Friday, 31 January 2014

Sturges vs. Sturges

When people talk about a filmmaker called Sturges it can automatically be assumed that they refer to Preston Sturges. Conventional wisdom has it that Preston Sturges is the important one and John Sturges is "the other Sturges". However, I think the differences between the Sturges' are interesting and is about something essential in cinema, and what we value in the art form. What is valued in Preston Sturges is dialogue, humour, satire, characters and plotting, more of literary qualities. His films are extraordinarily quotable, his characters are rich and vivid, down to the smallest part (a thesis could be written about his bartenders), he tells ingenious, convoluted stories, and his satire can be both brave and dark. Nobody is safe from his sharp tongue and raised eyebrow and for at least eight years, from The Great McGinty (1940) to Unfaithfully Yours (1948), he was a one-man show in Hollywood, a writer-director-producer who made films that were very much his films.

But he has not made a film that is better than John Sturges's best films; Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, image above), a tense drama attacking racism and the treatment of Japanese Americans, and Hour of the Gun (1967, image below), a bitter and wise film with extraordinary music by Jerry Goldsmith. John Sturges had a strong visual sense and when he had the right script and a good cast he could do great things. His compositions are often striking, many of his films have shots and images that are far beyond anything found in Preston's films, and few have such a firm command of the widescreen image. There is real beauty in the geometrical precision with which he can stage and frame a shot. In addition, the ensemble acting in many of his films is remarkable, how the group becomes one. There is also, often, a peculiar mood to the films; as I have said earlier he is good at being uplifting and downbeat at the same time. Besides the two high points already mentioned other fine films of his are The Capture (1950, an independent production from his early, pre-widescreen, days), Backlash (1956), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963).

So neither of the Sturges' is ideal, but both have great strengths; for one it is the written word, for the other the visuals. There is room for both.

Preston Sturges is not really like anybody else, but it is tempting to put John Sturges together with Richard Fleischer (whom I wrote about four years ago here). A topic for another day. Andrew Sarris put both in the "Strained Seriousness" category but they are more than that.

Backlash, with its story (by Borden Chase) of a man hunting the man he believes is responsible for the death of his father, only to find out in the end that it is the other way around, that his father is a killer, is very good but it makes you wonder what Anthony Mann might have done with it. Mann is a much greater artist than any of those mentioned in this post.

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