Whatchoo Talkin’ ’Bout, Wichita? (Or: Wichita WYSIWYG)

So, welcome back to everyone. It’s been awhile since we posted anything. We both got tied up in “real life” and this blog fell by the wayside… But recently we got in a great discussion of a movie nobody has ever heard of (a lesser movie from a director only film nerds like us know), Wichita, directed by Jacques Tourneur, which tells an early Wyatt Earp story—which is to say, the story of Wyatt Earp marshalling in the town of Wichitaw, two towns before he got to Tombstone (with the O.K. Corral and Doc Holiday and all). We’re both big JT fans (though, I’ll admit Alex likes him more than I do… because he’s like that) and I’m a big Wyatt Earp fan.

I think about a month ago, Alex asked me if I’d ever seen the film and I said I hadn’t (hadn’t even heard of it) but that it sounded cool. Then it showed up on TCM last week and we both taped it and watched it. Sadly the print that TCM had was formatted and cropped from its original CinemaScope (2.35:1) format, and it was muddy and scratched throughout. 

Alex watched it first and texted me saying it “was not one of JT’s best” but that there were beautiful moments. When I watched it, I loved it… and then we got into a discussion on e-mail, which we’ll show you here.

Alex: (Some formatting hiccups late in this post that I can’t seem to do anything about. WordPress is in a cranky mood today. Apologies to all.)

Aaron: So I watched Wichita and I think it’s actually pretty amazing and will definitely be on my best films of the 1950s list (for this upcoming Iras).

It’s a very clever genre twist and very smart. I’ll try to not be too “film studenty” by quoting shit I read in my first term in school, but I do think some of it is relevant. Rick Altman (and David Boardwell and Kristin Thompson) wrote a bunch about how the western genre generally has a town that represents “civilization” in the middle of an wilderness of “uncivilized stuff” and how there is a negative force—generally Indians, but it could be lawless whites—who try to act negatively on the town and then the hero comes in and he exists somewhere between the two poles—not really a townsperson, not an outlaw—who represents some amount of honor and help in a time of need (Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, for instance).

So this film is about a town that is specifically uncivilized (foreshadowing McCabe, I’d argue) and a man coming in to bring civilization and the negative forces are the capitalists in the town, the members of the ad hoc town council. They not only get in the way of the genre necessities of civilization vs. chaos (on the opposite side of the standard), but also in the way of Wyatt (Joel McRea) and Laurie (Vera Miles) being heteronormative. So it’s a genre thing all twisted up. In technical theoretical terms you could say it has the syntax of a standard western (lawman, newspaper, saloon, bad guys in black hats… though the bad guys are just cowboys who want to drink freely… they’re bad by incident when they kill the boy and the woman… sorta by accident), but the semantics are different—the meaning of those symbols is different (again, like in McCabe, where the church is not nearly as important as the whore house… and is actually empty and not complete inside).

Also, interesting is how Tourneur treats the boy (the character is called Michael Jackson, by the way. That’s relevant, right?!) who witnesses the chaos on the street before he’s shot. There’s a striking look on his face that is very, very unlike what you see in most westerns to that point (kids aren’t in older westerns at all) and foreshadows how Peckinpah would approach kids in his movies (how Haneke might approach them now). The idea is that violence in our time is given to our children who have to live with it, but don’t have the psychological means to do so. Peckinpah had a bit role in this film, by the way, and was involved in some uncredited work behind the camera.

I think the ending is also interesting that Wyatt and Laurie ride off together … to Dodge City… where Wyatt will go back into being a marshall/sheriff… in a town they say is worse than Wichita. This is a very Nick Ray idea of “you can’t ever escape”… and a noirish element too. Also, we know well that Wyatt doesn’t have a wife by the time he gets to Tombstone (after Dodge), so we know something will happen to them and that they’re doomed somehow. Also, setting a Wyatt Earp story not in Tombstone is a bit of a thumb in the eye of the standard genre… and, again, a feeling that no matter what Wyatt does, he’s always dragged back into shit. The repetitive cycle of his life is bleak and joyless.

Finally, I know the print quality and formatting was terrible in the TCM thing we saw, but I do think it’s important to note that this was shot in Technicolor, but JT uses almost no color in the film. Everything is black and brown and gray. This is a stark difference from what many directors working in color in the time were doing — Nick Ray in Johnny Guitar for one example, where the colors are central to the narrative… or Tashlin in his big comedies like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which is as much an advertisement for movies over TV as it is a great movie in its own right. This is rather JT saying, “no, this is not glorious — this is terrible and gross.”

Alex: Don’t be afraid of sounding “film studenty,” because you know I’ll find a way to mock you whether you do or not, so you might as well go for it.

But seriously folks, I’m impressed with your analysis, although I’m not totally with you on the color or the kid. (Though the kid watching expressionlessly through the window reminded me of the climactic shootout in Nightfall — both are taking place within a frame that is then broken/violated, like the ultimate nightmare of watching a movie.)

I hadn’t at all thought about the irony of the movie’s ending — truth be told, I don’t really know Wyatt Earp’s story, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film version of him until Wichita — but what you say about it makes a lot of sense and seems totally in keeping with Tourneur-ish endings, which are decidedly NOT ride-off-into-the-sunset.

I’ve been bopping around chapters of that Jacques Tourneur book my sister got me [Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall by Chris Fujiwara (Mcfarland, 2011)], and Fujiwara has some sharp observations about Tourneur in general. One of which is that Tourneur’s stories and central characters always exist in some shadowy world between stability/lawfulness and chaos/death, and that his protagonists embody that mix. Which is right in line, I think, with your read on Wichita the town and the film. (Stars in My Crown is also very very interesting on this. The more I think about that movie, the more I like it.)

Although you’ve made me appreciate it more, I’m not sure I’m gonna put it on my best of the ’50s list because I thought the action scenes were directed so awkwardly — you can almost feel Tourneur’s relief when they’re over — and I didn’t give a flying fuck about McCrea and your girlfriend Vera Miles. (Good actress. Boring to look at.)

Aaron: I’m with you on how much we care about the individuals, though I would say (to not lose the grip of my argument, please, oh god, please) that the film isn’t about them but about the genre. Eh- it’s a weak argument but it makes me happy (and I don’t think it’s untrue).

I think you’re right about the action scenes, but would excuse those for similar reasons… That we really don’t care about that gunfight because that’s merely a step for Wyatt on the road to his ultimate gunfight (the one at the O.K. Corral). Really I see this as a specific answer to Clementine, which is much more rosey and classical genreish.

This film opens with Wyatt riding across the land and meeting a band of cowboys; Clementine opens with Wyatt and his fellow brothers Earp riding across the land and meeting a band of cowboys. Perhaps this is a bit of a banal parallel, but I do think the general structure is remarkably similar: Wyatt gets to town, shows he’s fair, strong, balanced and not-crooked and is enlisted to sheriff/marshall by the elders, he refuses, then when he sees extreme violence, he accepts; he always maintains he’s not a lawman but just passing through; he meets a woman who is a civilizing domestic force for him (and a symbol of civilization for the town) (their relationship is also similar to Will Kane’s and Princess Grace’s in High Noon), he implements law and order, he gets help from his brothers and has a gunfight. I think this is really taking the structure, the syntax, of the Ford and changing it to show a lot more ambivalence and ambiguity than before. There also seems to be a conservative thread running through that could relate to post-war “men returning back to the domestic sphere after war” stuff, though I have to consider this more.

I think the film relies on an understanding of the Wyatt Earp mythology, and perhaps your issues with it might have to do with your unfamiliarity with it (I say with all due respect). McCrea is totally unknowable and unrelatable here. Fonda plays it very close to the vest as well, though he’s such a symbol of “good” that we know all we need to know about him without him needing to show it explicitly.

On the boy I just really mean that he does witness the violence (again, very, very unusual for the genre in the era and something only connected to Peckinpah later). Really the witnessing the violence leads to his immediate loss of innocence (to be Platonic) and his death. It’s extremely efficient and totally uncommon/iconoclastic. I watched Peckinpah’s first film, The Deadly Companions (which was also on TCM recently in a glorious widescreen print), and it’s clear that he was specifically influenced by Wichita for that—and I would argue other films of his later (I think about the opening of The Wild Bunch where you see the kids lighting ants on fire with a magnifying glass). The Deadly Companions opens with a bunch of kids playing and making fun of one boy… that boy is later shot and killed by a stray bullet in almost exactly the same way as the boy in Wichita. It’s a really clear (and well discovered, if I do say so myself) connection. (That film also plays with genre stuff and the audience’s expectations about stars… like how Maureen O’Hara would be a “good” woman rather than a saloon girl.) All this is to say that Tourneur was doing stuff with genre bending and transforming and anti-westerns before Peckinpah (or Altman or Cimino) were doing it and getting credit for it.

I would further argue that McCrea’s performance (the direction of it by JT) as an element of mise-en-scène is also central to understanding the film (and ties in to my previous argument  about the color palette, which is particularly drab). He’s a blank wall and shows no emotion. He’s neither sympathetic nor vile. He serves a role of being “Wyatt Earp” and that is it. This is as much a critique of the Wyatt Earp mythology as it is a critique of all western mythology (again, not unlike John McCabe who has some sort of reputation for killing a man, though he probably didn’t actually do it. At least not in a “western hero/villain” mode).

One last thing is that the notion of “focalization” is important here from a theoretical view — which is to say how do we see the film, through what character’a point of view, and how do we understand it. Again, Fonda’s Wyatt is the ne plus ultra of “fixed internal focalization” where what we see and how we understand what we see is determined directy by what he sees and feels. Here we get a very modernist situation where we are focalized fixed and internal in McCrea’s Wyatt, though we don’t know what he feels really. It’s totally proto-Antonioni.

Alex: First off, you love using the phrase ne plus ultra. It’s sorta like how I use “diegetic” and “nondiegetic” in everyday speech and then secretly enjoy it when people back up and ask me to explain those words.

Also, do you appreciate the way I back up a dig at you with a dig at myself? I can’t ever really be cruel to you, honey.

Okay, anyway, I think the casting of McCrea and his performance are really great and do exactly what you’re saying. The POV question is interesting, because I think you’re right that it does locate us in his consciousness the whole time (well, almost the whole time) and yet he himself is inscrutable. So what good is this particular instance of “fixed internal focalization”? (Pffft. Film school nerd. I’d beat you up … if knew how to throw a punch.)

Oh, also — Wyatt’s entrance is really cool. The wandering cowboy party, Lloyd Bridges et al., see him from a distance, sitting on his horse at the top of the hill, and then he rides down and approaches them. Exactly the opposite of John Ford’s entrance in Stagecoach, where everyone sees him sitting on his horse at the top of the hill and then the camera tracks in on him, right up into his face. As if announcing the arrival of the hero.

Aaron: Yes! I love your point about Wyatt’s entrance! I think they say “there’s a guy over that hill” and we see a silhouette way, way in the distance… It’s the antithesis of the Wayne entrance, one of the most iconic of all in the genre (that’s a crash zoom almost, no?). Excellent.

With regard to the fixed internal focalization and McRea’s inscrutability, I would argue that that’s what the film is (again). It takes a genre and a myth that we know well and transposes it into something else. It’s an anti-Western. Normally we know and see and feel what the hero does, but here we can’t and are necessarily alienated from him and as a result we feel uncomfortable, ill at ease, with the narrative discourse (fuck yeah I can use academic terms). Again, I would connect it to Antonioni’s L’Eclisse and how it’s a portrait of a world in a moment of change, ambivalence and alienation … and leads to powerful feelings of evanescence and entropy for the audience. We go in expecting a “Wyatt Earp movie” and come out dissociated from tradition, disconnected from the comfort of the classical genre.

Alex: I just read the Fujiwara chapter on the movie and I’m sure you’d find it interesting. He seems to have had access to the shooting script, which allows him to highlight choices that could only have been made by Tourneur — for instance, actually showing the moment when the kid gets shot. (The script just has his mother bringing his body down the stairs.)

Really really would love to see the movie in actual CinemaScope.

About Aaron & Alex

We're two highly opinionated, movie-going, liberal, cynical, (single) New York Jews who like to bitch about movies.
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