Tag: Harry Davenport

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Gone with the Wind (1939)

For decades unchallenged as the best loved Hollywood film ever made, but showing some signs of its age, it’s still an undeniable marvel

Director: Victor Fleming

Cast: Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara), Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes), Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Hamilton), Thomas Mitchell (Gerald O’Hara), Evelyn Keyes (Suellen O’Hara), Ann Rutherford (Careen O’Hara), Barbara O’Neil (Ellen O’Hara), Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), Butterfly McQueen (Prissy), Oscar Polk (Pork), Rand Brooks (Charles Hamilton), Carroll Nye (Frank Kennedy), Jane Darwell (Mrs Meriweather), Ona Munson (Belle Watling), Harry Davenport (Dr Meade)

For most of the twentieth century, if you asked people to draw up a list of the greatest Hollywood films of all time, you can be pretty sure this would be close to the top. A landmark in Hollywood history, everything about Gone with the Wind is huge: sets, run time, costs, legend. It’s crammed with moments that have developed lives of their own in popular culture. Its score from Max Steiner – luscious and romantic – is instantly recognisable, practically Hollywood’s soundtrack. It’s the most famous moment in the lives of virtually all involved and for decades whenever it was released, it raked in the cash. But as we head into the twenty-first century, does GWTW (as it called itself even at the time) still claim its place at the head of Hollywood’s table?

It’s the love child of David O. Selznick. Never mind your auteur theory: GWTW credits Victor Fleming as the director, but parts of it were shot by George Cukor (the original director, who continued to coach Leigh and de Havilland), William Cameron Menzies (the legendary art director, who shot the Atlanta sequences) and Sam Wood (who covered for an exhausted Fleming for several weeks). This is a Selznick joint from top to bottom. GWTW is possibly the ultimate producer’s film: a massive show piece, where not a single cent isn’t up on the screen. Huge sets, vast casts, colossal set pieces, thousands of costumes and extras. It’s an extravaganza and Selznick was determined that it would be an event like no other. And a hugely entertaining event it was.

It would also be scrupulously faithful to Margaret Mitchell’s novel, with a dozen screenwriters working on it (including Selznick). GWTW was the ultimate door-stop romance novel. Set in Atlanta, Georgia, the entire film is a no-holds barred “Lost cause” romance of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is the passionate, wilful daughter of a plantation owner, desperately in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who is attracted to her but all set to marry his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Also interested in Scarlett is playboy Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Romantic complications are set to one side when the Civil War breaks out, bringing disaster to the South. As the war comes to its end will Scarlett and Rhett find love, or will Scarlett’s fixation on Ashley continue to come between them?

GWTW’s casting was the sort of national obsession not even the casting of a superhero gets today. Every actress in Hollywood seemed to screen test for Scarlett O’Hara, with Selznick playing the search for all the publicity it was worth. No one suggested Vivien Leigh. But, lord almighty, Leigh was placed on this Earth to play Scarlett O’Hara. GWTW is dominated by Leigh, dripping movie star charisma. She would be synonymous with the role for the rest of her life, and it’s no exaggeration to say this one of the greatest acting performances in movie history. Leigh balances a character stuffed with contradictions. Scarlett is wilful and vulnerable, impulsive and calculated, childish and dependable, selfish and generous, spoilt and sensible, romantic and realistic… But Leigh balances all this with complete ease. It’s an act of complete transformation, an astonishingly confident, charismatic and complicated performance.

There was no debate about who would play the romantic hero, Rhett Butler. He basically was Clark Gable. And Gable was perfect casting – so perfect, he was almost too scared to play it. But he did, and he is sublime: matinee idol charismatic, but also wise, witty and vulnerable (it’s easy to forget that Rhett is really in the traditional “woman’s role” – the ever-devoted lover who sticks by his woman, no matter how badly she treats him, spending chunks the latter half of the film halfway to depressed tears). For the rest, Leslie Howard was oddly miscast as Wilkes (he seems too English and too inhibited by the dull role) but Olivia de Havilland excels in a generous performance as Melanie, endearingly sweet and loyal.

These stars were placed in a film production that’s beyond stunning. Shot in glorious technicolour, with those distinctive luscious colours, astonishingly detailed sets were built (plantations, massive dance halls, whole towns). Everything about GWTW is designed to scream prestige quality. It lacks directorial personality – the best shots, including a crane shot of the Civil War wounded or a tracking shot on Leigh through a crowded staircase, seem designed to showpiece the sets and volume of extras. It’s a film designed to wow, crammed with soaring emotions and vintage melodrama. Nothing is ever low key in GWTW: disasters are epic, love is all-consuming passionate clinches. They built stretches of Atlanta so they could burn it down on camera. It’s extraordinary.

And much of GWTW is extremely entertaining. Especially the first half. It’s an often overlooked fact that if you ask people to name things that happen in GWTW, nearly everything (bar the film’s final scene obviously) they will come up with is in the first half. Rhett behind a sofa in the library? Atlanta on fire? Rhett and Scarlett at the ball? Scarlett surrounded by admirers at a garden party? “I’ll never be hungry again?” All before the interval. The first half is a rollicking, fast-paced rollercoaster that takes us from the height of the South to the devastation after the war. It grabs you by the collar and never lets go, supremely romantic, gripping and exciting.

The second half? Always duller. Bar the start and finish of the second half (nearly two hours in all), it’s a Less memorable film. Sure, it has the O’Hara’s in extreme poverty, Scarlett reduced to converting a curtain into a dress to glamour up some cash to keep Tara. It’s got Ashley and Melanie’s adorably sweet reunion. And it’s got possibly the most famous line ever in movies “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” (not to mention “Tomorrow is another day”).

Other than that? It’s a bitty, plot-heavy series of forgettable, episodic moments which you feel really should have been cut. Who remembers Frank Kennedy? Or Scarlett’s lumber mill? Rhett pushing his daughter in a pram? The London sequence? There is a solid hour of this film which is flatly shot, dully paced and devoid of anything memorable at all. GWTW owes all its beloved reputation to the first half: and to be fair you’ll be so swept up in that you’ll give the film a pass for its middling second act. After all you get just about enough quality to keep you going.

But what about the elephant in the room? GWTW, like no other beloved film, has a deeply troubling legacy. They were partly aware of it at the time – after all, every racial epithet was cut, as is every reference to the KKK (it’s referred to as a “political meeting” and Rhett and Ashley’s membership is glossed over) and we never see the attack they carry out on a shanty town of former slaves. But GWTW remains, in many ways, a racist film peddling an unpleasant and dangerous mythology that the “Lost Cause” of the South was all about gentlemanly fair play, rather than coining it off plantations full of enslaved workers.

GWTW, in many ways, plays today a bit like a beloved elderly relative who comes round for dinner and then says something deeply inappropriate half-way through the main course. The dangerous mythology is there from the opening crawl which talks of the South as a land of “Cavaliers and cotton fields” where “Gallantry took its last bow…[full of] knights and their ladies fair, of Master and Slave”. The third shot of the film is a field of smiling slaves, working in a cotton field. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar (at a segregated ceremony) and she is wonderfully warm as Mammy, but her character is another contented underling. At least she seems smarter than the other main black characters, Pork and Queeny: both are like children reliant on the guidance of their masters.

The Cause of the South is luscious and romantic, as are the people who fight it. Nearly every Yankee we see is corrupt, ugly and greedy, rubbing defeat in our heroes’ faces. It’s not quite Birth of a Nation, but the second half has a creeping suspicion of freed black people. A carpetbagger from the North is a smug, fat black man who mocks wounded Southern soldiers. Scarlett’s walk through the streets of a rebuilt Atlanta sees her startled and mildly hustled by black people who no longer know their place. Every prominent black character is sentimental about the good old days. GWTW would make an interesting double feature with 12 Years a Slave.

It’s this dangerous and false mythology that makes the film troubling today. It’s why you need to imagine the entire thing with a massive asterisk – and why you should be encouraged to find out more about the era than the fake and self-serving fantasy the film peddles as reality. But for all that, GWTW is so marvellous as a film that it will always be watched (and rightly so), even if it was always a film of two halves and only becomes more controversial in time. But watch it with a pinch of salt, and it is still one of the most gorgeous, sweeping and romantic films of all time: that’s why it still remains, for many, the definitive “Hollywood” film.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Paul Muni campaigns for justice in The Life of Emile Zola

Director: William Dieterle

Cast: Paul Muni (Emile Zola), Gloria Holden (Alexandrine Zola), Gale Sondergaard (Lucie Dreyfus), Joseph Schildkraut (Captain Alfred Dreyfus), Donald Crisp (Maitre Labori), Erin O’Brien-Moore (Nana), John Litel (Charpentier), Henry O’Neill (Colonel Picquart), Morris Carnovsky (Anatole France), Louis Calhern (Major Dort), Ralph Morgan (Commander of Paris), Harry Davenport (Chief of Staff), Vladimir Sokoloff (Paul Cezanne)

One of the lesser-known Best Picture winners, The Life of Emile Zola is a prime example of the 1930s trend for “Great Man” pictures, setting the template for a whole genre of biographical movies. A whistle-stop tour of how the Great Man came to be, before a tight focus on what made him great – ideally ending in either triumph or disaster (or, as is the case here, with both). It’s from a time when the viewing public didn’t expect a rigid adherence to the fact – and when films were very open with their flexibility with the truth (the film opens with an on-screen caption which happily states most of what happens in it is made up.) Actually, I think being told from the start you are watching a heavily fictionalised version of the truth covers a multitude of sins: and that The Life of Emile Zola is pretty entertaining when you get past that.

Emile Zole (Paul Muni) is of course one of the most famous French authors. But he was also at least as famous for his campaigning and presence as he was for his volumes and volumes of best sellers. The film follows Zola, for its first forty minutes or so, from poverty-stricken writer, struggling to make ends meet in the draughty hovel he shares with similar future-genius Cezanne, to success (although in real life by the time he wrote Nana, the book that makes him a sensation here, he was already hugely famous). Zola becomes increasingly aimless. What worlds are there left to be conquered? That all changes when Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) the wife of army officer Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) asks for his help to save his life from unjust imprisonment and exile on Devil’s Island. Because the army are convinced Dreyfus is a spy – and won’t let inconvenient things like evidence that someone else did it get in the way.

The film is called The Life of Emile Zola but really it might as well have been called The Dreyfus Affair. This infamous miscarriage of justice drives the entire second half of the movie – with Zola himself disappearing from focus for stretches as the film covers the conspiracies that led to Dreyfuss spending the best part of a decade imprisoned for something he didn’t do. What seems strange today is that the film makes no mention of the most famous angle of the case: Dreyfus was almost solely suspected because he was Jewish, and the case became one of the most infamous antisemitic persecutions in history. But the studio heads – Jewish themselves and nervous of being accused of making a film that criticised Nazi Germany – removed all reference to Dreyfus’ Jewishness from the script. It’s a curious omission, but by and large doesn’t affect the film’s final impact.

Dieterle’s movie is also one of the first courtroom dramas. A large chunk of the final third is given over to Zola’s trial for libel (after his famous J’Accuse article, denouncing the army’s persecution of Dreyfus). In a crowded courtroom, the film carefully follows the intricacies of the court case, from calling to witnesses to final speeches (all fairly accurate, even if Zola is given a larger role with a final speech). As in the trial itself, the blatant unfairness (witnesses shouted down, defence questions vetoed, evidence withheld and even invented) is hammered home with shocking regularity. Donald Crisp does fine work as the liberal lawyer, hamstrung by a crooked system.

The Dreyfus affair element is really what makes the film come to life. The French army officers are almost to a man a group of corrupt bullies, who have pre-decided the outcome of their investigation and are determined that every single element of it should support that decision. By contrast Joseph Schildkraut (winning an Oscar that feels more for Dreyfus than him, delivering an effective if rather one-note performance) is the soul of decency and nobility as a Dreyfus who is at first bewildered then fighting a manful struggle against despair. Even better is Gale Sondergaard, who gets an ahistorical impassioned speech to win Zola to the cause and carries a core of quiet anger under her shock.

The Dreyfus Affair was the struggle of Zola’s life, the crusade that would win him a place in history, perhaps even more than his books. It’s also the sort of campaigning material that gives rich rewards to actors. Paul Muni seizes the opportunity. The film was shot in reverse so Muni would need to spend less and less time in make-up as shooting went on: the old-age make-up and wigs are very effective, matched by Muni’s physicality and voice which subtly changes as the character ages.

Muni is an actor who seized any chance for a bit of grandstanding. The film gives him its best one with a five-minute monologue closing the trial, during which Zola argues with passionate but quiet reasonableness that Dreyfus is an innocent victim. It’s even more effective since Dieterle has kept Muni silently off-centre for much of the court case. Muni sometimes carries the whiff of stagey ham, but in several moments he brings both a charming cheek and strong morality to Zola. It’s a very strong performance from one of the leading actors of the 1930s.

The film itself is also a good mixture of the twee and the compelling. Most of the Dreyfuss material falls into the latter category. It’s the early days of Zola that falls into twee: Zola scrippling ideas, bantering with Cezanne on the purpose of art, playfully mining prostitute Nana for the material he will make into a hit book. There is a nice foreshadowing through the film with Zola’s obsession with blocking draughts – an obsession that will later cost him his life to a misfunctioning heater.

It’s a well directed film. Dieterle mixes in nice touches of humour (a husband and wife using subterfuge to disguise from each other that they are both buying Nana) and also effective details that speak of Dreyfus’ isolation (the letter that has been redacated into nothingness, the effective transition of several years at Devil’s Island that stresses how little has changed, Dreyfus’ giddy joy when finally allowed to walk unheeded in and out of his prison cell).

The Life of Emile Zola looks today like a surprising winner of Best Picture. But the patterns for both courtroom drama and many biographical dramas were laid down here. By the end, as the survivors pay tribute to Zola with high-blown speeches, the audience should be convinced that this was a man deserving of being honoured by a whole movie. It’s setting of a template copied many times over can make it look a little twee today, but its’ still well done, with some powerful flashes of effective film-making and great acting.

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Joel McCrea, Laraine Day and George Sanders take on shady European powers in Foreign Correspondent

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Joel McCrea (John Jones/Huntley Havestock), Laraine Day (Carol Fisher), Herbert Marshall (Stephen Fisher), George Sanders (Scott ffolliott), Albert Basserman (Van Meer), Robert Benchley (Stebbins), Edmund Gwenn (Rowley), Eduardo Cianelli (Mr King), Harry Davenport (Mr Powers), Edward Conrad (Latvian)

In 1940, Hitchcock was new in America, after a parade of successes in Britain. 1940 was a red-letter year for the master, directing not one but two of the films up for Best Picture. The Oscar was carried home for his masterful gothic adaptation of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, but equally memorable was Foreign Correspondent, a stirring, heartfelt thriller about the build-up to war in Britain, a passionate cry for American intervention and brilliant propaganda contribution to the British war effort (even Joseph Goebbels tipped his hat to it).

John Jones (Joel McCrea) is the new foreign correspondent in Europe for the New York Morning Globe. Given the pseudonym “Huntley Havestock” (because it sounds better), Jones is picked out because he’s a hard-boiled crime journalist, practised at winkling out a story, rather than the cozy posh boys usually sent out to Europe. In Amsterdam, Jones attends a peace conference hosted by leader of the British peace party Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), where eminent Dutch diplomat and architect of the fragile European peace Van Meer (Albert Basserman) is due to speak. While Jones falls in love with Fisher’s daughter Carol (Laraine Day), Van Meer mysteriously falls to show at the dinner – and arrives at the conference the next day only to fail to recognise Jones and immediately get assassinated. Suddenly Jones finds himself in the middle of a dangerous game of spies with only British journalist Scott ffolliott (George Sanders) and Carol to help him.

Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent is a masterful spy caper, in the style of many of his early successful works such as The Thirty-Nine Steps, superbly assembled by a genius at the top of his game, with access to funding and techniques beyond what he had in Britain. Hitchcock went through several versions of the script – there were no fewer than nine writers who worked on this film, four of whom are credited – but it matters not a jot when the script they finally came up with matched such superb, zingy, screw-ball style dialogue with such brilliant set-pieces.

The film also had a serious purpose as well. From the start, this is a cry of one of Britain’s most prominent ex-pats to his newly adopted nation to join the effort to preserve Western civilisation against the onslaught of Nazi oppression. Joel McCrea’s Jones – a part written for Gary Cooper, who forever regretted turning the role down – is the quintessential American, disinterested in the world, sure of America’s place in it, who has his eyes opened and passion ignited by seeing up-close and personal the dangers from the agents of totalitarianism. The agents of the enemy nation – probably Germany, a country that is referenced in passing, but the film deliberately keeps it shady in an attempt to appear even-handed – are ruthless, brutal and unscrupulous. Their plans are fiendish and they are bent on world domination. But all this is worn very lightly within a caper framework that has as much interest in Jones falling in love with Carol as it does with foiling the baddies.

It also plays neatly on Jones’ very old-school American obsession with fair-play, and bringing down the baddies no matter what. Witnessing Van Meer assassinated before his very eyes, Jones is determined to go to any lengths to ensure both that justice is done and he is the man who gets the story. At the same time, Jones also has an honest and homely sense of romanticism about him. The film gets a tonne of comic and romantic mileage out of the cracking dialogue between McCrea and Loraine Day as Carol, with the sort of intelligent, witty banter that wouldn’t seem out of place in a screwball comedy, with Jones’ blunt “I say what I mean” attitude crashing beautifully against Carol’s more English rectitude. 

Hitchcock shows himself a brilliantly adept director of comedy – something he doesn’t get enough credit for – in these sequences between the two of them sparring over the course of the movie. And it’s not just them, but also his work with George Sanders – cast against type as a cool, noble British agent – brilliantly hilarious as the curiously named “ffiolliott” (the sequence, mid car chase, where he calmly explains to the befuddled Jones while bullets fly why his name deliberately has no capital letter is hilarious). Comedy is a rich vein in Foreign Correspondent and it works so well here because it lightens both the drama of the thriller elements and the political message of “pro-intervention”.

The thriller sequences are just as superb. The assassination sequence is a stand-out, a shooting on a rain soaked series of steps outside a conference, with the assassin making his retreat through a crowd of on-lookers carrying umbrellas under hot-pursuit from Jones. Hitchcock takes his camera above the crowd, meaning we only follow its progress through the disruption of the umbrellas, before the two men emerge (bullets flying) and move straight into a breathless car chase through the Dutch countryside. It’s a masterful sequence.

And it’s far from the last. The film has a superb series of tension-filled sequences, from Jones playing an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse in a Dutch windmill, trying to avoid being seen by the German agents occupying it while finding out as much as he can about their plans, to Jones reporting what he has found to a man we already know is a double agent. Edmund Gwenn, cast well-against type as a jovial, remorseless assassin, gets a brilliant sequence of attempts to kill Jones without putting him on guard, culminating in a vertigo inducing sequence at the top of Westminster Tower. It’s the second such sequence, Jones already having to climb over the roof of a hotel in Amsterdam to escape assassins (along the way brilliantly hitting the neon sign of the Hotel Europe so that it reads “Hot Europe”). Hitchcock tops it all with a brilliant plane-crash sequence shot with chutzpah and daring and is a technical marvel considering the resources available in 1940.

All this excitement and adventure helps to deliver the message of the film as strongly pro-interventionist to encourage the Americans to enter the war on the side of the Allies. Van Meer (a fabulous performance from Albert Bassermann of old-school nobility, made even more astonishing by the fact he didn’t speak a word of English and learned it all phonetically) has a brilliant, impassioned speech – all the more affecting for its  lack of histrionics – that condemns the brutality and violence of the dictatorships. The film is capped with Jones’ Ed Murrow-style broadcast from Blitz-besieged London. Both sequences raise genuine lumps to the throat – McCrea’s delivery is perfect – and the final sequence is all the more astonishing when you realise it was conceived and shot before the Blitz even started.

Not that the film is completely obvious in its allegiances. The turn-coat Brit in the film is a complex, even sympathetic figure who is merely serving his actual home country in the best way possible. He’s largely presented as reluctant to commit crimes, but believing that they must be done and is even allowed a heroic death. His identity perhaps is fairly guessable (he even has a Germanic dog!) but it still works very well in the film.

Hitchcock draws superb performances from the cast – helped by that script of zingers. McCrea is just about perfect, Day very sweet, Sanders is brilliant, Herbert Marshall’s Stephen Fisher a brilliant portrait of arrogance and tortured duty, Robert Benchley very funny (and writing his own scenes) as Jones’ colleague who’s struggling to stay on the wagon, Harry Davenport superb as Jones’ His Girl Fridayish editor. Basserman was Oscar nominated – and deserves it for his big speech – but it could have been any of the cast. Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent is often overlooked among the master’s many, many triumphs. But any pro-interventionist, anti-German film that has even Joseph Goebbels singing its praises must have a fair bit going for it.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

Charles Laughton looks on with longing as The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Director: William Dieterle

Cast: Charles Laughton (Quasimodo), Cedric Hardwicke (Jean Frollo), Thomas Mitchell (Clopin), Maureen O’Hara (Esmeralda), Edmond O’Brien (Pierre Gringoire), Alan Marshal (Captain Phoebus), Walter Hampden (Archbishop Claude Frollo), Harry Davenport (King Louis XI), Katherine Alexander (Madame de Lys), George Zucco (Procurator)

Victor Hugo’s gothic romance–slash-tragedy has been turned into a film so often, it’s a wonder anything that happens in it remains a surprise. But this 1939 version is perhaps the most influential, where Hollywood decided to throw money at the fable and try and make something as close as possible to the spirit of the book. But of course with a happyish ending on the end – because, you know, it’s still Hollywood!

In 1470s Paris, the city is caught between the pressures of religion and new developments such as the printing press. In the centre of the city is the Cathedral of Notre Dame – where the bells are operated by foundling Quasimodo (Charles Laughton), a deformed hunchback driven deaf by the constant ringing of the bells. His benefactor, Judge Jean Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke), is running a vicious campaign to cleanse the city of the gypsies and beggars that make up a large part of its underbelly – but he’s hit for six when he falls in love (or rather lust) with beautiful gypsy woman Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara). But he’s not alone – equally smitten are naïve young poet Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien), arrogant Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal), and Quasimodo himself. When Esmeralda rejects Frollo’s advances she soon finds herself in danger – and her only hope of safety comes from unexpected sources.

Dieterle’s background in German expressionism and silent cinema shines through in this visually striking and opulent studio production, with its superbly marshalled crowd scenes, brilliant use of near-impressionistic shadows and fabulous camera work that drifts over the impressive (and hugely expensive) set. Dieterle mixes this technical expertise with a real sense of emotion and character development, helped by some terrific performances from the cast. It’s a film that motors through the story of the novel, but skilfully repackages it as both a fascinating semi-romance and a sort of urban tragedy, as well as a subtle mediation on love and lust.

At the centre of it, you have Charles Laughton giving probably the definitive performance of the hunchback. Sweating under layers of make-up and an artificial hump, Laughton is nearly unrecognisable as the bell-ringer. His triumph is to make a gentle, tragic character emerge from make-up that suggests more Frankenstein’s monster than tragic hero. Nearly wordless for the first hour and a half of the film, Laughton does his magic with an expressiveness that speaks volumes of the loneliness in Quasimodo. Tenderly, he watches people knowing he can never be part of their lives – and look how excitedly he bursts out when he finally gets a chance to speak to Esmeralda one-on-one. Suffering punishment on the wheel, Laughton’s eyes convey the numb acceptance of pain as his natural state of affairs. But he also manages to bring out the gentle, childlike qualities of Quasimodo. It’s a wonderful, wordless, expressionistic performance – a triumph of physical acting and wonderfully judged emotional vulnerability.

The rest of the cast match Laughton stride-for-stride. Censor demands at the time required that Frollo be removed from his position (in the novel) as Archbishop, so the book-version of the character is split in two here. Archbishop Frollo is the sort of pious bore who can keep the Hayes committee happy. But Cedric Hardwicke gets to play the invented evil brother Judge Jean Frollo, the lecherous hypocrite from the novel. An authoritarian ascetic, Hardwicke’s Judge Frollo is lean, mean and utterly ruthless – and totally in denial about both his lustful feelings and hypocrisy. Hardwicke is virtually an archetype of the sinister authoritarian, but he manages to never chew the scenery. Incidentally, knowing the two characters are basically split from the original book, does allow moments of fun imaging the moral debates between the two as a sort of split personality discussion.

But there are plenty of other good performances as well – not least from Maureen O’Hara, who is charming and engaging enough to make you believe that the whole male cast is in love with her. Edmond O’Brian goes large at times with the passionate romance, but he does a very good job in the role. Thomas Mitchell is good value as the leader of the beggars, Clopin. There are strong performances across the whole film.

All these performances are framed within a fabulous design. The trouble and expense that has gone into the construction of the set is inspiring, the sweeping gothic arches and towers giving every shot something exquisite to look at. It also gives never-ending options for camera placement and impressionistic imagery for Dieterle. It works as well – the gloomy, imposing towers of Notre Dame are captured with real artistry, while the shadow it casts over the whole city of Paris serves as a constant reminder of the oppression the city lives in.

Dieterle also brilliantly films the crowd scenes, getting a superb sense of visceral emersion from these sequences. Whether the camera is in the mix, or flying above the crowds from the tops of Notre Dame, these scenes look equally fantastic. Dieterle handles the more action-related scenes with particular skill – Quasimodo’s rescue of Esmeralda from a death sentence is particularly well staged in its dynamism and graceful filming. 

Not every beat works. The portrayal of Louis IX as a sort of kindly old uncle seems off-piste from the very start. The early sequences sometimes get bogged down too quickly in set-up rather than getting into the action. Alan Marshal is rather wooden as Captain Phoebus, although the film goes surprisingly far in suggesting the dark desires and predatory sense of danger that comes from the character. Some of the beggar court sequences get similarly stuck in kitsch.

But these are minor beats. It’s a film that really understands emotions and makes the dramatic thrust work. It also has a dark sexual power, not least in Hardwicke’s Frollo: a seething mess of frustrated desires. It never loses sight of the sadness at the heart of its central character’s story, of his loneliness and isolation, and manages to communicate this brilliantly in every scene where the character appears – he is trapped by his muteness, his ugliness or his sadness at every turn. It’s a development that never fails to be engrossing and finally moving. It’s a film that is brilliantly assembled with real technical skill, very well acted and wonderfully directed.

The Ox Bow Incident (1943)

Henry Fonda tries to change the fate of a lynching, in gripping social-issue drama The Ox Bow Incident

Director: William A Wellman

Cast: Henry Fonda (Gil Carter), Dana Andrews (Donald Martin), Harry Morgan (Art Croft), Frank Conroy (Major Tetley), Harry Davenport (Davies), Anthony Quinn (Juan Martinez), Francis Ford (Alva Hardwicke), William Eythe (Gerald Tetley), Mary Beth Hughes (Rose Swanson), Jane Darwell (Ma Grier), Marc Lawrence (Jeff Farnley), Paul Hurst (Monty Smith)

Spoilers: Can’t quite believe I am saying this about a film that is over 60 years old – but I’m going to give away the whole plot here. Because you can’t really talk about the film without it. It’s a film that’s well worth watching not knowing what is going to happen, so you are warned!

We all like to believe that, when push comes to shove, we live in a civilised world. That when the chips are down, we would behave nobly and stand for what was right. The Ox Bow Incident is a challenging western, because it defiantly says the opposite. The world is a cruel and judgemental place – and sometimes good people are ineffective, regular people panic and lash out and decent people pay the price.

Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) ride into town. Cattle rustlers are plaguing the town and a popular rancher has been gunned down outside his home. With the sheriff absent and the judge ineffective, the townspeople take justice into their own hands. Led by a faux-Civil War major Tetley (Frank Conroy) and aggrieved friend of the dead rancher Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence), they form a posse and ride out to lynch the three suspects (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford). Carter and Croft follow, reluctant, but worried that if they protest too much suspicion will fall on them.

The Ox Bow Incident is a film you keep expecting to make a veering turn towards positivity – you keep expecting it to suddenly draw breath and for everything to turn out okay. Instead, it’s a grim insight into how mob mentality can drive people into sudden and cruel actions. It’s equally a testimony to how ineffective protest and principles can be in the face of anger and revenge. It’s a Western that feels years ahead of its time – there is no romanticism here, just grim everyday life.

In many ways it’s a po-faced and serious morality tale, and revolves around one long scene where the lynch victims are tried by mob justice, plead for their lives, are given a brief respite to say their prayers, protests from a few men are swept aside, and then they are strung up. Every time the viewer starts to think righteousness will slow things down, the certainty of the mob stops decency from taking hold. It’s a slippery slope towards the deaths of men we find out almost immediately afterwards were completely innocent.

The Ox Bow Incident is a film that preaches – and it feels very stagy, a feeling increased by the obviousness of its sets and the intense chamber feeling of the limited locations and scenes. But it works, because it’s so brilliantly put together and so grippingly involving. Wellman’s film is trimmed to the bone, the writing is very strong with Lamar Trotti’s script bristling with moral outrage at humanity’s weakness and fear. It’s a story of injustice and mob rage – and it works because it manages to tell a compelling story while also dealing with universal themes.

Henry Fonda listed this as one of his few early performances he felt was good. Fonda is often remembered as the archetype of American justice, so it’s fascinating here to see how ineffective and compromised Carter is. Carter knows what they are doing is wrong – but he lacks the decisiveness, strength of will or character to persuade people. In fact, his main contributions are quiet comments, or sniping from the wings of the action. 

It’s an inversion almost of Twelve Angry Men’s juror #7 – Carter can’t lead us to justice, because he’s a bit too afraid, a bit too weak, a bit too compromised. At the end, as he reads Martin’s final heartfelt and forgiving letter (beautifully filmed by Wellman with Croft’s hat obscuring Carter’s eyes while he reads, a shot that has multiple symbolic meanings), he projects not moral force but the shame and guilt of a man who, when it came down to it, didn’t have the determination to do what was right. It’s a perfect comment on what a writer may have felt was happening all over in 1943.

The real advocate of justice is Harry Davenport’s humane shop-keeper – but he can’t persuade anyone (Davenport is excellent). Instead, all the big personalities are leading the lynch mob, from Frank Conroy’s bullying Major, who just wants to see the action and stamp his domination on others, to Jan Darwell’s vile honking old woman excited by the killing, to Marc Lawrence’s just plain angry Farnley. Everyone who knows what they are doing is wrong – like Tetley’s weak-willed son (well played by William Eythe) – are just too weak, scared or uncharismatic to do much more than vainly protest. Their regular joe victims (all three actors are excellent as in turn, decent, old and confused and suspiciously alien) don’t stand a chance.

The Ox Bow Incident is a perfect little morality tale, crammed with brilliant performances and moments. It even has the guts (for the time) to reference that most lynchings didn’t have white victims, and introduces a sympathetic black honorary padre who is equally powerless. It’s a film that really feels like it came from an era when the world was going to hell in a handbasket, but it speaks to all ages. Because our fear and readiness to attack – and punish – those people we see as different hasn’t gone away. It’s chilling to think that the world hasn’t changed and this story could just as easily be transposed – with no changes – to half a dozen locations around our world today.