Straight Shooting (John Ford / U.S., 1917):

One of the earliest building blocks in the John Ford pyramid, but first of all a consistently lovely cowpoke yarn. An iris-out introduces Duke Lee, the villain, atop his horse with his cattle empire behind him; the depth of the screen is measured by a bovine herd slowly winding down a hill from background to foreground, like everything else in the film a prophetic act (Tol'able David, Bend of the River, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, et al). A family of struggling ranchers, headed by white-bearded George Berrell, refuses to leave the land despite the fences raised by the cattle lord; to get rid of them, Lee hires rascally gunslinger Harry Carey ("the Prairie Kid"), who springs out of his hideaway inside a tree to laugh at the "Wanted" poster recently nailed to the trunk. Berrell's son (Ted Brooks) crosses the barbed-wire barriers to get to the stream and is shot by a rustler: "Destiny," reads the intertitle, though to Ford fate is never so rigid that it can't encompass the paradoxes of life, so Carey approaches his targets only to be profoundly moved by a family tableau by the side of a grave (the POV shot is made shimmering by the hired killer's surreptitious tear). The zesty pictorial expression embraces mythical composition (horseback riders, low in the frame, against the vertical spaces separating two precipices) and the practical medium-shot that can photograph in its entirety a stunt like jumping from a saloon roof onto a horse and riding off: young Ford at his freest, alert to the genre and the offhand gravity of his star. The tutelage from Griffith is acknowledged via closeups and climactic crosscutting (mainly from Battle at Elderbush Gulch, also recalled in Stagecoach), the path toward The Searchers is laid out -- a wanderer unable to settle in the civilization he has helped build amid the wilderness, Carey indelibly sketches Ethan Edwards to be rounded out by John Wayne with psychotic depth four decades later. With Molly Malone, Hoot Gibson, and Milton Brown. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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