For Reel

Destry Rides Again (1939)
February 10, 2012, 5:57 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: George Marshall

In the opening scenes of Destry Rides Again, director George Marshall builds his vision of the old west economically and with great style. The saloon in which much of the film will take place in is seen from overhead. A chaotic crowd assembles around and within it – guns fire in the air, men brawl, a drunken man rides his horse about. Images familiar of the genre. Then, Marshall slowly pans away from the crowd to the upper floor of the building, which is dark and its windows closed. A cut to the interior: a poker game. The men around the table, Marshall makes clear, are those who run the town, and as Brian Donlevy’s Kent, the saloon owner, cheats a patron out of his ranch with the help of his cunning lover, Frenchy, played by Marlene Dietrich, their methods of exploitation are revealed. The power dynamic is further visualized in the next scene as a man walks overhead in the rafters and looks down at the drunken, boisterous party below – an image suggesting a puppet master, or even a dictator. All of this sets the floor for the entrance of James Stewarts’ Thomas Destry, the new, pacifistic sheriff in town, who refuses to humor the patterns of the old west and instead seeks to maintain justice through more honorable means. It is clear by the end, however, that the evils of the town cannot be fought with threats and moral reasoning, and so Destry finally must resort to violence in order to salvage the community. A fitting turn of events as, in the real world, a war loomed near. Though the picture exercises little more than the most basic conventions of the genre, it is exceedingly well-crafted and thoughtful – if not necessarily Ford, it’s only a step or two below.