Wednesday, December 17, 2014

John Ford, Stagecoach & Non-Ideological Montage; Original Essay by Payman Akhlaghi (2014)

Ford's Stagecoach & Non-Ideological Montage
An Essay by Payman Akhalghi (Draft 4; Fully Revised)

(*) First published at Facebook.com/PAComposer on August 19th, 2014, Revision 4 on the 24th, under Memo on Cinema: Ford's Stagecoach & Non-Ideological Montage

I just revisited John Ford's "Stagecoach" of 1939, ca. 90'. It's not only a tightly made Western, but a sophisticated drama, with metaphorically expressed socio-political commentaries inherent to the fabric of its story. Seventy-five years later, it's remained surprisingly "modern", nearly perfect, intellectual, artful, and entertaining, at times didactic, but typically tactful, only on occasion too ostensible about its "message". Vivid characters with tangible and contrasting intentions reach far beyond generic stereotypes. This time, I found its sense of visual form and style impeccable. The framing of every shot, and the composition of lines, objects, and movements therein; the manipulation of background to highlight, reinforce, or agitate the foreground by agreeing harmonies or contrasting dissonances; interpretative applications of the depth of field; attractive camera angles and dramatic points of view; everything is closely controlled underneath a a rounded look an easy flow. Should the chance rise, I could analyze some sequences down to the frame.

One could spend a full hour or two talking on only the last 30 minutes of the film. Start out with careful build-up to the 7-minute ambush and battle sequence, mostly across the desert, ca. minute 70-ff. Examine its camera work and lighting, meticulously shaped dramatic curve, thespian and acrobatic skills, complex human and animal choreography, and especially for me, its skillful symphonic score in sync with the already perfect rhythm of the scene. Time some shots, anticipate some cues, and you might realize too how musically this sequence is constructed from the foundation, what an extravagant ballet it is. Furthermore, note how trauma, otherwise all too present, is often suggested, subdued, seldom literal, altogether, never allowed to traumatize the audience, or distract from the narrative.

Then speak of the climatic shoot-out between Ringo (John Wayne) and his three archenemies. In contrast to the previous sequence, the build up draws on tense silence or ironic use of ragtime piano coming from the bars, reserving synced underscoring with chromatic suspense for the last few steps before the final confrontation. See the sudden aversion of the camera, at the moment of carnage, away and to Dallas (Claire Trevor). Listen to the 5 shots fired, whereas you know Ringo had only three bullets left with him. Did he survive the unfair duel?

Else, focus on the director's rich vocabulary and broad range of montage techniques. Note his intuitive sense of visual-dramatic rhythm unique to each sequence. As the moment calls, he may generate momentum by numerous cuts, or by allowing the action to develop in longer takes. He may risk an extreme track-in to highlight his protagonist's static entrance, or elsewhere, let the carefully choreographed action do the edit within the frame. When it comes to montage, he remains erudite, versatile, natural, flexible, creative, non-ideological, yet polished, with a conservative veneer. Unlike a Chaplin or Renoir, with their decided preference for montage inside the frame; or an Eisenstein, or even Hitchcock in general, with a decided inclination toward shorter stable takes; Ford's mis-en-scène remains fluid, diverse, eclectic, in the service of the scene, without tying his innovative imagination down with presets. "Stagecoach" breathes naturally, at times slow, fast, deep, panting, gasping, sighing in relief. It breathes with the drama, in image and sound, from the perspective of an invisible narrator, and with regards to the point of view of a very human audience.

Examples abound. Spending the night at a roadside tavern, Ringo seriously eyes Dallas, from behind, as she graciously leaves a corridor through a carefully lit and placed door frame. He is briefly interrupted in the hallway by the owner of the tavern, who's worried about Ringo's fate. He walks on and joins Dallas outside, next to the fence, to talk her into marrying him. The sequence is developed patiently, feeling as a respite during the long and turbulent journey, broken into very few long takes, narrated by a lyrical music.

Later on, toward the conclusion of the battle scene, Hatcliffe (John Carradine), out of ammunition, decides without a word to use his last bullet to "save" the young and beautiful Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a lady under his protection, from falling into savage hands. From a close up of the gun being prepared, the camera pans to the right to show the fragile woman broken into prayers under stress. The gun approaches her skull from the left, while she remains unaware of her imminent fate. But then it drops at the sound of a bullet, suggesting that Hatcliffe was hit. A positive change in the underscore, the emergence of "source music" bugles, the smile appearing on Lucy's face, these herald that the passengers are finally saved. They all take place in a single long take, a first-rate cinematic moment, in a somewhat less likely place -- a successful work of entertainment.

Shortly afterwards, when a mob takes away a resented banker in the close up, Dallas emerges from within the crowd and walks toward Ringo next to the stagecoach; once more, all in a single take. Next, as they walk away, the director shows a masterstroke of mis-en-scène and montage. To date, filmmakers are warned to avoid the confusion caused by jumping, especially rapidly, aimlessly, in successive shots, and without a logic, over the so-called "imaginary line", within a continuous sequence. Without being fanatical about this elementary but useful principle, you might still be utterly surprised, as I was, how the director effortlessly hops over "the line", when Ringo and Dallas walk away from the stagecoach and the three men next to it: the two leave the shot toward the left; we track them walking from left to the right; cut back to the three men, their eyes perfectly choreographed to zoom attention on the left; cut back to the loving couple walking from the left to the right. The successive changes of direction lead to no confusion. I think it works without a glitch, first, for the director draws upon two different points of view; and second, for his intuitive sense of a space and orientation that is guided and controlled by the elements of the scene, namely, the street and the pavement.  It's well thought out, innovative, a first-rate example of advanced montage without pretension.

Much has been contributed technically by the remarkable continuity observed between the Exterior shots and their Interior counterparts, with their ubiquity of back projections. The process-shots are admirably successful for their time; and Bert Glennon's cinematography, stylish, beautiful, and fluent, altogether suggests the possibility of the artist's deep foundation in photography. More astonishing, however, are the stunt works that perpetuate the battle scene, which to my recollection remain among the most accomplished feats for any cinematic period. To gain a sense of scale, keep in mind that "Ben-Hur", with its breathtaking chariot race, was not about to appear for another 20 years.

The music direction is credited to Boris Morros, with several others credited with adapting American folk tunes for the soundtrack. Many scenes, most prominently the battle sequence, bear underscoring too original to be considered mere "adaptations"; and altogether, the music accompanies and reinforces the narrative quite beautifully. That warrants due credit be allocated to each composer for their unique contribution to this excellent film score -- a task that would call for minute records and other accurate outside information, and which would lie outside the scope of this essay, in the purview of film and music historians. I am not sure that would be an easy task. After all, in the studio system, such divisions of labor and collaborations were common place in the music department, among hired musicians par excellence, who were not expected to receive (prominent) due recognition.

All things considered, however, this remains unmistakably a director's film. This time, particularly taking into account Ford's "My Darling, Clementine", as well as "The Grapes of Wrath", I admit to better realize why the younger generation of French directors -- I think including Truffaut -- were long ago reported for their great admiration for John Ford, whom they could properly cite as an "auteur" of the cinema, without hesitation.

(*) The author is a musician by inclination and education.
(*) The excellent restoration by Criterion Collection is available on DVD, and currently, on Hulu.com .
(*) wikipedia.org and imdb.com were briefly consulted for basic data, such as titles, dates, and names.
(*) The above was an original note.

© 2014, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

(*) Payman Akhlaghi is a composer, pianist and piano teacher based in Los Angeles. His repertoire covers Classical music, as well as Persian (Iranian) Music, Pop Music, and Film Music. For information on the lessons in the Greater Los Angeles area, including Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Encino, Brentwood, etc. please call: 310-208-2927. Thank you.

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