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The Whole Town’s Talking (Ford, 1935)

The Whole Town’s Talking is a delightful promenade through mid-30’s confusion. It was during this confusion that John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock cultivated a style that ultimately shaped their legacies. No better time to do it. With the production code slowly falling into operation and many studios still struggling to mobilize the camera, The Whole Town’s Talking proves to be an enjoyable 80 minutes of viewing.

John Ford was the great adaptor. He knew when he had a star in front of the camera and he let them perform. In this case, we have Ed Robinson playing two parts — a polite workingman and a wanted fugitive gangster. They spend a lot of time together and through split screen editing and crafty staging we are given some rich, textured, dimensional scenes with one man playing two very different men. The way Robinson can change his face and immediately seem older or younger on demand is borderline frightening. Then moments come where the gangster version of Robinson (Mannion) must play act as the other (Jones). The scene is rich with tricky drama, not so far away from the multi-level exploration of acting in John Woo’s Face/Off. In addition, Robinson’s acting is at its finest during a scene where he is forced to drink a few shots with his boss. Instead of cutting out of the scene just as he drinks and cutting back in when he is drunk, we watch it happen. And it’s one of the funniest acting beats you’ll remember. Ford elects to stick with him for at least 20 seconds and he just doesn’t know what to do with himself. A very funny moment.

Robinson’s ability to play both of these parts is a signpost to his future work with Lang — the man who best extracted the comfortable and violent energies and dichotomies within Robinson in, above all, Scarlet Street. Jean Arthur, too, is delightful — funny without having the burden of Capra’s righteousness on her shoulders. She is spitting out Riskin’s words (Capra’s choice writer), but they’re lighter and more open.

It is fascinating to consider what this film would look like if Hawks or Hitch got their hands on it first. There are so many big male groups for Hawks to work with and organize. Hitch has his “wrong man” situation — already in the script. Ford plays it like he sees it and for that the film reaches its most curious trait. Whole Town’s Talking isn’t simply a comedy or drama.  At once it is screwball, gangster, “wrong man”, proto-noir, and newsroom. When it comes to genre, this film doesn’t care. And all for the better. Ford is perhaps more free and mobile in this feature than The Informer, which was released in the same year and boosted his career. This film is certainly inferior to The Informer, but it is an example of how a director can recognize material that isn’t concerned with convention and use that as an advantage. Here, Ford makes a good movie with crappy set pieces and little to no art design. In the end, it’s another good film starring Ed Robinson and Jean Arthur and directed by John Ford. And we all like having that around.

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