While filming Citizen Kane, Orson Welles screened John Ford’s Stagecoach every night. He said everything one could do in film was done in Stagecoach. Maybe Ford heard about it, because The Fugitive looks like an Orson Welles film… and it’s not just the foreign (Mexico) shooting location with American actors surrounded by non-English speaking extras. The Fugitive is Ford’s oddest sound picture. Large portions of it don’t even need sound, just ambient music and noises. There are long sequences without any necessary speech, there’s even moments where dialogue is muted, overpowered by street music. During the scenes filmed in the Mexican city… you’d think it was Touch of Evil.
However, Ford is not the same kind of director as Welles. What works for Welles does not work for Ford. The Fugitive is arranged as a series of vignettes, but Ford can’t get enough oomph going to distinguish one from the other. Sure, there’s the change in sound design, but the storytelling focus doesn’t change. It’s easily Ford’s most experimental work–it’s easily one of the most experimental works I’ve seen from a Hollywood director–but the script works against it, particularly in the end, when the film’s finally turning around.
The Fugitive is set in a newly Fascist South American country where Catholic priests are hunted and executed. Henry Fonda–playing a native alongside Mexican actors–is less than stellar in the lead. First, Fonda’s a straightforward actor and The Fugitive attempts to veer. Second, and more, the fugitive is the subject of The Fugitive, not the protagonist. It’s about a handful of characters who encounter this fugitive priest, not the story of a fugitive priest encountering and reencountering a bunch of people. As far as these people go, obviously, Ward Bond is the best. He’s the only American playing an American and he’s got some great moments as a fellow fugitive. Robert Armstrong, not playing an American, is good in a blink-and-you-miss it role–his part made me think most of Welles’ style of handling cameos. The worst–in the film–is easily J. Carrol Naish, who’s in full makeup as an Indian. He’s irritating beyond belief and silly on top of it. I think he was under contract at RKO at the time. Of the Mexican actors, Pedro Armendáriz is the best, but the script fails him time and again. More than anyone else, The Fugitive is about Armendáriz and someone missed it. The other lead, Dolores del Rio, is all right, but Ford gives her these loving shots and… I don’t know, it’s hard to take her seriously with all that soft light.
Even with all the problems–it’s boring on top of it all; Ford did not know how to carry long sequences without dialogue or action–it’s still worth a look. Oddly enough, a film professor once told me it was Ford’s favorite of his films.