"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Movie directors


As we have been looking at the Western career of Raoul Walsh lately I thought it the right moment to say a word on directors and the habit many people have of referrring to films as their sole property, as in: "In Raoul Walsh's Along The Great Divide..." I don't think this is right.

It comes from the French auteuriste school, which elevates movie directors into artists of Olympian stature. But referring to “Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James” or “John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” is not appropriate. While Mr. Lang and Mr. Huston were essential contributors to those movies and greatly influenced the way they are – of course they did - the actors, producers, studios, cinematographers, set designers, musicians, costumes persons and any number of others also share the credit (or blame) for the finished product, and referring to the film as the sole property of the director is demeaning to them and misleading to the viewer.

In any case many directors were hired guns, as it were, whose control over casting, screenplay or budgets was flimsy to say the least. They were obedient poodles who did what the producer or studio told them and were only on set to coordinate the action and get the actors to say their lines aright. Some directors had more power than this and were able to influence writing or casting. Some even produced their own movies or wrote them. But that was rare.

The greatest directors did put their own stamp on movies and often had close control of many aspects of the film, especially the photographic side. Most John Ford or Sam Peckinpah Westerns, for example, are recognizably Ford and Peckinpah and would have been different films if made by another director (though they were sometimes ‘mutilated’ by the studios in the final cinema version). Even with these, though, it is dubious to use, as the French Cahiers school does, adjectives like “Hawksian” or “Mannian” as if there are qualities only to be found in films by Howard Hawks or Anthony Mann.

Take a noted director such as Nicholas Ray: you find that he alternated the making of real, distinctive works or art, such as Johnny Guitar, with hack work of ineffable mediocrity. I defy you, if you have never seen The True Story of Jesse James before and did not know Ray directed it, to say, "Ah, a Nicholas Ray film." It is simply wrong to refer to it as "Nicholas Ray's The True Story of Jesse James." And "Edwin Sherin's Valdez Is Coming" or "Martin Ritt's Hombre"? No.

So even with the greatest of Westerns I tend not to refer to them with the director's name as an introductory possessive. I might make very rare exceptions and talk about John Ford's The Searchers or Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch but even then I don't think it's entirely right.

Studio and year usually define a Western better and I shall soon be posting some comments about Along The Great Divide (Warner Bros, 1951). Starring Kirk Douglas. Directed by Raoul Walsh.

So long, folks.

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