Friday, October 5, 2012

Western Noir: "My Darling Clementine" (1946)

Many films based on historical fact must be changed in order to be entertaining. Sometimes the changes, while noticeable, actually help the film ("The Untouchables"). Sometimes, the changes hurt ("American Outlaws"). In the case of this movie, John Ford and Henry Fonda create one of the greatest westerns ever made, historical facts be damned.

Henry Fonda is Wyatt Earp. Along with his three brothers, he is driving cattle near Tombstone, Arizona when his livestock is rustled and his youngest brother is murdered. The only people who knew the Earps were out in the desert were the Clantons, led by Walter Brennan. Wyatt stays on in Tombstone, becoming marshal after the old one quits. Now, he can look for his brother's killer, with his brothers as his trustworthy deputies, and clean up the town.

Wyatt meets Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), who runs the town's gambling business when he's not carrying on with dance hall singer Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), or leaving town on shady dealings. Wyatt and Doc strike a shaky friendship, thanks to knowledge of their respective gun skills. The Earps settle into the community, and then a mysterious woman named Clementine (Cathy Downs) arrives, looking for Doc. Wyatt takes a liking to her, Doc rejects her, and a series of events lead to a certain gunfight at a certain O.K. corral.

Western history buffs have been apoplectic about what John Ford got wrong here in order to make a better film. Sure, many of the characters who ended up being killed did not die as portrayed. The area of Tombstone looks nothing like Monument Valley (where this was shot), and so on. In this case I just did not care.

Imagine if Jacques Tourneur had directed a black and white western. "My Darling Clementine," despite its light-sounding song-inspired title, is a dark and violent film. Much of it occurs at night, and shadows feel the screen. Not since "Cat People" have I been so enthralled with black and white photography, courtesy of three-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer Joseph MacDonald. Ford has some humorous touches here and there, but these moments never turn into a bunch of misplaced guffaws and giggles. The barren landscape is impressive, as is Ford's always expert direction. His confidence behind the camera is astounding.

Henry Fonda is the quintessential Wyatt Earp. His Midwestern accent as Earp works, and he gets great support from Ward Bond and Tim Holt as his deputized brothers. Walter Brennan gently spoofed his role here in "Support Your Local Sheriff!" (a funnier western comedy than "Blazing Saddles"), so I forgot how menacing his Clanton patriarch was. The two women, Linda Darnell and Cathy Downs, are beautiful (if not similar-looking), and anchor the mostly male cast. The O.K. Corral gunfight has been reenacted many times on film, with no one ever seeming to get it "exactly" right, but it has rarely been as suspenseful or silent (no musical score to detract) as it is here.

"My Darling Clementine" is so good and so rewarding, you can forgive any errors. No true western fan should leave it out of their personal canon. They don't make them like this anymore. (* * * * *) out of five stars.