By Noel Vera
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
(Yet another film on the soon-to-vanish [Nov. 29] Filmstruck — in this case easily found on other venues [Google Play and iTunes] but difficult to find in Cinemascope; even Turner Classic Movies has resorted to showing the cropped pan-and-scan version. Filmstruck presents the film in its original aspect ratio, and if ever the term “quietly glorious” applied to a picture it applies to this. Again the plea: make the site [or one like it] available again — and make it available to other countries!)
SAY THE name “Jacques Tourneur” and the first word come to mind for most folks is “horror” (the second is possibly “cat”). Tourneur had been directing since 1931, mainly shorts, finally made a splash early ’40s working for producer Val Lewton in Cat People (low budget, eerily beautiful) and I Walked With a Zombie (despite the pulpy title, my favorite adaptation of Jane Eyre). Say “Tourneur” and the word “westerns” rarely pops up — but some of his westerns do in fact represent his finest work.
Wichita is late period Tourneur, halfway through a decade when he went freelance (before this he was with RKO, working his way up from B pictures like Cat People to A projects like Out of the Past). It was his first film in Cinemascope which, unlike other filmmakers, he embraced: Cinemascope “reproduces approximately our field of vision” he notes, adding that the format, because of the expanse of space on display, “makes it necessary to compose.”
Tourneur composed all right, but not in the flashy manner of a Welles or a Hitchcock. Critic Pauline Kael sniffed that his films with Lewton “aren’t really very good,” suggesting they’re afflicted with good taste; I submit they’re more understated than anything — a distinct dark sensibility subtly suggested.
In Cat and Zombie and in the classic noir Out of the Past, Tourneur used shadows to great effect, evoking a claustrophobic twilight world of perverse lust, supernatural transformations, and the undead. In Wichita, Tourneur worked in color, where shadows are less pronounced, and in widescreen, where shadows are less effective at evoking confinement — which compels one to wonder: what can Tourneur evoke, in a world of bright hues and vistas?
Tourneur answers the question in his opening sequence: a cattle drive led by one Clint Wallace (Walter Sande) stops for the day, to allow the animals to feed and fatten up prior to selling them at their destination; suddenly a speck is spotted moving across the low hills of the horizon. The cowboys gaze at the speck warily, wondering if it was alone or friend or foe; eventually one of the hands is assigned to ride out and settle the issue.
What do vast spaces evoke? Why fear — the sense of constant vulnerability. Anything can come at you in those spaces, from any direction; and thanks to guns (which all the folks in the plains carry) anyone can strike you where you’re standing. From evoking claustrophobia in Cat People and Out of the Past, Tourneur, in his one major Cinemascope effort, teaches us to appreciate the different but equally fine terrors of agoraphobia.
The speck grows into a buffalo hunter named Wyatt Earp (Joel Mcrea), who’s traveling in the same direction as the drive, hoping to establish a business in Wichita. He’s guardedly offered dinner (Tourneur has Earp on his horse in the background looking down on the cowboys as they’re arrayed in a row facing him: while he’s perched high up and they’re crosslegged on the ground, their shadowy implacable backs radiate cautious hospitality); later two of the men, brothers Hal (Rayford Barnes) and Gyp (Lloyd Bridges) Clements attempt to rob him, an attempt which he easily rebuffs. Turns out Wallace’s earlier speculation was right after all: the man does represent a threat, but not in an immediate straightforward way.
When Earp does arrive in Wichita, the camera ranges easily indoors and out; the buildings (painted an intriguing combination of warm wood, mint green, lemon yellow, burnt red, and the like) keep out the craze-inducing horizon, giving the impression of sheltered greenery in the midst of the Great Plains. Earp is soon offered not a business proposition but a job: the fast-growing town is about to receive an influx of cowboys (Wallace’s crew, earlier encountered) and is about to be torn up in a fit of drunken exuberance. Would Earp consider being marshal, to help keep the peace?
Earp turns the offer down; the cowboys arrive, bringing with them the wildness of the plains they spent months crossing. In a wide high-angle shot Tourneur records the teeming chaos of men running riot, a street lamp standing useless guard to the left corner; suddenly a cowboy on horseback rides across the screen, smashing the lamp’s bulb.
Tragedy strikes (Tourneur’s abrupt staging — a sustained buildup, a clutching of a small chest — underlines the randomness of that tragedy) and Earp feels compelled to pin on the tin star and be sworn in to duty. In the same sense of quiet but implacable authority with which he subdued the Clement brothers, bank robbers, now the wild-partying cowpunchers, Earp declares a gun ban in Wichita.
Does the film support gun control (and since when was gun control a serious issue in 1955?)? Yes, basically — Daniel B. Ullman’s script and Tourneur’s way of causing one’s skin to crawl whenever walls fall away and the ground stretches out for over a mile — make their stance clear. But there are ambiguities: it takes guns to enforce Earp’s ban, plus a double load of buckshot (as Earp points out “I figure I can take out about five of you at this range.”). It also takes — as the NRA often asserts — a “good man with a gun” to keep the ban effective. Granted Earp was backed into taking the position of marshal and that he’s a duly sworn lawman — how many Joel McCreas can you count on to ride into town and keep the peace?
Where other actors radiate charisma or sexuality, McCrea comes across as decent — not exactly a quality you look for in a Hollywood star. But McCrea is decent in a believable way, charming and perhaps a little clueless on any subject outside of his immediate occupation, whether journalism (Foreign Correspondent) or small-town spirituality (Stars in My Crown) or this film — he’s so damned likeable you can be forgiven when he declares martial (marshal?) law and you let him get away with it.
That’s perhaps the price Tourneur is willing to pay to tell this story: McCrea’s Earp, like the present president of the Philippines, is willing to wage a ruthless war on guns (as opposed to drugs — but it could be any issue) but is also willing to do so judiciously, responsibly. No careless killings (several times he had the chance and refused), no delegating the task to incompetents (at most he hands a firearm over to the soon-to-be-equally-famous Bat Masterson [Keith Larsen] who acts as his deputy), no “collateral damage” among civilians, at least none directly through his actions. Earp, unlike Duterte, is a genuinely good man with a gun, “good” in the sense that he not only means well, he’s effective at his job.
And it’s not just Earp as the good man; Tourneur carefully sketches the members of the community and the folks outside that community. Businessmen Sam McCoy (Walter Coy) and Doc Black (Edgar Buchanan) are the kind of elderly white men who control the town, who like Earp’s lawman integrity, who are dismayed when his integrity runs roughshod over their business interests. Tourneur often shoots them in groups conferring and plotting on how they would handle Earp, and when they surround him to try reason with him your skin crawls yet again — they’re like wary wolves surrounding a bull, looking for a weak spot. You want to hiss at Wallace and his hands, but when the cattleman learns of a second tragedy he has the decency to express regrets — besides the unlikeliness of Earp, yet another element that feels so fairy-tale in this day and age: people aren’t hypocritical when they express regret over a gun death. They pause and look for change.
If Tourneur ultimately relegates the film to the realm of fable (the real Earp was a mere police officer, not the town marshal, and left because he had gotten into a fistfight with his boss’ political enemy and was dismissed), at least the director gives us this particular fable: modestly scaled, gracefully told, honest in the way its characters respond to the shocks and disruptions of Tourneur’s world. He gives us — no, he reminds us — of how a legal and effective gun ban might look like, and considering the conditions of either the country of my birth or the country that has adopted me, that world with its strict ban looks better and better by the day.