Released in 1946, My Darling Clementine, American iconoclast John Ford's first postwar film, stands at the nexus of tradition and progression in both its formal construction and ideological constitution. Ford's career-long consideration of the familial and vocational codes forged amid bygone epochs, whose historical infrastructures resisted by their very design the tides of encroaching commercial and cultural revolutions, played an ever more personal role in his work once he returned from a decorated stint in the U.S. Navy. Felt not as seismic shifts, but rather incremental tremors, this nascent social maturation is articulated in Ford's narratives, and in the story of My Darling Clementine in particular, through intimate exchanges between characters and depictions of municipal advancements alike. When the two converge, as they do in the film's centerpiece sequence, a coronation for Tombstone, Arizona's first church in which the notorious Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) nervously requests a dance from the town's prodigal darling, Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), Ford's work attains a harmony rare in American studio filmmaking, its topical and cinematic breadth at once intimately sketched and historically attuned to the passage of time and its accumulated gravitas.
Despite Ford's reverence for American antiquity (and indeed, his personal relationship with Earp himself, who was no stranger to the director's sets around this time), My Darling Clementine doesn't adhere to or claim historical verisimilitude, cutting instead a poetic path through the infamous gambler and gunslinger's brief professional interlude in Tombstone. In this retelling, Earp, essentially offered the position of town marshal upon arrival after physically reprimanding an unruly Native American, accepts his new role as ulterior means of avenging the death of his brother, James (Don Garner), at the hands of Newman "Old Man" Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his gang of murderous male offspring, who together run Tombstone with a morally dubious sense of authority. Earp's presence prompts the attention of not only the Clantons, but also John Henry "Doc" Holliday (Victor Mature), the town physician who unbeknownst to those around him is secretly succumbing to tuberculosis. Initially wary of Earp's motives, Holliday soon finds himself sympathetic to the outsider's plight—a feeling only complicated by the return of his ex-lover Clementine, whose angelic demeanor casts a spell on both men while understandably eliciting the ire of Holliday's current love interest, Chihuahua (Linda Darnell).
This mess of tangled desires and destinies is visually expressed by Ford through an economy of formal gestures, composed and cut in a spartan yet evocative manner so as to emphasize the emotional complexities of the narrative. As such, My Darling Clementine is one of Ford's most efficient yet thoroughly affecting entertainments. Working with cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, Ford pushes the contrast between shadowy interiors and the sun-bleached desert expanse (an ever picaresque Monument Valley, standing in for the plains of Arizona) to impressively atmospheric ends, situating his characters in deep pockets of chiaroscuro lighting, allowing their accumulated emotion to reach fever pitch before the action inevitably spills outdoors and into the light of day. While set indoors, Ford's images remain mostly static, with his actors facilitating much of the drama through his expertly calibrated dramaturgy. Fonda's movements, so fluid and agile, stand in stark opposition to Brennan's roguish stammer and Mature's lumbering stride, investing otherwise transitional moments of drinking, grooming, and gambling with an internal tension which Ford manages to harness in serene, composed spatial fashion even as the narrative marches inexorably toward the well documented showdown at the O.K. Corral.
Though My Darling Clementine is a decidedly cloistered, melancholy film, its two major outdoor sequences remain rousing moments in a catalogue with no shortage of stirring episodes. The church commencement is like a short film unto itself, positioned in the narrative like a daytime oasis from the saloon smoke and desert showers that permeate evening events; and the confrontation at the O.K. Corral, which daringly provides the film its only occasion for substantial gunplay in a genre traditionally built around such violent displays of masculinity, punctuates the narrative just as it solidified the legend of Wyatt Earp. And Ford stages the action, which he once described to Peter Bogdanovich as less impromptu melee than "a clever military maneuver," as a typically intricate, carefully formulated ballet of brawn and bullets, moving his actors between fortifications and through clouds of dust with a comprehensive yet unadorned visual exactitude. It commences with such little fanfare and lands with such blunt impact that it's easy to forget our eponymous heroine, whose future Earp seals in the film's final scene—and against Ford's wishes—with a simple kiss on the cheek. That this and other such relatively minor yet obligatory studio concessions don't mar the final product is further proof of the purity of Ford's vision and the collaborative autonomy consistently granted his actors.
Criterion's new 1080p, 4k restoration of John Ford's My Darling Clementine is very cleanly rendered, translating few undue artifacts while remaining visibly textured and smooth in motion. Much of the film transpires indoors, with heavy instances of darkness and shadows utilized to build atmosphere. Blacks are thus appropriately deep, exhibiting little to no visual noise, while whites and grays are sharply defined without contrast moving too high or low in either direction. An early preview version of the film, running six minutes longer than the theatrical version and featuring less of producer Daryl Zanuck's imposed edits, is also included in the single-disc Blu-ray package. This version of the film is understandably visually rougher, with more artifacts and some wavering contrast from scene to scene. It's also darker overall, and not as calibrated to the elements of light which cut through interior sequences.
Sound, meanwhile, comes in both versions as an authentic single-channel LPCM track. Dialogue is clear, crisp, and upfront, with no background noise cluttering the mix. The gunfire in the film's few action scenes is likewise sharply defined and resounding when the occasion calls. And finally, Cyril J. Mockridge's at once beautiful and rousing score, including the indelible title theme, is given the appropriate space to accompany Ford's lyrical images.
Supplements are generously comprehensive, covering the gamut of the film's production and legacy. In addition to the preview cut of the film, an audio commentary track (for the theatrical version)by Ford biographer Joseph McBride highlights the set, as he touches on everything from the director's working methods to the careers of the actors to the differences in the film's surviving cuts. These two versions are further highlighted in a 40-minute video comparison by film preservationist Robert Gitt, who supervised the assemblage of the preview cut. Elsewhere there's a video essay by Tag Gallagher, who beautifully articulates the formal complexity of Ford's vision, and an interview with western historian Andrew C. Isenberg about the life and times of the real Wyatt Earp and how it both relates and differs from the film. Rounding out the digital supplements is a short western from 1916 co-starring Ford and directed by his brother, Francis Ford; two vintage television news reports on the regions of Tombstone and Monument Valley, respectively; and a 1947 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film starring Fonda and Downs in reprisals of their original roles. Included in the package is a booklet featuring a thoughtful essay on the film by critic David Jenkins.
Arriving in a beautiful new package from Criterion, My Darling Clementine, director John Ford's first postwar film, attains a harmony rare in American cinema, with its formal construction and ideological constitution standing at the nexus of tradition and progression. [Slant]