Orson Welles and I were talking one time about the relative merits of John Ford and Howard Hawks at their best, and finally Welles summed it up: “Hawks is great prose; Ford is poetry.” There haven’t really been very many poets in pictures, but the one pretty much everybody agrees about now is the Frenchman Jean Renoir. He was also Orson’s favorite director–as he is mine–and Ford was so impressed by Renoir’s Grand Illusion (l937) that he wanted to remake it in English. Luckily, studio-head Darryl Zanuck told him to forget it; he would “just fuck it up.”
To define poetry in the movies, take a look at any one of Renoir’s numerous brilliant pictures, from the 1930’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, La Bete Humaine, A Day in the Country, The Crime of Mr. Lange, or The Rules of the Game through his glorious 1950’s The River, French Cancan, Elena and Her Men and The Golden Coach. From his earliest silents in 1925 through his final work, The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir in 1969, Renoir’s films were, for those who really knew cinema, on the very highest level of achievement. Nobody made better pictures.
What distinguishes the real film poets is their use of the camera to convey meanings and reverberations beyond the geography of place or the needs of the narrative. Camera placement, and therefore the composition, the lens choices, the lighting of the image, the camera’s movement, the particular juxtaposition of images, are all in the grammar for conveying hidden aspects of the tale or people—-exposing a part of the theme, or the true meaning beyond simply the plot—-endorsing, subverting, enriching the more obvious qualities of setting or performance. This is why the finest filmmakers are generally always remembered for certain of their unique and personal images. Among the other poets, D.W. Griffith comes to mind, and F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor, John Ford, Kenji Mizoguchi, Robert Flaherty, and Orson Welles.
During 1944, the last full year of World War II, Renoir was making his third of five American pictures, The Southerner (available on DVD). It was to be his only success of the five, and is generally considered the best of his U.S. work (though all of it is at least interesting). Renoir had left France in 1939, not because of the impending war, but because his amazing Rules of the Game (now considered one of the five best ever made) had been decimated by critics and public. The filmmaker was so devastated, he vowed never again to live or work in France. Although he did eventually return to shoot in his native land (but not until the mid-‘50s), he nevermore was resident there. Believe it or not, from 1940 until his death in 1979 at age 86, Renoir and his extraordinary second wife, Dido, lived in Beverly Hills. For his understated and charming 1974 autobiography, My Life and My Films, Renoir wrote: “Hollywood was very well disposed toward me; indeed, I will go so far as to say that they were fond of me, and are even fonder now that my health no longer permits me to do any active work.”
Like many of Renoir’s pictures, The Southerner, shot entirely on real locations near Madera, California, with the actors and crew sleeping in pup tents, is deceptively simple. A young Southern man’s uncle dies picking cotton for others, so the man decides to strike out on his own, becomes a tenant farmer, and he, his wife, his two young children, and his aged grandmother start a farm and experience a series of hardships—-from envious, hostile neighbors and from natural calamities—-like the flood that wipes out their first cotton crop. In his book, Renoir eloquently explained his take on this lovely film, based on the novel, Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Percy: “What attracted me in the story was precisely the fact that there was really no story, nothing but a series of strong impressions—-the vast landscape, the simple aspiration of the hero, the heat and the hunger. Being forced to live a life restricted to their daily material needs, the characters attain a level of spirituality of which they themselves are unaware… What I saw was a story in which all the characters were heroic, in which every element would brilliantly play its part, in which things and men, animals and Nature, all would come together in an immense act of homage to the divinity.”
Beautifully acted—-by Zachary Scott, Betty Field, Beulah Bondi, Norman Lloyd–the picture achieves all of that in profoundly subtle ways, almost entirely in its quiet images, the moments before or after the dialog, the angle from which everything is seen, literally and figuratively. In his autobiography, Renoir generously credits the quality of the picture to his having written the script with “the counsel of [William] Faulkner. The influence of that man of genius had certainly a lot to do with the success of the film.” But the particular feeling you’re left with when the movie has ended—-that somehow you’ve been miraculously healed and purified—-only happens after a Renoir picture.