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September 01, 2016

ReFocus: The Films of Delmer Daves

refocus delmer daves cover.jpg

Edited by Matthew Carter and Andrew Patrick Nelson
Edinburgh University Press - 2016

As glad as I am that there are others who think that Delmer Daves' films are worth serious consideration, this book is, at best, a partial look at a career that spanned a little more than forty years. Most of the essays are about Daves' westerns, Broken Arrow, the three films starring Glenn Ford, and, a bit of a stretch here, Spencer's Mountain. There is one essay devoted to Task Force, and The Red House is one of three films discussed in conjunction with The Hanging Tree and Spencer's Mountain. The editors have been noted as having previously published writings on westerns. And while Jim Kitses is taken to task for not including Daves as a director worthy of inclusion in his initial or revised version of his study of western auteurs, Horizons West, based on Kitses' evaluations of his directors' filmography, there is little effort here to validate Daves' other work.

While acknowledging that Daves' reputation has suffered due in part to the director's own modesty, as well as the critical dismissal of his melodramas that closed out his career, there arguably remains more to be said than what is found here on A Summer Place and Susan Slade. My own take on Daves' late period is that to a limited extent he picked up where Douglas Sirk left off. As for the inclusion of Spencer's Mountains with the westerns, there is the Wyoming setting, as well as Daves' own statements regarding his westerns as parts of a series on the changes of the American West.

spencer's mountain poster.jpg

My favorite essay here would be by Fran Pheasant-Kelly on 3:10 to Yuma. As well as the expected discussions regarding the film's thematic relationship to other Daves' films, Pheasant-Kelly writes in detail about Daves' visual choices, how shots are framed and lit. Sue Matheson also writes about the visual choices Daves' made for Cowboy, a film intended to deglamorize the false, romantic notions of "the West". Adrian Danks writes about the collaboration of Daves with Glenn Ford on three films, with Jubal also getting it's own essay examining Daves' variation of Othello as film noir in a desolate Wyoming setting.

Repeated through the different essays are how Daves' uses natural settings in his films as well as the importance of community over the individual. The repetition of male bonding throughout several of the westerns is also mentioned. For contemporary viewers, the ending of Cowboy, with Glenn Ford and Jack Lemmon seen together, in separate bathtubs, with guns, shooting down cockroaches in their hotel bathroom, prompts suggestions that would have been unmentioned by most critics in 1958. That said, one could imagine a logical progression from Spencer's Mountain to the Wyoming based Brokeback Mountain.

While Daves might have chosen not to be explicit as some of his peers, had he been able to make films once the old production code was replaced in 1968, several essays illustrate how Daves worked around the constraints of the time. Interracial relationships is one of the recurring themes, though it does take a certain amount of suspension of disbelief to accept Natalie Wood as being multi-racial in Kings Go Forth. A Summer Place, Susan Slade and Spencer's Mountain take on adolescent sexuality with a frankness usually not found in Hollywood films. Laughable as it seems now, Judith Crist, one of the first celebrity film critics of the Sixties wrote of Spencer's Mountain, "sheer prurience and perverted morality" and "it makes the nudie shows at the Rialto look like Walt Disney productions".

Daves had a hand in writing Love Affair for Leo McCarey, as well as the screenplay for The Petrified Forest and several Warner Brothers musicals. While not all of the thirty films directed by Daves are on the level of his films with Glenn Ford, there is more to explore not only with the melodramas but also the war films. What the book offers is a good, general look at Daves, and a deeper look at his westerns, sometimes working within the confines of the genre, and sometimes working against genre conventions, sometimes within the same film.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 1, 2016 03:06 PM