Stars in My Crown (1950)

4 09 2008

My first encounter with Jacques Tourneur is, for the most part, a very good one. All the hype about him being proficient in building and establishing a atmosphere is pretty spot on and seems to be the single most important element in this particular film’s success. It is, after all, a story that is largely based within the repercussions surrounding a central community, and his aesthetic precision helps in making the simple observations of a classic rural town so riveting. Otherwise, this would probably just be remembered as a really heavy-handed indictment of racism from 1950s America.

Josiah Gray, a country parson arrives in the small town of Wellsburg and through montage, we see how quickly alters the community so that it becomes almost his own. He has seemingly been a key figure in the town when it is struck with typhoid fever. The town’s new doctor is young and unsurprisingly, not welcomed by the townsfolk. However, the illness is spreading and Mr. Gray continues to see more of the young doctor, who strongly dislikes Gray based on his own belief that Gray may have spread the disease when he visited the school while his nephew was sick. Meanwhile, Uncle Famous, one of the town’s longest residents, is threatened to have his land taken away from him.

Tourneur seems to take a page from John Ford’s Judge Priest as he builds Stars in My Crown around a very similar concept. There are some dramatic flourishes in both films (such moments are the weakest in both movies) but for the most part, both are plotless and both are held together by a beautifully crafted sense of Americana. It seems like a small feat, but it is impressive how both directors create a sense of community without much exposition to clutter their efforts. This is actually where Tourneur’s film begins to be different. From the start, we are given a rapid-fire montage of how Josiah Gray became the single most important person in Wellsburg and Gray’s nephew narrates it. There are plenty of impressive shots in this opening, but that is pretty much the only compliment I can give this essentially meaningless bit of exposition. Had Tourneur stuck with this pace for the whole film, it would have been fine, but the changes are abrupt and the film settles down to the standard 50s Hollywood pace.

Not all is lost, though, as Tourneur’s shots still have a peculiar beauty to them. It’s that beauty that can only be found in Westerns from the early 1950s, a time when greats like Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher were slowly transitioning from noirs to westerns. These pictures inadvertently spawned the “noir-western” which probably only become a genre (if one can call it that) in recent years. Stars in My Crown is neither western nor noir, but it captures the spirit of both and that is (probably) what counts the most. If there’s really any problem with this film, it’s that it doesn’t seem to be cohesively great. Some fantastic spots here and there, but some dry ones as well. Still, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more from Tourneur.

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2 responses

4 09 2008
Ed Howard

I haven’t seen this one, but Tourneur is definitely worth looking into. Out of the Past is a classic noir for a reason, a landmark of the genre, while Tourneur’s first horror film for Val Lewton, Cat People, is nothing but atmosphere, brilliantly deployed.

12 07 2009
Hannu Björkbacka

I really love this film, I think it is one of Tourneur’s absolutely greatest.
And I really like how you have shed light to this film (not on DVD!) and the other great out of the ordinary western Canyon Passage.
Looking forward to see his Way of a Gaucho, which Fujiwara thinks is very good (as I remember from his Tourneur book), it’s already advertised in Spain’s http://www.dvdgo.com, so it should be available this summer!

Hannu
Kokkola
Finland

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