15/09/2010

Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)


Alfred Hitchock's daughter Patricia always insisted that Shadow Of A Doubt was her father's favourite amongst his own films but the man himself denied this in conversation with François Truffaut, telling the Frenchman that it was merely the film he found easiest to defend with pedantic critics, “our friends, the plausibles and logicians.” Whatever the truth, it's certainly one of my favourite Hitchcock's (right up there with Notorious, 1946, and Strangers On A Train, 1951) and unquestionably a masterpiece. 17 years before Psycho, Hitch made a serial killer his protagonist and over four decades before David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), he ghosted in behind the manicured lawns of leafy suburbia to subject a “typical, representative” all-American family to a cruel experiment in evil.

Shadow Of A Doubt opens in derelict wasteland beneath the Pulaski Skyway in Newark, New Jersey, where bums stare out across the water at nothing and skeletons of old cars dot the landscape. Next we cut to a quiet neighbourhood street where the local kids are playing baseball. Joseph Valentine's camera wanders over to a front door and then up, up to the upstairs window of what turns out to be a rooming house, cloaked in shade. Inside Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) lies on his bed fully dressed, listening to the noise below and toying with a cigar. Handfuls of scrunched-up bank notes are scattered across the bedside table and rug. This guy is bad medicine. Charlie's landlady Mrs Martin (Constance Purdy) enters and tells him that two men have been looking for him. He fobs her off, waits for her to leave and then tosses a drinking glass angrily against the basin. Striding out into the street, Charlie walks right passed his two pursuers and proceeds up the pavement without batting an eye. They follow Charlie but he manages to escape into the industrial zone. After this temporary reprieve, the fugitive sends a wire to sunny Santa Rosa, California - the sort of place where even the traffic cops go to work with a smile on their faces - to inform his beloved elder sister Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge) that he's coming to stay. This is joyous news to Emma and her daughter Charlotte, also known as “Charlie” (Teresa Wright), who can't wait to be reunited with their favourite relative. But they're about to find out, just as we have, that there's a great deal more to the handsome, urbane “Uncle Charlie” than meets the eye. Arriving by train, the old devil comes to town in a thick plume of smoke and everyone is delighted - aside from the precocious Ann (Edna May Wonacott) who would rather be reading and bank clerk patriarch Joe (Henry Travers) who is more interested in speculating about the best way to kill a man with his ghoulish neighbour Herb (Hume Cronyn). After the initial greetings, Charlie's act soon begins to unravel, prone as he is to making misanthropic outbursts (some of them conveying Hitch's own dark attitudes towards “horrible, faded, fat, greedy women”). He makes a major mistake in presenting Young Charlie with a second-hand emerald ring engraved inside with a dead woman's initials, something she is instinctively suspicious of and which prompts her to launch an investigation of her own.


In Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock made the spiral a recurring visual motif. Here it's sharp straight lines - horizontal, vertical and diagonal - that he obsesses over. In Charlie's room at the boarding house, shadows are cast by the window blinds so that they criss-cross his body like prison bars. He wears a pinstripe suit that begins to take on the look of a convict's duds. When he outruns the cops, hiding on a rooftop, the road below noticeably dissects the land at an angle. Then in Santa Rosa it's the white picket fences, telegraph wires, train tracks, wooden floors, stairs and bannisters that cut up and layer the screen. Uncle Charlie's hated world is one of oppressive grids. He feels stifled and bored by conformity, convention and bourgeois concerns and is hungry for transgression ("The whole world's a joke to me"). He wants to break out beyond these suffocating lines and out-pace his past but somehow they just keep on pinning him back. Even when he does get lucky and the cops chase the wrong man into an aeroplane propellor on a runway in Maine, Charlie finds himself hitting the tracks soon after, his own waltz with death finally ceased.

The two Charlies are almost twins – both introduced lying contemplatively on beds, she believing telepathy has brought him to Santa Rosa to relieve her teenage ennui - so it's ironic that it turns out to be Young Charlie who has to bring her namesake down. The experience provides her with a hard lesson and she is less innocent and all the more worldly for her run-in with the Merry Widow Murderer (the camera panning back like a gasp when she discovers the truth from a news clipping in the library is marvellous). Her romance with Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), one of the detectives on the case, provides her with the consolation that at least one other person knew the real Charles Oakley, the man who tried to execute her, after he has so undeservedly been buried a saint by the townsfolk. Otherwise she wouldn't have been able to share the burden with another living soul for the sake of her poor mother.


The story for Shadow Of A Doubt came from the real-life case of serial strangler Earle Leonard Nelson, who, like Uncle Charlie, was known to have suffered a childhood accident in which he crashed his bicycle into a streetcar, after which he began to behave extremely erratically and went on to kill at least 20 women during the mid-twenties. Gordon McDonell, a novelist married to the head of David O. Selznick's story department, thought Nelson's case would make a good subject for a film and met Hitchcock for lunch at the Brown Derby one day to discuss the idea. The director saw great potential in it and hired playwrights Thornton Wilder (Our Town, 1938) and Sally Benson (Junior Miss, 1941) to work on the screenplay, with later revisions made by his own wife Alma. Wilder was eventually called up for military service and Hitch had to accompany him on the train all the way to a training base in Florida just to get his chubby digits on the last few pages of script. Hitch originally wanted to cast William Powell in the lead but MGM refused to loan him out. However, Powell did get to play the part on Cecil B. DeMille's Lux Radio Theater in January 1944, as did Cary Grant in 1950 for the Screen Directors Playhouse. The magnificent Joe Cotten reprised his Uncle Charlie for the Screen Guild Theater in 1943 and 1948.

10/09/2010

My Little Chickadee (1940)


W.C. Fields has a crack at the Old West. In more ways than one.

When Flower Belle Lee (Mae West) is exiled in disgrace from the town of Little Bend for fraternising with the infamous Masked Bandit, she takes a train to Greasewood City on which she meets a sauntering conniver named Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields), whom she marries on the spot with the help of a crooked gambler posing as a reverend (Donald Meek from Stagecoach, 1939) after spying his carpet bag filled with bank notes. However, Flower Belle soon learns that the greenbacks in question are mere facsimiles, vouchers for bottles of Twillie's “Famous Lizard Oil Hair Tonic and Corn Cure” and that her ersatz husband is really a small-time huckster and purveyor of “Novelties and Notions.” Prowling the gambling tables of the town's Last Gasp saloon, Twillie is soon evicted for cheating. However, when local bigwig Jeff Badger (Joseph Calleia) gets a look at his voluptuous lady wife, he hurriedly appoints him sheriff – a job with an unusually high mortality rate in Greasewood.


West and Fields, who had had adjacent dressing rooms at Paramount during the glory days of the early thirties, were finally teamed up at Universal in 1940 when both were arguably somewhat past their prime. Nevertheless, the duo, previously considered incompatible comedically, collaborated on a screenplay with West claiming to have written the bulk of it, leaving gaps for Fields to fill in his own comic bits, something he is said to have worked out on the back of a torn envelope (as he did with The Bank Dick, 1940). Producer Lester Cowan, who had overseen Fields' last team-up, with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy in the circus-set You Can't Cheat An Honest Man (1939), was brought in to supervise while the director was Edward F. Cline, another (uncredited) veteran of that film and a former Keystone man who claimed to have invented the Bathing Beauty. Fields had worked with Cline twice previously and would do so twice more but there was still some animosity between them, according to Fields' biographer Robert Lewis Taylor, who claimed the comedian was unable to resist mocking a director whom he regarded as ludicrously old fashioned and out-of-step. Fields would apparently treat “every suggestion [Cline] made as a pure distillate of obsolescent corn”, capering around the set, billowing an invisible cape and raising his eyebrows in overblown theatrical fashion to satirise him. Fields would also prove a nuisance to Mae West, who soon grew tired of his incessant, Martini-induced attempts to woo her off-camera: “Bill's a good guy but it's a shame he has to be so god-damned cute”.

Upon the finished film's release, Newsweek worried that the two stars were “diametrically opposed” because West dealt primarily in innuendo and deft wordplay while Fields regarded a script as “a necessary evil, to be ignored at the spur of any moment in favour of the hair-trigger ad-libbing that is the essence of his humour”. Although the periodical conceded that the predicted “war of temperaments” never materialised, it ultimately concluded that My Little Chickadee “isn't the comedy riot it promised to be”, a fair assessment that still rings true today. It is a highly flawed outing rather in the spirit of Laurel and Hardy's Way Out West (1937) but one that's impressively staged and shot and there are plenty of nice moments. Mae's shoot-out with the Injuns for one, her mathematics lesson at the schoolhouse for another. Fields meanwhile goes to bed with a goat by accident, battles a feather boa with a fork and gets to make wildly inventive use of his preposterous vocabulary. In search of Flower Belle he asks for “yon damsel with the hothouse cognomen”. When she shuts him out of the bridal suite, he exclaims, “Egad! The child's afraid of me – she's all 'atwit!” Another fine example is the lengthy bar-room anecdote below about the time he knocked down Chicago Molly, “a tough paloma” who threw a “melange of hot lunch” in his face one day on New York's Lower East Side.


There are recurring Fieldsian themes evident in My Little Chickadee – not least his frustration with women – but the price of West's appearance is that it forces him to play the lecher, a demand that sits uneasily with his familiar blowhard persona (though he did repeat this bit of business in the following year's madcap Never Give A Sucker An Even Break, prowling around a mountaintop after Margaret Dumont's naive daughter). He's clearly much happier glugging “sheep dip” under the disapproving eye of town busybody Mrs Gideon (Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West) than trying to seduce Mae in an ill-fitting nightie. However, the fact that he keeps his sheriff's badge pinned on to this ridiculous garb is a neat summation of his attitude towards a position of authority he has obtained by fraud. As a Western, My Little Chickadee features lawless towns, gushing steam trains, a gun battle, an attempted hanging, racism towards Indians (Fields repeatedly referring to his stoical, blanket-wearing Man Friday as a “red rascal”) and a pioneering newspaperman (Dick Foran) determined to bring civilised values to Greasewood some years before Dutton Peabody picked up a pen in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). As for the ending, in which West and Fields part company by swapping catchphrases, it's as nicely judged and respectful a moment as you could wish to see.

08/09/2010

Fallen Angel (1945)


After Laura (1944), Otto Preminger returned with this underrated but less successful noir, again with Dana Andrews, cinematographer Joseph LaShelle and composer David Raksin on board. While all are on good form (check out LaShelle's use of Venetian blinds in the lighting of Andrews and Linda Darnell below), the end result is something of a poor man's Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).


Andrews plays Eric Stanton, an out-of-work press agent and world class bastard who is kicked off a bus in small-town Walton, California, with nothing but a lonely dollar and a handful of moths in his trouser pocket. There he meets Stella (Darnell), a bad news waitress at a beach-side diner called Pop's Eats, whom half the men in town appear to have a stake in. Stanton fancies a piece of the action himself and decides to stick around. Stella is the sort who steals from the cash register and is on the look-out for a man who can give her security, stability and a nice home, far away from the hamburger grill and coffee pots. Stanton can't offer that. Not yet. In order to rustle up the dough, this utterly shameless professional huckster hatches a plan to sweep wealthy, bookish local spinster June Mills (Alice Faye) off her feet, then hustle her into a shotgun marriage and ditch her in time to set up shop with Stella on the Mills nest egg. However, when the latter is suddenly murdered on Eric's wedding night, he finds himself the prime suspect and is forced to take his angelic new bride on the run. They hole up in a shabby hotel in Frisco and only then does Stanton realise where his loyalties and affections really ought to lie.

The repeated use of a Raksin song, 'Slowly' (seemingly the only record available on the jukebox at Pop's diner), is a fairly clear indication that Preminger was aspiring here to repeat Laura's formula for success – that film spawning the hugely popular 'Theme from Laura'. Sadly, although Fallen Angel shares its predecessor's focus on the sudden death of a desirable woman and a subsequent investigation into her many suitors, it lacks Laura's delicate characterisation – preferring much broader strokes. The juxtaposition of raunchy, smouldering Darnell with the wholesome musical actress and radio personality Alice Faye, for instance, is heavily hammered home. Nominal star Faye was so disgusted with the final cut – which Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck had meddled with to ensure Darnell was given a more prominent role – that she sped off the studio lot, tossed her dressing room key to a security guard and didn't return to the screen for another 16 years. Andrews though has plenty to get his teeth into. Eric Stanton is a marvelously unscrupulous cad, desperate and devious, just as happy pushing tickets for "Psychic Extraordinary" Professor Madley (John Carradine) and his spurious “spook act” as marrying a virginal church organist for her money. Stanton's eventual antagonist, meanwhile, grizzled ex-New York City cop Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), is a clear forerunner of Andrews' Mark Dixon in Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950), a sadist who dons kid gloves to beat a confession out of his suspects. Also worth mentioning are Percy Kilbride as the kindly Pop, in love with Darnell and always willing to think the best of her, even when all evidence points to the contrary, and Anne Revere as June's elder sister Clara, who sees through Stanton but can't bring herself to stand in the way of June's chance at happiness.


Fallen Angel is better than its reputation might suggest although the whodunnit ending is somehow not as satisfying as it might have been. Harry Kleiner's screenplay was derived from a novel of the same name by the mysterious Marty Holland, of whom little is known beyond the fact that "he" was a woman named Mary and that another of her books, The File On Thelma Jordon (1949), was turned into a film by Robert Siodmak in 1950 starring Barbara Stanwyck.

06/09/2010

Out Of The Past (1947)

“You're no good and neither am I. That's why we deserve each other.”
- Kathie Moffat

A stranger (Paul Valentine) pulls in at Jeff Bailey's gas station in sleepy Bridgeport, California. He asks Jimmy, the deaf-mute kid (Dickie Moore) on the forecourt, where the owner is. Jimmy plays dumb. The man crosses the street to Marny's Café, pulls up a stool and orders coffee with cream, listening to the hostess's gossipy chatter. He claims to be an old friend of Jeff's just passing through town but somehow we're not so sure. Returning to his car, he finds a wary Jeff (Robert Mitchum) returned from the river bank, lugging his rod and tackle box. “Hello Joe.”

So begins a journey that will take the secretive Jeff Bailey back into a past he thought he could leave behind, back into the clutches of the vicious racketeer he once betrayed who never forgets. On the long night drive up to Whit Sterling's (Kirk Douglas) mansion at Lake Tahoe, Jeff spills the beans to his wholesome, loving girlfriend Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) and we cut to a flashback. Before Bridgeport, Jeff was a low-rent private eye named Markham, not Bailey, who had been called in by Sterling to find Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), the moll who shot him and left him for dead minus $40,000. Jeff traced her to Acapulco, Mexico, where, one fine day, she walked into his life, straight out of a sunbeam. Instead of turning her over to Sterling, Jeff drinks bourbon with her at Pablo's, takes her for midnight walks along the beach and falls in love, the pair eventually escaping together back to San Francisco. All goes well until the lovers happen to run into Jeff's jilted ex-partner, “a stupid, oily gent” named Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), at a racetrack by chance. He tries to blackmail them. After a fist fight with Jeff, Kathie shoots Fisher and that's where they parted. Now Whit has the tax man investigating his past and he wants Jeff to undertake one final job to clear the outstanding debt. But are things really that straightforward? Kathie is back with Whit now, so the odds are against it.

Horror specialist Jacques Tourneur directed this archetypal noir for RKO from a novel by one “Geoffrey Homes” called Build My Gallows High (1946). The author's real name was Daniel Mainwaring and it's he who was responsible for the adaptation, with uncredited revisions made by Frank Fenton and pulp maestro James M. Cain. There's some truly great hard-boiled narration and dialogue on show (“Let's go down to the bar. You can cool off while we try and impress each other”) and the plot construction is amazingly intricate. You really have to pay attention here, especially during the San Francisco sequence in which Whit tries to entrap Jeff in the murder of two-bit accountant Leonard Eels (Ken Niles). On top of that you get Mitchum in a grubby trenchcoat at his laconic, fatalistic best, baby-faced Jane Greer as a .45-toting femme fatale to rival Brigid O'Shaughnessy (“You're like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another,” sneers Mitchum), a magnificently reptilian Kirk Douglas and a bevy of beautiful, long, hanging shadows from cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. There are also two memorable deaths to speak of: Joe reeled in off the top of a waterfall after finding himself snagged with Jimmy's hook, pulled crashing down to infinity on the rocks below, and Kathie's, taken out by a spray of machine-gun bullets as she returns fire from the passenger seat of a moving car with a dead man slumped behind the wheel. The end is also very moving, in which Ann is comforted by Jimmy's assurance that Jeff had intended to run away with Kathie after all, hoping to recreate those idyllic days in Acapulco – a half-truth that, without any further explanation of its extenuating circumstances, becomes a betrayal to set her free from mourning, from becoming ensnared by the past herself. Mitchum and Greer would be reunited for The Big Steal in 1949 but, trust me, it doesn't get much better than this.

03/09/2010

Gilda (1946)

“I hated her so I couldn't get her out of my mind for a minute.”
- Johnny Farrell

American drifter and gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is saved from a waterfront mugging in Buenos Aires by a mysterious German gentleman with a spring-loaded cane. The stranger turns out to be Ballin Mundsun (George Macready), owner of a local casino, who offers Johnny a job as his right hand man. The pair become inseparable until Ballin disappears on a trip and returns with a “surprise”, a new bride on his arm in the shape of walking powder keg Gilda (Rita Hayworth), who just so happens to be an old flame of Johnny's. What follows is one of the most twisted psycho-sexual melodramas ever put before the public as the trio become embroiled in a decidedly unhealthy and abusive ménage à trois, stuffed with sado-masochism, emotional torture and bitter jealousy from all angles. With sexual tension descending on the gambling hall like a thick ocean fog, it's a small wonder that anyone can make out the roulette wheels clearly enough to place their bets.

The phlegmatic Mundsun appears to take pleasure in Gilda's lies about where she goes at night and obvious dalliances with other men, savouring the heartache of being made a cuckold by this most destructive of femme fatales, a girl he has put on a pedestal and made a goddess for that very purpose. This icy masochist almost certainly relishes the thought of having Johnny, the virile surrogate he has appointed to be Gilda's guardian, take her “swimming,” having after all “bought” the pair of them for his personal amusement. Johnny is equally sexually ambiguous - clearly happiest in the days before Gilda's arrival when he first entered Ballin's world with an agreement that “women and gambling don't mix.” “You must lead a gay life,” he says to his employer early on, after Ballin refers to the concealed blade inside his phallic walking stick as his idea of a “friend,” an item Johnny is instinctively attracted to for the violence and decadence it promises and represents. He can be misogynistic (“Statistics show that there are more women in the world than anything else. Except insects”) and his hatred of Gilda soon becomes an all-consuming passion – sparked either by her past rejection of him, her barbed taunts now or her disruption of his comfortable partnership with Ballin. The feeling is mutual. “I hate you so much that I would destroy myself to take you down with me,” breathes Gilda. Ballin soon notices their animosity and observes, “Hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting... There is a heat in it, that one can feel.” He sympathises: “Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.” Gilda feels that warmth too, enjoying the intrigue and anger she creates all around her more than the material wealth and pretty decorations she has acquired in marrying Ballin for his money. Gilda knows and accepts that the men in her life treat her like an expensive object and exploits the appreciative roar of the crowd. But it's Johnny's burning, lustful hatred that really excites her and such dangerous games can't go on for ever.

Two of Gilda's minor characters prove the most acute observers of this most corrosive of love triangles. Uncle Pio (Steven Geray), the dryly philosophical washroom attendant with a “worm's-eye view” on proceedings, senses the deep loneliness behind Gilda's carnival mask and tells her: “You smoke too much. I notice only frustrated people smoke too much and only lonely people are frustrated.” Johnny Farrell also chain-smokes throughout the film. He too is in dire need of a hug and it's Uncle Pio who finally breaks up the trio for good when he stabs the vengeful, resurrected Ballin so that Johnny and Gilda can go straight. Joseph Calleia's ever-watchful Detective Obregon makes the pithiest summary of their tortuous relationship: “You two kids love each other pretty terribly, don't you? It's the most curious love-hate pattern I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing.” Amen brother. There never was a woman like Gilda.

Rita Hayworth never forgave producer Virginia Van Upp for forever dooming her to be typecast as Gilda, a fantasy role no mortal woman could ever hope to live up to. “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda and woke up with me,” she famously lamented. However, Gilda ensured her place among the true gods of the screen and proved a box office smash with returning servicemen who longed to see more of the pin-up girl that got them through the war. Hayworth didn't disappoint, tossing her hair and vamping it up with the best of them. “Decent? Me?” The script was written by Jo Eisinger and Marion Parsonnet from an original story by E.A. Ellington with contributions from an uncredited Ben Hecht.

02/09/2010

Arsenic & Old Lace (1944)


Halloween night, Brooklyn. Newly-married drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) dashes home to tell his beloved maiden aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) the good news before zipping off to Niagara Falls on his honeymoon with bride Elaine (Priscilla Lane), daughter to the stuffy reverend next door. However, when Mortimer happens to idly open up the window seat in his aunts' living room, he finds a corpse there staring glassily back at him. Horrified, he learns that this is in fact the twelfth or possibly thirteenth lonely old man the spinsters have done away with (“A very bad habit”), poisoning them with elderberry wine as an act of “mercy” and burying them in the cellar with the aid of Teddy (John Alexander), Mortimer's insane, bugle-blowing brother who believes himself to be 26th President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt, digging graves for yellow fever victims at the Panama Canal. Frantically trying to work out what to do, Mortimer is then confronted by two more serial killers - his other brother, the violently unstable Jonathan (Raymond Massey) and his accomplice, Dr Einstein (Peter Lorre), a schnapps-slugging renegade plastic surgeon who has inadvertently made Jonathan over to look like Boris Karloff after seeing a certain movie. Total madness descends as the lights go out, involving the Brewsters, Elaine, several misplaced bodies, a gaggle of Irish cops with literary ambitions and the arrival of Mr Witherspoon (Edward Everett Horton), director of the Happydale asylum, a “rest home” where just about everyone involved would clearly be better off. And, on top of all that, the cab driver outside still hasn't been paid.


Frank Capra completed this macabre screwball farce in 1941 but it wasn't released until three years later when Joseph Kesselring's hit play had finished its Broadway run. Hull, Adair and Alexander all reprised their stage roles but Massey was called in as a replacement for the real Boris Karloff, whose casting on stage had made a self-referential joke out of Jonathan Brewster's sinister, scarred appearance. Sadly this may be Cary Grant's least successful comic performance, a hysterical, hyperactive turn full of wild mugging and cartoonish double-takes. Naturally he looks as sharp as ever and is certainly game for the material but ultimately his incessant wackiness comes across as a little too much. The rest of the cast are all nicely suited to their wide-eyed character parts and there's plenty of pleasing black humour on show. Here's director Capra having some fun on set with a bound and gagged Grant, just after a narrow escape from one of Lorre's “operations.”

01/09/2010

My Darling Clementine (1946)


Arizona, 1881. Young James Earp (Don Garner) lies stricken, face down in the mud, twin shotgun shells buried deep in his spine. The fire's been doused by torrential rain, which keeps on coming. An unwashed cooking pot stands neglected, filling up with water. The Earps' scrawny herd has disappeared, rustled by the killer and his posse, leaving the range completely deserted but for the returning brothers appearing over the horizon. Stooped inside their slickers and peering out into the night, these three men are entirely unaware of the tragedy that awaits them. Their kid sibling, slain at 18. He'll never get to give his girl the gold trinket he's been saving up for.

On finding James's body, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), former marshal to Dodge City turned cowpoke, heads straight back to Tombstone and accepts the mayor's offer of a job after all. Pinning on the tin star once more means that Earp is able to pursue a personal investigation into the murder through public office, with surviving brothers Morgan (Ward Bond) and Virgil (Tim Holt) sworn in as deputies. His motive becomes a mission to bring order and civilisation to this “rough lookin' country” so that “kids will be able to grow up and live safe.” He's already had his own wild trail beard shaved off, kicked a meddlesome drunken Indian off the land (ahem) and put Mexican good-time girl Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) in her place - the horse trough. Next on his agenda is the town's unofficial lawman, the enigmatic man in black Doc Holliday (Victor Mature). Riddled with tuberculosis, bitter self-loathing and decadent Eastern manners and culture, this Doc is sick and determined to drink himself to death. He sneers and tosses a shot glass on seeing his reflection in the frame of his diploma, smashing it to pieces, and later fails in an attempted operation to save Chihuahua from a nasty bullet wound. “A man could almost follow your trail from graveyard to graveyard,” observes Wyatt and the remark proves prophetic – it'll end in Doc's own. Their battle for supremacy forms the core of John Ford's film – the run-ins with Walter Brennan's degenerate Clanton clan only really serving as bookends. Earp and Holliday end up forming a kind of coalition government, built on the consensus that the centre must be protected from extremists like the bull whip-wielding Old Man Clanton so that the civilised values they share may be allowed to flourish and prosper.


And sure enough they succeed, even if the gunfight at the O.K. Corral means Doc's last stand. A new church is under construction with the scent of fresh-cut lumber in the air, the pioneering Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor is doing a roaring trade in honeysuckle blossom cologne (“Sweet smellin' stuff!”) and the unspoiled Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), having battled her way through every mining town and cow camp between here and Boston only to be scorned by Holliday, has settled in and intends to set up a school. You can even hear Shakespeare in Tombstone, so long as that “eminent actor" and "sterling tragedian” Granville Thorndyke (Alan Mowbray) happens to be holding court, back by popular demand at the Bird Cage theatre or held hostage by “tavern louts” at the local saloon. Doc's even had Mac the bartender (J. Farrell MacDonald) serving up champagne, if you can believe it. With the Clantons wiped out and Doc and Chihuahua gone, the West is won, Wyatt's mission is complete and James Earp can rest in peace.


“I knew Wyatt Earp... and he told me about the fight at the O.K. Corral. So we did it exactly the way it had been,” said director Ford in typically matter-of-fact fashion. This famous historical episode has been re-enacted many times on screen but never better than here and, really, how many directors could lay claim to that level of expert, eye-witness testimony, even if Ford and screenwriters Samuel G. Engel, Sam Hellman and Winston Miller did take a few liberties with the truth? Apparently Ford met the real Earp (1848-1929) during the silent era when he was working as a prop boy on the same Western the great gunslinger was advising on - the young Ford plying Earp with fresh coffee to get the facts about the shoot-out. Though the real-time reconstruction of it in My Darling Clementine is impressively handled, it's the film's topical subtext that would have resonated most with audiences upon its release in 1946, as Peter Biskind explains:

“While the relation of films to their immediate historical context is often oblique, here it is not. Earp is the ex-marshal of Dodge City. Like returning GI's, he has put down the gun in favour of pacific pursuits. He finds, however, that he has been premature, that before Tombstone (read, the home front) can be made safe for kids (read, democracy), he has to pick up the gun once again, in much the same way that both corporate liberals and conservatives alike basically agreed on the necessity of remilitarising America for the Cold War.”

Fonda, fresh out of the US Navy, was thus the perfect choice to add authenticity to this most all-American of roles. Here he is in one of my favourite exchanges from a brilliant movie:

Wyatt: “Mac, you ever been in love?”
Mac: “No. I've been a bartender all my life.”