Monday, December 5, 2011

The Little Things

It's funny how sometimes a little moment will sneak itself into a movie and completely change the way we experience it. The film in question: Wellman's Across the Wide Missouri (1951), a visually stunning frontier tale shot almost entirely in the Rocky Mountains. The spectacle of the backdrop outsizes and upstages the drama at pretty much every turn, but this is undoubtedly more to do with the studio's butchery - they not only chopped an hour off Wellman's original cut, but retrofitted a voice-over narration that turns everything into a flashback - than it does with any paltriness of directorial vision. As is, at a mere 78 minutes, it's an interesting enough movie, and aside from the gorgeous photography, there is an unusual amount of careful attention paid to depicting the richness of Indian culture, and no less than three languages spoken at regularity throughout. There's also a bit of a playful streak present (uncharacteristic for later Wellman in my experience) punctuated by moments of stark cruelty: it contains without a doubt one of the most cold-blooded, out-of-left-field murders of a major character I've ever seen.

Anyway, the alluded to moment occurs around two-thirds of the way through the running time, during a scene between the fur-trapper played by Clark Gable and his wife (María Elena Marqués), a Blackfoot Indian he originally married to gain access to bountiful beaver land, but has since fallen in love with. He is telling her about the land he comes from (Kentucky), and teaching her how to say "bluegrass", and at the end of the scene he bends over the table she's sitting at to deliver a kiss. Wellman cuts to a shot from behind this kiss, placing the elbow of Gable (who was 50 when Across the Wide Missouri was shot) near the center of the frame as it bears the brunt of his body weight. As Gable is coming up from the kiss, his arm slightly but very noticeably begins to tremble under the strain. It's tough to tell whether or not Wellman intended to have a visual signifier of the aging process be the star of this scene, nonetheless the effect of the moment is undeniable: Gable's character, who up until this moment had been portrayed as nothing short of the essence of bluster and opportunism on two feet, becomes a bit rickety, a bit vulnerable, much more human. A few scenes later, after his wife tells him of her pregnancy, we can't help now but detect more than a hint of poignant desperation as he races around his little community feverishly delivering the news. And because he has from this moment become, in a way, a much different character, so too does the movie becomes a different movie, one not so much about a poacher who discovers tolerance and love, but about a man who can sense his own mortality, and who slowly begins giving into the quiet, vital impulse of ensuring that his house is in order for everything that will remain and come after him. It gives moments like the one below, with Gable staring at his wife and newborn through the doorway, a very sad, almost Fordian resonance - moments concerning everything but the moments themselves:


Stephen said...

Very interesting, Drew. I'm now desperate to watch this.

I absolutely agree - the smallest thing can make the biggest difference. Nicely observed and discussed.

Drew McIntosh said...

Thanks, Stephen. Let me know if you ever get around to this one, I'd love to hear what you think.

Stephen said...

I will. Thanks.