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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Thursday, May 24, 2007

John Farrow

I went to MOMA tonight to revisit Cukor's A Bill of Divorcement, and found myself watching John Farrow's 1940 remake instead. (The switch was noted in small print at the bottom of the daily schedule at the front desk, but the ticket seller at MOMA didn't feel the need to warn me. That's pretty much par for the course at MOMA....) As I took in Farrow's somberly lit, solemnly dramatic staging, I thought of how Cukor likes to goose heavy material, getting the actors to yell or jump across the room or do anything to liven the joint up - and then throws in a bit of sleight-of-hand naturalism to trick us into accepting the extravagance as part of the character development.

None of that here...but Farrow is an interesting guy too. It's a mistake to overrate him, and certainly this film isn't one of his career peaks: probably no one could do anything much with this wacko play, and Farrow characteristically accepts the drama at face value, sticking with the arc of dramatic tension instead of exploring subtext.

There was one striking visual motif, though. As the story starts climbing its arc, Farrow produces his first good effect, panning the camera so that a servant enters the room behind Maureen O'Hara, through a door in the middle background of the shot. It's a small moment in itself, but the rejection of the stage-left/stage-right convention couples with the rising tension - I thought of Dreyer, in the way the composition was changed by blocking only. A moment later, O'Hara is jittery at finding the front door open, and the servant has to calm her down, after which she strides into her living room: and Farrow scores big with his third door effect in a row, as the open door through which O'Hara has entered mysteriously closes, and we see for the first time the Adolphe Menjou character, hiding behind the door in long shot as the camera reverse-tracks with O'Hara and loses Menjou.

This proclivity for making people materialize from the center of the frame can be found in other Farrow films: I instantly thought of Ray Milland's uncanny appearances in Alias Nick Beal.

Farrow's camera, which gets very mobile in the late 40s, is only modestly fluid in this film. But I noted one Farrowesque moment where the camera is following Menjou and C. Aubrey Smith out of a room, and Menjou has an angry outburst that momentarily swings him into the distorted foreground of the still-moving camera.

That's all. If you want to check out Farrow, don't use this film: try Five Came Back, You Came Along, Two Years Before the Mast, The Big Clock, or Alias Nick Beal. Thanks to David Thomson, whose entry in A Biographical Dictionary of Film tipped me off to Farrow.

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Blogger David said...

Great post on Farrow. Was bowled over by The Big Clock, but haven't managed to tarck down anything of comparable entertainment value by JF yet. That one film certainly made me think him a talent to explore further though. David Eherenstein advised me that the book was worth checking out too, and it sure was. The undercurrents of homosexuality between Laughton and MacReady are more prominent in the book, and the murdered mistress is quaintly described as "a part-time liz".
Robert Mitchum bluntly described Farrow as a sadist, for what that's worth.
Long to see Nick Beale...

May 26, 2007 4:33 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

ALIAS NICK BEAL is probably the best second stop, and it's the one that most resembles THE BIG CLOCK.

I've always felt that the script for THE BIG CLOCK typed the movie as light-hearted entertainment, and that Farrow was working against it and trying to give the events in the film a gravity that they weren't intended to have. Some disagree with that view, though, and I haven't seen the film lately.

May 26, 2007 11:40 AM  
Blogger David said...

I think the darkness is there in the material of THE BIG CLOCK, and it's certainly there in the book. But the writers seems to be working overtime to inject fun and light things into the film, there's maybe an anxiety about it becoming too heavy. Farrow certainly seems very interested in the bad guys and the darker elements, and plays them for all they're worth. Also, Laughton is inherently so interesting that he weights the film. Although Elsa Lanchester supplies a lot of the humour and she's a fine comedienne...

May 28, 2007 10:57 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I recall that the way the mistress's death was handled was one of the things that made me think that the script was engineered to light-thriller specifications: I had the sense that neither the characters nor we were expected to mourn her much, that she was the kind of entertainment casualty that is the mark of a light thriller. And Milland was a bit of an action hero in the film, though fortunately he absorbs some angst from the atmosphere. Again, it's been a while.

May 28, 2007 12:05 PM  

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