After hearing of Andrew Sarris’ recent death and reading J. Hoberman’s remembrance of the important critic, I decided to get a copy of Sarris’ book The American Cinema. It is a comprehensive (as of 1968) list and dissection of American film and its directors, judged by the auteur theory to which Sarris was devoted. It’s a fun read for any movie goer as it provides plenty of opportunity to agree, disagree, and discover more about cinema. Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the book:
“Ford had more in common with Welles than anyone realized at the time. Ford was forty-six when he made How Green was my Valley and Welles was only twenty-five when he made Citizen Kane, but both films are the works of old men, the beginnings of a cinema of memory.”
“Howard Hawks is good, clean, functional cinema, perhaps the most distinctively American cinema of all.”
“Hawks has stamped his distinctively bitter view of life on adventure, gangster and private-eye melodramas, Westerns, musicals, and screwball comedies, the kind of thing Americans do best and appreciate least.”
“The Fordian hero knows why he is doing something even if he doesn’t know how. The Hawksian hero knows how to do what he is doing even if he doesn’t know why. The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the way. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there.”
“Welles is concerned with the ordinary feelings of extraordinary people and Hitchcock with the extraordinary feelings of ordinary people.”
“George Stevens was a minor director with major virtues before A Place in the Sun and a major director with minor virtues after.”
“Cecil B. De Mille may have been the last American director who enjoyed telling a story for its own sake.”
“Richard Brooks has a bad habit of saying what he means without showing what he feels.”
“Perhaps more than any other director, Michael Curtiz reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the studio system in Hollywood.”
“It is too early to establish any coherent pattern to Allan Dwan’s career, but it may very well be that Dwan will turn out to be the last of the old masters.”
Driving through the country with my grandfather the other day, I got to thinking about the ways that movies have changed over the course of my life. I’m only twenty-six but it is remarkable to look back at the way the work of great directors has grown up with me.
Take for instance, Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps the first director I ever paid close attention to. As a child, I was amazed by North by Northwest. What a wonderful adventure that film is, a boy’s movie. It is sensational, cinema at its most fun.
As a teenager, I paid more attention to Rear Window. I began to see the master behind the camera and this brilliant experiment enthralled me. Years later, breaching adulthood, I found affection and respect for the film that had alluded me: Vertigo. Now this movie was at the forefront of my mind. The mood, the themes suddenly made sense. The darkness was so alluring and had surpassed the lighter Hitchcock films.
It was less than a year ago that I revisited Notorious. This movie had also escaped my affection upon first (and second viewing). But at twenty-five years of age, I was ready for it. I never knew Hitchcock could be so romantic. Cary Grant’s character was the kind of hero I could now relate to: bitter, mean, daring, brave. Notorious now means Hitchcock to me.
I have grown up with other directors too. John Ford struck me first at the age of thirteen with How Green was my Valley. Still to this day, I attest to the wonder of this film and it’s place (regardless of its reputation for stealing the oscar from Citizen Kane) as one of the great masterpieces of cinema. But the Ford film that lingers with me at present is My Darling Clementine. When I first saw it, I shrugged at the simplicity that I now admire so much. There is so much in so little and I’m old enough to see it.
Woody Allen: from Love and Death to Crimes and Misdemeanors to The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Martin Scorsese: from Goodfellas to Raging Bull to After Hours
Stanley Kubrick: 2001 to Paths of Glory to Barry Lyndon
Even the child filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who once owned most of my affection, has retained at least one ultimate place in my cinema-loving heart: the one adventure to outlast all his others, Jaws.
It is fun to look back on the way that these film change with me over the years, one fading away and another coming into its place. This is one reason why I could never make a definitive list of favorite films. Once I had written it, the list already be different.
To the ever-evolving love of cinema,
Peter Bogdanovich’s tribute the contested greatest American filmmaker, John Ford, is itself one the best films ever made about filmmaking. Watching it again, I found some of these quotations about the “man who made Westerns” to be worth repeat.
Martin Scorsese: John Ford is the essence of classical American cinema and any serious person working in film today is effected by him, whether they know it or not.
Clint Eastwood: He was not influenced by a politically correct generation that we live in today. He could go flat out. And I think that was an imprint of Ford’s, where Ford was afraid of nothing.
Harry Carey Jr.: He kept saying, you’re going to hate me when the movie’s over, but you’re going to give a good performance. Well, I hated him after the first day.
Walter Hill: He always said I had a thousand fights with the Studio and I lost them all. But then there’s Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine. I’d like to lose some fights like that.
Maureen O’Hara: He was an instinctive con-man. It was impossible to know when to believe him and when to disbelieve him.
In a documentary on John Ford called Becoming John Ford, one of the commentators points out that “Raoul Walsh’s characters act out of adventure, Howard Hawks’ act out of professionalism, and John Ford’s act out of tradition.” It is an interesting way to track and study the three directors’ work.
The Criminal Code, directed by Howard Hawks in 1931.
The picture is about a new warden (played by Walter Huston) who takes over a prison populated mostly by the criminals he put away during his stint as District Attorney.
His first day, he and the prison guards listen from his office as hundreds of prisoners crowd the yard, growling, howling, wanting his blood.
The warden decides to go down to meet them. He is advised not to. The chief of the guards insists that he is accompanied.
The warden says, “When my name was on the District Attorney’s door, I was District Attorney. My job was to get convictions and I got them. As an elected governor, I’d govern. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t elected. Well, here I am, warden, and that’s what I’m going to be, warden… This seems to be a matter between me and the boys down there, we’ve got to settle it ourselves.”
He steps out into the yard, lights a cigar, and slowly walks out into the crowd of prisoners. At any moment, they could tear him to pieces but somehow the growling and howling quiets. He eyes the men he means to look after. They cannot meet his gaze.
Now they know he will do his job. They may hate him, but they must respect him because he is professional, from the same ranks as John Wayne’s sheriff in Rio Bravo and the flyers in The Dawn Patrol and Only Angels Have Wings. This is a great, forgotten Hawks picture.