Saturday, 8 May 2010

The Quiet Man

John Ford's Academy Award winning film The Quiet Man (1952) is, in many ways, a story about place and the rediscovery of it. In the film, the expatriate Irish-American Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returns to the village of 'Innisfree' to reclaim his family home. However, his journey has less to do with the actual reclaiming of the property and more to do with the rediscovery of the past through a literal journey in a time. This place, where the character was born and where he eventually hopes to die, is significant, but is somewhere that has only previously existed in the memory and imagination. A second-hand Ireland passed down through the tall tales and fond reminisces of parents and grandparents, where the greens are a little too green, the people a little too broad and the atmosphere closer to caricature. It is Ford's Ireland as much as it is the Ireland of Thornton; this larger than life place presented to us in an idealised fashion that has no bearing on the actual Ireland as it existed in 1952, where the director goes to great lengths to exaggerate every detail, as memories are exaggerated in the mind.

Our first glimpse of this traditional Ireland - a horse and cart, signalling the switch from the modern to the old-fashioned - is shared with the central character, as both he and we catch a glimpse of it through the railway station window. In the literal sense, the framing of this shot as a window into another world becomes an invitation, both to the character and to the audience. This horse and cart are therefore not only a reminder of the archaic, or the out-dated, but a means of transportation, from our world into the next.


The Quiet Man directed by John Ford, 1952:

This contrast, between the old and the new, will be made explicit in the following shot, as the horse and cart, situated in the foreground, make their way beneath the arch of the railway bridge on their way into the village. As the locomotive thunders overhead, marking the horizon where the blue of the sky meets the green of the valley, the film is signalling the shift from the contemporary world of this character (represented by the train) to the otherworld of the film.


The Quiet Man directed by John Ford, 1952:

As the buggy departs, the Greek-chorus of characters, peering out from over the wall and indulging in gossip and idle chit-chat, become an immediate surrogate for the viewing audience. Asking questions about this character, who at this point in the story is still unknown and without conventional introduction, while also establishing the thread of community - as in, a world defined by these characters - that will be further explored throughout.


The Quiet Man directed by John Ford, 1952:

Although in some aspects the film could be seen as playing up to the perceived stereotype of the Irish - in keeping with subsequent Hollywood movies, such as Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) and Finian's Rainbow (1968) - the film nonetheless illustrates Ford's great warmth and tremendous affection for these characters; over-embellished, as characters in Ford's films often were, but only as a means of turning even the most humble of supporting players into a bold, heroic figure, commanding the landscape as if it were a part of them.

Adapted from a short story by the Irish writer Maurice Walsh, The Quiet Man is a film often referred to, simplistically speaking, as a romantic melodrama, with the main selling point being the relationship between Thornton and the beautiful spinster Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara). However, this surface layer - or selling point - is only one component of a film that has far greater themes beyond whatever was the more popular reading of the time. The romantic element might admittedly be a fairly large component of the story - in the sense that it is motivated by all the other elements at play - it is nonetheless a storyline that sits side-by-side with the other themes, which are perhaps more representative of Ford's own interests as both an artist and a storyteller. Obviously, we recognise immediately the presence of John Wayne, who appeared in countless films by Ford - often as various rough around the edges frontiersmen, soldiers and cavalrymen - but the actual image of the actor in this environment, and in this particular romantic narrative, seems to suggest something slightly off about his character from the very first scene. A hidden depth that will eventually be explained in the second act of the film, but which nonetheless adds subtle shades to our interpretation of him and the general questions that we (and that sort-of Greek chorus) ask ourselves during those opening few minutes.

As a result, the film has an air of mystery to it, as we're left to wonder why Thornton has decided to return to Ireland now, at this point in time, and why he seems so reluctant to engage in the merriment and the frivolity of the local booze hounds as they delight in pulling half-remembered stories of the Thornton ancestry from the murky puddles of the past. Has the character really come back to this place to reclaim the house where he was born, or is there some other motivating factor; some secret shame that has forced him to abscond and find solace in the last place anyone would ever think to look for him?

Ford amplifies this uncertainly through the blocking of scenes, as characters with half-smiles dart their eyes back and forth to one another in a silent judgement, or in the earlier sequences of characters rummaging through Thornton's rucksack as if there's something more to this than simply the shock of the new. However, in a later scene, in which Thornton returns to his newly purchased farm, only to find the fire still burning and the dust and grime swept into a pile in the centre of the room, we think, momentarily, that the past-life of this character has finally caught up with him. The look of this scene, with its vivid studio lighting and special effects to simulate a violent thunder storm, seems closer to the eventual cinema of the Italian director Mario Bava; with the splashes of yellow and purple on the farmhouse wall, and that billowing curtain as it dances in the draught of a broken window, seeming entirely removed from the usual, more characteristic Fordian quirks.


The Quiet Man directed by John Ford, 1952:

Eventually, the threat turns out to be none other than Mary Kate, and the scene climaxes with one of the most famous and iconic screen kisses in cinema history. However, the lead up to this moment, and that tangible sense of a character backed into a corner and ready to lash out for the purposes of self-preservation, confirm our suspicions that there is more to this Sean Thornton than his far too convenient back-story might suggest.

The revelation of this hidden character is eventually covered in the film's second act, in a bravura flashback sequence that remains one of the most incredible pieces of cinema that Ford ever created. Without question, the most jarring moment in the film, this flashback of Thornton's to the tragic boxing match that ended his career and forced him to leave America, is a marvel of purely visual storytelling, character building and pure filmmaking ingenuity. As the character is KO'd by the right-hook of the mean-tempered landowner "Red" Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) on the day of his wedding, Ford cuts back from Thornton's prone frame to the blinding spotlight as it cools on a shot of Thornton, as pugilist, traumatised and unnerved; looking down at the audience - or through us - at the wounded body of his foe. The actual structure of this scene, with its deliberately odd framing and disorientating use of montage, particularly of expressionless faces, can be seen as an influence on everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Martin Scorsese, with the editing in films like A Married Woman (Une femme mariée, 1964) and Raging Bull (1980) in particular showing the influence of Ford, and specifically this sequence of shots.


The Quiet Man directed by John Ford, 1952:

The scene seems deliberately structured to disrupt the narrative, throwing both the audience and the character into a kind of chaos. Before this scene, we sort of have a sense of where the film is going, or who this character really is, and yet, through this short series of shots, the film has completely undermined the romantic aspect of the story; pushing the film back towards the figure of Thornton as this "quiet man", and the question of why the image of Ireland - and the need to reclaim or rediscover that second-hand existence - has become so important to him. Therefore, the film, beyond this point, is largely about defining this place; this creation of Ford's, as he delights in documenting the layers of this society, its rules and inner-workings, and how these factors or ideas add to the romantic element, creating comedy or drama from the often farcical interactions of his characters. The film, in this sense, shows Ford at his most self-indulgent (perhaps for the first time in his career), as instead of moving the film on or bringing the audience closer to a natural conclusion, he allows these scenes to play out; letting the audience bask in the atmosphere or the richness of these scenes of the world simply existing.

There's a painterly quality to many of these scenes, as moments of social interaction take on an element of still life. We can look at these frames, robbed of movement, devoid of subtext or narrative chronology, and nonetheless read their specific intentions. An image of a man playing an accordion, while another man looks on approvingly; an elderly man, half-cut, gazing into his pint glass and wondering if it's half full or half empty; the scenes of characters making small talk in drawing rooms, or tending the bedside of a dying man, have an affinity to Velázquez, or the early work of Vincent Van Gogh; where the framing of these moments, and the lighting of cinematographer Winton C. Hoch, help to suggest a story, or the relationship between characters, in the most basic, visual sense.


Old Woman Cooking Eggs by Diego Velázquez, 1618:


The Quiet Man directed by John Ford, 1952:


The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh, 1885:


The Quiet Man directed by John Ford, 1952:


By the Deathbed by Edvard Munch, 1895:


The Quiet Man directed by John Ford, 1952:

These interior scenes, where their low-lighting and largely subdued colour schemes of browns, blacks, greys and yellows, are wonderfully contrasted by the natural beauty of the exterior locations; where the overwhelming greenery of the hills and the valleys, or the pale blues of an endless sky, remind us of Monet's great landscapes, rich in colour and texture.


The Fisherman's house at Varengeville by Claude Monet, 1882:


The Quiet Man directed by John Ford, 1952:

These scenes of blarney and adventure are intercut with the less characteristic elements of melodrama; where the courtship between the two central characters and the particular sense of longing is illustrated in Ford's typical expressive style: e.g. as thunderstorms, or raindrops on a window. This is, on the one hand, that old Hollywood approach of showing a character's vulnerability without having them cry on camera; where the should-be tears of Thornton or Mary Kate are exaggerated in such a way that this outpouring of emotion becomes an actual physical presence; an expression of such magnitude that it becomes a manifestation of nature itself.


The Quiet Man directed by John Ford, 1952:

Through scenes such as this one, Ford is not only telling the story of these two characters in the conventional sense, but further exploring the workings of this society or the mood of a particular location. We might look at the scene of Thornton and Mary Kate's courtship and see it as two characters simply falling in love but overcome by emotion at the realisation that this world will never let their romance flourish... but then we're also seeing a kind of travelogue of the country's most beautiful haunts. We're also seeing the contrast between these two characters as representations of their individual worlds. As Thornton looks on with a quiet shock and disapproval as Mary Kate removes her stockings - and momentarily reveals her thighs - before running bare-footed through the clear stream, we're seeing the staid, officious Americanism of Thornton against the more free-spirited "Irishness" of Mary Kate; as her unashamed disregard for what Thornton sees as socially acceptable simply illustrates her more primal connection to the country that surrounds her.

This same sense can be seen in the initial meeting between Thornton and Mary Kate, as she wanders into the frame, and into the midst of this pastoral abstraction, beautifully lit and framed in a way that once again demonstrates Ford's total command of his location. Here, the blue of her shawl and the red of her hair stand out against the green field, as she finds herself surrounded by sheep in a circular, almost love-heart formation, once again illustrating the connection that these characters, Irish-born, seem to have with a world that Thornton (and Ford) will never truly comprehend.


The Quiet Man directed by John Ford, 1952:

Once again, this sequence is not simply about the moment of falling in love between two characters, but about the power of the location; or, more importantly, of rediscovering the kind of heroic romance that exists in these stories of Ireland that are passed down from generation to generation.

The film ends with a celebration of these characters and this world, as they wave and curtsy to the camera; again, acknowledging the notion that we are visitors in this imaginary universe, but now, unlike the central character, who has made a home for himself, we must leave, and return to our own less idealised reality. Although The Quiet Man is far from John Ford's greatest achievement as a filmmaker, its place within the broader categorisation of his career as a completely personal project makes it something that is worth experiencing. Simply, the appeal of The Quiet Man goes back to that notion of the still life - of time and its endless stories being recorded for the benefit of future generations - as Ford succeeds in capturing this landscape; not as it existed, but as he must have always imagined it, in his heart and mind.