CLAYTON — The town plow rumbles by in the darkness, its many flashing lights reminding me of the mother ship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Time to hunker down and watch old movies.
Almost 75 by the time you read this, I love old films and discussing them with fellow cinephiles. Please let me start some controversies and heated debates about classics of the silver screen among you out there.
About 90 percent of viewers don’t really get “The Searchers”; few have ever seen “2001: A Space Odyssey” the way it was made and meant to be seen; and “Shane” may have a darker ending than you realize.
“2001” and “Shane” have shorter explanations, so let’s dispose of them first. Stanley Kubrick’s space epic was made in Cinerama, shot with a giant camera lens resembling a fishbowl, shown by a projector with a similar lens and projected onto a curved screen that enveloped the theater audience with almost 180 degrees of curvature. Most moviegoers never got a chance to see this.
The effect was stunning. You were in outer space when the classical music played, and it was hypnotic. I saw it twice in Cinerama, in Syracuse and later in Albuquerque. Watching the second time with me were my cousin John Wood and his best friend, an Apache student at Cal Tech, usually the hardest U.S. school to get into. Later on, John was an engineer at Los Alamos. These two near-geniuses critiqued the film’s special effects for me.
Several later viewings in a standard Watertown theater and on television showed how much you missed. It’s not the same movie.
You might as well be watching “2001” in black and white. The Cinerama itself was the greatest special effect, missed by millions.
According to Wikipedia, director George Stevens wanted “Shane” to point up the violence of guns, making the gunshot noise extra loud and rigging hidden wires to violently jerk back the bodies of actors Elisha Cook Jr. and Jack Palance as their characters are struck. In the climactic shootout, “Shane” (Alan Ladd) kills the three bad guys, is himself shot and rides back to the farm family to say goodbye.
They notice his wound, yet he rides away, slumping low in the saddle. Is he still bleeding? Gunshot victims have been known to lose too much blood later and die. A gunslinger mentality, “Shane” would not have wanted to die in front of the family and little boy who took him in. Stevens leaves us to wonder whether Shane rode away to die.
All three of these films make most Top 10 lists. “The Searchers” is regarded as John Wayne and John Ford’s best Western, although Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” and “The Grapes of Wrath” hit me harder, emotionally.
I contend that Ethan (Wayne) in “The Searchers” is not searching for Debbie, his niece, but that she was actually his daughter. That Ethan had a brief affair with his brother’s wife before going off to the Civil War.
Please let me mention the subtle clues that director Ford used to get by censors in the 1950s.
In the opening scene, Ethan comes home, takes Martha in his arms and, in front of the family, kisses her on the forehead. She nonverbally reacts negatively, and an ominous musical note sounds on the soundtrack. Later Ethan lifts little Debbie, thinking she is Becky. He’s been away several years.
Becky and her brother have red hair unlike Debbie, whose hair is dark like Ethan’s. That night, Ethan looks at Martha a lot.
When Ward Bond, as the Texas Ranger captain, later on is the last one out the door to chase after the Comanches, he finishes his coffee, embarrassed to silently watch Martha as she lovingly strokes Ethan’s Army coat. This is the strongest clue in the picture. Otherwise, why is this scene even here?
When Ethan returns to the burning ranch, desperately searching for family victims, Martha is the only name he yells out. In a later scene, Ethan begins to say to Marty (Jeffery Hunter), his nephew, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you …”
Marty cuts him off, thinking it’s another putdown by Ethan. Wayne’s character has realized Debbie’s true relationship to him. Still later, in another scene, Marty begins to say to an outsider, “She’s his …” Ethan cuts him off, saying “Niece!”
SPOILER ALERT: In the end, Ethan rescues Debbie, knowing she’s his daughter and only surviving immediate family. He gives her away, knowing he can’t trust himself not to change his mind and try to again kill her due to his raging hatred of the Comanches. Only he knows this and rides away alone. Our understanding this makes the ending all the more gut-wrenching.
“Citizen Kane” leaves me cold as I lose sympathy for the title character. “Casablanca” has three climaxes in the finale, and Claude Raines has all the best lines. Jean Hagen steals “Singing in the Rain.”
These last two movies suck me into watching them every time they’re on TV. And don’t get me started about “Spartacus.”
More recently, “Schindler’s List” is required viewing as is the first 45 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.” The newest of these movies is 22 years old.
Holiday films? “A Christmas Story” with the great Darren McGavin is a lot more fun to watch than “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Jimmy Stewart made many films better than that one.
Let the debates begin!
Roland Van Deusen is a Clayton resident. He served in the U.S. Navy and is a retired counselor.