Monday, June 22, 2009

The 400 Blows (1959) and The Quiet Man (1952)

( Image courtesy of Les Films du Carrosse via

I know - not the most natural of pairings, though as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, Francois Truffaut was a staunch defender of John Ford. But bare with me here. There's a connection somewhere and damn't, if there isn't, I'll force one (since I sort of did by watching the films back to back).

It's said that an artist/musician/filmmaker/whatever has an entire lifetime to draw on for his debut. The trick comes in the follow up, where pressure, deadline and expectations begin to weigh heavily. As a result, debut films are often the finest and most personal work from a director. Less restrictions and a gut reaction can yield great art and entertainment - look no further than Citizen Kane for the example to end all other examples.

Of the four Truffaut films I've seen, The 400 Blows isn't the best nor is it my personal favorite, but there's no denying it is his most personal of the bunch. Truffaut hadn't yet reached that exuberant blend of style and punctuation that, at least for me, makes Jules and Jim the gem of the New Wave. But he was definitely searching and well on his way.

The 400 Blows works for many reasons, but most of all, it works because this is Truffaut's story to tell. The troubled, 15 year-old (he looks much younger) Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) appears to be the auteur's on-screen surrogate. Antoine's love affair with the movies, his "lifting" of material from another artist (Balzac) and the way in which Paris alternates from playground to prison - it's all part of the grand (and not too heavy-handed) metaphor for the freeing sensation of cinema and filmmaking.

But it's more than that. From the opening shots from a car moving toward and then pulling away from the view of the Eiffel Tower, The 400 Blows is a referendum on France and French culture. There seems to be paradigm shift taking place, and the old guard has completely lost touch with the next generation. At home, in the cramped Paris apartment, Antoine witnesses his parents marriage swing between dissolution and solidarity, which leaves little love and compassion for him.

Of course, the kid is kind of a fuck up, and the scenes in which Antoine ditches school with his school mater René are some of the film's finest. Henri Decae -- who would later photograph Le samouraï in 1967 for Jean-Pierre Melville -- does some really lovely, simple camera work, occasionally opting for some more ambitious visual risks.

The whirling of the centrifuge ride and (SPOILER!!!!!!!) Antoine's police paddy wagon ride through the city as he gets carted off to reform school are both striking sequences (END SPOILER), visuals that alternately capture that aforementioned freedom and imprisonment. Overall, it's just incredibly assured work from a young director in the way that Mean Streets would be for Scorsese (though it wasn't actually his first film, just the first important one).

For John Ford, it took a lot longer to make his personal masterpiece, The Quiet Man. Many call it his best -- I have to respectfully defer to The Searchers -- but if you're going for his best non-Western, then it's got to be either Quiet Man or How Green Was My Valley. The latter, which is the film that beat out Citizen Kane for the Best Picture at the Academy Awards, gets a little choked up in nostalgia. It's a fantastic film, but The Quiet Man is the more balanced work. The Fordian sense of humor goes a long way.

Nearly 20 years after Ford purchased the rights to the story, he finally got the film made, and if you know a thing or two about Ford, it's no surprise he never gave up. Like the director, the lead, Sean Thornton (John Wayne), is an Irish-born American who returns full of love for his native Ireland. And, like Ford, there's a shade of darkness in Thornton, something eating him up inside.

In America, Thornton was a famous boxer, but something forces him away from the ring, away from violence and off to Ireland. Once he arrives in his birth town, Thornton sparks a fight with one of the locals, Squire Danaher (Victor McLaglen) by purchasing the cottage and plot of land Danaher had his eyes on -- Thornton's childhood home. He falls for Danaher's sister (Maureen O'Hara, fiery and beautiful as ever) as the local matchmaker (Barry Fitzgerald) helps introduce him back into the ways of his homeland (drinking pints of porter, going courting and the like).

What saves The Quiet Man from becoming overly quaint or nostalgic is its classic Fordian subtexts -- the value of home and the domestic subdivisions within that home, be it the physical space or just the larger idea of home, what it means to be a man (across cultures) and the struggle of the outsider. Struggles with religion and sexual desire surface and more explicitly than in most pre-MPAA films - thematically, it may be Ford's most personally transparent film. You see so much of the man in the film as he lets his guard down.

All this married to the Ford Stock Company (Ward Bond, is, of course, fantastic as usual) and Winton C. Hoch's Academy Award-winning cinematography makes for one of the Ford's most essential entries.

And really, that's all I got for now. Sorry for being brief but I'm sort of all written out from this weekend, and expect to be writing a good deal more ... so, yes, there are good things to come! So for now, I leave you with these embedded YouTube videos, as a token of my, er, laziness.

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