Director: John Ford
Writer: Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller; Story by Sam Hellman; Stuart Anthony (uncredited) and William M. Conselman (uncredited)
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
by Jon Cvack
This is by far John Ford’s most beautiful film. It’s no wonder that Joseph MacDonald would go on to shoot some of the greatest film noirs of all time such as Call Northside 777 ('48), Panic in the Streets ('50), and Pick Up on South Street ('53), and winning three Best Cinematography Oscars. Each image is carefully composed for maximum effectiveness, often showing a combination of characters, the Monumental Valley backdrop, and the thick shadows that ease this film away from western and into the noir category.
Peter Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, who falls into the strange town of Tombstone full of outlaws, becoming Sheriff after his brother is killed by a trio of bandits. He quickly meets the real life Doc Holiday (Victor Mature) whose tumultuous relationship with local girl Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) is exasperated when the gentle and beautiful title character Clementine returns to the town (Cathy Towns). Once Wyatt takes over, things begin to calm. People expect that Doc and him will have a go, but Wyatt’s diplomatic prowess calms things. That is, until Clementine comes between the two. This sets the stage for the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral.
The title is one of the most misleading in all of film history. While I was expecting a Western Romance, what we got was a dark tale about radical transformation from anarchy to organization. What begins as a lawless society begins to transform, receiving a church, and in the end, is about to get a new school. We get a slice of life throughout the film - the early mornings as the businessmen take to the streets, stopping for breakfast at the one joint in town; the late night card games and filling suppers; the beautiful sunsets that are somehow captured in all their South-West magnificence.
The movie is about a town that’s slowly coming out of darkness. The men and women who filled it looking for a lawless society where anything goes while battling against the encroaching government. Wyatt Earp doesn’t stay and it’s likely that the next sheriff won’t either. The gunfight at the OK Corral is the beginning of the end. So why was it called My Darling Clementine instead of Gunfight at the OK Corral, as a later film would be? After reading the incredibly dense WikiPedia article, the only reference to Clementine is by the film itself, leaving me with few answers.
Some other facts that might be of interest, namely 1) the gunfight had actually only lasted about 30 seconds, with conflicting reports as to who fired the first shots, 2) The town had actually implemented a law that required all weapons to be deposited in a livery or saloon. And so, even in the anarchist, Wild West town of Tombstone, Arizona there were stricter laws about open carry than today. Even further, this is the entire legal justification for why Wyatt Earp was able to pursue the suspects. Similar to Al Capone’s unpaid taxes, Wyatt Earp knew that this legal loophole - of catching the outlaws carrying weapons - was the only way he could actually tap them for their crimes. And so what would eventually reflect the mythos of the early American West has grown into a greatly embellished story. Still, My Darling Clementine gives the event all of the attention it rightfully deserves, capturing the beauty and horror that Tombstone once had, while also illustrating the inevitable development and lawfulness that would enter the town, embodied by this very event. A lot of John Ford’s work reflect on the mundane aspects of whatever town they take place in. There’s something about this film and its photography that burns the images into your mind unlike any other film of his.
BELOW: I always love a good table scene (Goodfellas, Jaws, Training Day). Here's one of the early greats
Thoughts on films, old and new
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