Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach – 1939

Director – John Ford

Starring – John Wayne, Claire Trevor, John Carradine, and Thomas Mitchell

I’ve talked quite a bit about how I came to the western genre with a negative pre-disposition, and about how that impression was generally wrong.  Well, it turns out, when I was thinking of bad or poor quality westerns, I was thinking of westerns like Stagecoach, John Ford’s epic old west road movie featuring the Duke himself, John Wayne. 

It isn’t that I disliked Stagecoach, far from it.  It was a completely passable, formulaic western.  The problem may be that I am coming to it a little over 70 years after it was made.  I’m sure that in its day, it was fresh, exciting, and brand new.  However, from my position here in 2010, it seemed like a story that could have easily been a TV serial, and probably was in any number of forms, but the one thing it doesn’t feel like is new.

The characters, though conventionally acted, seemed paper-thin and sparse, lacking any real conflict or emotion.  John Wayne’s character, the Ringo Kid, is supposedly freshly broken out of jail and on his way to even the score with the thugs who done him wrong.  But instead of being driven and angry, he seemed rather cheerful, and nonplussed about everything that happens throughout the entire film.  The character arc of Thomas Mitchell as the drunkard doctor, is limited to becoming slightly less of a drunk so that he can barely help the rest of the passengers in the coach when there’s trouble.  Immediately after the crisis, he bellies back up to the bar and has, you guessed it, more to drink.

The gruff sheriff, the smarmy gambler, and the prostitute with a heart of gold are all equally superficial and un-changing.  None of the characters seem to learn anything or grow even the slightest bit.  In fact  ***SPOILERS*** the closest anyone comes to growing or changing is when the gambler dies, and then he only changes because he’s dead, and isn’t in the story anymore ***END SPOILERS***. 

Another beef I had with the film, was all the hullabaloo that was made about it being the first of John Ford’s westerns to be filmed in Monument Valley.  I’m surprised it was such a selling point to the film that it was shot there, especially seeing as how it is so very rarely seen on-screen.  The trivia on IMDb sheds a little light on the reasons for filming it there, and they are mostly so Ford could keep the studio out of his hair, which makes a certain amount of sense.  Ford’s desire for solitude, however, doesn’t make the film beautiful to look at.

It is to be expected that films that set the bar initially, today, will seem a bit dated and a tad un-impressive based simply on the fact that so much has come after it.  Unfortunately for Stagecoach, most all of its flash and innovation has long since worn off, and been replaced by other films that were able to make more of a lasting impression on me through strong characterization (Ox-Bow Incident), fantastic visuals (Once Upon A Time In The West), and iconic performances (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Proposal).  Stagecoach left me more than a little disappointed.

The Pianist (2002)

Pianist

The Pianist – 2002

Director – Roman Polanski

Starring – Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann

Starting out, The Pianist had a lot to go up against.  Watching this film, I was constantly comparing it to Schindler’s List.  For a while the two movies tracked together in terms of story.  In each we are walked step by step through the lives and experiences of the Jewish people affected by the Nazi’s and the horrible events that came from Hitler’s “final solution”.  There is a point of diversion between the two films though, where our main character Wladyslaw Szpilman is spared a trip to the concentration camps but is forced to live a torturous existence in and out of hiding in Warsaw, Poland.  Where as Schindler’s List documented the horror and gritty realities of a whole group of people, The Pianist focuses on the guilt and pain, trials and tribulation suffered by one man.  The film carefully shows the depths to which our main character was forced to go, and illustrates just how hideous these events really were.  Without this crucial difference, the Pianist would have been a pale imitator of what Spielberg had already accomplished nearly a decade before.

The beginning of The Pianist didn’t have the weight or grittiness that I associate with that timeframe (granted, it’s mostly from old photographs, and newsreel footage).  Everything was almost too sterile and clean.  This could possibly be a reflection on the outlook of the main character and his family, after each new travesty commenting “…it can’t possibly get any worse…”.  This sterility gave me false expectations of what was to come, not that I didn’t expect the Nazi’s to do horrible things, only that I didn’t know quite how bad the living conditions were to get.

Adrien Brody as the tortured Szpilman turns in his best performance, both to date, and since.  Restrained and quiet, we see the atrocities play out on his face as much as we do on the screen.  His transformation from healthy, bright-eyed musician into the bedraggled, jaundiced mess that he becomes before the end of the film is intense.  If you were to look at images of both ends of the spectrum, there would be no way of knowing how he got from one end to the other.  In a seemingly constant state of free fall, his character does what actors are trained to do from day one, and is constantly reacting to what happens around him.

The cinematographer, Pawal Edelman, utilizes the color of this world to great effect.  The richness of the color is slowly being sapped out throughout the two and a half hour runtime, we don’t notice the change until one of the very last scenes where we go from a shot composed of grays and bleak browns to a shot of the setting sun with bright yellows and oranges, and rich green grass.  It must have seemed quite similar to the survivors of the holocaust when it was finally over for them.

This film has a lot of power, and while it isn’t quite as much of a master work, or as revelatory as Schindler’s List was for me, it is definitely an important piece of film which documents an important piece of history.

” Don’t be fooled by the title, The Pianist is neither a musical nor a porn. ” – Ashley