The Wind (1928, Victor Sjöström)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
For all the fairground amusement Hollywood was only too happy to provide, certain American films in the last few years of the 1920s demonstrated just how creatively ambitious cinema had become during the first decade of features. Looked upon from our eyes today, these are art films; not only that, art films with the full resources of powerful studios and the encouragement of influential moguls at their disposal. Maybe this was cynically motivated too — an eye toward manufactured importance — but the results speak for themselves. Over at Paramount, Josef von Sternberg made The Docks of New York, a portrait of desperate distraction from poverty a year ahead of the beginning of the Depression, and The Last Command, about the frailty that eventually unites even the once powerful. Fox bankrolled John Ford’s tremendously scaled but humane railroad epic The Iron Horse and, even more impressively, several extraordinary romances from stalwart Frank Borzage (7th Heaven most memorably) and of course F.W. Murnau, brought over at considerable expense and creative cart blanche to produce Sunrise, thereafter and today the most beloved of all Hollywood silents. Sunrise stands apart, of course, but it’s also of a piece with its best contemporaries, especially when one moves the focus over to Irving Thalberg’s MGM.
Thalberg was the most influential producer in Hollywood for any number of reasons, a workaholic populist who defined MGM for years after his early death as the apex of the industry’s sense of glamor, enormity and almost alien separation from the rest of the world. MGM’s films were, in a word, “big,” with the illusion of sometimes gaudy prestige giving them a household reputation. But this wasn’t just because Thalberg was commercially minded or beholden to the trappings of flaunted wealth. It was also because he wasn’t a man who hedged his bets, which becomes all the more apparent when you notice the unusual tastes made plain by the wilder movies that managed to get made under his regime, which in retrospect are unique in the history of studio cinema. That nearly all of these works were ultimately compromised in some way when exhibitors became involved is all but beside the point in considering what got as far as being made in the first place at MGM then, in such dry contrast to its reputation as the most superficial and stuffy of the major studios: Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (four hours of novelistic, slow-burn subtlety eventually chopped to bits, to the eternal regret of multiple involved parties), King Vidor’s The Crowd (the artistic equal of Sunrise in its examination of a rocky marriage, deserving of a place alongside it that it will never receive), Tod Browning’s gleefully lurid The Unknown, and going a few years into the future, the same director’s Freaks (a truly devilish and haunting horror film, it too cut down to barely an hour by the time it reached theaters).
Even with the great obstacles these films had to overcome to be seen by audiences, in an age when filmmakers, producers, moguls and theaters were tied together incestuously and destructively, the above named films and many beyond them can all lay claim to an extremity of artistic fearlessness rarely noted in American cinema after the onset of the Hays Code, outside perhaps of the early to mid-1970s. To put it somewhat reductively, these are Hollywood features that feel like European or Asian arthouse masterpieces of later decades — there is little sense of restraint in the interest of comfort for a wide audience. In modern parlance, which I hope the reader can forgive, Thalberg’s MGM “went there”: Lon Chaney very well might rip a man apart, a woman could indeed commit a murder and lose her mind, people could be torn apart and driven into misery by winning the lottery, and a tragedy involving a child could be permitted to drive a permanent wedge between a married couple, and all of it visually bold, distinctive, lyrical.
In a way the boldest example of this was Victor Sjöström’s The Wind, a vehicle for legendary leading woman Lillian Gish, who’d come to prominence a decade earlier in D.W. Griffith’s films but whose unshakeably haunting countenance would never find a better vehicle than in this semi-western, semi-horror story about a woman finding herself alone in a house in the desert, surrounded by hostility from humans and weather that begins to drive her mad. Gish brought the project to MGM herself after reading Dorothy Scarborough’s novel, with Frances Marion hired to write the screenplay. It’s not insignificant that this monumental film about the terrifying nuisance of violent, lecherous men was essentially written by two women, and pitched to a major studio by another woman. With Thalberg’s blessing, Gish also had a hand in casting the film and — by her account — even in choosing a director; she’d already worked with Sjöström, like Murnau an established foreign director (in Sweden) who had reached his greatest recognition in Hollywood (though MGM insisted on billing him as “Victor Seastrom”). No one was more capable of collaborating with Gish to create the illusion of a nightmare in a deeply unforgiving, painfully realistic world.
Gish appears as Letty Mason, a peasant girl from Virginia who’s been invited to live on the Texas ranch of her closest cousin, Bev. She’s welcomed with open arms by him and, to an uncomfortable degree, by his two rowdy neighbors Sourdough and Lige, both of whom engage in spontaneous target practice for the pleasure of sitting next to her. She’s also cornered on the train by a well-to-do wannabe cowboy named Wirt; from their first meeting Wirt’s trying to put the moves on Letty and making sexist proclamations about how the wind in the isolated town always drives women mad. But after meeting the decidedly unpleasant twosome from next door, Wirt doesn’t seem so bad, and Letty eventually starts to think it might not be such a bad idea to come away with him as he’s offered — especially when Bev’s wife Cora appears extremely jealous of her, amplified by her easy rapport with Cora and Bev’s children. But as it turns out, Wirt is married already and just wants a mistress, and is a proper bastard with a frightening absence of compassion. As the situation becomes ever more tenuous, Cora essentially forces Bev to marry Lige, which is bad enough — particularly when he exhibits a cruel, childish sense of entitlement over her body — before she’s left alone during a storm with an injured Wirt. The horrors escalate from there, culminating in assault, homicide and the unberable sensation of being trapped: by people, by the weather, and by poverty.
Shooting in the Mojave Desert with massive wind machines to create an image of constant turmoil, Sjöström asserts his position as a poet of the form. His sets are less expressionistic than those in Vidor’s or Murnau’s films, but his many unorthodox, intuitive choices for visualizing crucial scenes clearly mark The Wind as an equal to Sunrise and The Crowd: he plays an early scene of assault — one of many within the broad context of Letty’s lost soul at the mercy of corruptible men — entirely on the actors’ feet, blocking so that we only see and gauge their actions and reactions from their knees on down to the ground. A stirring, effects-laden montage at the climax offers potentially the moment when narrative Hollywood silent film reached its zenith: a man has just been justifiably killed, a grave is being dug, and the wind as relentlessly as ever refuses to keep it covered. All the while Letty is just barely keeping her grasp on reality, and with head-spinning surrealism that only serves to make her misery and desperation more palpable, Sjöström’s calls back to his own grim Swedish horror picture The Phantom Carriage for the nightmare image of a distressed horse representing the cruel force of the wind.
Most important of all to The Wind‘s imagery, though, are the eyes. Innumerable great performances in the silent era were such because of subtle, underplayed variances in expression like those of Charlie Chaplin and Janet Gaynor, but no film made quite such expressive, extensive, terrifying use of eyes as a story unto themselves as this one. Though the title cards are among the best-written of any Hollywood silent — including one that I remember as the first ever to give me a chill back when I first saw this in 2004, with Wint reminding Letty of his prediction of how the desert would destroy her: “Well… it’s doing it“; there is astounding menace in those italics — we learn who these characters are through the way that they look at us. For instance, Cora’s (Dorothy Cumming) steely suspicion of Letty is understandable insofar as Letty is young, long-haired, energetic and beautiful, but in our limited time with Bev there’s no mistaking that he loves his wife. Such complications arise everywere, most explicitly in the way that the men surrounding Letty put on balletic routines of performance to try and gain her trust. Comic relief figures like Sourdough are twisted effortlessly into menace. We meet Montagu Love’s Wirt as an annoying but benign figure whose lust for his young fellow passenger is obvious, but through a gradual slackening of kindness in his face and an uptick in his possessive behavior he changes for us, and by the time he gazes out at us and at Letty from the sickbed, he’s so mortally repulsive that to look at him is like tormenting ourselves, and all because of the way those eyes are directed into us.
We’re dancing around the star of the film, though, and it must be said that Gish — with two of the most haunting eyes in movies — was never more vivid, her performance and Sjöström’s photography of her the stuff of powerful dreams. The intensity of our identification with Letty is such that every horrible event in the film feels like it’s happening to those of us watching. (Alfred Hitchcock would remember this in so many of his future films, none more indebted to The Wind than Rebecca, which operates the same sort of nightmare, malicious jealousy surrounding almost Snow White-like innocence, and swoons with the same mad injection of fairy tale theatricality into its ostensible realism, beginning with Cora operating as a prototype for Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers, culminating in Lige’s cruel departure from the shack as prediction for Laurence Olivier’s constant inexplicable travels away from Manderley. Neither film truly flirts with the supernatural, but both feel as if they do.) The toughness and pain and finally despondency in Gish’s eyes is our window into the inconsolable fact of the betrayals that have broken her, although she still wields power. After she fires a gun and kills her assailant in the final act, the sequence of shots that show her still holding the pistol and contemplating her actions are perhaps the most harrowing stationary scenes of an actor ever filmed.
You can name many scenes in silent film as formally impressive as Letty’s long descent into paranoid insanity at the climax of The Wind; it’s no weirder or more probing than Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness or more technically evocative and genuinely unnerving than Watson and Weber’s The Fall of the House of Usher. What separates it is how carefully Gish and Sjöström have established our affinity to the person being hereby taken to the edge of consciousness; it’s so much more horrific because, every step of the way, the transformation of a nice girl down on her luck to a suffering victim who’s just killed a man has been careful, methodical, logical. As a result, the final explosion has an element of conviction, even grace, that makes its strangeness more powerfully moving than it could be in any context-free avant garde film. The cinematically blissful result is that the finale of The Wind, up until its last minute or so, is one of those moments in movies that not only conjures up emotions of distress and conflict rarely touched on so genuinely but almost gleefully dances around in them. (The end of Vertigo, with the out-of-time insanity of its plot coalescing into a moment of genuine aching despair, is another such instance.)
And here, yet again, is the MGM compromise that thwarted so many great films. Both Gish and Sjöström — as well as Thalberg in some accounts, though it’s hard to verify this — wished to essentially end The Wind there; the sole missing portion would have had Letty finally losing her grip and wandering into the desert to die, as in Scarborough’s novel. You can find yourself embittered all over again on their behalf with the knowledge that this ending was prevented by MGM’s relationship to its exhibitors backed up by studio head Louis B. Mayer, because the perfection of a film that concluded that devastating extended montage with such a note of unsparing hopelessness would be undeniable, giving it a simple and perverse kind of bleak elegance, as in later films like Room at the Top and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and any number of classic noir thrillers. MGM was already nervous about the film’s prospects — movies like Sunrise at Fox had received ecstatic notices but limited financial success, and the brief indulgence of directors seen as great artists might have been poised to end even if the silent era hadn’t, though it’s tantalizing to wonder otherwise — and there’s no evidence to suggest they even bankrolled the shooting of the original, dark ending, which probably only ever existed on paper.
What we get instead is embarrassing, to say the least. Gish referred to it scornfully in the 1980s as “tacked on,” and her judgment was unsurprisingly correct. You can almost feel Sjöström’s teeth gritting as he lays upon us the ludicrously improbable revelation that either the murder of Wirt was a dream or his body, the reappearance of which (one of the most genuinely frightening images in cinema) had finally taken Letty over the edge, was mystically washed away by the desert wind, now suddenly a force for good that Letty proclaims she “loves.” Even more bizarrely, the irredeemable asshole she married, Lige, has abruptly turned into a gentle soul who’s earned Letty’s affection for no apparent reason. The falseness of all this is crushing and nearly derails the film by sheer frustration; when I first saw it I thought of the closing thirty seconds of “everything’s OK!” cheeriness in Suspicion, but a more direct analogue, made at nearly the same time, is The Docks of New York, which artificially recasts a doomed, unfeeling relationship between a man and a woman as suddenly a love for the ages. Even at that, those films both leave more faint room for ambiguity than The Wind does; it’s a great story that turns into a shaggy dog joke at the conclusion.
I’ve gone back and forth on whether the ending of The Wind is something to be held against it, which is made more complicated by the knowledge that the filmmakers themselves didn’t approve of it. It seems to me finally self-evident that everything about the film prior to its ending is so impeccable that, as much as the closing scene may stick in our craw as we leave it behind and as much as an ending always could and still can derail a perfectly fine story, it cannot be seen as less than a masterpiece strictly for this reason, though I strongly suspect that the film will play better to a viewer aware of the closing compromise than one who doesn’t know its history. The most serious disappointment is that the greatness of The Wind lies largely in its ageless accessibility; the combination of Gish’s performance, Marion’s script and Sjöström’s direction make it one of the best ways to introduce a new viewer to Hollywood silent film. It’s a linear story that’s beautifully told with considerable idiosyncratic flourish and doesn’t have the arthouse-like indulgences of even Sunrise (by which I mean the lengthy second act of that film in which the lovers rekindle, which I’ve come to love but once found puzzling) to distract someone new to the medium. In that sense, it’s disappointing that such a magnificent work requires “context” to fully appreciate. (Not as disappointing as how difficult it now is to see the film thanks to rightsholder Warner Bros.’ shameful, infuriating apathy toward their silent library, but that’s another topic.)
The word “medium” is key here. Movies like The Crowd, Greed and The Wind emphasize beautifully the fact that silent cinema was, rather than the primitive stopgap ahead of modern filmmaking that is often annoyingly reputed, an art and a form of expression unto itself, one that — as William Everson and others have argued — reached such incredible heights in its waning years that it took sound cinema years to become comparably exciting, if it ever really did. The point in mentioning this is not to slam all films from 1929 onward as artistically inferior — John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock may have started in the silent era, but does anyone deny that their most imaginative work was ahead of them? — but to note that the great directors of the ’20s throughout the world were achieving mastery in a singular, unique form of storytelling grammar capable of producing truly sublime images, only to be inevitably stunted for a time by the entrance of spoken dialogue. As in most artforms, the incredible resourcefulness and creativity at cinema’s beginnings required a force and dexterity on the part of its participants that would lay a vastly underappreciated bedrock for everyone after.Never again would the virtues of a given feature so universally ride on the qualities of its visuals, and never again would it be impossible to become a director without knowing how to put an idea across nonverbally.
The Wind is one of the most beautiful, seamless examples of such tireless invention. It’s also one of the last, released at the tail end of 1928 despite being finished a year earlier. Most of those involved in it would not make another silent film. Succinct but intoxicating, it’s an appropriate ending. Maybe the limits had been reached and maybe there was nowhere else to go. Perhaps silent filmmaking was just a necessity born of technical limitation. But answer me this after you’ve seen the film: when you turn it off and move on with your life, can you honestly tell me you don’t think back to that howling, roaring wind and swear to almighty God that you could actually hear it?