Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "The Quiet Man" (1952)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

There's no question that director John Ford is perhaps best remembered for the sweeping visuals of his films. Ford was one of the most prominent and influential directors of Hollywood's Golden Age, and to most people, his name is synonymous with John Wayne-starring Westerns like Stagecoach (1939), Rio Grande (1950), and The Searchers (1956). To think of John Ford is to think of gasp-inducing Technicolor vistas of Monument Valley, the red earth contrasted against silky-blue skies with hyper-masculine cowboys gazing upon the view with a mix of admiration of what they can see and fear of what they can't.

But, as much as his reputation is staked in the American West, he also frequently turned his gaze east to Ireland. Three of his record four Best Director Oscars came for films that were set on the Emerald Isle; in fact, his lone Best Picture winner, How Green Was My Valley (1941), is a coming-of-age tale set in an Irish town undergoing economic upheaval. Being the son of Irish immigrants, it comes as no surprise that he would feel the pull to tell stories in and of his familial land.

The Quiet Man, his 1952 film that would win him his fourth and final Best Director Oscar, combines Ford's interests in these two worlds by casting John Wayne as Sean Thornton, a former American boxer who returns to Ireland to purchase his childhood home. Once he arrives, he immediately falls in love with the woman next door, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara). He wishes to marry her, but her bullish older brother, Squire "Red" Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), refuses to grant him her dowry. Sean shrugs it off, not realizing the importance of the dowry to Irish wedding tradition. So he must win back Mary Kate's affections and win over Will so that the couple may finally live blissfully.

And sure enough, Ford brings his familiar visual flair to the affair. "Lush" may be the most apt word to describe the film.

More after the jump.

As is to be expected of a Ford film, there are plenty of stunning shots of the rolling green Irish landscape. I mean, just look at these images:

These are beautiful images, certainly. But they also highlight one of Ford's greatest strengths as a director: his use of the long shot. A long shot is a shot in which, commonly, the depth of the image allows a character to be placed in relation to their surroundings. In Ford's hands, these shots allow him to capture the majesty of the surrounding landscape (he was also a pioneer in location shooting) while also placing his characters within them. In his Westerns, the barren landscape implies "emptiness" and the potential dangers that lurk just out of sight. In this film, the landscape shots adds to the romantic atmosphere, both for the land and the relationship between Sean and Mary Kate.

But if there's one thing that his long shots prove, it's that Ford was a master of filling every frame with visual information. Take, for example, the first meeting between Sean and Mary Kate. Sean stops to smoke, and his eye is caught by a fiery redhead in a blue dress herding some sheep:

Notice how much green dominates each of these images. But where Sean's clothing seems to blend in with the landscape, Mary Kate clearly stands out, the reds and blues in her dress contrasting significantly from her surroundings. The emphasis, obviously, is on Sean's vision of her, highlighted by the matching red hues in their clothing (Sean's tie and Mary Kate's dress). But by placing her in the larger context of the land, Ford situates her as part of this world, one that's still being unveiled to Sean.

It's more interesting that, as the film progresses and their relationship deepens, Mary Kate's costuming further equates her with the idea of home. For example, in the movie's most romantic scene, Mary Kate's emerald dress symbolizes her Irish heritage, wrapped in the drenched embrace of hunky American Sean:

And later, as Sean contemplates whether he should break his vow to never fight again in order win Mary Kate's dowry, notice how the blues and whites in Mary Kate's dress matches the dishes on the shelf behind her:

In both cases, her costumes turn her into a symbol of home: in the former shot, home in the national sense, and in the latter, in the familial sense.

Yet the most striking sequence in the film is one in which there is hardly any background imagery. After being knocked out at his wedding to Mary Kate, Sean dreams of the fight that ended his boxing career, the one in which he accidentally killed his opponent in the ring. The scene is marked by its spareness, made up mostly of closeups against a blank background, with only a single light in the top left corner:

There's not a single word spoken during this scene, yet it contains some of the most effective visual storytelling of the film. The spareness of the cinematography goes a long way, and Ford's peerless direction frames the scene as a powerful requiem for two lives that ended in that moment: both "Trooper Thornton" and his unnamed opponent. But the most powerful force in this scene is Wayne himself.

*Best Shot*

For all of Wayne's legacy as a Western icon, it's easy to forget that Wayne had a remarkable gravitas as an actor. His performance as Sean is one of my personal favorites of his career, and shows much more range than many of his Western performances. Here, in this shot, we see the anguish of the situation on his face, the horror in his eyes, the sweat beading on his face. For an actor most famous for his rugged masculinity and steel-nerved reserve, it's here that he shows his vulnerability, regret, and astonishment. It's a performance from Wayne the Actor rather than Wayne the Icon, and the film is all the better for it.


Daniel said...

LOVE this scene. It's so evocatively shot and lit - almost like a dream, but the fear, guilt, and hurt on Sean's face is all too real.

abstew said...

those landscape pics are so beautiful!

and i can't say that i've ever been a huge fan of wayne, but he's wonderful in this. especially in this "flashback" sequence.

dusty said...

I also picked the close-up of Wayne's face during the boxing match. I thought I might be the only person selecting a shot without O'Hara in it since she's clearly the film's favorite thing to look at. But in a way not having her in these frames help us understand why the Wayne character would be happy to let her steal the rest of the movie from him. Anyway, great write-up. I love that you walk us through the movie before sharing your "best" shot.