Nazis, of Imperial Japanese and Russian and French troops on
parade, of British ships and American warplanes on maneuvers.

The coming apocalypse — which in 1934 could conceivably have been
averted — is presented, like the previous apocalypse of the Great War,
as the direct consequence of rejecting Christian values.  At the
end of the film, when the lead couple visit their crumbling home in New
Orleans, the ruined patriarch says, “There's nothing left.”  His wife
answers that there is something left — and points to a crucifix hanging on the wall.

Ford was rarely so explicit in his references to religion, because he
didn't need to be.  They were built into the narratives of his
films, as they were built into the parables of Jesus (before he
explained them in private to his disciples, at which point they lost most of their
power.)  Here the religious references seem imposed from outside
the narrative — one
of the few cases in which we catch Ford preaching.  Ford wasn't at
his best in a pulpit — like Jesus, he did his best work out of
doors, in taverns and in the homes of ordinary people.

The most moving sequence of the film shows a series of
soldiers walking through a town towards the train that will take them
to the front.  We see the film's young lovers but also nameless
characters — a stiff-upper-lip officer walking with his son, tenderly holding the little boy's
hand, a soldier walking with his mother, who babbles advice as a way of
not falling apart.  In these small vignettes we feel the truth of
war, feel its threat to decency and humane life, far more deeply than in
the noble pronouncements of the characters who expound Ford's
sentiments directly.


[With plot spoilers — don't read what follows unless you've seen the film . . .]

a John Ford film from 1933, is unapologetic melodrama — it makes a
shameless appeal to the emotions.  A modern sensibility, schooled
in a cynical age, tends to resist this sort of appeal and I did, too,
the first two times I saw the film, and it worked — up to a point.  Beyond that point I found myself crying
like a baby.  I'm still not entirely sure how Ford got around my
defenses (twice!)  but I'm
forced to admit that he deployed the complex and mysterious resources
of melodrama with devastating effectiveness.

One of the key resources of melodrama, especially cinematic melodrama,
is indirection — while the conscious mind is busy resisting the
obvious assault on the heartstrings, the filmmaker finds an unexpected
avenue around the conscious mind, and the emotion catches you unawares
by some other route than the one you were defending.

Pilgrimage tells the story of
a possessive mother who ships her son off to WWI rather than lose him
to the young woman he plans to marry — and the kid dies “over
there”.  The fiancée is pregnant with the boy's child, whom the
grandmother refuses to recognize.  Something has to give — but
where, and how?

The first radical shift in the tone of the film is visual rather than
(explicitly) emotional.  The embittered old woman is offered a
trip to France to visit her son's grave and is shamed by her neighbors
into going.  We cut to the station where she's boarding her
train, and the cut is a shock — because the station is an exterior
location, shot in sunlight . . . the first such shot in the film. 
Everything else, even the rural exteriors, has been shot on a sound
stage, with moody, often expressionistic lighting.  (There is a
single shot prior to this, of a moving train at night, which couldn't
have been shot on a sound stage but might as well have been — all we
see is the train surrounded by darkness.)

From this point on in the film, Ford shoots on real exterior locations or sets built out-of-doors
as often as he can.  Real sunlight becomes a player in the
tale.  You don't need to notice this consciously for it to have
its effect.  It's disarming.  It prepares us for deeper
changes.  At the station, the mother of her son's child asks the
old woman to take a bouquet of flowers to the grave for her.  She
raises it up to the window of the train compartment where the old woman
is sitting, unseen by us.  Slowly the old woman's hand reaches out
and takes the bouquet, draws it in to the train.

We never see the old woman's face in this exchange — and we really
want to.  We want to know if she takes the flowers angrily or
tenderly, if she's softening or still hard as stone.  Ford
won't tell us.  The next time we see her, we look at her a bit
more closely — suspicious that Ford might be keeping something else
from us.  We might think we don't care about this old woman and
her damned intransigence — but the damned director better not try to
hold out on us like that again.  It's a master melodramatic stroke.

As we watch what happens to the old woman in France, surrounded by
other mothers who lost sons in the war, things develop in a conflicted
and complicated way.  The old woman finds a kind of companionship
she's never known in her life — and we suddenly realize the depth of
the loneliness that made her want to hang on to her son.  We'd
been looking at the pathology of it before, at its horrifying effects
on other people's lives — now we're blindsided by an awareness of the
unutterable isolation and sadness at the core of her being.  She
doesn't seem so much delighted as bewildered by her ability to get on
with others —
and that's what breaks our hearts

But as the old woman comes alive among her peers, she also grows more
distant from them, dealing with the fact that they mourn loving relationships
with loving sons while she wrecked her son's life, and sent him off to
die.  She faces up to her guilt with courage but it estranges her
from these woman in whose company she has blossomed as a human being
for perhaps the first time.

In Ford films, of course, with their strong Christian, Catholic
underpinnings, facing up to one's sins leads to redemption — often by
miraculous means.  In this case it's a young suicidal man the old
woman meets on the street and saves from himself — a surrogate son,
who gives her a second chance to be a good mother.  This doesn't
remove her burden, but it gives her the final measure of courage she
needs to visit her son's grave.

That visit is shot on an exterior set built inside a sound stage, lit
with a long tracking shot through the crosses in the graveyard. 
Stylistically, we're back where we started in the film — we have made
a kind of circle through the sunlight and come back to the shadows
again.  The old woman places the withered bouquet given to her by
her son's fiancée on the grave — then falls into the dirt and asks her
son's forgiveness.  She's saved — and somehow Ford has badgered,
enchanted and tricked us into following the mechanics of her salvation,
believing in them because we have felt them, in spite of
ourselves.  The Christian dynamic of confession, repentance and
redemption is rendered in convincing psychological terms.

In one sense, it's all done with mirrors, with clever deviations and
circumnavigations around the story's deep undertow — but the tears it
draws out of us, the tears it allows us, finally, to release, are quite real . . . and precious.


a 1966 interview John Ford was asked what happened when talkies
came to Hollywood.  “Nothing,” Ford said, “we just made them with

That might seem like typical Ford bluster but on the evidence of his first three sound features for Fox — Born Reckless, Up the River and Seas Beneath, all included on the new Ford At Fox DVD box set (and all
from 1930!) — it seems like a fair assessment of his own remarkably
assured transition into the sound era.  (Ford had made one sound
short and one silent feature, The Black Watch, which was released with interpolated talking sequences, before the three sound features from 1930.)

The first two of the three are admittedly clumsy programmers. 
Ford moves his camera occasionally in these films but they also have a
of scenes that feel stagebound, with proscenium
framing and little dynamic choreography within the shots.  Often
these scenes were staged and directed,
at Fox's insistence, by “dialogue experts” with stage experience.

The results could be truly dreadful — especially so for a film like Born Reckless,
which was meant to be a gritty underworld drama.  To hear actors
portraying hoods declaiming street slang in theatrical tones, with
slight pauses between lines to avoid overlaps, is laughable today, and
was probably laughable to a lot of people when the film first came
out.  Interestingly there is one scene in a bar, undoubtedly
directed by Ford himself in an experimental mood, which features fast
overlapping dialogue by a number of characters.  It's impossible
to make out much of what's said but the film suddenly feels modern for
a few moments.

Up the River, a whimsical
prison comedy, had better lead actors — Spencer Tracy and Humphrey
Bogart no less — and so feels a bit more naturalistic, but it's a
routine film, with Ford often straining too hard for his comic effects,
as he had a habit of doing throughout his career.  The inspired
visual touches are few and far between.  It doesn't help that Up the River
as presented in this set derives from a severely damaged print, with
missing frames (and thus dropped bits of the soundtrack) which make the
dialogue in several places impossible to follow.  Apparently this
print represents the best surviving material for the film.

Then suddenly we have Seas Beneath
The story material is potboiler stuff — recounting the adventures of
some plucky U. S. sailors in WWI venturing forth on a decoy ship to
hunt German submarines.  But visually the film is breathtaking,
with scenes shot at sea that have to be seen to be believed.  Even
the built sets, for the episode when the sailors go on shore leave in
the Canary Islands, have solidity and depth and often look out onto
exterior sets alive with action.

The delivery of dialogue is occasionally stilted, but you can see that
Ford was going for something resembling natural speech.  He's
greatly aided by George O'Brien (above) in the lead role, whose lack of stage
experience is a decided advantage to him here.

The film has some remarkable action sequences and many beautiful,
powerful images, reminiscent of silent-era filmmaking.  Ford
doesn't seem to be straining against any limitations imposed by the
microphone — he seems perfectly at home in what amounted to a new
medium.  The visual bravura lifts the film above its pedestrian
story and script, as it so often did in the silent era.  One can
easily imagine it as a silent film.  Ford just made it with sound.


very young kids hear the Christmas story for the first time, and you
then ask them what they remember most about it, they will invariably
say, “There was no room at the inn.”  That looms larger than the
cute animals, the happy shepherds, the magical gifts.  Kids know
what the story is really about, where it really begins — in rejection,
exclusion, humiliation.  These are subjects that preoccupy very
young kids.  Growing up, we tend to find ways of managing these
preoccupations, but they never leave us.

Christmas is not just about the hope renewed by the birth of a child —
it's about the ways hope is lost.  If sorrow and despair don't
figure into your understanding of Christmas, the story of it won't add
up to much.  Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the happiest Christmas story in post-Biblical literature precisely because it is
the saddest Christmas story in post-Biblical literature, may be the best proof of that.

Here's an incredibly powerful holiday tale from the Flickhead blog — a most appropriate meditation for the season.


O. k., Norman Rockwell did sometimes push the cuteness factor a bit too
hard, especially in his advertising work.  (The image above is
from a magazine ad — the family is excited because dad is bringing
home a new Plymouth for Christmas.)  The expression on the face of
the boy on the right is just a bit too orgasmic for the occasion. 
The expression on the face of the dog makes up for this to a degree — I get
a feeling he's looking forward to urinating on the Plymouth's new
tires.  The self-absorption of the birds also makes for a nice
counterpoint to the ecstasy induced by conspicuous material consumption.

Yet for all that the image moves me.  It sums up exactly how I felt in the Christmases of my youth, which is pretty much exactly
how I still feel at Christmas — surprising considering how many
such seasons I have under my belt.  Sometimes art isn't meant to
make us rethink how we feel about things — sometimes it's meant to
remind us how we feel about things.

Remove the Plymouth from the equation — imagine it's just dad, a
salesman perhaps, back from a long road trip in time for the
holidays.  That works, too.


Contraband is a Powell-Pressburger film from 1940 recently released in a film noir DVD box set by Kino.  It's not by any sensible definition a film noir
— it's a suspense thriller in the Hitchcock mold, involving wartime
intrigue in the London of the blackout.  (Its U. S. title was Blackout.)

As imitations of Hitchcock go, this one is pretty good, as agents and
innocent folk caught up in the adventure chase each other through
improbable locations in the blacked-out city.  It displays a lot
of visual wit and cinematic whimsy, and has the usual Hitchcockian
drollery applied to dark and dangerous doings.  Indeed, it makes
us aware of how much Powell and Pressburger's work owes to Hitchcock,
especially in terms of attitude.

But it falls far short of Hitchcock in its cumulative effect, and it's
worth examining why.  Powell was a great enough director to
analyze and reproduce Hitchcock's tone, his witty use of locations, his
dreamlike progression of narrative incidents.  But what he doesn't
do, doesn't seem to realize that he needs to do, is find ways of
implicating the audience in the moral and physical jeopardy of the

Valerie Hobson and Conrad Veidt, as the leads, are introduced as
interesting and eccentric characters.  We might well be curious
about what's going to happen to them, and between them romantically,
but we don't see, we don't feel any of it from their perspective.  The
protagonists are introduced through he eyes of subsidiary characters
— a build-up that makes them seem fascinating but distant from us.

This is an acceptable strategy for a standard star vehicle, a romance
or a drama — it doesn't work for a Hitchcockian thriller, in which the
plot incidents are all a bit silly when viewed literally. 
Unless we feel responsible for the characters' predicament, identify
intimately with the mistakes and confusion that have led them into it,
the film itself starts to seem silly.

In Notorious, for example,
Grant and Bergman are morally implicated in Bergman's jeopardy — he by
the “duty” which impels him to put her into it, she by the self-hatred which allows
her to be used in that way.  The literal jeopardy she finds
herself in thus becomes an objective correlative to an inner turmoil,
an inner conflict — which we experience as well, because we want their
patriotic enterprise to succeed even as we want their romance to
survive it.  We are emotionally and morally implicated in the
resulting tension.

No such inner identification is ever established in Contraband
Veidt's character is an innocent caught up in a dangerous situation,
but Hobson's character is only indirectly responsible for this. 
Veidt and Hobson are both behaving admirably out of pure motives —
their jeopardy is
merely circumstantial, with no moral ambiguity.

The result is that we watch the intricate elaboration of the intrigue
as interested spectators not involved on any deeper level.  We
root for the good guys, know they are going to win in the end and feel
only the slightest trace of satisfaction when they do.  At the end
of Notorious we feel redeemed.  At the end of Contraband we feel, at best, diverted and amused.

[This post is a contribution to the Powell and Pressburger Blog-aThon hosted by Beyond the Valley of the Cinephiles.]


I discovered the work of Amy Crehore, via Boing Boing, I was particularly
struck by the image above, titled Black Comedy, and reproduced it at the head of my first
about the artist.  This holiday season someone gave me an
original limited-edition print of the image, which is not just striking
but ravishing, far beyond anything an Internet reproduction could

The odd tone of the scene is intensified in the print — a dreamy, erotic
playfulness that has something to do with the theatricality of sex, or
the sexiness of theater, but floats mysteriously above any precise

Anyone looking for a special gift this Christmas could do worse than peruse the prints available at Crehore's web site.

The peek-a-boob joke in the painting puts me in mind of something that
happened to me recently here in Las Vegas.  I'd just had a drink
at the Mirage with my friend the architect Deane Evans, in town for a
conference, and went out to pick up my car at the valet stand. 
There were two guys in cowboy hats (the rodeo is also in town) and two
girls at the stand waiting for their truck.  As I came up to them
one girl, very tall, very attractive and very drunk, turned to me and
opened the front of her blouse, flashing her very impressive
breasts.  Then she broke up laughing.  I didn't know how to
respond to this cheerful greeting and just said, with what was probably
a goofy smile, “Thank you.”

The greeting wasn't personal — the young lady was flashing her boobs
and laughing delightedly at any guy who came near her, including the attendant who delivered her
ride.  They all responded with goofy smiles.

I now realize, given the season we're in, that I should have said, “Merry Christmas to you, too.”


started this web log just over a year ago and this is my 366th post —
very close to the post-a-day goal I set for myself.  Readership
has grown steadily over that year — I've twice had to buy more
bandwidth to accommodate the traffic — but seems to have leveled off
in recent months, which strikes me as good occasion to switch to a more
leisurely pace, especially since the press of other work is growing
heavier as the new year approaches.  I've set a new goal of at
least one post a week, with
occasional extras as the mood strikes.  The archives remain available 24/7, of course.

Thanks to all who've visited, left comments or e-mailed me — the whole thing has been great fun!

[Photo © 2007 Jae Song]


Hangman's House is the last, and least, of the five silent films included in the new Ford At Fox box set.  It's not a bad film, exactly, just sort of respectably mediocre.

Ford here abandons his effort to out-Murnau Murnau.  He moves his
camera very little, and only once or twice with any real effect or
beauty.  Generally he returns to his more characteristic style of
fixed camera positions looking into deep spaces with lots of
choreographed movement within them.  There is some moody lighting
here and there, and some fog effects on studio “exterior” sets,
reminiscent of those in Sunrise — but the film rarely comes alive visually.

You get a feeling that Ford simply wasn't all that inspired by this
somewhat creaky melodrama — entertaining enough, but just
Viewers who only know Victor McLaglen's work as a comic Irish drunk in later Ford films will be surprised by his easy, restrained performance here.  It makes you wish he were the
romantic lead in the film, instead of the limp Larry Kent.  And there's one
really powerful camera move — in on the villain as he appears suddenly
in an apparently deserted house.  It's spooky and unsettling — like the push-in on Ethan's face in The Searchers as he registers the horror of the condition of the female captives
just  freed from the Indians.  It's markedly different from the longer, Murnau-esque camera moves in Four Sons, which are typically about exploring locations or expressing high spirits.

In his book on Ford, Andrew Sarris said that if Ford's career had ended
with the coming of sound, he wouldn't be recognized as a major
director.  Even Joseph McBride, in his notes for this new set,
says that Pilgrimage, a talkie from 1933, is Ford's first great film.  Having seen just the five silent films in this set, along with Kentucky Pride a few years ago, I must say I find these judgements puzzling.  3 Bad Men and Four Sons are hardly lesser works than Pilgrimage, The Iron Horse is a masterful film with elements of greatness, and Four Sons is one of the finest achievements of the silent cinema.

Ford would go on to make finer films, but he was “major” well before the coming of sound, at least in my book.


is the feast day of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the Mother of God, who
in 1531, not long after the Spanish Conquest, appeared to Juan Diego,
an Indian convert to Christianity, on a hill outside what is now Mexico
City.  To the amazement of Juan Diego, and to generations of
Mexicans since, she appeared in the form of a young Aztec girl.

Since that appearance, she has become both patron saint and national
symbol of Mexico, the embodiment of its own peculiar form of
Christianity.  She endured through all the anti-clerical episodes
of Mexican history and her image is omnipresent in the country today —
an abiding solace and guide.

This Christmas season might be a good time to think of her children who
are living in the United States without proper documentation, in
constant fear of the law, scorned and reviled by many but working hard, supporting their families
here and back in Mexico and contributing untold millions to our economy.

These are, for the most part, good and gracious people, industrious and
committed to sacrifice almost anything for their children's
future.  We are lucky to have them among us.  Their children are our children.

Feliz navidad, compadres!


Four Sons,
from 1928, is one of the greatest works of German expressionist cinema
— even though it was made by the Irish-American John Ford in
Hollywood, U. S. A.  Ford doesn't just seem to be working under
the influence of Murnau here — he seems to be channeling Murnau. 
If the film had somehow been misattributed to Murnau, it would be very
difficult to correct the mistake by means of a stylistic
analysis.  Ford even, at one point, seems to be following in
Murnau's missteps — Four Sons, like The Last Laugh,
has an odd extended epilogue which violates the tone of the rest of the
film but somehow seems to work in spite of that, lightening the mood
in a strange, surreal way without diminishing the power of the work as a whole.

In Four Sons Ford moves his
camera as elegantly and expressively as any director ever has — and
the plastic invention involved is ravishing.  The lighting is
typical of Murnau, employing soft, glowing, complex chiaroscuro
effects as opposed to the stark contrast of light and shadow often
associated with expressionist cinema (and which Ford himself came
to favor in his later “expressionist” films, from The Informer to The Fugitive.)

Ford had two great masters in his formative years, first Griffith and
then Murnau.  What's astonishing is how totally he was able to
absorb each man's style — he didn't seem to be imitating it so much as
working within it naturally and unselfconsciously.  Maybe even
more astonishing is that Ford absorbed Murnau so quickly.  We know
how powerfully Sunrise
affected him — just from viewing the rushes he declared it the
greatest film ever made.  Less than a year later he was working
with full confidence and mastery in the Murnau style — and even shot
parts of Four Sons on sets from Sunrise that were still standing.

Apart from its lack of a strong female lead, Ford's Just Pals
could have been directed by Griffith and would rank among Griffith's more
enjoyable minor films.  The epic visual poetry of Ford's The Iron Horse bears favorable comparison with the epic visual poetry of The Birth Of A Nation — which is saying a lot.  If Four Sons had been directed by Murnau, it would rank among the German director's most important works — and that may be saying even more.