The Molly Maguires (1970)

14 Nov

In the world of the movies, distinct cultural locales have historically been rendered with such staggering ineptitude by Hollywood that one has to wonder whether those responsible for recreating these milieus had ever set foot outside the confines of Burbank, California. With a few notable exceptions, they ended up coming across like a gaudy Vegas resort or theme park attraction, co-opting a few key cultural signifiers to present a cost-effective approximation of authenticity. Even with the advent of the runaway production, the blight that is CGI has served to restore this factitious veneer to everything from Ancient Rome to the depths of space. Though it was shot entirely on location, the makers of ‘The Molly Maguires’ kindly imbued their production with all the folksy charm one has come to expect from anything with a whiff of ‘Irishness’ about it, in case anyone were confused as to its provenance. But despite its lack of historical verisimilitude, ‘The Molly Maguires’ is a superior piece of entertainment that kicks against its limitations to address some serious issues.

It is 1876 and life is tough, to say the least, for the denizens of a Pennsylvania mining town. A society of militant coal miners known as the Order of Hibernians has begun committing acts of sabotage on collieries under the name the Molly Maguires, in an attempt to bring about better working conditions. Enter James McParlan, an ambitious police detective and fellow Irish immigrant who, under the auspices of the Pinkertons, must infiltrate the Molly Maguires and prevent the next attack. Working down the mines and seeing firsthand the gruelling conditions under which the miners work, McParlan begins to sympathise with the Hibernians’ cause and falls under the spell of its inspirational leader, Jack Kehoe (Sean Connery). McParlan must decide whether to hand over Kehoe and his associates to the Pinkertons and work his way up the career ladder, or follow his conscience and take up the cause of workers’ rights.

One of the standout moments of ‘The Molly Macquires’ is its bravura pre-title sequence – lasting fourteen minutes and completely without dialogue, it compares favourably to the way in which Sergio Leone used silence to establish tone in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. Unlike Leone, however, Ritt refuses to exult in beautified gore. Ritt brings a degree of reality to the film’s action sequences, an approach which forces the viewer to confront the consequences of conflict, something the merchants of stylised violence would recoil from. A deft and underrated director with an impressive body of work, Ritt could always be relied upon to provide assiduously composed shots packed with detail and subtle psychological pointers. The pace is deliberately slow, lingering on shots in a way that would terrify a less assured director – the average shot length is ten seconds. James Wong Howe’s cinematography captures the stifling atmosphere of this blighted landscape, breathing life into the autumnal palette of Eckley, Pennsylvania. Sadly, his good work is undermined by a production design that has a tendency to stray into cloying parody and an incongruous score from Henry Mancini, which adds unneeded grandiloquence to such a downbeat work.

Ritt was a master at getting the best out of his cast – evidenced by the fact that he directed thirteen actors to Academy nominations. Though ‘The Molly Maquires’ don’t quite live up to this pedigree, the two leads turn in performances that stand up surprisingly well to contemporary standards, unlike the majority of their best remembered roles. To me, Sean Connery has always been one of the great overrated British actors, an inert, one-tone performer whose legacy is being continued by the likes of Sean Bean and Clive Owen. But Connery’s lack of emotional dynamism is a perfect fit for the aloof Jack Kehoe, despite his conspicuously well-tanned frame – fresh from a golf course on the Bahamas, no doubt. Richard Harris, on the other hand, was always a captivating figure; few actors were, or are, as comfortable before the camera. He brings much needed credibility to the role of James McParlan, inhabiting the role in a way that goes beyond the brutal technicality and affectation of the Method, his dolorous eyes and beleaguered mien constantly dramatizing the character’s dilemma. Frank Finlay as Pinkerton officer Davis and Samantha Eggar as Mary Raines embody the forces pulling McParlan in opposing directions, with Davis encouraging McParlan to act in the interests of personal advancement and Raines exhorting him to accede to the dictates of his heart.

Beneath its mawkish exterior, ‘The Molly Maguires’ has some interesting points to make about the holy trinity of church, state and commerce that rules America. A telling moment is when McParlan, on seeing a wealthy industrialist called Gowan after a football game, comments that Gowan didn’t mind who won as he owns both teams, the game itself providing a metaphor for the way the system is rigged in favour of wealthy elites, a de facto class system. It is small moments like this that makes Walter Bernstein’s screenplay so interesting. ‘The Molly Maguires’ explores the dark side of America’s ‘land of opportunity’ mythology, positing that a life away from thankless toil is beyond the reach of most of its citizens, that the country’s prosperity is built on the backs of countless millions of anonymous drones. McParlan comments that he is ‘tired of looking up and wants to look down’, and it is this mood of duplicity that ultimately prevails. The film confounds expectations by refusing to wallow in phony heroism, notions of guilt and absolution being usurped by the idea that greed makes cowards of us all.

My moustache is better than yours!

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