Movie Project #50: The Searchers [1956]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Searchers [1956]

The Searchers [1956]
Director: John Ford
Writers: Frank S. Nugent (screenplay), Alan Le May (novel)
Genre: Western
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter and Vera Miles
Running Time: 119 minutes

That’ll be the day.

Imagine my surprise when I realized I had never seen a John Wayne film (outside of the terrible propaganda movie, The Green Berets). How could I have missed out on one of America’s most popular figures? There isn’t a better place to start than with John Ford’s The Searchers, ranked the seventh greatest film of all time per this year’s BFI Sight & Sound poll.

The year is 1868. Ethan Edwards (Wayne) has returned home from the Civil War after a three year absence. He takes in residency with his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family. Almost immediately upon arriving, cattle from a neighbor are stolen. Ethan and a small group of Texas Rangers head out to investigate, only to find that the theft was a diversion from the Comanche Indians meant to draw them away from their families. The men realize this too late, and they return to find the house in ruins. Ethan’s brother, sister-in-law and nephew are all dead, and his two nieces are missing. Now, with vengeance on his mind, Ethan heads out to find the Comanche tribe that he suspects has kidnapped the two girls.

The Searchers [1956]

Upon first glance, this appears to be a formulaic American Western. It’s a battle of cowboys against Indians, with both groups out for blood. However, there is another layer to The Searchers that I didn’t expect to find, and it comes from the character of Ethan Edwards.

Ethan is the very definition of an anti-hero. When he returns home at the beginning of the film, hints at his troubled past are subtly acknowledged. He didn’t arrive until three years after the war ended, he has a large amount of unmarked money on his person, and he refuses to take an oath of allegiance to the Texas Rangers. He is a clear loner, and his stubborn tendencies make appearances throughout the entire film. He is also a blatant racist with absolutely no shame toward his beliefs, and at one point he even laughs as a Native American woman is kicked down a hill. In short, he’s an asshole, but he is a damn interesting character.

The Searchers [1956]

For most of the film, Edwards is joined by Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an adopted member of his brother’s family. This accompaniment isn’t by Ethan’s choice, as he has an obvious resentment for this character (calling him a “half breed” early on, which Pawley rebuts that he is 1/8 Cherokee). Their partnership is shaky, and the men do not like each other at all. But both have the same goal, and somehow it makes sense to work together.

The Searchers is a beautiful film, shot in vibrant Technicolor, and it makes strong use of its landscape (Monument Valley, Utah). It has been said that David Lean watched the film over and over again to generate ideas on how to use the desert in his brilliant Lawrence of Arabia. The VistaVision format really makes the colors pop, and this is easily one of the more visually stimulating American Westerns I have seen.

The more I think about The Searchers, the more I appreciate what it offers. I’m not ready to call it one of my favorites of the genre — some of the racism is really hard to stomach in this day and age — but it’s easy to understand how this has been so influential over the years.


And that wraps up this year’s movie project! Once again, this has been an enlightening journey. Stay tuned this week for a wrap-up of the entire project!

Movie Project #16: Psycho [1960]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Psycho [1960]

Psycho [1960]
Directors: Alfred Hitchcock
Genre: Horror/Mystery/Thriller
Language: English
Country: USA

When I was in high school, I tried to catch up on some movies that I had missed out on (a slightly less focused version of what I am doing now). On one trip to the video store (remember those?), I walked out with Psycho, excited to see one of my first Hitchcock films. Unfortunately, I grabbed Gus Van Sant’s 1998 critically-maligned remake by mistake. I watched it anyway, and sure enough it was terrible. I am glad now, many years later, that I have FINALLY seen the original classic. And yes, it is eons better than Van Sant’s ill-advised remake.

Psycho is home to many iconic cinematic moments. The brilliantly manipulated opening credit sequence, Bernard Herrmann’s frantic score, and Anthony Perkins’ legendary performance as Norman Bates. Oh, and of course, the much-referenced (and parodied) shower scene.

Psycho [1960] - shower scene

The movie is almost a tale of two stories. The first part focuses on Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a secretary who spontaneously decides to steal $40,000 from one of her employer’s clients while on the way to the bank. She quickly hits the road and becomes paranoid of everything and everyone, especially a police officer who stops her and makes note of her awkward behavior. After crossing into California, heavy rain becomes a major issue, and Marion pulls over to the nearest lodge: the Bates Motel.

This is where she meets the socially awkward Norman Bates (Perkins), who happily provides her with one of the twelve vacant rooms. Something doesn’t seem right with him, but he appears harmless to Marion. Unfortunately for her, this is where she meets her demise in the unforgettable shower scene.

The second part of the movie follows the investigation of Marion’s disappearance. A private detective (Martin Balsam) is hired by her employer to find out what she was up to, and he eventually heads out to the motel after consulting with Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) and her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin). It doesn’t take much for them to figure out that Marion was at the Bates Motel, and suspicions arise about Norman and his mother, who lives in the house nearby. It’s clear that something shady happened.

The iconic Bates Motel

Of course, Psycho’s plot is something most are familiar with. Even though I knew what was going to happen, I still could often feel my heart racing throughout the film. This is a tense, suspenseful ride that is thrilling even today.

So yeah, Anthony Perkins is absolutely incredible as Norman. This is a career-defining performance if I’ve ever seen one. His stuttering, his twitching, his all-around awkwardness just feels natural. He seems like a decent guy at first, just socially inept with obvious mental issues. While the supporting cast generally deliver strong performances as well, this is very much Perkins’ show.

A thriller in every sense of the word, Psycho is more than worthy of its legendary status. This is easily one of the most influential movies of all time, and the character of Norman Bates is one of the most memorable of any type of film. I wish I had never seen the remake, especially before this, but it was still interesting to compare the two. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is my favorite Hitchcock (I have Rope and Rear Window pegged slightly ahead), it still ranks up there with the best.