It being St. Patrick’s Day, this week’s episode of Hit Me with Your Best Shot takes us to the most classic of all Irish-American movies for that most classic of all Irish-American holidays: The Quiet Man, the fourth and last film for which director Jack Feeney won a Best Director Oscar. You undoubtedly know him better as John Ford, a blunt, virile, Anglicised professional name. But the Maine native who in later years claimed to be born Sean Aloysius O’Fearna clearly had a particular affection for Ireland and her people, one that sneaks through all of his films. The ethnic comedy for which Ford was infamous might have been vaguely insulting in a lot of ways, but when he came to depict the Irish and their ways, it was always with a plain degree of warm, familiar affection to offset the japing.
The Quiet Man is his most overt triumph in that area. Set in Ireland and purporting to show an expatriate returning home from America to re-learn the ways of his native town, it’s really just a feature-length catalogue of the caricatured behavior and speech of the Irish in pop culture. Somehow, instead of being totally awful, it’s one of the greatest American films of the 1950s. Credit for that to Ford, of course, and cinematographer Winton C. Hoch, who encase all of this blarney in some of the finest images in the history of three-strip Technicolor, with location photography in Ireland itself that was worth every penny that Republic had to fork over. And credit to a cast that had decades of combined experience playing broad Irish stereotypes as grounded human beings: Victor McLaglen, Barry Fitzgerald (at his career best), Maureen O’Hara, Ward Bond. And of course, in the lead role, Anglo-Irish mutt Marion Morrison, though happily we don’t have to hear the man who followed his best director in butching up with the stage name John Wayne try on an Irish brogue. Wayne played an accent once for Ford, as a Swede in The Long Voyage Home; it’s a marvelous film, but that’s certainly not one of the reasons why.
But anyway, back to The Quiet Man: a gorgeous film, to be simple about it, for when Ford and Hoch shot Irish landscapes in Technicolor, the result is the closest thing that the movies have provided to the look of Heaven. But it’s also a marvelous exercise in cinematography as storytelling. I always first think of Ford as a brilliant director of black-and-white, but this is as good an example as we need to prove how perfectly wonderful his color work could be as well. Any totally helpless hack could shoot a film in Ireland and get some rich, glowing greens out of it. A thoughtful, caring filmmaker – say, the kind who would win a record-setting directing Oscar for his pains – would thread that green through with reds and blues and yellows, using it as a contrasting element in a palette that smartly uses bold colors as a driver for the narrative, and not just a garnish.
So important and precise is the film’s use of color that I couldn’t bear to pass it by, though it did mean that I had to let go of my first impulse, which was to pick as my favorite shot the rain-soaked precursor to one of the sexiest kisses in history. You’ll have to pardon my indulgence if I share it anyway:
But back to the matter at hand. The Quiet Man is a romantic comedy at heart, one that hinges on the refusal of a principled man to do the wrong thing in order to prove that he can toe the line of bullshit customs and traditions. And the color of bullshit custom and tradition, to this movie is blue. Blue is the color of domestic interiors, blue is the color of siblings Mary Kate Danaher (O’Hara) and “Red” Will Danaher (McLaglen), the former of whom Sean Thornton (Wayne) wants to marry, the latter of whom will absolutely have none of it. Blue is the color of sense, contrasted the the outside and green, which are free, lusty sensibility (just glance back up at that libidinal rainstorm – it’s the first time we’ve seen Mary Kate in green the whole time. I’m not going to say that’s the only reason she’s currently rubbing John Wayne’s wet nipple, but it’s a reason).
So with that in mind, what’s the most distinctive, high-impact moment of blue in this whole movie? For me, it’s the moment when Sean first spots Mary Kate, tending her brother’s sheep. And because Ford is Ford, of course it has to take place in a long shot that sets her apart as a discordant element in the landscape.
Look, I get it. Choosing this shot from The Quiet Man is absolutely a “hey, have you heard of this group called the Beatles?” moment of thundering obviousness. But maybe if it wasn’t breathtaking and perfect, I wouldn’t have to be so damn obvious. There is, anyway, a great pleasure to be had in unpacking images that were made by an enormously talented pair of image-makers to be read as quickly and deeply as possible. So we have the whole mess of lines forcing us to look in one direction – the busy at the bottom pulls us up, the trees pull us down, and the diagonal sheep pull us along the exact path that O’Hara is walking in this image. And that’s ignoring how much that red dress absolutely demands that we stare at nothing else, anyway.
The image, then, pulls all of our attention to this woman while also insistently dividing her from the rest of the shot. She’s distracting, and eye-catching, and by framing this as a POV from the immediately-preceding shot of Wayne stopping in his tracks to notice her, Ford puts us through the same mental process that Sean is undergoing in that moment: like him, we’re incapable of looking at anything but this woman. It’s the moment on which the whole film pivots, since it’s basically a fairy tale “he fell in love at first sight and pursued the woman till her won her” bit of nonsense, and by using the visuals to make us feel her presence as strongly as the character, the filmmakers get to justify that nonsense more successfully.
But meanwhile, she’s still in blue, and she’s an aberrant element in that green, yellow, white landscape – in this shot, even the sky is yellow, to make O’Hara pop out all the more. She’s eye-catching and special, but the colors mark her out as a disruption as much as an enticement. And so we’re primed for the rest of the moment: blue is what Sean wants, but blue is also all the things he isn’t; blue is the things he didn’t come to Ireland for (peace, calm, the land). And the rest of the film will find him moving towards and away from blue, trying to find the way to fit it in with his own more neutral color palette. Blue eventually wins, of course; the hearth and home always win in Ford. But to begin with, blue is uncomfortable and unnatural even as you can’t stop looking at it and thinking about it. Just the way that sudden passion is supposed to be.