30 Great Westerns
My Darling Clementine

Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) has a run in with the Clantons (with Walter Brennan as Old Man Clanton, Grant Withers as Ike, and John Ireland as Billy) in My Darling Clementine.

Filmed during a post-World War II period of noir despair, Joseph MacDonaldís visuals and John Fordís compositions remain indelible fixtures in movie lore and make My Darling Clementine (1946) one of the great brooding westerns, loaded with iconic moments of darkness.

After his brother has been killed, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) bumps into the Clantons in a hotel lobby. As Earp exits the frame, he says his name, "Earp, Wyatt Earp." Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan), standing at the lobby desk and looking grizzled and nasty, suddenly has a shocked look as his face falls. Ford then cuts to Earp in the hard rain walking down splattered wood planks. With his back to the camera, Earpís walk is slow, determined, his hat a strong upright icon of justice. An intense mood of alienation and determination resonate.

Later in the film, Earp, his hair slicked back, takes Clementine (Cathy Downs) dancing. She wears a white dress and he leads her across the outdoor floor with a high upright leg kick. His gentleness suggests a possible world outside of violence and revenge, but Clementine, signifies more of an unattainable metaphor than an image of possible domestic bliss. She represents the East, Boston, and what the Byronic Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), her former boyfriend--his life now ruined by indiscriminate sex and drinking--has lost. For Wyatt, sheís a brief moment of innocence in an otherwise darkening noir landscape of personal obsession.

The shoot-out at the OK Corral is a tour-de force. MacDonaldís use of deep focus photography creates stirring moments of beauty. Earp, in low angle and extreme long shot, walks toward the camera. Heís positioned in the middle of the frame. To his right are closed shops, to his left, still wagons, in the distance, a desert butte. This is perhaps one of the most famous images in all of cinema. Fondaís Wyatt, against that landscape, is strong, an heroic figure, steely and graceful with a gun glinting in his left hand. And Fordís use of sounds--the vague silence broken by the metallic clink of Earpís spurs--suggest control, order, and false comfort. Moments later, Earp extends the false quiet, as he emerges from behind a wagon, gun propped up in his right hand, foot up on the hitch. He pushes back his hat. "Letís talk awhile." Heís calm and unafraid.

And then with sudden meanness the sceneís tempo changes to darkness. Ike (Grant Withers) walks into a swirl of dust, kicked up by a passing stagecoach, aiming to kill Earp, but he canít see him. He fires indiscriminately, and then a flicker of Earp appears and he kills Ike as the dust dissipates. Seconds later Doc, following another one of his coughing fits, is shot off a fence post, but he manages to kill one Clanton before dying, his white handkerchief clinging to the wood like a forgotten remnant of lost Boston gentility. And alongside Docís last shot is Earp, bursting through the coral, blocked by the horizontal lines of a fence. He blazes two six guns and another Clanton drops, his gun limply landing in a trough. After Earp captures the old man, a moment of surprising cruelty happens. He offers to let Clanton go so that he too can suffer like Wyattís father suffers, over the pain and guilt of dead sons.

Fondaís actions here surprise me and illustrate the noir bitterness brimming beneath the calm surface. Yes, Brennanís Clanton is one of cinemaís true ugly villains. Earlier in the film after Wyatt one-upped his sons, Old Man Clanton whipped them and spat, "When you pull a gun, kill a man!" And before killing Wyattís youngest brother James, Brennanís upper lip had slightly curled back with glee at the prospect, but to not arrest the man, to let him roam free so that he can wander in purgatory, steps beyond enforcing the law. Itís an act of cruelty that an earlier Fonda in The Ox-Bow Incident would never contemplate, but another post-war Fonda of Fort Apache would.

--by Grant Tracey