Monday, March 18, 2013
Hell Bent is a rare early John Ford Western, once thought lost, one of the director's many collaborations with the actor Harry Carey, with whom Ford made a total of 25 Westerns in the early part of his career. Carey plays a signature character called Cheyenne Harry, inevitably a no-good, low-level crook who's redeemed by the love of a good woman; that general narrative runs through both this film and the earlier Straight Shooting from the previous year. Carey is simultaneously anti-hero, hero, and comic buffoon, balancing his heroism with the rougher aspects of his persona, which often play out in comic drunkenness and general shiftlessness.
Even early in his career, Ford was already interested in combining comedy and drama in his films. Harry is introduced, in a way, while he's offscreen: the first evidence Ford shows of his presence is a saloon in shambles from a raucous fight over a card game, with Harry, accused of cheating, already having fled the scene. When the film finally catches up to him, he's manically pulling cards out of his sleeves and pockets, throwing away the evidence of his misbehavior. He's no good, a cheat and a brawler, and he promptly spends his winnings on alcohol, stumbling drunkenly through a series of comic showdowns with Cimmaron Bill (Duke R. Lee), which eventually lead to the two men bonding and becoming friends over a drunken singalong.
Naturally, Harry has to be tamed by the moderating influence of a woman, in this case Bess (Neva Gerber), who tames Harry so thoroughly that he's soon giving her a cuddly little puppy as a present. When Bess' brother Jack (Vester Pegg) gets mixed up with the outlaw Beau Ross (Joseph Harris), of course it's Harry who has to defend the girl and defeat the crooks, redeeming himself from his own less-than-legal ways and becoming the hero that, as the lead, he had to become. Interestingly, the film's framing device acknowledges Harry's status as a fictional archetype, opening with an author receiving a letter requesting a hero who's an ordinary man, "as bad as he is good." The novelist, musing on this request, walks over to Frederic Remington's painting A Misdeal, which Ford then restages as the aftermath of Harry's violent card game.
Also already apparent at this early stage of Ford's career is the director's penchant for striking natural vistas. The scenes of outlaws and posses scrambling through the rocky terrain have a casual splendor, with the emphasis always placed on the landscapes rather than the men and horses racing through this rugged territory. Criminals ride up into the foreground and raise rifles over their heads, signaling to the rest of their gang, while the hills stretch off into the distance behind them. Ford has a real feel for the landscapes of the West, and the exterior scenes here are uniformly stunning in composition and natural beauty: narrow canyons running down the center of the frame, tall hills that push the riding figures all the way to the top of the frame, big empty skies that tower above the land, pregnant with clouds.
Especially striking is the climactic sequence in which Harry chases Ross into the desert, a bleak expanse of nothingness where the hero and the villain are reduced to black specks against the large swaths of white sand. Their shootout is staged in a long shot, the two men stumbling towards one another in the wasteland, firing their guns and falling to their knees in the sand. The subsequent sequence in which they struggle to make it back to civilization without a horse similarly makes compelling use of the sparse surroundings, capturing the emptiness and desperation of this journey across the desert, culminating in mirages shimmering into view in the wastes and a sand storm that buries the two rivals.
Hell Bent isn't Ford's best collaboration with Carey, nor is it among the best of his early Westerns, but like the other surviving Ford/Carey movies, it's a spirited and well-crafted Western. Ford's visual sensibility, though still mostly static here, is already striking and promising.