Sunday, 29 September 2013

Delmer Daves writes a letter

One of the finest scenes in American cinema is in 3.10 to Yuma (1957), when the outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) comes to a saloon and, instead of playing the tough macho role, becomes very tender and sweet when he meets the bar maid (Felicia Farr). The long, quiet scene ends with them disappearing into the back room.

She says "Funny, some men you see every day for ten years and you never notice; some men you see once and they're with you for the rest of your life." in a sequence that is a reminder that Delmer Daves, before he began making his own films, was one of the writers on the script for Love Affair (1939), the last of Leo McCarey's trio of emotional masterpieces.* 3.10 to Yuma is Daves's most famous film, and possibly his best. It is very well acted, both tense and moving and it looks beautiful, not to say spectacular, with a unique view of the West. But he did several fine films. They are often emotionally complex, show a willingness to discuss social issues and have impressive visuals, not least his crane shots that have the capacity to add meaning and emotions when they appear, sometimes even introducing a sense of some larger force watching over the characters. Besides 3.10 to Yuma, Jubal (1956) and The Hanging Tree (1959) are two of his very best. More famous is Broken Arrow (1950), which I am not that keen on. It is a bit stiff and the dialogue is too explicit, but it has some moments of greatness. (The claim that it was the first western that showed Native Americans in a positive light is of course wrong, that had been done before, many times and sometimes with more subtlety.) Before Daves turned to the West he did different kinds of films, such as the two he made in 1947, Dark Passage and The Red House. Dark Passage is a thriller, a slightly off-beat experiment that is sometimes genuinely unsettling, and Daves uses the San Francisco setting to wonderful effect, even though Bogart and Bacall in the leads lack the sparkle that they had under Howard Hawks's direction in To Have and Have Not (1945) and The Big Sleep (1946). The Red House is less accomplished but also unsettling, a tale of family secrets and Freudian complexes in a lyrical summer setting. At the end of his career Daves made a series of romances, starting with A Summer Place (1959), that I have not seen unfortunately. But I have heard good things about them. I would be curious to see if he brought the same sense of alienation to the teen romance that he did to many of his other films. "You know, what we have in common is that we're both lonely." says a man to a woman he just met at a bus station in the end of Dark Passage, and they are not the only characters in Daves's oeuvre that feel this way.

I am not an expert on Daves so I will not write any more. Instead I will let Daves speak for himself. The archives at the library at the Swedish Film Institute (where I work) hold a lot of fascinating documents and here is a letter from Daves where he writes about himself and his films, invoking Jean-Paul Sartre, Greek tragedy and his childhood. He wrote in response to a retrospective of western films that the Film Institute's Cinematheque was organising in 1968. It is a great read.

*Leo McCarey's two other films in that trio are The Awful Truth and Make Way For Tomorrow, both made in 1937. 

Here is Glenn Kenny's celebration of one of Daves's last films, Youngblood Hawke (1964).

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