Sunday, April 14, 2024

Anthony Mann : thoughts after the 2024 Cinémathèque française retrospective

Anthony Mann: Bend of the River (US 1952) starring James Stewart and Julia Adams. Please click on the image to expand it.

La Cinémathèque française: the Anthony Mann retrospective, April 2024.

In April 2024 at la Cinémathèque française I saw my first Anthony Mann retrospective. I did not see everything. I skipped the earliest works and the most familiar titles. I have been a Mann fan since I saw Bend of the River on 28 April 1968  on Yle TV1. Since childhood, I have loved the Anthony Mann / James Stewart cycle, and also The Tin Star and Man of the West. I was fond even of The Glenn Miller Story. None of these foundational films I revisited this time.

I have written about Mann for instance in Elokuvantekijät, my encyclopedia of film-makers, and joined the consensus about his excellence in three periods: film noir in the 1940s, Westerns in the 1950s, and epics in the 1960s.

During this retrospective I started to make sense of the continuity across the periods - especially the epic spirit common to all. Many film epics are empty and bombastic, but in Mann's films there is a vivid and engrossing sense of history. They are not mere illustrated history tales. Historical turning-points come alive with a topical sense of urgency.

Besides the Samuel Bronston superproductions of the 1960s, the Westerns of the 1950s are of course epics, as well. André Bazin, Mann's first and greatest champion among film critics, compared them with the Iliad and the Odyssey.

There is an epic dimension in several of Mann's non-epics also: Strategic Air Command (the Cold War and the Nuclear Age), Thunder Bay (Big Oil and ecological danger), The Tall Target (the US Civil War) and Reign of Terror (the French Revolution). His anti-epic Men in War is about the Korean War, or the Cold War turning hot.

Mann first came on his own in his film noir cycle (Desperate, T-Men, Raw Deal, Border Incident and related movies), crime dramas far from the epic format. To me, film noir is an answer to Theodor Adorno's question about "poetry after Auschwitz" - film noir is poetry after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, an expression of cosmic despair like never seen before.

Anthony Mann's epic drive is explicit in his later work, but it is already implicit in his film noirs of the 1940s, and I would argue that this undercurrent gives them a special distinction and hidden power.

Ever since Desperate, Mann was a visionary. He was an inventor in the extremely stylized black and white expressionism of film noir, particularly in collaboration with the cinematographer John Alton. In Westerns, Mann turned to colour and scope, and embraced location shooting in contrast to the studiobound film noir. The film noir period belonged to the idiom of expressionism, but the colour cinematography of The Man from Laramie was compared by André Bazin with Cézanne: 

"Grass is mixed up with rocks, trees with desert, snow with pastures and clouds with the blue of the sky. This blending of elements and colours is like the token of the secret tenderness nature holds for man, even in the most arduous trials of its seasons. In most Westerns, even in the best ones like Ford's, the landscape is an expressionist framework where human trajectories come to make their mark. In Anthony Mann it is an atmosphere. Air itself is not separate from earth and water. Like Cézanne, who wanted to paint it, Anthony Mann wants us to feel aerial space, not like a geometric container, a vacuum from one horizon to the other, but like the concrete quality of space. When his camera pans, it breathes. " 

James Stewart was Mann's signature actor. They made eight films together in 1950-1955, including the Big Oil apology Thunder Bay and the Cold War militarist vehicle Strategic Air Command. Stewart's soul was certainly in them but I am not sure about Mann.

The biggest revelation to me was Mann's consistent anti-racist emphasis in Border Incident, The Furies, Devil's Doorway, The Last Frontier, Serenade, Cimarron, El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. By indirection also in The Tall Target (pro-Lincoln) and The Heroes of Telemark (anti-Nazi). The most unforgettable scene in the Anthony Mann oeuvre is the catastrophic first school day of the little Osage girl Ruby Red Feather in Cimarron, an unsung masterpiece. There are several versions. Might the version I saw be of higher integrity than the abridged one released in Finland at the time?  

The Heroes of Telemark made special sense in this context as Mann's only WWII and anti-Nazi movie. It is also a Nuclear Age thriller (resonating thus with both the Holocaust and the Nuclear Bomb). A Dandy in Aspic stood out as something completely different, a Pop Age Cold War thriller.

The copies I saw were good or brilliant of: The Great Flamarion, Strange Impersonation, Desperate, He Walked by Night, Reign of Terror, Side Street, The Furies, The Tall Target, Thunder Bay, Serenade, Cimarron, El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Heroes of Telemark and A Dandy in Aspic.

Dr. Broadway (US 1942) Production late Oct-early Nov 1941, copyright 1 May 1942, premiere: 9 May 1942
Moonlight in Havana (US 1942) Production 29 July-mid Aug 1942, copyright 30 Sep 1942, release 16 Oct 1942
Nobody's Darling (US 1943) Production early May-early June 1943, copyright 4 Aug 1943, release 27 Aug 1943
My Best Gal (US 1944) Production 18 Oct-early Nov 1943, copyright 14 Feb 1944, release 28 March 1944
Strangers in the Night (US 1944) Production mid to late May 1944, copyright 19 July 1944, release 12 Sep 1944
The Great Flamarion / Suuri Flamarion (US 1945) Production Sep 1944, Copyright 23 Feb 1945, US release 30 March 1945
Two O'Clock Courage (US 1945) Release and copyright 13 April 1945
Sing Your Way Home (US 1945) Production 27 Nov-late Dec 1944, Copyright 14 Nov 1945
Strange Impersonation (US 1946) release 16 March 1946
The Bamboo Blonde (US 1946) Production 4 Sep-early Oct 1945, release 15 July 1946
Desperate / Epätoivoiset (US 1947) Production late Nov-late Dec 1946, release 20 June 1947
Railroaded! (US 1947) Production late April-early May 1947, release 25 Sep 1947
T-Men / T-miehet (US 1948) Production early July-late Aug 1947, release 10 Jan 1948
Raw Deal (US 1948) Production mid Nov-mid Dec 1947, LA opening 21 May 1948
[Alfred Werker: He Walked by Night / Hän kulkee öisin (US 1948) Production late April-late May 1948, LA opening 24 Nov 1948]
Reign of Terror / Yllämme giljotiini (US 1949) Production mid Aug-early Oct 1948, New Orleans LA premiere 16 June 1949
Border Incident / Kuoleman raja (US 1949) Production 25 Jan-early March 1949, US release 28 Oct 1949
Side Street (US 1949) Production 21 April-mid June 1949, US release 14 Dec 1949
Winchester '73 / Winchester '73 - kohtalon ase (US 1950) Production mid Feb-late March 1950, New York opening 7 June 1950
The Furies / Raivotar (US 1950) Production 9 Nov-23 Dec 1949, added scenes and retakes 7 Jan 1950, Tucson, Arizona premiere 21 July 1950
Devil's Doorway / Paholaisen portti (1950) Production 15 Aug-mid Oct 1949, US release Sep 1950
The Tall Target (US 1951) Production early Jan-mid Feb 1951, US release 17 Aug 1951
Bend of the River / Maa vuorten takana (US 1952) Production 26 July-13 Sep 1951, Portland, Oregon premiere 23 Jan 1952
The Naked Spur / Teräskannus (US 1953) Production late May-30 June 1952, Denver premiere 6 Feb 1953
Thunder Bay / Vihan lahti (US 1953) Production late Sep-mid Nov 1952, US premiere 20 May 1953
The Glenn Miller Story / Kuutamoserenadi (US 1954) Production 5 June-late July 1953, US premiere 10 Feb 1954
The Far Country / Seikkailijoitten luvattu maa (US 1955) Production 19 Aug-mid Oct 1953, US premiere 12 Feb 1955
Strategic Air Command / Ilmojen kiitäjät (US 1955) Production late March 1954-add scenes till mid Nov 1954, US premiere 20 April 1955
The Man from Laramie / Muukalainen Laramiesta (US 1955) Production 29 Sep-26 Nov 1954, US premiere 13 July 1955
The Last Frontier / Viimeinen etuvartio (US 1955) Production began late March 1955, US premiere 7 Dec 1955
Serenade / Serenadi (US 1956) Filming 14 Sep - 7 Dec 1955, US premiere 23 March 1956
Men in War / Miehet sodassa (US 1957) Filming 9 July 1956, US premiere 25 Jan 1957
The Tin Star / Hopeatähti (US 1957) Filming 22 Oct 1956, US premiere 23 Oct 1957
God's Little Acre / Luojan oma maatilkku (US 1958) Production 11 Sep - October 1957, Festival premiere Aug 1958 Venice
Man of the West / Mies lännestä (US 1958) Filming 10 Feb 1958, US premiere 17 Sep 1958
Cimarron / Cimarron (US 1960) Production dates 30 Nov 1959-mid Feb 1960, addl scenes began Apr 1960, Oklahoma City premiere 1 Dec 1960
El Cid / El Cid (US/IT 1961) Filming 10 Nov 1960 - April 1961, IT premiere 24 Oct 1961
The Fall of the Roman Empire / Rooman valtakunnan tuho (US 1964) Filming Oct 1962 - April 1963, GB premiere 24 March 1964
The Heroes of Telemark / Telemarkin sankarit (GB 1965) Filming 20 Nov 1964, GB premiere 23 Nov 1965
A Dandy in Aspic / Vakoilija jota kukaan ei halunnut (GB 1968) Filming 20 Feb 1967, GB premiere 4 April 1968

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