Spencer Tracy and Jeffrey Hunter star in THE LAST HURRAH, directed by John Ford for Columbia Pictures.

The Last Hurrah (1958, John Ford)

While the title refers to politics, The Last Hurrah also, unfortunately in some cases, provided to be the last hurrah of a number of fine actors as well. It’s a fitting–I can’t remember the word. It isn’t eulogy and tribute seems intentional. I don’t know if Ford knew he was making the last film like The Last Hurrah, and there are a number of films like it. Watching it, the mood, the politics, and James Gleason reminded a lot of Meet John Doe. Jane Darwell, for some odd reason since she wasn’t in it, reminded me of The Informer. The Last Hurrah is very much the last film in style–and not the exact style, Ford was a fluid filmmaker–Ford pioneered in the 1930s. While Touch of Evil is, I suppose, a later stylistic descendent, The Last Hurrah‘s the last in the storytelling vein.

Ford’s direction here, his composition, his camera movements, are all very assured, very confident, but also very sentimental. He ties the composition to the story content, letting the frame express what sometimes Spencer Tracy cannot verbalize. I meant to start with Tracy, then I thought I’d save him, but now’s as good of time as any. Tracy’s performance, down the way his nose moves when he breathes, is perfect, so perfect it’s hard to remember he’s Spencer Tracy and was probably in a hundred movies. He’s nothing like any of them. He and Ford, whether by design or accident, create something amazing–Ford for constructing the framed arena capable of supporting Tracy’s performance–but also needing nothing less–and Tracy for filling this field.

The other performances, starting with Jeffrey Hunter, are excellent. Hunter’s great as the film’s emotional reference. He’s new to it, so is the viewer. The rest of the characters have all been around a while; Hunter doesn’t lead the story or even provide an access point, he just shows on screen what the viewer is experiencing. Frank S. Nugent’s script’s something fantastic, but in the story it tells, and the way it tells it. Everyone’s good so it doesn’t make sense just to list them all, but Basil Rathbone’s great as a villain, Carleton Young as Tracy’s assistant, Dianne Foster as Hunter’s wife and Edward Brophy. Brophy’s role’s hard to describe and what he does for the film. Pat O’Brien too, in maybe the least flashy of the film’s roles for good actors.

The way Ford finishes it. Coda. Is coda the word I’m looking for? Maybe The Last Hurrah is coda for certain kind of film, the adult drama of the 1930s and 1940s. Anyway, Ford’s last shot in the film. The pace, the sound, the shadows. It gets blood from a stone. It reveals a deeper capacity for feeling. It’s his best close.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by John Ford; written by Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Edwin O’Connor; director of photography, Charles Lawton Jr.; edited by Jack Murray; production designer, Robert Peterson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Mayor Frank Skeffington), Jeffrey Hunter (Adam Caulfield), Dianne Foster (Mave Caulfield), Pat O’Brien (John Gorman), Basil Rathbone (Norman Cass Sr.), Donald Crisp (Cardinal Martin Burke), James Gleason (‘Cuke’ Gillen), Edward Brophy (‘Ditto’ Boland), John Carradine (Amos Force), Willis Bouchey (Roger Sugrue), Basil Ruysdael (Bishop Gardner), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Weinberg), Wallace Ford (Charles J. Hennessey), Frank McHugh (Festus Garvey), Carleton Young (Winslow), Frank Albertson (Jack Mangan), Bob Sweeney (Johnny Degnan), Edmund Lowe (Johnny Byrne), William Leslie (Dan Herlihy), Anna Lee (Gert Minihan), Ken Curtis (Monsignor Killian), Jane Darwell (Delia Boylan), O.Z. Whitehead (Norman Cass Jr.) and Arthur Walsh (Frank Skeffington Jr.).


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