Monday, August 25, 2008

Region 2 Cinema: The Fugitive (1947)

(Warning: There’s a spoiler in this first paragraph.)

An unidentified priest/revolutionary (Henry Fonda) finds himself on the run in a nameless Latin American country where members of the clergy are hunted down and summarily executed. His encounters with various societal outcasts—an unwed mother (Dolores Del Rio), a slimy police informer (J. Carrol Naish, channeling his inner Peter Lorre) and another fugitive known simply as “El Gringo” (Ward Bond)—are outlined in a series of vignettes through the film, which culminates in his capture and execution, As his parishioners mourn his death, another priest enters their church and announces that he is “the fugitive’s” replacement…demonstrating the truth of Paul Heinreid’s observation in Casablanca that (and I’ve paraphrased this for the sake of brevity) “if you kill these men, hundreds would rise up to take their places.”

By the merest of coincidences (well…maybe not that mere), John Ford’s The Fugitive, a 1947 film adaptation of author Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory received a workout on TCM’s Summer of Stars Festival last night—and while it’s not currently available in this country on DVD, it can be purchased across the pond (the details of which I’ll get after a long-winded paragraph or two). It’s an essential component of any serious Ford buff’s movie collection, though some fans of the director might find it a bit slow going. Time Out remarks that it’s “one of Ford’s most turgid efforts…with an annoying tendency toward obvious religious symbolism.” My response to this is if you’re truly taken back that a director with Ford’s Catholic background would resort to “obvious religious symbolism” (think 3 Godfathers [1948]) you’ll be positively gobsmacked to learn that there’s gambling going in Rick’s (and that’s the last of the Casablanca references, I promise).

From a review of The Fugitive on The Stop Button:

While filming Citizen Kane, Orson Welles screened John Ford’s Stagecoach every night. He said everything one could do in film was done in Stagecoach. Maybe Ford heard about it, because The Fugitive looks like an Orson Welles film… and it’s not just the foreign (Mexico) shooting location with American actors surrounded by non-English speaking extras. The Fugitive is Ford’s oddest sound picture. Large portions of it don’t even need sound, just ambient music and noises. There are long sequences without any necessary speech, there’s even moments where dialogue is muted, overpowered by street music. During the scenes filmed in the Mexican city… you’d think it was Touch of Evil.

However, Ford is not the same kind of director as Welles. What works for Welles does not work for Ford. The Fugitive is arranged as a series of vignettes, but Ford can’t get enough oomph going to distinguish one from the other. Sure, there’s the change in sound design, but the storytelling focus doesn’t change. It’s easily Ford’s most experimental work–it’s easily one of the most experimental works I’ve seen from a Hollywood director–but the script works against it, particularly in the end, when the film’s finally turning around.

I was tickled to discover that I wasn’t the only one to detect a slight Wellesian flavor in Fugitive…I even felt that many of the scenes inside the church were reminiscent of Welles’ Othello (1952), with its shadowy, somewhat fog-misty interiors. Ford’s film can also be compared to The Trial (1962), a Welles concoction that ultimately rewards the patient viewer who has an urn of coffee brewed and at the ready. (I wouldn’t classify Fugitive as “turgid” or boring…but a strong argument could be made that if you added a one-armed man to the ’47 version it might grab people’s attentions more.)

But what makes Fugitive such compelling viewing is the positively breathtaking black-and-white cinematography courtesy of Gabriel Figueroa (who worked alongside Luis Bunuel on many of his classic films) and the performances of the largely Latino supporting cast—including Del Rio, Pedro Armendáriz and Leo Carrillo. It’s gratifying to see these talented thespians transcend the usual Hispanic stereotypes dictated by Hollywood; the only weakness is that this principle wasn’t applied to the lead because I truly believe Fonda was miscast. Members of Ford’s stock company—Bond and John Qualen—also deliver the goods, but I was really surprised by Robert Armstrong. Armstrong achieved silver screen immortality as filmmaker/showman Carl Denham in the original King Kong (1933) but most of his career he was hampered by one-note performances. Suffice it to say, he rises to the occasion here in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role as a police sergeant.

Universal Pictures UK released The Fugitive on a Region 2 DVD in May of this year, and it’s available from for the nominal sum of £5.95 (about $11 American)—a much better deal than the earlier edition (Dieu Est Mort) brought out by Editions Montparnasse in 2005 and still available at for €9.99 ($15 American). Whichever one you decide to get, I believe you’ll be mesmerized by this beautiful film (assuming you haven’t already seen it); though its performance at the box office was nothing short of dismal, director Ford often considered the movie as his personal favorite.

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