Second Sight 

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"One-Eyed Auteurs"
August 14-23 at Anthology Film Archives

The ten films screening as part of Anthology Film Archives’ upcoming One-Eyed Auteurs series (with the possible exception of André de Toth’s Pitfall and Ramrod, neither of which I was able to see) offer only two examples of characters with missing or damaged peepers, both of them blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief. Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James finds a group of post-1865 Northerners lynching a one-eyed fellow who rode with Quantrill’s Raiders during the War, while in Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet, Stewart Granger dispenses with an attacker by throwing a blunt object at his ocular organ, severely bloodying the socket and causing the man to fall off a cliff.

But if the films in question — two each by five different mid-century eye-patch wearing auteurs — go relatively easy on the eye, they offer a veritable trauma ward of other bodily damage: severed limbs, horrible scarring, a seemingly endless array of arms in bandages and slings. More importantly, the directors represented — in addition to de Toth, Ray and Lang, the one-eyed cabal includes John Ford and Raoul Walsh — seem preoccupied with a general sense of inadequacy shared by their lead characters, a default that often has outraged male pride as its source. In this light, it’s easy to see the films’ catalogue of bodily depletion — as well as their preponderance of other phallic imagery — as symbolic of a greater sense of lack. And while it won’t do to draw any definite parallels between the sightlessness of the directors and the felt shortcomings of their characters, the conversations that crop up between the different films prove fascinatingly instructive.

In Raoul Walsh’s 1955 wide-screen western The Tall Men, flirty Jane Russell belts out the title song, a running commentary on the desirability of the film’s male characters: “I want a tall man/don’t want a short man/Long as he is all man/that’s good enough for me.” Since Ben Allison (Clark Gable) clearly doesn’t qualify — his dream of a small ranch in Texas is far too small an ambition to satisfy this gutsy gal — Russell’s Nella Turner gravitates toward Nathan Stark (Robert Ryan), an ex-criminal who plans on owning “the whole of Montana”, while the three, along with Allison’s brother Clint (Cameron Mitchell), wend their way north on an uneasy cattle drive.

Although Ben never loses his masculine cool as he quietly pines away for Nella — he is played by Gable, after all — his fears of being undone by wounded pride are projected onto his brother, a weak-willed double who serves as Ben’s verbal protector. Throughout the drive, Clint and Nathan skirt around a barely constrained animosity which manifests itself in jibes at each other’s manhood, as when the former makes fun of the latter for doing such “feminine” tasks as laundry. When they finally have it out, Nathan outdraws his nemesis and “unmans” him, shooting the pistol out of his hand and leaving that appendage bloody. Still, Ben makes up for it in the end, winning the love of Nella, who realizes that smaller ambitions doesn’t necessarily mean a smaller man, especially when that man saves your life from the injuns. Amending her song, Nella brings the film to a close, identifying Ben at last with that much desired titular designation, a “tall man”.

John Ford’s pet project, 1945’s They Were Expendable, traces the development of PT (“patrol torpedo”) boat units during World War II. Since the efficacy of such a program was initially scoffed at by the higher-ups, the Navy lieutenants played by John Wayne and Robert Montgomery are frequently reduced to leading their units in degrading non-combat tasks such as delivering mail. Throughout much of the film, the men not only have trouble obtaining sufficient ammunition, but are denied the chance to fire these torpedoes even when they’re able to get them — a clear enough expression of phallic distress.

click to enlarge Moonfleet
  • Moonfleet
This symbolic impotence is compounded when, early on in the film, Wayne’s character, “Rusty” Ryan, gets a bit of shrapnel in his arm, and reluctantly heads to sick bay. When he arrives, the doctors tell him that he is suffering from blood poisoning and that, had he arrived any later, they would have had to amputate his arm. Instead, the appendage is saved and placed in a sling. (In Nicholas Ray’s Flying Leathernecks, also screening in the Anthology series, Wayne similarly finds himself with a bandaged arm.) As Ryan rests idle for the first quarter of the film, he’s subjected to a series of humiliations that serve to deflate this hardened army vet. Lying helpless in bed, he’s sassed by a young nurse and then told to “unfasten [his] pants” by a round of orderlies (including a leering, “queer” type), his refusal to do so resulting in a forced stripping that augments the embarrassment of inaction during wartime with a deeper, more invasive shame.

Perhaps the real draw of the series is the chance to see two rare Fritz Lang films, 1938’s urban melodrama You and Me (with musical numbers by Kurt Weill!) and the program highlight, 1955’s moody, Gothic-inflected adventure tale, Moonfleet. Set in 1757 on the wind-swept shores of Dorsetshire, the film conjures a world of atmospheric ruins, darkly lowering skies and horror-film gargoyles, the fairy-tale artificiality of the setting brought to life by the inventive use of painted backdrops. The film stars Stewart Granger as Jeremy Fox — cynical lady’s man and leader of the local smuggling racket — who reluctantly takes into his charge the school-age son of an old friend who shows up mysteriously at his door. When John Mahune (Jon Whiteley), the perfectly-spoken, completely out-of-place young chap, crashes the older man’s dilapidated manor house, interrupting his nightly gypsy-dancing stein-swilling revels, Fox plans to send him back home, but eventually agrees to keep him on provisionally since the boy’s frank talk amuses him.

As Fox finds his authority with his smuggling underlings increasingly threatened, his bond with the boy begins to tighten, even as he’s loath to acknowledge the connection. Eventually the two threads come together when one of the smugglers openly challenges Fox’s leadership, threatening to kill John after the boy had been discovered eavesdropping on trade secrets. When Fox challenges the mutinous man to a duel with sabers, the latter instead picks up a 12-foot spear, whirling the oversized weapon around his head with an ear-splitting whoosh. Although he breaks Fox’s saber with the much more potent spear, our man is finally able to reassert his symbolically wounded manhood, disarming his antagonist and saving the boy. Still, not until the end of the film — and the suffering of, yes, a wounded hand — is Fox able to definitively overcome his patriarchal deficiencies and then only through an ultimate gesture of self-sacrifice.

And such is the pattern for most of the films in the program: the main (male) character suffers a blow to his sense of masculine self-worth, often symbolized through bodily injury or dismemberment, only to ultimately prove his valor on the battlefield (war films and westerns predominate the series), via bravery and natural talent, yes, but also through an understanding of the necessity of sacrifice. Along the way there’s plenty of time for rowdy antics (Lee Marvin and Wayne’s shit-kicking camaraderie in Donovan's Reef), stunningly lit set-pieces (a nightmare hospital sequence in Expendable with dimly glimpsed faces emerging from the darkness) and even musical interludes. And if all this isn’t enough to suggest, as the Anthology program notes posit, a “secret society” of one-eyed filmmakers, the series nonetheless offers a chance to draw some interesting auteurist parallels between the works of Ford, Walsh, Ray, Lang and (presumably) de Toth. In the films of these eye-patch auteurs, masculine insecurity may be a constant, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t great fun to be had in its exposure.

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