Never quite considered top drawer John Ford, yet it should rank alongside Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). I’ve been talking recently about a movie completed in a single take (Grenfell, 2023) and the power of a single scene (The Manchurian Candidate, 1962), and now I’m touching upon another piece of cinematic dexterity – the fixed-camera seqeunce.
This is a beauty and it lasts four minutes. Yep, for a four-minute medium-shot scene featuring the two major characters the camera doesn’t move. Lawman Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) and Cavalry officer Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) take a break from the 40-mile journey back to the fort. You think this is where Gary is going to spring upon McCabe exactly why his presence is so necessary for Army business. But instead, the scene, driven by Gary, is set up to discover why McCabe is so agreeable to taking a temporary leave of absence from an exceptionally comfortable lifestyle back in his small town.
Sure, this scene boasts a bit of business, the waving about of cigars and some pointing and McCabe’s head bobbing around, but otherwise the camera just observes. First of all we discover that McCabe earns $20 a month more than the soldier – that is, when the officer is paid at all, three months since he saw any money – and that McCabe is on the mean side and sarcastic with it. McCabe starts puffing on a long cigar and has to be nudged to offer Gary one. “You can afford matches,” he notes when Gary produces a packet.
McCabe has temporarily upped sticks it transpires because he’s getting unwelcome heat from his hotel owning lover Belle (Annelle Hayes), on the sticky subject of marriage. The subject was brought up with a woman’s “animal cunning” when Belle asked why he was content with just taking 10 per cent of her income when, through entering into a partnership via marriage, he could receive 50 per cent. Gary is taken aback that his old pal is getting a slice off the top. And then somewhat shocked to learn that McCabe takes the same percentage from every business in town. McCabe is surprised to learn this comes as news to Gary. How else could the marshal support his lifestyle.
This mild interrogation is interrupted by a nugget about Belle. She has a stiletto strapped to her leg. That’s not news to Gary. McCabe is perturbed. How did he know. You just told me is the speedy retort. That takes a moment to sink in before McCabe’s suspicions are aroused and then allayed.
In other hands, this scene could have lasted a minute. Some speedy dialog would have got to the point faster. But that’s not the point. You can’t attempt this length of fixed camera scene unless you have two wonderful actors. It might appear indulgent but the director wants us to be sucked in by the affable McCabe.
Because until now it has been all economy. The movie opens with a well-heeled fella dozing on a hotel veranda being woken up by a waiter bringing him beer and a cigar, candle at the ready to light the tobacco. The stage arrives. Two cowboys approach asking where they can get a decent drink. The man pulls back his jacket to reveal his badge. The mention of his name, Guthrie McCabe, is enough to make the pair reconsider staying.
A cavalry troop arrives with Gary at the head. Gary’s uniform is covered in dust, so thick you can hardly beat it off, so thick that unless accompanied by McCabe he would have been forbidden entry to the hotel by the owner. There’s snippy dialog here but it’s all delivered by Belle as she provides a series of sharp observations about men. Uninvited, she joins the pair as they sit down, Gary somewhat vague about his mission. Outside, we encounter McCabe’s dumb deputy, escorting a bunch of prisoners back to the jail because the judge was too drunk to appear in the courtroom – it’s that kind of town. McCabe, seeking re-election shortly for his position, sets them free and buys them a drink. Then we’re off on the 40-mile trip.
Still, we don’t know why McCabe’s presence at the fort is so important. John Ford doesn’t usually fall back on mystery as a narrative device unless it’s some personal secret hidden by a character. So McCabe is astonished to be hailed as a conquering hero, cheered by the people inhabiting an encampment outside the fort. One woman even says she can see his halo. What the…
Inside, it transpires Gary is merely doing his superior’s dirty work. And it’s cynical stuff at that. Major Frazer (John McIntyre) wants rid of the rabble who are giving him grief over their sons and daughters long ago kidnapped by the Commanche. Due to the current treaty, the Cavalry can’t just wade in and collect the kids, grown-up by now some of them. So he needs someone who is on nodding terms with the tribal chief (Henry Brandon) and negotiate their release.
McCabe’s first thought is how much he would be paid, given a cavalry officer’s salary would hardly keep him in cigars, reckoning it would be worth $500 a skull. “Whatever the market can bear,” insists McCabe. Both officers are appalled and even more so when McCabe reckons he’ll screw the money out of the distraught families. And that’s what he does. Affable has suddenly turned callous. The camera in this next scene focuses on Gary’s face, until he can take no more of his old buddy’s blatant greed.
Sucker punch number two. McCabe is as mercenary as the later Man With No Name. but he’s not the only one displaying cynicism. To appease his second wife Henry J. Ringle (Willis Bouchey) will cough up $1,000 if McCabe can bring back any child, not the actual one lost, because the kid was so young when kidnapped that his wife won’t know the difference and he has to get her off his back because it’s interfering with his business.
But there’s more sucker punches to come. McCabe won’t accept Gary’s leadership and won’t even agree to work out their approach together. But when it comes to action, it’s soon pretty clear that McCabe is the tougher character, can anticipate the enemy reaction. And he’s right to be cynical because when Elena (Linda Cristal) is returned to the fold, she is despised, all the fort wives want to know is how many Native American braves she slept with, and why she didn’t commit suicide instead.
There’s a sting in the tale for McCabe when he returns home and finds Belle has taken decisive action in his absence.
McCabe is a superb creation, none of that risking your life for nothing in his game plan, possibly the most realistic character in the Ford oeuvre, who doesn’t care a whit what people think about him, as long as he is paid what he feels is his due. Sure, he puts his life on the line, but you can be guaranteed that’s not much of a gamble, he is so accomplished with the gun and can outwit any foe. As corrupt as he is, he’s a lot more straightforward than the apparently high-principled wives and officers who treat Elena so abominably.
There’s a good bit more to this picture than I’ve described. I’ll pass over the usual punch-up to which Ford appears addicted. Gary’s romance with civilian Marty (Shirley Jones) is well done, she carrying the burden of surviving Indian attack when her younger brother was taken, and she is an accomplished pioneer, in another superb scene Gary congratulates her on pitching her tent out of the wind, far enough for the creek to escape mosquitoes and near a dead tree to get firewood.
And there’s another brilliant scene, revolving around a music box, that could have been a cliché but in another sucker punch takes a different, quite awful, direction.
This is so beautifully written and directed I’m just astonished it wasn’t met with acclaim at the time or since. The typical western has ever been so undercut nor typical action met with such dire consequence, the soft underbelly of life at the fort never so cruelly exposed.
You might think James Stewart was taking a chance in assuming the mantle of the man who killed Liberty Valance in order to advance his political career when in reality he did no such thing. But this character is light years away from that simple theft. His character in that Ford picture was exactly the high-principled guy you had come to expect from Stewart, even if, at the last instant, succumbing to a lie.
In the hands of another director McCabe would have been played by a sleazy Lee Marvin or another actor who could not rise above his bad-guy persona. This must be James Stewart’s finest hour, making an unattractive character appealing, so much so you almost appreciate his point of view in relation to the corruption and his antipathy to matrimony, and taking pains to conceal not the goodness underneath but his understanding of the harsher realities of Western life, at which he is more than adept at dealing.
Richard Widmark (The Secret Ways, 1961) also discards his normal screen persona, his job to act as observer to the Stewart character, to lead audience disapproval, and to be hoodwinked as much as McCabe by the cynical Major while enjoying none of the reward. He is gentler than usual, more resigned to his job, expecting little. Good supporting cast including Oscar-winner Shirley Jones (Bedtime Story, 1964), Linda Cristel (The Alamo, 1960) and especially, in her only movie, Annelle Hayes, as an extremely savvy character who gets the better of her slippery lover.
Brilliant film. And if like me you come to the four-minute scene you might just rewind once or twice to enjoy what Ford, Widmark and Stewart achieve. I was so taken with the entire film, which I’d never seen before, that I watched it again the next night.