Features | Inside/Out: A Modest Proposal Concerning William A. Wellman

By Andrew Tracy

It’s the rare critic these days who speaks of limits. Paul Schrader’s fusty musings in Film Comment or Quintín’s notion of “anorexic vs. bulimic cinema” (see Cinema Scope 22) are rather anomalous in calling for boundaries of artistic achievement, however conventionally in the former case and eccentrically in the latter. Meanwhile, Manny Farber’s dictum that “criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies” is invoked ad nauseam, and unquestioningly, as ever more “difficult objects” are introduced to the critical field—a contribution which is as valuable as its bases are knowingly fraudulent. “It’s sheer nonsense, of course, for Farber or anyone else to claim that he isn’t an evaluative critic,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Farber’s numerous present-day acolytes continue the sly old fox’s tactic of smuggling filmmakers into the canon concealed in anti-canonical rhetoric. The eccentric, the cast-off, the incidental, the incomplete, the exhilaratingly odd are formed into a cumulative vision, or a vision by its very lack of accumulation. Some notion of wholeness is a requirement of critical thought—we can’t truly think, or argue, in fragments. Thus the scorned spectre of the canon, as well as its exclusionary premises, returns in the very act of banishing it, facing the writer with the choice of either inflating the virtues of those “expressive esoterica” which catch his eye or discounting them as intermittent flourishes from an otherwise dull palate. How does one find a place for that which is more than craft competence yet significantly less than artistic personality?

These problems of classification are not quite so confounding in the case of William Wellman, who is hardly unknown and not even necessarily unheralded: Agee famously praised The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Bertrand Tavernier is an avid supporter, Rosenbaum has been a vocal champion of Track of the Cat (1954) and Farber proclaimed him “a sentimentalist, deep thinker, hooey vaudevillian and expedient short-cut artist” in his seminal “Underground Movies.” Wellman nevertheless seems permanently affixed to an intermediate position on the explicitly Sarris-influenced roll call of Old Hands, his very versatility with contrasting tones, subjects, and protagonists—his ‘30s output alone saw The Public Enemy (1931), A Star Is Born and Nothing Sacred (1937), and The Light That Failed (1939)—placing him rather higher than Hathaway, somewhat lower than Walsh, and significantly below the starry climes of Hawks and Ford.
Yet the striking oddities that dot Wellman’s diverse filmography make him a difficult object unto himself. The outer motions of journeyman facility are casually ruptured by some strange inner logic: precise yet inexplicable patterns of movement, strange geographies inscribed within seemingly comprehensible landscapes, the creation of odd, private little problems which Wellman “solves” with his own arcane mathematics. The curlicues are visible even in so masterful and compact a statement as The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), judged as “one of those solemn, acclaimed works you don’t really need to see” in David Thomson’s dubious formulation of cinephilia, summarily shutting the door on one of the great American films. Too often regarded as another in the ‘40s spate of prestige liberal message pictures, Ox-Bow’s diatribe against mob justice—concerning three cowpokes hung for a theft and murder which they clearly didn’t commit—avoids platitude by relentlessly maintaining its specificity of circumstance, and thus taking it to the universal. There’s none of the necessary (colour-)coding which Lang’s Fury (1936) had to employ, nor any added weightiness beyond the evident, shattering reality of everyday injustice. Ox-Bow’s grimly inexorable progression is given its sting by the whipcrack pace of its execution, the interminable waiting (a key Wellman motif, as Farber notes) and the heavy air of inevitability pierced and accentuated by a series of short, sharp movements, both physical and verbal: the curt insolence of Henry Fonda’s sarcastically grating voice; a flurry of cigarettes lighting up irrespective of a bullying order; a searing pair of eyes the only visible part of an occluded face; the strangely compelling concealment of Fonda’s own eyes behind a hat brim as he reads a dead man’s letter; and his instantly restrained reach for a gun when his outrage finally peaks, the constraint applied to him somehow only accentuating the action’s epiphanic dynamism.

While the film is a marvel of both concision and evocative punctuation, it nevertheless ruptures its seamless design in the very first scene, as the newly arrived Fonda and Harry Morgan contemplate a lurid barroom painting of a femme la nuit being unwittingly sized up for ravishment. Wellman devotes several seconds of largely silent, and pointedly edited, screen time to Fonda and Morgan’s faces as they drink the spectacle in, before Fonda notes of the would-be assailant that, “It sure is taking him a long time to get there.” After a brief spell of fistfight-induced unconsciousness, Fonda awakes to the painting floating before his eyes once again: “Still not there?” he dazedly queries. Set-up and payoff of an incidental joke, certainly, but with a bizarrely concerted attention that belies its offhandedness. So concerted, indeed, that it breaks free from the film and floats into the opening of Yellow Sky (1948), as outlaw Gregory Peck and his gang ponder another barroom masterwork depicting a naked woman tied to a horse at full gallop (“I wonder what she’s gonna do when she gets down from that horse?”). This is something different from the recurring bits of Hawksian character business or Ford’s rituals of communal songs and dance. No rooting narrative or thematic thread here, just an inscrutable curiosity unaccountably inserted into seemingly familiar terrain.

For the seeker after the esoteric, however, the greatly underrated Yellow Sky shows Wellman not free of wholly evident virtues: a taut script by Ox-Bow scribe Lamar Trotti (from a W.R. Burnett story), incisive performances by Peck, Anne Baxter and Richard Widmark, and fine use made of the vivid topographical contrast of rocky, mountainous terrain shoved up against sun-blasted salt flats (Death Valley makes a cameo). Wellman even strays dangerously close to a recurring thematic motif here: geographical vastness as unseen imprisonment, his protagonists hemmed in by their own possible freedom of movement. The shadowy and twisted soundstage exterior of Ox-Bow, for whose “fakeness” Wellman was regularly castigated, was clearly more than studio expediency. Wellman tends to mark his territory, whether in the stylized, claustrophobic outdoors which mirror the hopeless entrapment of Ox-Bow’s wrongfully accused, the arctic expanses which confine John Wayne and his downed flight crew in the surprisingly effective Island in the Sky (1953), or the seemingly wide open spaces which Widmark delimits in the opening of Yellow Sky, the impassable mountains on one side matched by the uncrossable flats on the other.

However, unlike Anthony Mann’s integrated fusion of terrain, action, and character, Wellman in Yellow Sky introduces a central anomaly into his personal landscape: the titular abandoned mining town, which the nearly dead outlaws chance upon after their torturous flight across the salt flats. And while the town will serve as the site for Peck’s moral regeneration after he and his gang encounter an old prospector (James Barton) and his gun-toting granddaughter (Baxter) who have been painstakingly extracting the remaining gold deposits, this plot function is no more than coincidental. Wellman delights in juxtaposing the town’s incongruent structures with the forceful assertions of nature that loom above them (Baxter holds the outlaws at bay in a barn by firing from the rocks above), or, in the delightfully strange finale, abandoning nature altogether to stage the fateful showdown in the concocted geography of the town’s dilapidated saloon.
Here Wellman deploys his recurring tactic of concealing an eccentric bit of business behind the cover of verisimilitude: prior to the three-way showdown, villain John Russell removes his boots to slip noiselessly into the saloon from the back and secretes himself behind the overturned roulette table, at which point Wellman’s camera arcs leftwards to reveal Widmark concealed behind the bar. Cutting to Peck outside as he charges in through the front door, the camera placidly tracks right as the Kitano-like shootout is made visible solely as bursts of muzzle fire through the darkened windows—and when Baxter bursts in to divine the outcome, her only initial clue is a pair of stockinged feet jutting out from behind a perforated roulette wheel.

Those feet, and comparably fatal results for their owner, will be seen again in Battleground (1949), a return to the gritty, grunt’s-eye view of G.I. Joe. Yet in Battleground the tragic absurdity of infantry combat is accentuated by some truly surreal touches; or rather the pretense of verity touches upon the surreal fabric of the whole. Wellman doesn’t rely on the thudding ironies of Fuller—the battle waged within the Buddhist temple in The Steel Helmet (1951), the sniper perched behind the crucifix in The Big Red One (1980)—for the spaces in between are almost more absurd than the combat itself. “Wellman’s favorite scene is a group of hard-visaged ball bearings standing around—for no damned reason and with no indication of how long or for what reason they have been standing,” growls Farber, and Battleground brilliantly meshes these stylized longeurs with the wearisome slogging—punctuated by moments of freezing terror—of infantry life, in the depths of a French winter no less.

The intentional artificiality of Ox-Bow’s interior exteriors recurs again in Battleground, which forgoes the largely open-air shooting of the acclaimed G.I. Joe. The remarkably detailed soundstage sets afford both an intense simulation of the grueling weather conditions—there are few war films which so insistently emphasize the debilitating effects of cold—and a veritable playground of strange little nooks and crannies for Wellman to have his almost indistinguishable dogfaces crawl into and out of. Entrapment, perplexing entrapment, is again the shaping motif, as the 101st Airborne find themselves surrounded—or so they’re told, as they’re unable to grasp it with their own eyes—by an enemy who remains largely unseen, except for the occasional artillery bombardment or, even more confusingly, disguised in American uniform. Unable to go either forward or back, they go down, into hastily dug foxholes as artillery barrages fall, or beneath the overturned jeep which the wounded Ricardo Montalban burrows beneath, methodically building up a snow wall like a child’s fort.
And throughout, the typical making-strange masquerades as quotidian detail or earthy humour. The aforementioned fatality of the unwisely bootless; Van Johnson fruitlessly carrying his cherished, pre-scrambled eggs in his helmet, quickly dumping them into a mug when called to duty and slapping the helmet back on as long strings of egg residue fall over his face like a wind-whipped veil; the first drag of an inexperienced smoker prompting the camera itself to go in and out of focus; the oddly compelling action-reaction movement of an impromptu snow baseball game, where the “batter” returns the pitch with a snowball volley of his own (shortly before he and his comrades are revealed as Germans in GIs’ clothing). Sacrificing the strong, orienting central figure of Mitchum (or even Burgess Meredith) from G.I. Joe, Wellman focuses on individual eccentricities only in so far as they blend into his general air of offhanded idiosyncrasy, the predictably prole and pan-ethnic cross-section on display never straying into overtly liberal platitudinizing.

Though its muted outlandishness eventually gives way to a certain degree of boredom, Battleground offers further evidence of the ungraspable something which Wellman was so frequently edging towards, this tension between inside and out manifesting itself in small eruptions of hard-etched movement as purposefully executed as they are ultimately pointless. One could idly concoct here some grand metaphor of Wellman’s constrained artistry yearning to breathe free, for which it’s entirely too convenient that Wellman’s long-cherished project Across the Wide Missouri (1951), an attempted panegyric to the liberating freedom of the great outdoors, was hacked by the studio to a derisory 78 minutes. The writer’s thematic needs can piggyback on the hazards of real life with such insidious ease, after all, risking nothing and explaining less. And besides, when Wellman was granted carte blanche by John Wayne, after Wellman made him a mint by directing the truly dreadful The High and the Mighty (1954), he rather perversely turned out Track of the Cat, his most abstract, experimental, and paradoxically claustrophobic work to date.

Cat’s widescreen, WarnerColored weirdness automatically makes it a magnet for cult celebration, even as that celebration is unable to find a place for Wellman himself. Too grindingly intentional for its flourishes to take cinephilic flight, Wellman and A.I. Bezzerides’ adaptation of Ox-Bow author Walter van Tilburg Clark’s source novel, about a fractured family and the lurking beast that materializes their destructive mutual antagonism, tempers its truly exquisite artistry with inescapable campiness (though perhaps that’s merely the effect of Tab Hunter’s unfortunate presence). The internally imbalanced tone is as blatant a contrast as the breathtaking snowbound vistas set against the patent studio sets of the Bridges ranch, or Mitchum’s flaming red coat (bisected with a heavy black bar) against the greys and blacks in which the rest of the cast are garbed—this being Wellman’s famous black-and-white film in colour. It’s this very disparity which makes the film appealing to the connoisseurs of the cast-off, for whom a sustained and fully achieved work like Ox-Bow would be anathema.

Yet if Cat cannot be taken completely seriously, its highlights are so remarkable that it brinks on the revelation of a genuine vision from within Wellman’s subterranean impulses. Rosenbaum has compared the film to Ordet (1955), although the scabrous family confrontations and drunkenly repetitive incantations—taking place largely within the main room of the ranch house and filmed by Wellman with a combination of expressive angles and deliberately stagebound theatricality—bears more than a passing resemblance to Eugene O’Neill. However, the Dreyer analogy is certainly not far off the mark. The omnipresent spectre of death hovering over the damned Bridges clan prompts some striking visual strategies. When the slain middle son Arthur’s (William Russell) torn body is placed upon the grand double bed, Wellman repeatedly shoots the other characters from behind the dark oak headboard, the solid wall of blackness it creates imposing itself like an iron shroud over their bleak and bitter lives; an overhead shot of Arthur’s black coffin being carried over the pure white snow is complemented by the ostentatious low-angle shot from within his perfectly rectilinear grave (shades of 1932’s Vampyr?), a crucifix climactically driven into place under the grey cyclorama sky. These unprecedented techniques are accompanied by more familiar Wellman motifs, though here employed in more explicitly symbolic form. The titular predator, who goes unglimpsed throughout the film, springs from a lineage of the unseen in Wellman’s work: the bodies of the hanged in Ox-Bow; the elided showdown in Yellow Sky; the mostly absent enemy in Battleground. The wintry setting naturally evokes both Battleground and Island in the Sky, though with a far more dramatic emphasis placed upon the microscopic presence of humans within a vast and uncaring landscape.

Yet it’s ultimately rather pointless to try and align Cat’s flagrant oddness with any idea of late-blooming auteurism on Wellman’s part. At best the film is akin to such expressionistic departures as Ford’s ponderous, preciously composed The Fugitive (1947)—with the difference being that Wellman had little of Ford’s thematic and visual foundation to depart from. And thus the unsurprising and self-evident admission that this appreciation has been divided against itself from the start, praising the genuinely distinctive while trying to reconcile it with the absence of an artistic whole, in the case of a filmmaker who was regularly able to exercise considerable amounts of control over his own work.

This is certainly not an overly worrisome critical conundrum, but hopefully the case of Wellman may help illuminate, both by invective and self-incriminating example, a certain tendency of critical practice. While the canon is no more naturally created than the “natural laws” of the free market, ostensibly anti-canonical power plays merely affirm its standard as a measure of accomplishment; they’re acts of inclusion rather than challenge. Almost inevitably, once grasped the difficult object becomes an intriguing work—indeed, it would not have been grasped in the first place were it not intriguing—and the names of those already canonically invested are cannily dropped to bolster the credentials of the hopeful initiate (see above, repeatedly). Canonization has merely become increasingly porous to niche tastes with very little reformulation of its fundamental values. To pretend otherwise, while not exactly an abdication of critical responsibility, nevertheless does little to help explain the fascination with those arrestingly strange moments—and their authors—which derive their power precisely from their necessary relegation outside the highest levels of accomplishment. A figure like Wellman is too large to be only a problem, too problematic to receive only unthinking advocacy. If the creation of a new language is not exactly merited by the breadth of his achievement, then one hopes that at least a few new words could be found.

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