Sunday 19 December 2021

John Farrow - After contemplating the renewed interest in the Oz-born director, Sydney's supercinephile Barrie Pattison plumbs deeper into the catalogue.

Let’s face it, despite leading a life which was probably more extraordinary than any other Hollywood figure, we are only hearing about John Farrow because you can get Australian funding for a project about someone who came from Marrickville. Well, it’s created an unexpected surge of interest, so now is a good time to consider his work. * (see note below) 

Truth told, he had a more notable career as a screen writer, getting his Oscar in that capacity, though his turn as director is his monument. It’s surprisingly hard to see his films now. I’ve picked out two accessible examples rather than discuss better known titles that I haven’t seen for seventy years.


Farrow’s first feature was the 1937 Men in Exile (he’d already done additional unit shooting and short films) a cut price proto-Casablanca. Truth in advertising - this one looks like a studio B movie - Warner’s Bryan Foy unit, stars you may just have heard of and under an hour long. There’s nothing about it to suggest it’s the beginning of a notable career.


It offers released convict-cab driver Dick Purcell innocently involved in robbery and murder at a jewelers' and fleeing the U.S.  We pick him up arriving in Caribo island on his friend Norman Willis’ smuggling cutter. “Booze?” “Wrong guess - guns!”


The country is in the throes of a revolution of course. Once there, Dick is urged by his old pal to join the forces trying to overthrow Shakespeare-quoting military dictator Carlos De Valdez, one General Alcatraz (!). Though our hero turns his friend down, his job as bouncer at Willis’ Purple Parrot Bar involves him with his revolutionist associates. Meanwhile heroine June Travis ‘s mum Margaret Irving runs the Hotel Imperial, where a fight conveniently breaks out. Travis’ brother Alan Baxter is coming on for Willis’ wife Veda Ann Borg, who gets to do a sexy Hoochy Coochy number. 


The A feature technicians must have regarded this as a holiday. They manage a presentable texture. There are a few effective elements - Purcell’s loyalty to his friend, whose cause he refuses to join, the firing squad visible through Colonel Victor Varconyi’s window and the familiar Warner sweaty Caribbean atmosphere. The film is a distant re-make of their 1931 William A. Wellman Safe in Hell.


The support cast are more interesting than the leads. Veda Ann was a sadly wasted talent who managed to be conspicuous in the mainly twaddle where she was utilised. Comic Olin Howland (Angel and the Badman) was always good value. Varconyi, once the dashing juvenile of the Austro-Hungarian silent film, has one of his better outings putting down the proposed coup d’etat where “They would like a more - er - liberal government.”


There is zero political analysis but John Alexander (The Petrified Forest), the black waiter whom Purcell calls “Sambo,” is allowed to resent it.Men in Exilehas all but vanished. I had to buy a sixteen millimeter print to see it. ** (See note below) Farrow did another re-make for the Foy unit in the same year, She Married a Firemanspun off from Lloyd Bacon’s 1934 Here Comes the Navy.


Passing over the body of  Farrow’s career, the westerns, Two Years Before the Mast, Alias Nick Beal,the all-star aviation movie Blaze of Glory, Submarine Commandand  Betty Hutton and Victor Mature in Red Hot and Bluewhich I quite enjoy, though it seems to have wound up his favored son status at Paramount, we come to the 1954 A Bullet Is Waiting with most of the faults of Farrow’s work and not all that many of the qualities. 

Jean Simmons, A Bullet is Waiting


This late career piece opens with a landing wheel washing in the surf (cheap air crash) and a tracking that takes us to Rory Calhoun and Stephen McNally punching it out on the shore. The injured McNally goes down, losing his badge, gun and cuffs. Rory carries on till he’s bailed up by Jean Simmons, with her rifle & growling yellow collie dog, telling him to get off her property.


You could add Simmons to the litany of movie isolated farm women - Anna Q. Nilsson in The Toll Gate,Dita Parlo in La Grande Illusion, Cara Williams in The Defiant Onesand Geraldine Paige inFarrow's Hondo. The bringing the prisoner back plot was also popular at the time, turning up with variation in The Wild North, The Last Wagon,the Australian Journey out of Darkness and surprisingly effective in Ed Marin’s Fighting Man of the Plains.


Plot has the rifle giving Jean control and her sympathies shifting between the representative of the law and the fugitive, who fills in the back story (McNally’s relationship with the victim in the small community his family dominates). Rory flings her onto the ground with lustful intent at one stage but backs off, which proves a come-on for the girl who has been raised alone by her absent Pacifist Oxford Don dad Brian Aherne. If “The Tempest” worked as a sci-fi piece for Forbidden Planetwhy not as a western?


Best element in Farrow’s film is the mainly shot on location setting, with sheep herding, a Lassie dog, a wild cat and a snake to liven things up. Farrow had had an early success writing another sheep movie, the George Bancroft White Goldfor William K. Howard in the silent period. 


The scaled down production - minimal studio (no designer credit) and small cast - looks as if it might get by. Calhoun is not used to playing leads called on to show complexity but gives it a good try, out of his comfort zone. The others are all absolutely confident. Simmons actually had a good record in the Hollywood programmers she jammed in between big pictures - Angel Face, The Actress, This Could Be the Night, Mister Buddwing. Here she works hard with less success. She looks good, though clearly studio made up and gets a discrete shower scene.


As A Bullet Is Waiting settles down into character building dialogues, we begin to see the shape of the dullish celebrity cast movies like Blaze of Noon or The Big Clock which made up the bulk of the director’s earlier career. 


First rank technicians put it together efficiently. Like Hondo,the piece was filmed but possibly never shown in the short-lived 3D process of the day. The only time he succumbs to effects shots is in the punch-up. The exaggerated sound effects there are also distracting. Tiomkin’s score is unrelenting for much of the film only going silent when playing a snatch of a classical music record initiates a discussion of high culture. Farrow gets conversation about the Bible in there too.


A Bullet Is Waiting played as an action movie co-feature without attracting any great attention. The director’s other fifties independent movies received better distribution.


Shirley McLaine, David Niven, Cantinflas, Buster Keaton
Farrow's only Oscar
Around the World in 80 Days

There’s still a great book and possibly a great movie to be spun off the life of Sir Neville John Villiers-Farrow OBE. I’m waiting.


 *Barrie Pattison’s report on the Sydney Film Festival screening of JOHN FARROW: HOLLYWOOD'S MAN IN THE SHADOWS (Claude Gonzalez and Frans Vandenburg, Australia, 2021) and his thoughts on CALIFORNIA (John Farrow, USA, 1947) can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE


 ** A copy of this film can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE

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