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The Fugitive (1947)

Posted on the 19 November 2014 by Christopher Saunders
The Fugitive (1947)The Fugitive (1947) proved an expensive setback for John Ford. This highbrow religious allegory befuddled audiences used to his Westerns; critics still debate if it's an unappreciated masterwork or overwrought mess. It's certainly a bipolar movie, beautifully shot but dramatically stillborn.
Set in an unnamed Latin American country (though drawing loose inspiration from Tomas Garrido Canabal's ), The Fugitive focuses on The Priest (Henry Fonda). The government's outlawed religion and police brutally repress spiritual leaders. The Priest considers leaving the country but can't abandon his new-found flock, even at risk of reprisals. The Lieutenant (Pedro Armendariz) pursues him, but can't help being drawn to The Priest's simple faith. Both men are drawn to The Woman (Dolores Del Rio), an Indian girl with an illegitimate child.
The Fugitive is Ford's most conspicuously artistic movie since The Informer. Ford shoots in Mexico but the real highpoint are Gabriel Figueroas's amazing compositions. The iconographic staging, deep focus photography and extreme closeups often resemble a silent movie. Hence the Priest attending worshipful villagers in chiaroscuro, his conversation with a whore drowned out by a calliope, or Dolores Del Rio resembling Falconetti's Joan of Arc in weeping close-ups. Fugitive's less a collection of set pieces than tableaux, beautifully shot but stiff.
Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols adapt Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, while neutering its edgier content: the Woman's illegitimate child was fathered by the Priest, not the Lieutenant. Instead, Ford's protagonist is that most nauseating of movie priests, utterly guileless, without fault or personality. One critic labeled him a "creeping Jesus," but even that's generous: the Priest inspires but barely acts, merely suffering for a nation's sins. All of Ford's Christ imagery and obnoxious choral music can't make him compelling.
Ford invests his villains with more passion and nuance. The Lieutenant provides Fugitive's best scenes: his ideological torment, grudging respect for the Priest and personal failings combine for a fascinating character. It's unfortunate that when he actually confronts the Priest, we get pedantic lectures on faith and morality. Other characters perform allegorical functions: the unnamed Woman, the trickster (J. Carrol Naish) who betrays the Priest. Though Greene drew on Tomas Garrido Canabal's anticlerical repression in Mexico, Ford's Fugitive is too unworldly for any "topical" relevance.
Henry Fonda gets one of his worst roles: Nichols' script provides no depth or shading, merely mute anguish. In contrast, Pedro Armendariz exudes passionate torment with a full-blooded performance. Ford later gave Armendariz meaty roles in Three Godfathers and Fort Apache. Ward Bond's enigmatic character never amounts to much. Dolores Del Rio weeps and wails as an overwrought Mexican Madonna; J. Carrol Naish kills his scenes with obnoxious overacting.
John Ford once called The Fugitive his most perfect movie. Indeed, as a directorial showpiece it's flawlessly crafted and beautiful to watch. But it's awkwardly-constructed and only intermittently interesting. Ford is so caught up crafting a masterpiece that he doesn't bother making a good movie.

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