Month: February 2015
For satire to be truly effective it must consist of the following essential elements: irony, wit, sarcasm, parody, exaggeration, and a surefire sense of the absurd. In addition, it should be devilishly clever as well as hysterically funny, with the laughter sticking in one’s throat.
Where the movie Network (1976) is concerned, not only are these elements present but there’s also an air of urgency to the characters — real-life characters placed in patently preposterous positions — along with the seemingly distraught situations that Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (The Hospital) and director Sidney Lumet (Twelve Angry Men, Fail-Safe) have placed them in.
Much of the film’s story line revolves around aging television anchor Howard Beale (an exhaustively manic and over-the-top Peter Finch, in his final screen appearance), who heads up the nightly newscast for the fourth-rated UBS TV network. Howard is on his last legs, a man with precious little to live for confronting an existential crisis of the profoundest kind. But instead of bowing out and retiring gracefully from the newsroom, Beale threatens to blow his brains out on the air, much to the consternation of news division heads, especially excitable corporate flunky Frank Hackett (a perfectly realized Robert Duvall).
Despite the best efforts of fellow newsman and old pal Max Schumacher (played by veteran thespian William Holden, whose worn features betray more than a hint of resignation and sadness) to basically keep him in line and out of trouble, Howard escapes from Max’s apartment — in the pouring rain, no less. Making a beeline for the television studio, the beleaguered anchorman delivers one of cinema’s most unforgettable lines:
“I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.’ ”
His erratic behavior becomes a lifeline for Beale as well as a godsend for the network, thanks to an ambitious rising star in the news division named Diane Christensen (beautiful Faye Dunaway at her absolute sleaziest). She sees the eccentric anchor as her ticket to fame and fortune: the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves,” so she claims — something akin to Andy Griffith’s cracker-barrel creep Lonesome Rhodes (from Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd) crossed with our own Glenn Beck, a presumably insane fellow who could give the struggling network the ratings boost it sorely needs. Beale’s buddy Max, however, sees it as an exploitation of his friend’s delusional demeanor.
The question that was raised at the time of the movie’s premiere was this: could television networks be THAT ratings conscious (and that unscrupulous) as to program a show with the title The Mao Tse-tung Hour, about radical leftists attempting to overthrow the U.S. government? Or be seriously touting someone by the name of Sibyl the Soothsayer as a reliable newscaster? You bet it could! Nowadays, this is what passes for so-called “entertainment.”
If you’re still unconvinced, try tuning in to cable’s Long Island Medium. How about listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio, or anything on Fox News for further proof? Network was the trailblazer in this respect, the most prescient and forward-looking feature Hollywood has ever produced.
Finch deserved his posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar (the first ever awarded to a deceased performer) as the “making-it-up-as-he-goes-along” Mr. Beale. Theater actress Beatrice Straight won the Best Supporting Actress Award for her scene-stealing turn as Holden’s estranged spouse, Louise. And Dunaway literally ran away with the Best Actress honors for her lead role as the scheming, duplicitous Diane, who always acts in her own self-interest.
With Ned Beatty, brilliant as the evangelical head of the network, Mr. Jensen (“You … will … atone!!!”), Arthur Burghardt (an actual vegetarian) as the Great Ahmed Kahn, licking his chops over a bucket of fried chicken; and Wesley Addy, Bill Burrows, Conchata Farrell, and Kathy Cronkite as the slogan-spouting, Patty Hearst-lookalike Mary Ann Gifford, along with Ken Kercheval, Lance Henriksen, and a host of others.
They’ll be talking about this one when we’re old and gray, it’s that relevant. A shocker of an ending tidies things up nicely… well, sort of. For the “network,” anyway.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
In the same year that Paramount was touting The Godfather, Part II as a Best Picture Oscar contender, the studio was cognizant enough of its potential to release Polish-born director Roman Polanski’s brilliant crime drama, Chinatown (1974). With a masterful, Academy Award-winning screenplay by writer Robert Towne (The Last Detail, Shampoo), superb art direction by W. Stewart Campbell (The Right Stuff), and finely detailed production values (Robert Evans is credited as the producer), it took the cinema world by storm. Movie critics fell over themselves with high praise for the venture.
And no wonder: that one-word title alone is enough to tell the tawdry tale of a well-to-do — and well-heeled — private gumshoe named J.J. Gittes (Jake to his “friends”), smartly played by Jack Nicholson (in a star-making role), and his seemingly innocuous involvement with Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway, easily his equal), the wife of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer for the Los Angeles Water and Power Department.
After a series of red herrings and blind alley-ways, Jake unwittingly stumbles onto a deadly game of cover-up by underhanded city officials, snot-nosed (and violent) gangster types, trigger-happy country folk, and wise-cracking police officers, all of whom know a whole lot more than they’re letting on about the dirty dealings over at Water and Power.
As the fabulously wealthy Noah Cross casually informs Mr. Gittes, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.” Truer words were never spoken. Cross is played by a smarmy but outlandishly entertaining John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo), who is outstanding in a secondary role. Nicholson looks simply smashing in his immaculately tailored suits, wide-brimmed hats, and silk bathrobe (the film’s costume designs were by Anthea Sylbert, an Oscar nominee).
And so is that snazzy roadster, too, but the fashionable getups and period vehicles are all for show. Indeed, that’s the dirty little secret of Chinatown: despite the obvious finery and ostentatious trappings of the rich and famous, the filth begins to pile up fast — to be honest, a little too fast for poor Jake to keep up with. After one too many revelations, the most startling of which will catch most viewers off guard, his carefully calculated world comes crashing down around him. Jake finds himself at sea in a hum-zinger of an ending, a tragic denouement of monumental (as well as Oedipal) proportions.
With their masks lifted and the dirty laundry left hanging on the line for all to see, the characters are revealed as the bizarre grotesques they’ve now become. It’s nihilism writ large, as it were.
Most impressive are the camera angles, which happen to be the work of cinematographer John A. Alonzo (Scarface), who took his cues from Polanski and shot from behind and over Jake’s shoulder. The feeling we get is of being dragged against one’s will into his unseemly realm, to see for ourselves what Jake is about to discover and, hopefully, unravel. We’re accomplices — maybe even voyeurs — witnessing the complete disintegration of everything Mr. “Gits” (as Cross calls him) holds dear.
Everything about this classy feature, however, is top drawer, including the dynamite cast. Best of all is Nicholson’s Jake, a fellow too smart to get caught with his pants down, but too dumb to prevent it from happening. Dunaway is so gorgeous to look at, and her arguments so compelling and strong, that we’re immediately taken in by her conviction — a true femme fatale in every sense of the term, but to her own detriment. Her ultimate fate is hinted at, in one of the many superbly engineered and handled scenes, midway through the drama.
Perry Lopez brings just the right touch of sarcasm mixed with disdain to his role as the harried police inspector Lt. Escobar — always one step ahead of his quarry, but wisely taking two steps back to reflect upon the situation at hand. Another major character is the physical locations themselves, which contribute mightily to the overall sense that something’s not right in this part of town (the film was mostly shot in and around the San Francisco Bay area).
Also featuring John Hillerman, Richard Bakalyan, Roy Jensen, Bruce Glover, sweaty Burt Young (Rocky) as Curly, and James Hong, Beulah Quo, Nandu Hinds as Jake’s secretary Sophie, young Diane Ladd as the mystery girl, and Joe Mantell as Jake’s partner Walsh, who gets to deliver the last word and closing “benediction” on the story’s outcome:
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Polanksi appears briefly as the nasty little hood that slices Nicholson’s nose with a knife. As he goes about his distasteful business, Polanski utters another memorable line: “You are a very nosey fellow, kitty cat. You know what happens to nosey fellows?” OUCH! We do, indeed.
The excellent and spare score is by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith, a gem of a composition that perfectly encapsulates this feature’s melancholy noir aspects. The film was cleverly recycled as the basis for Gore Verbinski’s animated feature Rango (2011), which includes a hilariously sinister takeoff on the Noah Cross character as voiced by Ned Beatty.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
The Poetic Connection
An immensely prolific nineteenth-century creator of opérettes and opéras-bouffes, Jacob Eberst, the German-born son of Jewish cantor Isaac Juda Eberst, whose main distinction in life was relocating to Paris while giving young “Jacques” the bogus surname of Offenbach (the father was a native of the city of Offenbach am Mainz), became one of France’s best-loved composers.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) wrote over a hundred theater works, many of them agreeable burlesques with imaginative mythological and/or romantic themes that masked a politically biting, satirically comedic edge. You could say that Offenbach was the Gallic version of Gilbert and Sullivan. And much like Sir Arthur Sullivan, the musical dean of that British light-opera twosome, Offenbach was so successful at mass-producing his fleet of operettas (Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Hélène, La Périchole, and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein among the best of them) that he longed for respectability as a so-called “serious” composer. But who to emulate?
It happened that one of Offenbach’s childhood idols was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Indeed, a case can be made that Mozart and Offenbach came to similar ends in that both left unfinished masterpieces at their passing — literally on their death beds: with Mozart, it was the Requiem, and with Offenbach, his final work, Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann). The hero of this piece, the romantic poet Hoffmann, was based on real-life poet, writer, actor, composer, conductor, lawyer and fantasist Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822), or E.T.A. for short. Don’t be fooled by the “Amadeus” part, though — Hoffmann changed his baptismal name of “Wilhelm” to “Amadeus” in Mozart’s honor.
Still, one can appreciate Offenbach’s fascination with a subject involving such a mercurial personality as Hoffmann. Despite that deliberate bit of self-hype, E.T.A. Hoffmann is credited, among other things, with writing a number of wildly fantastical tales, i.e., The Nutcracker, The Serapion Brothers, and, of course, Hoffmann’s Strange Stories, from which poet Jules Barbier refashioned his and Michel Carré’s 1851 stage play Les contes fantastique d’Hoffmann (“The Fantastic Tales of Hoffmann”) for the composer’s consideration.
Although Offenbach’s regular team of writers previously consisted of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, Barbier and Carré (who passed away in 1872) had an enviable track record with their adaptation of Goethe’s epic poem Faust into an 1859 opera for Charles Gounod. They had also supplied operatic texts for the same composer’s Roméo et Juliette and The Queen of Sheba, as well as for Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Silver Bell, and Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet and Mignon — ergo, Offenbach’s desire for a serious venture was in safe hands. However, Barbier and Carré’s connection to and collaboration on Faust, along with Offenbach’s familiarity with the earlier piece, were of utmost significance to the structure and composition of their later Contes d’Hoffmann (1877-80).
In the first place, we have the devilish nature of the four main villains themselves: Lindorf, Coppélius, Dappertutto and Dr. Miracle — roles normally taken by a bass-baritone and remarkably suggestive of Faust’s nemesis, Méphistophélès; second, the flighty mechanical doll Olympia, whose coloratura pyrotechnics mimic those of Marguérite’s Jewel Song in the Garden Scene; third, the confrontation of the consumptive Antonia with the evil Dr. Miracle (which calls to mind Marguerite’s encounter with Satan at her church), which in turn gives way to the ensuing trio whereby the spirit of Antonia’s Mother miraculously comes to life, urging her daughter to sing ever higher (reminiscent of the concluding trio to Act V of Faust); fourth, the trio of Hoffmann, Miracle and Antonia’s father Crespel earlier in the act, a veritable clone of one from Faust’s Act IV in which Méphistophélès goads the hero into killing Marguérite’s brother, Valentin; and so on.
None of these parallel plot devices detracts from or adds to the melodic appeal of either Hoffmann or Faust. Quite the contrary, one feels that Offenbach’s music, while incomplete and hopelessly disjointed at his passing, immediately and effectively elevates his former standing as a master of light opera to a level often unattained by many serious composers.
Hoffmann Meets the Met
Poor Offenbach! He died of complications from chronic gout without ever laying eyes on his magnum opus. The resultant hodgepodge of arias, extracts, numbers and ensembles that populate Les Contes d’Hoffmann, rearranged and reassembled from a variety of sources into specious “editions” — with or without spoken dialogue or the richly rewarding orchestrations and recitatives of Ernest Guiraud; followed by the edition prepared in 1907 by the publishing house of Choudens; in addition to Fritz Oeser’s 1976 restoration, or Michael Kaye’s pioneering version from 1992, or the most recent reconstruction efforts of musicologist Jean-Christophe Keck — will forever remain the composer’s unrealized dream, a real-life tale odder and more bizarre than anything from the pen of E.T.A. Hoffmann.
And what of the Mozart angle? Let it suffice that Gounod, that gentle purveyor of parlor tunes, and his once most popular opera Faust owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s singular score for Don Giovanni. What goes around comes around, one would suppose.
Which brings our story around to the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Bartlett Sher and Michael Yeargan’s 2009 production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann. The question one needs to ask, prior to any revival of Hoffmann, is this: which version should one use?
From the 1940s and beyond, the Met has always presented a bowdlerized compilation of Offenbach’s most cherished piece. More often than not, the scale was tipped in favor of the Choudens edition. An exception was the one “doctored up” by Richard Bonynge, the husband and conducting partner of the late soprano Joan Sutherland. In this version from the mid-1970s, which was recorded by Decca/London in 1972, Bonynge exchanges the sung Guiraud recitatives for spoken dialogue; he also places the spurious Septet (actually, a Sextet with chorus) that normally ends the Venetian act into the Epilogue, but rearranges it as a quartet. Otherwise, his version sticks relatively close to Choudens.
The order of the acts has been something of a controversy for many years and remains so to this day — at least to this author’s mind. In the original libretto, the Antonia act, which is set in Munich, comes after the Olympia episode and before the Venetian scene. For the dramatic effect of her death, most productions prefer to stage the Antonia sequence last. Performance practice and directors’ choices from the wealth of available (and often times confusing) material have a strong influence on the final outcome. Still, my own personal taste gravitates toward placing the Antonia sequence after that of Venice.
However, in the version under review, via the Saturday broadcast of January 31, 2015, the Met allowed director Sher and set designer Yeargan the liberty of following the original text by going against tradition and placing the Venetian act (the one with Hoffmann’s latest love interest, Giulietta, and his antagonist Dappertutto, along with the business of stealing the poet’s soul through the use of a hand mirror), dead last, so to speak, to be followed by the Epilogue.
Other add-ons comprise the Eyes Trio in lieu of Coppélius’ “J’ai des yeux” number, a lamentable loss; Nicklausse’s lost air, “Vois sous l’archet frémissant”; his newly incorporated song, “Voyez-la sous son éventail,” from Oeser instead of the normally encountered “Une poupée aux yeux d’émail” (a much livelier tune); and the Muse’s couplets in the Prologue. Items held over from Choudens, such as Dapertutto’s “Scintille diamante” (or Diamond Aria), the Septet, and the famously lyrical Barcarolle (“Belle nuit, oh nuit d’amour”), were retained. To have dispensed with them entirely would have left audiences pained at their loss. But one still questions their inclusion, since all these numbers were not technically part of Offenbach’s original plan for his opus but instead came from others of his handiwork.
One curious decision was to completely eliminate Hoffmann’s reverie, “Ah! vivre deux,” from the start of Act I — the scene where he’s falling in love with the wind-up doll Olympia — but to repeat the melody later on, which loses the thread of why he voiced his love for her in the first place. Odd, to say the least.
When It Works, It Works. But When It Doesn’t…
However, all of this is academic, and the ends don’t necessarily justify the means. The result is what matters. And to that end we will press on with our review. In the Met’s stellar cast were mezzo Kate Lindsey in the dual role of Nicklausse and the Muse of Poetry, soprano Erin Morley as the doll Olympia, soprano Hibla Gerzmava as Antonia, mezzo-soprano Christine Price as the courtesan Giulietta, baritone Thomas Hampson as the four villains, bass-baritone David Pittsinger in multiple roles, tenor Tony Stevenson as the various servants and minor characters, and tenor Vittorio Grigòlo as the titular hero. Yves Abel presided over the Met Opera orchestra, and Donald Palumbo was the chorus master. The costume designs were by Catherine Zuber and the lighting by James E. Ingalls.
With such an array of talent, one would have expected a truly extraordinary performance. In that I was dismayed, for these Tales left much to be desired. My biggest beef is with the Met’s annoying habit of cutting second verses to the airs and numbers that make up the heart and soul of this melodious work. This bewildering practice cuts short the desired effect a particular singer tends to achieve by repeating refrains or sustaining a given mood. Without a follow-up verse or stanza, the mood is shattered and the labor that went into putting over the piece goes for naught.
Time and again, this pattern was repeated, the upshot of which was a smattering of applause, which no singer — professional or otherwise — should stand still for. But how to overcome it? Under the best of circumstances, Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann is a long opera indeed: three fantastical tales invoking, at times, the supernatural and bookended by a Prologue and an Epilogue, with a dizzying assortment of the tried-and-true clashing with the unfamiliar. If something must go by the wayside, then let it be the applause. We will never know what Offenbach’s initial intentions were for his work; but we do know what works and what doesn’t. And cutting the verses to songs, dear Met management, simply does not work.
Another point of contention is the casting — or should I say miscasting — of principal roles. By this, I mean the egregious naming of a light baritone (a world-class light baritone, by all reports) to take on the nefarious villains, where a deeper, fuller vocal apparatus is called for. There have been winning productions where the villains were played by different singers, which can lead to some confusion since, in theory, they’re all different manifestations of the same individual. I’m thinking of director John Schlesinger’s 1981 Covent Garden production, preserved on video and DVD. But to hire three additional artists when usually there is only one would be an added cost factor against such an endeavor.
On the other hand, casting a single singer to play all three female leads (Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta) would serve little purpose, since each part lies in a different vocal category altogether. Few artists are capable of the transition. In fact, I know of a handful of performers, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills among them, who have met the challenge and, if not exactly triumphed, at least gave it their best shot.
And what of the lead? One of the most exacting in the repertoire, the singer taking on this assignment frequently dips into overdrive, with a range that falls well within the tenor’s passaggio at constant intervals. To excel as Hoffmann is to conquer the Matterhorn of French roles, not to mention the other demands placed on the singer’s shoulders, i.e., the dramatic fluctuations in the character’s makeup, his despair at Antonia’s demise, his pining for his lost soul, his shock at Olympia’s destruction and the deception he feels upon discovering she is nothing but an automaton.
Now that I’ve stated my case, let me express high praise for Vittorio Grigòlo’s Hoffmann, as fine a modern interpolation of the lovesick poet as I have encountered of late. While not completely effacing memories of such past exponents as Nicolai Gedda or Alfredo Kraus, or the richly rewarding interpretations of Plácido Domingo and Neil Shicoff, I found Vittorio’s singing to be inspired, surprisingly agile and authentically up to par as well as genuinely affecting. Having heard his Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon (which he is scheduled to sing this season) and his Rodolfo in La Bohème, Grigòlo’s Hoffmann was fully at one with the character: the passion, the burnished quality of the voice, his soft singing and delicate phrasing and feel for the French vocal style, were all present.
And that’s just for starters! When I first caught wind of Grigòlo’s voice, I imagined him to be a pushed-up Pavarotti, whom he immodestly sounded like. What I did not expect, after hearing some strained high notes with the exigencies of the Duke of Mantua’s music, was his newly-acquired ease above the staff. I was most pleased with Vittorio’s abilities to maintain a smooth line and, best of all, his pouring out at full volume of as much vocal gold as the role required. On the acting front (which is difficult to decipher, this being a radio broadcast), he delivered a credible performance. With good looks to spare and comfortable stage deportment, Vittorio is well on his way at last to the top tier of the Met’s roster of talents. If he sticks with the French repertoire and continues to improve on his natural gifts, he will bring added luster to the dwindling ranks of Italian tenors for many years to come.
His opposite number, baritone Thomas Hampson, was nowhere near this level. Defeated at every turn (and going counter to expected wisdom) as the four villains, Hampson was primarily a victim of the Met’s miscasting department. Where to begin? Let’s take Councilor Lindorf, a dark bass with a bit of a top extension whose lines skim the boundaries of operatic villainy in his opening number, “Dans les rôles d’amoureux.” But where were the sardonic asides, the hearty laughter, the feeling of dread this character must exude by strictly vocal means? There were none to be had.
Moving on to his Coppélius, Hampson sounded a shade livelier. Here was a chance for him to chew up the scenery as the demented inventor. Deprived of his aria, as previously noted, the substitute Eyes Trio came and went with hardly a ripple. Unfortunately, on the radio one is bereft of images; the voice and, by implication, the power of the imagination must take over for want of sight. Where I felt Hampson could have shined was in the Antonia act. Now there was an opportunity to make up for lost ground. No such luck! The requisite demonic quality, that satanic spark of evil incarnate, was totally lacking in Thomas’ all-too sedate portrayal. It was tantamount to sending a Valentin to do Mephisto’s job.
And why was that? Most likely through those missing vocal means I just mentioned. I’ve been privileged to see or hear the four villains executed by some of the best singing-actors in the business: Norman Treigle, Geraint Evans, George London (also with diminished vocal means), Gabriel Bacquier, Thomas Stewart (a noted Wotan in his time), Samuel Ramey, and James Morris and Alan Held, both with their imposing height and physical advantages. Hampson may have had the height, but not the obligatory vocal resources necessary to pull it off. His Dappertutto in the Venetian act might have saved the day, but here again his Diamond Aria sounded out of sorts and simply unidiomatic. The legato was labored, and the downward transposition a most puzzling postscript. Hampson has much better top notes than bottom ones. So why not sing it in the original key of E major then, instead of E flat? I’m still scratching my head over that one.
Kate Lindsey was the personification of the poet’s Muse and steadfast companion (and conscience) Nicklausse in the expanded portions of this role. Her voice sailed through the additional music with ease and assurance, and her extra aria in Act II, a most emotionally wrought number, literally stopped the show. Erin Morley’s A above high C as the loony mechanical doll Olympia, in her ditzy aria, “Les oiseaux dans la charmille,” also earned hefty acclaim. Her precisely executed runs and elaborate florid passages took one’s breath away.
Moving on to the later acts, Hibla Gerzmava’s Antonia was another fresh-voiced Slavic artist (from Abkhazia) whose emotional commitment to the part overcame some screechy vocal patches in the taxing trio with the sturdy contralto of Olesya Petrova as her Mother. Her duet with Hoffmann, “C’est une chanson d’amour,” was also finely handled. There’s not much to say about Christine Rice’s Giulietta, except to note that her voice blended well with Lindsey’s in the familiar Barcarolle. Through no fault of her own, Rice did what she could with Giulietta, one of those unrewarding roles that have been relegated to non-existent status throughout the years.
The other singers in the cast — tenor Dennis Peterson’s dual assumption of Spalanzani and Nathanaël, David Pittsinger’s Luther and expertly vocalized Crespel, David Crawford’s Hermann, and especially the canny interpretations of Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz (whose delightful couplets, “Jour et nuit,” pleased the ear), and the cacophonous Pitichinacchio by Tony Stevenson — were all splendidly done and quite convincing sonically.
Maestro Yves Abel attacked the prelude and many of the orchestral passages that permeate this work with swift tempos and relentless vigor. Perhaps too much vigor: where the music could have stood a tad more relaxation or expansion for the sheer enjoyment of the score itself if nothing else, Abel opted to press on.
All right, I buy that. This rapid approach does have its precedent in early 78s from Weimar Republic Germany, the setting and style for this production. Bowler hats and black frock coats were the fashion rule. However, I’m not sure the prevailing dreariness of the backdrops or the Expressionist aspect of the staging and design work did much to enliven the proceedings. If Les Contes d’Hoffmann left this listener wanting more, that’s saying something for Offenbach’s unfinished tale.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
Which of the many movies John Ford directed throughout his life can be called his greatest? Some critics might say Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, or How Green Was My Valley, while others may cite the Cavalry trilogy or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as the best examples of the director’s work.
For my money, however, it has got to be The Searchers from 1956 (based on the book by Alan Le May, which itself was based on dozens of actual kidnapping cases by Comanches and Kiowa Indians), a grandiose statement of Shakespearean proportions in its use of language (sometimes stoic, sometimes overly descriptive), location (Monument Valley, Utah), comic relief to dissipate the rising tension (the loony bird Mose, the Jorgenson clan, the feud between Martin Pawley and Charlie McCorry for the affections of Laurie Jorgenson, the preacher-turned-Texas Ranger Captain Clayton), and, of course, supremely memorable characterizations, the finest of which is John Wayne’s.
Wayne gives a towering performance as Ethan Edwards, a man obsessed with rescuing his kidnapped niece, Debbie (Lana Wood as a child, big sister Natalie Wood as a teenager), from the arms of a Comanche chief named Scar (the ageless Henry Brandon) who raided his brother Aaron’s prairie-like abode. Failing to realize that he himself is scarred by his past — not just from battle but with the taint of racism, along with his fear and loathing of miscegenation — Ethan lives out his bigotry in a search for his lost soul. It seems that he and Chief Scar are equally motivated by feelings of revenge for the atrocities perpetrated on their family and loved ones.
Ethan’s adopted nephew, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter, in another indelible portrait) — one-eighth Cherokee in his words, but nothing but a half-breed according to Ethan — acts as his conscience and guide through this minefield of hate and vengeance, a Jiminy Cricket trying to keep his uncle honest about his motives in their five-year-long search for Debbie. There’s a poetic rhythm and unmistakable melancholy to their journey, which twists and turns in the manner of Homer’s The Odyssey.
Ford wisely keeps the dialogue to a minimum. For example, at the start we merely sense Ethan’s unspoken feelings for his brother’s wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan), a lost amour from his youth. Their fleeting looks and gestures say more than words can put together. The opening number, “What Makes a Man to Wander” (performed by the Sons of the Pioneers), states the story’s theme right from the outset — it reappears at the end, serving the same function as a Greek chorus in summarizing prior events:
What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?
Ride away – ride away – ride away
Although the score is credited to the Austrian-born Max Steiner, the song was composed by Stan Jones, a sometime member of Ford’s stock company. But the true focus remains on Wayne’s character. After many privations and dead-ends, Ethan eventually finds and brings Debbie back to civilization, but he cannot partake of the happy homecoming. He stands outside the doorway, forever apart, forever searching for his soul — lost in his own contemplative world, as he walks slowly away. Ethan Edwards, as well as the viewer, instinctively knows the answer to the song’s query of what made this man turn his back on home: born a loner, he will live out the remainder of his life alone and away from so-called civilization.
One of Duke Wayne’s greatest accomplishments on screen is the depth to which he was able to plummet to get at Ethan’s brooding demeanor, i.e., that of the rugged individualist wounded by society’s encroachment, who seeks redemption for his transgressions by doing that which most men refuse or are afraid to do; to face the hardships head-on, only to retreat into the background once their duty is done.
Oddly, Ethan knows an awful lot about the Comanche’s culture and lifestyle (“You speak good Comanche,” queries Chief Scar at one point. “Someone teach you?”), which opens up a whole series of issues as to how and where he gained such in-depth knowledge in the first place, or why he manifests such unmitigated hatred of the Indians.
Wayne also learned about single-mindedness from his own life experiences and in how fellow actor, Henry Fonda, treated the twisted martinet Lt. Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache (1948). In addition, he took aspects of his portrayals of Tom Dunson in Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) and Captain Nathan Brittles from Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to arrive at a composite of anti-hero Ethan Edwards. The miracle of his performance, then, is that Wayne manages to make a detestable bigot into a real personality — a warts-and-all portrait of a hateful man whose natural instincts for survival clash with his unconscious need for family.
Aided and abetted by his mentor “Pappy” Ford, Wayne dredged up the darkness that resided within his own psyche: Ethan is Lucifer after the fall, trying to regain a measure of his humanity; Odysseus after the wars, alone on the Western plains, pining for hearth and home; or Captain Ahab, driven to madness and obsession by his desire to even the score with those who annihilated his kinfolk. He drives others to the same level of madness by his unilateral actions — for example, the desperate Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carrey Jr.), who upon learning of his fiancé Lucy’s death at the hands of the Comanches rides unwittingly into their camp and to his death.
The other cast members, all of them good, contribute mightily to the ambience of this classic Western saga. They include Ward Bond, Hank Worden, Ken Curtis, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Vera Miles, Antonio Moreno, Pippa Scott, and Warren Coy. Wayne’s son Patrick makes a cameo appearance as a Union recruit. Fess Parker was originally tapped for the role of Martin, but the Disney Studios refused to allow his participation since Parker was tied up with promotional duties as Davy Crockett, a part that Wayne later played in the self-directed The Alamo.
With outstanding location photography by Winton C. Hoch, and a concise screenplay by Frank Nugent (The Quiet Man, Fort Apache), The Searchers influenced scores of motion pictures, among them David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, George Lucas’ Star Wars series, and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and to a limited extent Kevin Costner and Michael Blake’s Dances With Wolves.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes