Art of the Real 728x90 Film Comment Film Society of Lincoln Center

The Ethical Romantic

By Bertrand Tavernier

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Delmer Daves was a passionate craftsman, a progressive Republican, and a maker of exquisitely enlightened genre films

Dark Passage Delmer Daves

Dark Passage

Delmer Daves is the most forgotten of the American directors championed by French film critics in the Fifties—why? The reasons have little to do with his true stature as a filmmaker. He was unlucky enough to end his career with a string of Warners sudsers that seemed sorely lacking in ambition (although a good deal of them are visually quite remarkable). Some of his masterpieces are westerns, a genre that has now fallen back into disrepute. He rarely ventured into noir territory, and when he did, he stood the genre on its head. To make matters worse, he had given few interviews by the time he died in 1977. As a result, his best films are seldom shown, and hardly any of them are available on video or DVD.

To be sure, one shouldn't gloss over his more tentative efforts (Broken Arrow, for instance, is less inspired than his subsequent westerns, and probably would have benefited from the camera eye of Winton C. Hoch, who shot Bird of Paradise), the reluctantly accepted assignments (Demetrius and the Gladiators, A Kiss in the Dark), and hopeless failures (Never Let Me Go or The Battle of the Villa Fiorita). Not to mention the weaknesses resulting from period constraints and studio-imposed actors (Dennis Morgan in To the Victor; Alan Ladd in Drum Beat; and Troy Donahue, whose ubiquity in the late films goes a long way towards accounting for Daves's unfairly low critical status).

Such flaws, however, pale in comparison with the stunning originality of Daves's style, handling of dramatic structure, and approach to genre, which set him apart from his contemporaries.

What first impresses the viewer is Daves's attention to landscape, to nature, expressed in shots that intimately and sometimes inextricably mingle lyricism and realism. He actually insisted on personally supervising the kind of material many Hollywood filmmakers would leave to second-unit directors—extreme long shots, transitional moments filmed at dawn or twilight. For one setup in To the Victor (48), he spent a whole night on the Trocadero Esplanade in Paris, and, as he wrote to me, "it was worth the trouble."

The Red House Delmer Daves

The Red House

One recalls from his work an immense and spectacular variety of landscapes, sometimes within the same film—and not only in the westerns but in a lyrical melodrama like The Red House (47), an urban film noir like Dark Passage (47), or Parrish (61), a soap opera whose one redeeming feature is its use of exteriors. Jubal (56), for instance, derives part of its power and originality from its diversity of locations, ranging from the dramatic bareness of the opening shots to the elegiac forest of the Felicia Farr sequences, with each new locale appearing to modify the approach and construction of the narrative and shape feelings and emotions. Landscape is not just a setting for the action—it becomes part of it, its secret driving force. I have never forgotten the underbrush, the craggy slopes, the torrent of The Last Wagon (56), the parched, cracked soil in 3:10 to Yuma (57), the Modoc camp in Drum Beat (54), the beach graveyard in To the Victor, the gold-mining camp overlooked by Gary Cooper's small cabin in The Hanging Tree (59). All these locales are pregnant with meaning (more poetic than symbolic), filmed with a lyrical, emotional power but totally devoid of the picturesque. Daves's is not a tourist's eye—his ambition is to weave an organic link between a scene's inner feeling and its location. In Bird of Paradise (51), the black, gleaming sand of the beach where Louis Jourdan lands seems to foreshadow the dark, painful mood of his encounter with Everett Sloane, a magnificent Stevensonian character. Later in the same film, the basalt-colored rocky spur on which Jeff Chandler confronts the high priest imparts genuine solemnity to the scene. In Drum Beat, the windswept plateaus provide a visual counterpart to the thorny discussions surrounding the peace treaty. Doc Frail's cabin overhanging the small mining town in The Hanging Tree, connoting exclusion, reclusion, and domination, speaks volumes about the contradictions that tear him apart.

Nature in Daves's films is is not imparted with the grandeur, the epic theatricality so admired in Ford, who manages to convince us that one could farm and raise cattle in Monument Valley, a thoroughly unrealistic proposition. Daves does not mythologize Nature but befriends it, the way his characters do, at least those who must live or survive in it. His signature camera moves—crane shots, lateral tracking shots, which show his extraordinary mastery of space—are movements of integration: of character within community, landscape, and setting—and of emotional entrenchment (unlike Anthony Mann's, whose direction, one might say, is founded on movements of opposition, dramatizing the difficulty of an ascent or the imminence of danger). As Jacques Lourcelles has noted, Daves's crane shots "which often have no immediate, logical connection with the plot, magnify the emotions which in turn help the spectator commune with the landscape."

To befriend Nature, however, is not to idealize it. While Daves's Nature may provide a field for apprenticeship (if one knows how to look at it), it isn't necessarily a realm of purification and redemption counterposed to a corrupt and corrupting civilization.

Such Bible-tinged ideological discourse, with frequent populist and conservative undertones, has inspired much of American cinema past and present and underlies key works, whether they manage to transcend it (like The Birth of a Nation, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now) or not. It is interesting to note that a number of Hollywood emigrés—Sjöstrom, Lang, Tourneur, de Toth, Preminger, Renoir, Boorman—have challenged, diluted, or subverted this creed.

3:10 to Yuma Delmer Daves

3:10 to Yuma

Daves is closer to them (and to progressives or liberals like Ray, Brooks, and Polonsky) than he is to Griffith and Vidor. Nature as he sees it is at once beautiful and cruel, blind and magnificent, deadly and consoling. It may, with the help of Comanche Todd (Richard Widmark), contribute to opening the eyes and erasing the prejudices of the adolescents in The Last Wagon, but it can also drive a farmer (Van Heflin in 3:10 to Yuma) to the brink of ruin and force him to accept a lethal assignment. In Bird of Paradise, an elegiac scene is interrupted by blood suddenly streaming into the water, announcing Debra Paget's death. Living close to Nature does not confer any superiority. The ranchers and country folk in Broken Arrow suddenly turn into a racist lynch mob, undermining the peace effort; the small religious community in Jubal has its Judas; and bigots and hypocrites poison the atmosphere of the gold mining camp in The Hanging Tree, a film that eschews moral oversimplification throughout, opposing complex, conflicted characters played by Cooper and Karl Malden, or George C. Scott's terrifying Fundamentalist preacher. In this film, Nature plays an extremely complex role, either as savior or destroyer. Although a thunderstorm and the fall of a tree unearth gold, the consequences are extreme: only by giving up the gold can Maria Schell save Cooper from hanging. Nature should not dictate behavior, Daves suggests; rather, human beings, as they conquer it, should learn how to discover the values that underlie their lives. This, ultimately, is the subject of Jubal, 3:10 to YumaThe Hanging Tree . . . 

As a logical consequence, the City and Civilization are not systematically depicted as noxious, corrupting entities, as in, say, Capra. Daves challenges this simplistic vision, upsetting many a cliché, and subverting fundamental aspects of certain genres in the process. Thus Dark Passage, a truly unique film, completely ignores the rules of the urban noir. As I and Jean-Pierre Coursodon noted in 50 years of American Cinema, "Curiously, despite the overabundance of bad breaks the protagonist is dealt by fate, the city (here San Francisco) doesn't have the threatening presence it usually does in film noir. It is on the street, at night, that Bogart's Vincent Parry meets the providential taxi driver, a kind of good fairy from the urban shadows, who will grant his wish of invisibility. And the endless staircase he climbs after his operation leads to Irene’s apartment, a refuge that protects him from danger." The city may also represent shelter, and even redemption, as in Pride of the Marines (45).

Progress, represented by civilization, science, and knowledge, is a positive force for Daves, unlike Hawks. He shows immense respect for the psychologists in Pride of the Marines, a masterpiece of the kind of progressive, liberal cinema that was wrecked by the blacklist. He sides with them against the John Garfield character, an unusual stance in cinema of that period. Of course, writer Albert Maltz's contribution shouldn't be underestimated; Communist or liberal screenwriters and authors reacted against Hollywood's widespread anti-intellectualism (still prevalent today), the tendency to ridicule scholars, scientists, and practically anyone who might pass for high-brow. While the odd-looking, disquieting surgeon in Dark Passage seems to belong to that tradition at first, in the end he turns out to be quite efficient.

Respect for knowledge, education, and culture is felt in practically all of Daves's films. In his remake of Bird of Paradise he introduced the essential character, played by Jeff Chandler, of a Kanaka who explains to Frenchman Louis Jourdan all that makes the richness of his people. Many of his characters have attended a university (usually Stanford, Daves's own alma mater). Henry Fonda struggles to send his son to college in Spencer's Mountain (63), and the others, those who, in Al Schmitt's words in Pride of the Marines, are "less than ordinary men," won't have a chance of making it until they accept that they must learn and open themselves to the world. Ignorance is belittling. The true Davesian hero is one who seeks, who educates himself through the study of various races and cultures, and who fights prejudice and the racist or puritanical blindness perfectly embodied by Jack Elam in Bird of Paradise or Constance Ford in A Summer Place (59). "To understand is to love," Daves said to me, a creed that stands apart in a cinema that has often advocated isolationism, withdrawal, and nationalist self-sufficiency.

Daves loves America and knows how to make us share his feelings, but he also views the rest of the world with the same respect. In his cinema, foreigners are on equal moral and emotional footing with everyone else. He freely grants them an identity, a right to exist. He strongly reacted to DeMille's mockery of Wilder's and Wyler's foreign accents during a notorious Screen Directors Guild meeting in 1950, and berated him for his shameful xenophobic statements. Although a Republican, Daves worked with Communist screenwriter Maltz three times: Destination Tokyo (43), Pride of the Marines, and Broken Arrow.

The Hanging Tree Delmer Daves

The Hanging Tree

Daves also stands apart from his contemporaries, and even more so from today's filmmakers, in his refusal to promote and extol individualism, placing rum closer to the European émigrés filmmakers, but also to Ford and his cult of public service. Both directors reject solitary heroes, favoring characters who are integrated into a community (as distinct from Hawks's small groups that are cut off from the rest of the world even as they crisscross it). They work with and for this community, and those who ignore it are challenged and questioned. "Nobody stands alone," the nurse in Pride of the Marines tells John Garfield, who rejects all outside help. Maria Schell manages to convince Gary Cooper of the same thing in The Hanging Tree. No Daves character makes it on his own, whether negotiating a peace treaty, getting an outlaw onto the train in Yuma, or surviving a gunfight. It's only thanks to Charles Bronson, who throws him a weapon (a lightning-fast panning shot links the two men) that Glenn Ford wins the shootout in Jubal. He also needs help from several others—Felicia Farr, Valerie French, the small religious community—in order to escape his pursuers.

Howard Hawks, that most individualistic of directors, criticized 3:10 to Yuma, challenging everything that makes the film strong and original, and misreading the plot in the process: "The sheriff caught a prisoner, and the prisoner taunted him... saying, 'Wait till my friends catch up with you.' And I said, That's a lot of nonsense, the sheriff would say, 'You better hope your friends don't catch up with you, cause you'll be the first man to die.'" Van Heflin, however; is not a sheriff, a "professional" accustomed to killing (neither has he "caught" the prisoner), but a farmer forced by economic circumstances to accept the job of guarding the outlaw and putting him on the train to the penitentiary. Hence, everything that makes the character so moving, so original for its time, so close to us, his hesitations, his fears, his reluctance to use violence, as well as his determination to defend his community, all justify his final decision, imparting so much power to his confrontation with Glenn Ford.

This acknowledgment of other cultures and respect for collective consciousness account for other peculiarities of Daves's work, such as his devoting two entire films to something that westerns usually dispatch with a couple of scenes: the discussions and negotiations that go into a peace treaty. For Daves, causes, and particularly consequences, are as important as the events themselves—if not more so. Action scenes and moments of violence are usually swift, even lightning-fast: the ambush in which Debra Paget is killed is shown in just a few splendid shots to which Daves grants less emphasis than to those describing Glenn Ford's reaction to his discovery of Borgnine's dead body in Jubal. He certainly knows how to film violence—the dark, chilling scene in which Cooper kills Karl Malden, admirably shot in movement (The Hanging Tree) and Ford's cold-blooded murder of the stagecoach driver (3:10 to Yuma) would suffice to prove it. But he pays more attention to what brought the violence about, or to its results. For Daves, a battle is an opportunity to show lines of wounded soldiers and a retreating army (particularly in Drum Beat, whose magnificent shots are worthy of Ford). Pride of the Marines's extraordinary battle sequence, perhaps the most powerful in the genre alongside the one in Andre de Toth's Monkey on My Back, would be the climax of most other war films. Daves and Maltz follow it with what turns out to be the real subject of the film, the individual's discovery of everyday courage. This is civilian courage, very different from military heroics—a blind man's realization that he belongs to a whole social universe he had always taken for granted. It's one man's discovery of responsibility.

Dark Passage Delmer Daves

Dark Passage

Several of Daves's films show characters struggling for survival, paying the price for a moment of violence or madness—Everett Sloane in Bird of Paradise, Widmark in The Last Wagon—or endeavoring to relearn how to live, like Glenn Ford in Jubal. At least three of his films deal with themes of blindness and healing: Pride of the Marines, Dark Passage, and The Hanging Tree.

It's easy to see how such a cinema might seem alien to fans of contemporary Hollywood, which seems to have forsaken the notion of consequences or responsibility (the lack of reaction shots in recent movies is a phenomenon worthy of study) in favor of pyrotechnics and virtual games in which digital effects, unlike the tracking shots of yore, are divorced from ethics.

If a single scene could summarize Daves's cinema, images of peace and quiet come to mind: Debra Paget emerging from the water, filmed in a devastating tracking shot, and lying down beside James Stewart (Broken Arrow); the wedding in the same film: "You will no longer fear the rain, for he will protect you, you will no longer fear the cold, for she will warm you," a fine, faithful adaptation of the scene as described in Elliott Arnold's novel; the moving delicacy of the love scene between an outlaw and a former singer sick with TB (3:10 to Yuma), an admirable moment that broke one of the era's major censorship taboos. Glenn Ford and Felicia Farr are immediately attracted to each other, and a little while later we sense that they have just made love. The young woman shows no trace of guilt or regret, quite the opposite. She also accepts the fact that they won't see each other again ("I'll keep a beautiful memory"), and when Glenn Ford is arrested, she opens the stagecoach door for him—a heartrending shot—in defiance of the whole town. Beautifully staged and photographed, such scenes are unique in a genre that usually gave short shrift to female characters. Equally lyrical are the discreet, touching parting on a railroad station platform in Pride of the Marines and, a few minutes earlier, Garfield's declaration to Eleanor Parker: "I like the way you stand up to me. I like the way you curl up in a car sitting. I like the way you don't jabber all the time and you sit quiet. I like the way you laugh at my corny jokes. I like the way you listen. I like it when you say you're gonna do something, you do it, and you don't make up a 101 of silly excuses .... "

The Red House

The Red House

Indeed, women's faces are what I feel like singling out the most in Daves's films: Leora Dana in the pouring rain (3:10 to Yuma); Felicia Farr, sublime in three films; Genevieve Page, absolutely magnificent in Youngblood Hawke (64), whose character is handled with such respect and dignity that it thankfully upsets the conventions of an excessively traditional narrative; Maria Schell taking her first steps on the hill above the village (The Hanging Tree) . . . It is a rare Daves film indeed that does not boast some luminous portrait of a woman, or a great love scene; many of his actresses have found their best roles under his direction.

No American director is more alien to the cult of machismo, to cynical manipulation. More often than not, women are the driving force, or the filmmaker’s mouthpiece; they challenge the film's heroes, educate them in matters of the heart, without any hypocrisy or puritanism. The emotional power and lyricism with which Daves endows his female characters make him a worthy successor to Borzage. Indeed, if one must compare Daves with another director, it should be Borzage, or McCarey (for whom he wrote the splendid Love Affair), especially the McCarey of Make Way for Tomorrow, rather than with Mann. Daves share with Borzage "a certain naïveté, or rather a desire not to be influenced or censured by fear of ridicule" (Lourcelles). They both favor feeling over action, to the extent that the characteristics of certain genres become diluted, as film noir is in Dark Passage. Seldom has a film felt so dreamlike. Eschewing banal gestures toward verisimilitude, Daves's own adaptation of David Goodis's novel immerses us in an eerie atmosphere that makes the most unlikely encounters and coincidences seem quite ordinary—right up to a fairy-tale happy ending, invented by Daves (this wonderful conclusion was highly praised by the Surrealists, who saw it as a perfect illustration of the triumph of Breton's cherished concept of amour fou). Far from emphasizing gloom and despair in the pessimistic noir tradition, Daves makes up for his hero's every bad break with a fantastic stroke of luck (none of his encounters is indifferent; they're all either catastrophic or providential). The motherliness of the Bacall character and Bogart's enforced passivity make for an uncharacteristic type of relationship, quite different from their first two outings together. Instead of the erotic tension and seduction games of the Hawks films, gentle tenderness prevails—which probably accounts for Dark Passage's comparative obscurity. Again in contrast to Hawks, the depth of feeling between Daves's characters is such that their love seems impervious to hardships, to the rust of time—thus Van Heflin and Leora Dana in 3:10 to Yuma are a truly adult couple, bruised by the rigors of life but enduring (one is reminded of the relationships between men and women in Grémillon's films, especially The Sky Is Yours). Only death can destroy such love, as it does in Broken Arrow and Bird of Paradise. Daves, moreover, rejected the latter film's Hays Code—and studio-imposed ending. He found it revolting that interracial lovers always had to die. Daves's kinship to Borzage (and sometimes to Sirk and Mitchell Leisen too) is felt in all the late melodramas, especially, I think, in Youngblood Hawke. But traces of it can be found in all his films—it is the core of Broken Arrow, elegiac lyricism was quite foreign to the genre at the time, and worthy of Lucky Star or Man's Castle. One might argue that Dave's reinvention of film noir and the western was as revolutionary, although not as conspicuous, as those of Mann and Ray.

The Hanging Tree, a fine adaptation by Wendell Mayes and Halsted Welles of the equally fine Dorothy Johnson novel, is as groundbreaking in terms of genre as Dark Passage, from which it borrowed certain of the earlier film's relationships and situations and then reversed them: the womb-like house, a refuge located on top of a hill, a disabled character protected by another place (also found in The Red House). The narrative becomes a kind of dark fantasy, full of shadows, ghost, and houses set on fire, in the British Gothic fiction tradition.

The Last Wagon

The Last Wagon

One could not conclude an article on Daves without praising the constant and often sublime beauty of his photography, whose paradoxical style, at once realistic (even to the point of rejecting makeup) and theatrical, harmoniously combines a documentary approach with near-baroque experiments: The Hanging Tree, Bird of Paradise, The Last Wagon and the night scenes in Cowboy are exemplary instances of this felicitous mingling. Let’s not forget, of course, 3:10 to Yuma: the importance of shadows, the refusal to soften contrast with filters, the attention to the parched, cracked soil. Cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. told me that of all the directors he worked with, Daves was, along with Welles, and de Toth during certain sequences, the one with whom he most closely collaborated with on the visual style of his films, on their photographic texture. Drum Beat has a breathtaking visual splendor that paradoxically underscores the meditative, melancholy quality of the best scenes and compensates for the weakness of the initial premise and the performances. The Red House, as seen in the recent restoration by the Cinématheque Française, reveals an equally remarkable visual quality.

On a personal note, I could add that I knew Daves and that we corresponded quite often. I received his first letter in August 1960 (he was the first director who responded to me) and we met several times Paris and California. I remember his lust for life, his insatiable curiosity, his warmth, how highly cultured he was. One of his most surprising traits, one which astounded my children, was his talent as a forger: he could imitate any signature, any calligraphic style. He amused himself by painting the signs for the inns in his historical films, and I can still see him drawing and engraving a “Certificate of Existence” covered with unicorns and vine leaves for my son Nils. I had blocked out all these images, these recollections, banished them from my memory after his death. Now they resurface as if out of the mist, like the red cab at the end of Pride of the Marines. Of course, they are much less vivid than the images from his films that feed my reveries, such as those miraculous ones that close—or should one say open up?—Dark Passage: an unseen Peru, the ocean, a man and a woman dancing to “Too Marvelous for Words”—such an appropriate title indeed.