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    Saluting the Anti-Star

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    On September 1, 2006, long-time Hollywood columnist Bob Thomas wrote in the Los Angeles Times of a beloved Canadian-born but dyed-in-the-wool American actor who died just two days prior: “He never won an Academy Award® – in fact, he was never nominated. He never earned the big bucks that stars of his stature enjoyed. Yet for 52 years, Glenn Ford [1916-2006] remained an in-demand actor whose name above the title could attract movie ticket buyers. Ford might be called the anti-star. He didn't hang out with the gang in Hollywood watering holes. He never quarreled with directors or studio bosses. His name was never sullied by scandal. He did his acting job and went on to the next one.” That same day, long-time Baltimore Sun film critic ruminated on his The Passionate Moviegoer website: “There was nothing timid about Ford, and yet he's the only major actor of his generation one doesn't immediately link with a certain role or with certain films – the way one does with such Ford peers as, say, William Holden (Stalag 17 and Sunset Blvd.), Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath and Mister Roberts) and Jimmy Stewart (It's a Wonderful Life and The Philadelphia Story). This is odd, because Ford's screen persona had always been a compelling one – at once easygoing, tough and introspective. He was an adjustable wrench among actors: He turned in highly credible, lifelike performances in a wide variety of roles and movies, moving from film to film, churning them out but never looking over his shoulder for the recognition that he so richly deserved. Ford was much more of a character actor who happened to play leading roles than an out-and-out lead player, and much more of an actor and less a personality than the other superstars of his generation.” David Thomson sizes Ford up thusly in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Ford was generally likable on-screen and he managed to make genial, relaxed sincerity interesting. Such ease often directed him toward Westerns, to comedies, and to romantic dramas. To all these genres he brought care, authenticity and intelligence.” As today marks what would have been Ford’s 101st birthday, we consider the three Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray titles in which his bedrock decency took interesting, and in one special case, unnerving twists. For director Delmer Daves’s Cowboy (1958), a seriocomic adaptation of a fancifully autobiographical Frank Harris book, Ford is comfortably mounted in a familiar Old West setting as a veteran cowman – “a hard-bitten, profoundly realistic, and unsentimental leader of men who also favors long hot baths (when he can get them) and rapturous attendance at the opera (when he can find it)” as TT’s Julie Kirgo encapsulates – who navigates the alternately supportive and edgy mentorship of a greenhorn (Jack Lemmon) on his latest cross-country cattle drive; he superbly plays a warts-and-all role model of whom his team players must also be wary. As the determined airline crash investigator in the riveting disaster-aftermath thriller Fate Is the Hunter (1964, directed by Ralph Nelson from aviation tale-spinner Ernest K. Gann’s book), his iconic persona of professionalism is key to his characterization of a company man driven to somehow reconcile the presumed infallibility of machinery with the suspected fallibility of his tragedy-bound ace pilot comrade (Rod Taylor), culminating in a white-knuckle climax that could endanger his and others’ lives. For “what is almost certainly his best film, Fritz Lang’s masterly The Big Heat (1953)” (David Shipman, The Story of Cinema), Ford turned in what was profoundly for him not just another acting job. His Detective Sgt. Dave Bannion, whose overpowering obsession with eliminating the corrupt mob stranglehold in his small Midwestern metropolis causes the lives of some to be permanently scarred and others to be tragically forfeited, is a superb study in the knife-edge balance of righteous justice and vendetta-style vengeance that has grown over time to be Ford’s crowning screen jewel. It still sparks debate whenever this memorable classic is discussed, as when Thomson pondered in his invaluable film resource Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films: “I think we know Ford is going to pursue evil to its lair; we know that his determination will not be cheated or bought off. But that only makes his resolve more ugly or warping. And so, in a movie that seldom fails to show cause and effect, we have to ask ourselves what is happening to our Dave Bannion. Is he growing braver, or more desperate? Is he out to build a new city, or destroy himself? Isn’t his menace to the Laguna gang a matter of his not caring?” Ford, a reliable presence across five filmmaking decades, proved he could both ride and careen off the rails with Hollywood’s best actors. The Big Heat, Cowboy and Fate Is the Hunter on terrific TT discs demonstrate that in spades.