Manny Farber, Critic’s Critic

Gunning for You – Manny Farber

You wouldn’t want to pick a fight with Manny Farber, generally considered along with Andrew Sarris, the godfather of serious film criticism. “Visceral” was the word most commonly associated with his writings.

He came to movies from an unusual perspective. He was a painter, one of the most celebrated still life artists of his generation. He never worked for a big paper like the New York Times or a stylish magazine like the New Yorker. Instead, his work appeared in Film Culture, Artforum, The Nation and men’s magazine Cavalier.

An early advocate of the work of Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh, he was also inclined towards lean B-films over more profligate big-budget pictures.

Chances are you will disagree with everything he said, especially when he was slicing-and-dicing one of your favorites, but it is equally guaranteed that you will marvel at his prose. His work had punch and clarity and it might just make you laugh.

Here are some of his musings on the 1960s movie scene:

Easy Rider (1969): “Dennis Hopper’s lyrical, quirky film is better than good in its handling of death…The death scenes, much more heartbreaking, much less programmed than Peckinpah’s (The Wild Bunch), come out of nowhere…The finality and present-tense quality of the killings are remarkable: the beauty issues from the quiet, the damp green countryside and a spectacular last shot zooming up from a curving road and a burning cycle.”

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): “The most troublesome aspect of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence is that the story moves faster and further than the actor who is not unlike the Tin Woodsman of Oz (O’Toole starts with a springing outward movement, to walk over the world, then turns into a pair of stilts walking in quick, short strides.)”

On Albert Finney: “The Big Eat is a growing factor in films, in effect probably invented by Finney in his Saturday Night. In his case, it was a combination effect, involving a big chomp, heavy breathing, slashes of braggadocio, a side swivel, and baring of teeth. This emphasized eating has been fined and slowed down in his latest work, but within the timespan of four Finneyfilms it has taken hold, cementing a new convention for giving an underside, the animalistic traits, to character.”

The Ipcress File (1965): “This is a Chandleresque thriller that has no thrills, with an antihero who is more like a sugary flavor than an actor doing a Philip Marlowe…the only suspense is how slowly a knight (non-played ‘superbly’ by Michael Caine) can put dimes in a parking meter, crack eggs in a skillet or flatfoot his way through a library.”

The Rounders (1965): “Fonda’s entry into a scene is of a man walking backward, slating himself away from the public eye. Once in a scene, the heavy jaw freezes, becomes like a concrete abutment, and he affects a clothes-hanger stance, no motion in either arm.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966): “The most famous scene is an erotic nondancer, which is neither erotic nor dancelike, in which Elizabeth Taylor suggests a gyrating milk-bottling mechanism.”

The New York Film Festival 1968: “In the category called Bloody Bores, the Festival offered Capricious Summer, Hugo and Josefin and Twenty Four Hours in a Woman’s LifeHugo and Josefin is life as seen through the eyes of a Kodak camera ad.”

On Rita Tushingham: “An even worse example of megalomaniac star who can make the simplest action have as many syllables as her name. The myth that a director makes or breaks a film is regularly disproved by this actress who…carries on a war of nerves against the other actors.”

The Graduate (1968): “Benjy…leads a split life on screen; half the time he’s hung up between Mrs. and Miss Robinson; the other half he’s at half mast; a flattened silhouette…Dustin Hoffman is laid out like an improbably menu. People are always darting into his periphery to point him out as a boy wonder…Benjamin, as it turns out, is Bill Bradley crossed with Denny Dimwit.”

It is unlikely you’ll get hold of this book Movies at a decent price since it is long out-of-print and a collector’s item but you can easily find Farber on Film, a whopping 800-page tome which covers his compete writings.

The Unforgiven (1960) ****

Largely ignored at the time and since due to similarities to The Searchers (and not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven)  this is worth a second look because it actually bears few similarities to The Searchers.

The overriding thrust (or threat) of the tale is, yes, forcible repatriation but this is a long way from John Wayne’s obsessive twenty-year hunt to kill an innocent girl. While it does ask questions about race and race hatred, it is as much an involving portrait of frontier life – breaking-in horses, cows on the roofs of houses, meals with friends – and a natural cycle of life, young girls bewailing their marital prospects, young men adrift in the wilderness agog at the prospect of visiting a town to see a saloon girl.

Audrey Hepburn plays a foundling, rumored of Native American blood, but brought up under the matriarchal gaze of Lillian Gish and fraternal protection of Burt Lancaster. But she doesn’t “play” a foundling, and certainly not someone unsure of her place in the world. She plays a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious, who can’t make up her mind between a young suitor or an Native American horse expert and her suppressed feelings towards Lancaster. She is as apt to leap on an unsaddled horse as jump fully clothed into a river.

Lancaster has a more considered role than usual, a calming influence, sometimes an intermediary, sometimes taking control. Though some characters’ reactions to Native Americans are stereotypical, Huston does not go down that line.  Following the truism that action reveals character, there is a wonderful scene breaking in the horses: while white men struggle, being thrown off or otherwise injured, the Indian simply talks gently to the horse and climbs on board and rides it, revealing that Lancaster, who hired him, saw natural dexterity beyond the stereotype.

What caught my eye most was Huston’s fluidity with the camera. In many scenes, something interesting is developing in the background, in others characters move into frame or their reaction is momentarily captured as the camera busies itself on a more central activity. There are virtually no cutaways to subsidiary characters as you would find in Ford or Hawks. When an unarmed Lancaster confronts a small group of Native Americans at his ranch the camera tracks him as he goes out and then tracks him as he comes back, tension mounting as we wait for the Native Americans over his shoulder to possibly take action. 

The thoughtful and even-handed manner in which Huston handles the material is a bridge to his more mature later works. My only gripe was Lillian Gish’s very white face, as if she had never strayed from her silent film origins or never spent a minute in the sun. Otherwise, this is absorbing and rewarding stuff, and quite unlike anything else from the period.