Wednesday, October 09, 2019

The Man from Nowhere (William S. Hart, 1915)

The Man from Nowhere. William S. Hart as Buck Farley, the man without a past, appointed deputy sheriff, J. P. Lockney as the drunkard Jake Frazer, appointed sheriff, and Margaret Thompson as his daughter Emma Frazer, caught in a love triangle between Buck Farley and Johnson the saloon keeper.

His Duty.
US 1915.
regia/dir: William S. Hart.
sogg/story, scen: C. Gardner Sullivan.
cast: William S. Hart (“Buck” Farley), Margaret Thompson (Emma Frazer), J. P. Lockney (Jake Frazer), Alfred Hollingsworth (Johnson).
prod: New York Motion Picture Co., supv: Thomas H. Ince.
dist: Mutual/Domino.
uscita/rel: 6.5.1915.
copia/copy: DCP, 23′ (da/from 35 mm, 1445 ft, 18 fps); did./titles: ENG.
fonte/source: George Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
    William S. Hart.
    Grand piano: Neil Brand.
    Teatro Verdi, e-subtitles in Italian by Underlight, 9 Oct 2019.

Richard Abel (GCM): "This story begins in the Chicago Saloon in Snake River, Arizona, where Johnson, the saloon owner, jokingly gets his cowboy customers to name a drunk, Jake Frazer, as sheriff and then is rebuffed by Emma, Frazer’s daughter. After Johnson stages a fight in which Frazer is beaten, Buck Farley, who has just ridden into town, breaks up the fight, rescues Frazer, and does not realize that Johnson pretends to have saved him, when he actually was about to shoot him. Buck becomes Frazer’s deputy, begins to fall in love with Emma, but is surprised to find that Johnson wants to court Emma. Johnson uses a ruse to get Buck searching for some allegedly stolen horses in the desert, and Buck forces him to accompany him. Without Buck’s knowledge, Johnson hides their water skins, one after another, and one night shoos Buck’s horse away. Invoking Buck’s earlier promise to save him in return, Johnson tries to retrace his steps, fails to find any of the buried water skins, and dies drinking from an alkaline-poisoned water hole. Meanwhile, Buck finds one buried water skin and struggles back to Frazer’s cabin. The surviving film print (likely a reissue from the Film Distributors League) breaks off at his point, perhaps due to damage, but a trade press summary has Buck learn from Frazer about Johnson’s “true character” and “win Emma for his wife.” What remains puzzling is that the trade press also calls Johnson Pasquale and Mexican, although the actor in the surviving print gives little sense of such added villainy at that time."

"This film begins with Buck on horseback looking down on the town from a ridge, a stranger “from nowhere” and without a past, much like Clint Eastwood’s loner in High Plains Drifter (1973). As director, Hart conveys Sullivan’s story clearly and efficiently, with revealing close shots not only of Buck’s restrained facial expressions as he registers the encounters between Johnson and Emma but also Johnson attempting to hold Emma’s hand, Buck gently placing his hand on hers at the cabin table, and his unsuspecting sleep during the first days in the desert. In early May 1915, Motion Picture News praised the film’s “atmosphere of the lawless west,” sometimes “realistic to the extreme,” especially in the “engrossing” desert scene. Filmed at the same time and in the same sandy desert as The Taking of Luke McVane, The Man from Nowhere strikingly foreshadows the marvelous ending of Stroheim’s Greed (1924).
" Richard Abel (GCM)

AA: I would not compare The Man from Nowhere with Monte Hellman, but there are elements of an existentialist Western in this tale about a man without a past, particlarly in passages of desolation during a desperate trek in the desert. Let's say that one could imagine a Monte Hellman film inspired by this script.

The sense of squalor and a makeshift existence is particularly tangible. Jake Frazer, the worst drunkard of the place, is appointed Sheriff. He can hardly stand on his feet, and his ankle is sprained in the first fight he tries to stop. His daughter Emma is furious and really lets fly on the men in the saloon.

It's Rio Bravo in reverse. The sheriff is the drunkard, and his deputy Buck Farley (William S. Hart) helps him sober up and walk tall like a man again. Meanwhile, Buck shares moments of tenderness with Emma.

When Buck, the stranger, walks into the saloon and stops the fight, the saloon keeper Johnson tries to kill him but lies that he saved him. His purpose with the desert trek is to have Buck killed. Buck still believes that Johnson had saved his life and swears: "I'll go through hell with you". But Johnson falls into his own trap.

A digital representation of a 35 mm source titled His Duty. Duped, in low definition, with occasional nitrate or water damage marks, yet watchable and impressive.


AA Facebook capsule:

There are touches of existentialism in The Man from Nowhere. It would be possible to imagine a Monte Hellman film based on this screenplay.

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