Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Stars in My Crown

Stars in My Crown, 1950
Dir: Jacques Tourneur

My first encounter with Jacques Tourneur is, for the most part, a pretty good one. He is really proficient in building and establishing an atmosphere and that seems to be the single most important element in this particular film’s success. It is, after all, a story that is largely based within the repercussions surrounding a central community rather than your normal thrusting plot, and his aesthetic precision helps in making the simple observations of a classic rural town so enjoyable. Otherwise, this would probably just be remembered as a really heavy-handed indictment of racism being handed down from 1950s America.

Josiah Gray (Joel McCrea) is a country parson who arrives in the small town of Wellsburg sometime after the Civil War and he quickly alters the community so that it becomes almost his own (in a good way). He has seemingly been a key figure in the town for a while when it is struck with typhoid fever. The town’s new doctor (James Mitchell) is young and, unsurprisingly, not welcomed by the townsfolk. However, typhoid is spreading and Mr. Gray continues to see more of the young doctor, who strongly dislikes Gray based on his own belief that Gray may have spread the disease when he visited the school while his nephew was sick. Meanwhile, Uncle Famous (Juano Hernandez), one of the town’s black residents, is threatened to have his land taken away from him by greedy residents who are also in the Klu Klux Klan (or some vague resemblance of it).

There are some dramatic flourishes (and such moments are the weakest in the movie) but for the most part, is is essentially plotless and held together by a beautifully crafted sense of Americana. It seems like a small feat, but it is rather impressive how Tourneur creates a sense of community without much exposition to clutter his efforts. The only point where anything seems out of place it at the beginning, where we are given a rapid-fire montage of how Josiah Gray became the single most important person in Wellsburg and Gray’s nephew narrates it. There are plenty of impressive shots in this opening, but that is pretty much the only compliment I can give this essentially meaningless bit of exposition. The film then settles down to the standard 50s Hollywood pace.

Not all is lost, though, as Tourneur’s shots still have a peculiar beauty to them. It’s that beauty that can only be found in Westerns from the early 1950s, a time when greats like Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher were slowly transitioning from Noirs to Westerns. These pictures inadvertently spawned the “noir-western” which probably only become a genre (if one can call it that) in recent years. Stars in My Crown is neither Western nor Noir (a "Southern"?), but it captures the spirit of both and that is probably what counts the most. If there’s really any problem with this film, it’s that it doesn’t seem to be cohesively great. Some fantastic spots here and there, but some dry ones as well. Still, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more from Tourneur when I get the chance. Directors who "lose the plot" are right up my alley.

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