The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - STRAIGHT SHOOTING & HELL BENT: TWO FILMS BY JOHN FORD | The Movie Waffler

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Blu-Ray Review - STRAIGHT SHOOTING & HELL BENT: TWO FILMS BY JOHN FORD

Straight Shooting & Hell Bent: Two Films by John Ford review
New restorations of two of Ford's earliest features.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: John Ford

Straight Shooting & Hell Bent: Two Films by John Ford blu-ray

John Ford's most famous acting collaborator might be John Wayne, but by the time that iconic partnership was formed, Ford had made dozens of movies headlined by cowboy star Harry Carey. Many of these films saw Carey inhabit the recurring role of Cheyenne Harry, a drifter who would inevitably find himself forced to draw his gun despite seeking a quiet life and an honest day's work. Unlike the other two great silent era western stars, Tom Mix and William S. Hart, who both embodied the traditional boy's own image of a cowboy hero, Carey was somewhat ahead of his time. With his imperfect posture and vulnerability, Carey was something of a forerunner of the method actors that would emerge decades later.

Two of Ford's Cheyenne Harry collaborations with Carey – 1917's Straight Shooting and 1918's Hell Bent – have been lovingly restored in 4K for a UK blu-ray release from Eureka Entertainment.

Straight Shooting & Hell Bent: Two Films by John Ford review

Ford and Carey had collaborated on a handful of two and three reelers by the time of Straight Shooting (***), the then Jack Ford's feature debut. Very much in the shadow of his older brother, filmmaker and star Francis, Ford does plenty with a narratively unimaginative tale to mark him out as a future giant of American filmmaking.

The story here is as generic as the western genre could possibly provide, though perhaps not so much back in 1917. Here, Carey's Cheyenne Harry is a gunfighter with a bounty of $1000 on his head. His gunslinging skills are in much demand however, and he finds himself hired while inebriated by Thunder Flint (Duke Lee), an unscrupulous cattleman who wants rid of the settler family whose homestead is getting in the way of the expansion of his ranch.


When Harry sobers up the following day he realises he's made a deal with the devil, and one of the settlers' sons has been gunned down while fetching water from a nearby stream. As Harry explains, he might be a no-good killer, but murdering unarmed women and teenagers is something he's unwilling to stoop to, and so he teams up with the settlers to fight off Fremont and his hired hands.

Straight Shooting & Hell Bent: Two Films by John Ford review

From as early as his first feature, you can see the establishment of the visual trademarks of Ford's career. Few filmmakers can fill a deep frame quite like Ford, and we get some beautiful examples of this, particularly an incredible opening shot in which cowboys on a hill in the foreground are framed against the backdrop of a mass herd of cattle in the valley below. This image immediately lends a sense of scope to what is otherwise an intimate, low budget picture.

We see the famous use of props by Ford's actors, with cowboys squeezing their hats in moments of discomfort, and enraptured women clinging on to door handles as they await the return of the men they secretly love. We see our hero pause before walking into a space that will change his destiny. We see lovingly composed shots that pull indoor and outdoor spaces together. We see Ford inventing his own cinematic grammar before our eyes.



1918's Hell Bent (**½) features less of Ford's trademarks, though it does open with a striking effect. We're drawn into the story via a prologue in which author Fred Worth receives a letter from his publisher claiming the public has grown tired of morally uncomplicated heroes. "We would like it if the hero in your next story were a more ordinary man, as bad as he is good," reads the note. Seeking inspiration, Worth gazes at a painting on his wall – 'A Misdeal' by Frederic Remington, an artist whose work in American periodicals defined the image of the west before the likes of Ford set about mythologising the era on screen. The painting depicts the aftermath of a gunfight in a saloon, with a lone survivor slumped over a table collecting his winnings. We fade from the painting into a live recreation of its scene, with none other than Cheyenne Harry in the role of the sole survivor.


What follows (with roughly 20 minutes of missing footage) is a rather lackluster tale in which Harry falls for Bess (Neva Gerber), a young woman who has been forced to perform as a showgirl in a saloon by her no-good brother Jack (Vester Pegg). This brings him into conflict with outlaw Beau Ross (Joe Harris), leading to a climax in which the two men are caught in a deadly sandstorm.

Straight Shooting & Hell Bent: Two Films by John Ford review

Amid the blandness, there is one notably Fordian moment in which the uncouth Harry is invited for tea by Bess. It's clearly his first time drinking from anything other than a flask or bottle, as he struggles to commandeer the dainty teacup he's provided. Was Kevin Costner thinking of this moment when he included a similar scene in his own western Open Range?

In Carey's Cheyenne Harry we see a precursor to Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp and John Wayne's Ethan Edwards, a man whose tough exterior and reputation are belied by a curious awkwardness that suggests discomfort around good people, perhaps because they make him question his choice to live by the gun. Carey may have stood out at the time, but he now looks like the definitive screen cowboy in his grubby shirt and jeans, his pistol held not by a holster but by his belt. This lack of a holster might suggest Cheyenne Harry's refusal to commit to a life of gunslinging, but as the enduring series proved, it was in his blood.

Extras:

Newly composed scores by Michael Gatt and Zachary Marsh; feature commentaries by film historian Joseph McBride; a new interview with film critic and author Kim Newman; two video essays by Tag Gallagher; archival audio interview from 1970 with John Ford by Joseph McBride; a short fragment of the lost film Hitchin’ Posts (dir. John Ford, 1920) preserved by the Library of Congress.

Straight Shooting & Hell Bent: Two Films by John Ford
 is on UK blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment on April 19th.