Home > Movies, Reviews (Movies) > [Review] Stagecoach (Ford, 1939)

[Review] Stagecoach (Ford, 1939)

I will spare you the details of how universally influential Stagecoach was. It set the framework for 70% of westerns made after 1939 and, most importantly, became the artistic model for Orson Welles first little production, Citizen Kane.

More on Kane later, but for now lets look at Bert Glennon’s cinematography. This is the man who would later work on numerous Ford productions in addition to such projects as The Red House, Shadow of a Woman, and Ruthless — all in the Noir tradition. This suggests an intriguing interplay between John Ford’s westerns and the Noir style. Fritz Lang was already developing the Noir narrative during the late 30’s, but, surprisingly and inarguably, Ford was forging the early stages of Noir design. It couldn’t be more evident in Stagecoach. Powerful single lighting sources, long black shadows, and high contrasts. The whites are real white. The blacks are real black. Orson Welles said that he learned how to make Kane by watching Stagecoach over and over and over again. What’s this about Kane creating the ceilinged set? It’s all over the place in Stagecoach. Where did he get the sound idea for the opening tracking shot of Touch of Evil? Watch Stagecoach. I don’t think Welles would deny this and I don’t think he would have rather lost the Oscar to anyone but Ford that night in 1942.

Indeed, Stagecoach is all over Kane. Everywhere you look. Ford’s style is at its most pure and unadulterated here. It is done with his usual degree of technical virtuosity. The graceful camera motions are subtle beyond all others but possibly Murnau. Ford left so little to the editor in terms of choices, thereby exerting extraordinary artistic control over the picture. By giving so much artistic power to the natural surroundings, Ford allows Monument Valley to ornament his shots and they are thus illuminated by this dwarfing presence.

The expanse of the west rightly plays a starring role in Stagecoach. It’s a Western’s Western where outcasts can be redeemed by the expanse of the unexplored. The lawless and unruly land encourages entrepreneurship and thrift. Here, the west is the land of misfit cowboys, ready to take their chance and wake up from that American Dream.

Of course, I can’t finish this review without giving credit to the ensemble of decent actors who turn a stagecoach into a courtroom of extraordinary personalities. Wayne isn’t strangled by his own image yet and his exuberance is tangible. Ford directed him with one side of the whip and Hawks with the other. Both directors drew some of this century’s greatest moments out of Wayne. Unlike Hawks, who had a trove of his own gifts, Ford could pull more feeling and direction out of a human eye than anyone else. It’s so evident in Stagecoach.

Stagecoach, aside from being the mammoth standardizing western that it is, possesses a style that crosses boundaries and prepares the way for Orson Welles and Film Noir. If it isn’t the best from Ford, it’s at least a testament to his formidable output.


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