Sunday, January 13, 2013

"The Wind" (1928)

“Injuns call this the ‘land o’ the winds’ – it never stops blowing here-“

Letty Mason, played by Lillian Gish, is traveling to stay on her cousin’s ranch is warned that the constant wind raging in the area will drive her to insanity. Destitute and out of options, Letty ignores this prophetic counsel, only to incur the wrath of her cousin’s wife. Driven out of the house by jealousy, Letty goes from one bad situation to another, finally settling on marriage to Lige, a man she neither knows nor loves in order to put a roof over her head. Her husband is not pleased to discover this, but has more important things to worry about, like the wind. Combine this fractious relationship with a ‘norther windstorm and an amorous stalker and you have a tension-filled ending replete with madness, death and a vast array of great visual effects.

The story was adapted from a book brought the attention of MGM by Lillian Gish herself. She was interested in adapting and got the go ahead from ‘boy wonder’ Irving Thalberg. She was also able to choose her director, Victor Sjostrom and her leading man, Lars Hanson. The film wasn’t without issues though. The wind scenes were shot in the Mojave Desert with the help of aircraft propellers. The propellers and the desert made for a somewhat miserable shoot. The propellers blew smoke, sand and hot air at the crew while they were operating, meaning everyone had to wear eye protection, bandanas, long sleeve shirts and grease paint. As for the desert, temperatures reached 120 degrees at their height, meaning the film stock had to be packed in ice to keep it from melting. And poor Gish scalded her hand when she touched a door handle it was so hot out.

Letty is a sweet if naïve girl. She’s kind but doesn’t understand how her actions affect other people. She befriends a man on her way to the ranch, unaware of his nefarious intentions, cozies up to her cousin, making his paranoid wife crazy and toys with the emotions of two men who want to marry her. Gish plays Letty as wide-eyed and vulnerable. As the wind begins to affect her psychologically, Gish shines, using her eyes, face and arms to full effect. This is especially evident in my favourite scene where Gish is staring out the window in horror, the insanity growing on her face and she realizes what she’s staring at. There were times I thought she was a little over dramatic with the arms and eyes but on the whole she did a superb job of conveying her emotions. I also wish that there had been more of a buildup to the madness caused by the wind but from the beginning Gish seemed to be afraid of it.

The wind itself is also a character, constantly harassing the characters, including Letty. It invades every space of their lives. You can see this when Old Sourdough tries to sweep up the sand tracked into Letty and Lige’s house, opening the door to throw it out, only to have the wind blow in a new mess of sand. Also, at some point Letty’s given up washing the dishes with water and switches to sand. This is a great visual and also a possible hint at her growing madness as she seems to do this rather absentmindedly. I did expect a little more in terms of transitions and the tension and conflict at the end is over rather quickly. After viewing this I wonder what a director like Hitchcock would have done with the material. As well, the ending is rather abrupt and doesn’t fit with the previous motivations and feelings Letty has when it comes to the wind. The film makes a 180 turn at the end. This was done at the insistence of the studio, essentially undercutting the buildup that had come before. I think sticking with the original ending would have had far more of a visual and emotional impact.

There are some amazing shots from this movie as well as special effects. There is a scene where Letty and Lige are pacing in separate rooms with the shot tightly focused on their feet. Their faces aren’t visible and yet we feel their emotions through their body language. I also enjoyed the scenes with Cora, the jealous wife. There’s one in particular where she’s cutting up a cow with a large knife, in contrast to Letty who’s playing with Cora’s children. You can see her anger and jealousy towards Letty build as she wipes the knife on her butcher’s apron and tries to embrace her own child. The child, repulsed by her bloody hands runs to Letty instead. Gish, who essentially carries the movie, also has a variety of good scenes in which the madness of the wind encroaches on her home, her person and then her mind. In terms of special effects, I loved the various shots of sand blowing against a window which had a very ethereal quality. There’s also a great shot of a tornado, headed straight for town as well as a ghost horse representing the spirit of the wind which haunts Gish’s character.

This is a movie I would definitely watch again and I would highly recommend it for those who love silent movies.

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