Last night I watched John Farrow: Hollywood’s Man in the Shadows, a 96-minute doc about the prolific, under-rated Australian-born director. Farrow made scores of better-than-decent, lower-budgeted films (The Big Clock, Five Came Back, Calcutta, His Kind of Woman, Hondo). A skilled and dependable craftsman, he directed no drop-dead masterpieces but was great with long takes.
Married for 20-odd years to Maureen O’Sullivan while constantly catting around, the Roman Catholic Farrow sired seven children, including Mia Farrow.
Co-directors Claude Gonzalez and Frans Vandenburg have delivered a respectable effort, often edifying if less than fully satisfying, for reasons I’ll try to explain.
The sage talking heads include Australian directors Phillip Noyce, Bruce Beresford and Philippe Mora, plus film critics Todd McCarthy, David Thomson, David Stratton, Margaret Pomeranz, Imogen Sara Smith and Farran Smith Nehme. Hollywood biographer Charles Higham and Farrow’s wry look-alike son, John Charles Farrow, also participate.
I’m not a serious Farrow devotee but I respect his assurance and sense of polish and control, and his extra-long takes are Scorsese– or Coppola-level.
I’m as much of a fan of The Big Clock as the next guy. Vincent Price’s performance in His Kind of Woman is one of my all-time camp favorites of the ’40s, and Five Came Back (’39), a crashed-in-the-jungle survival story with Lucille Ball, is a keeper. I’m trying to recall if I saw Farrow’s 1956 remake, Back From Eternity. And the 3-D, John Wayne-starring Hondo is pretty good.
I understand why producer Mike Todd fired Farrow off the direction of Around the World in 80 Days (i.e., Todd wanted a less headstrong director, someone he could push around) but why exactly did Farrow lose the King of Kings gig? The filmmakers couldn’t explore that?
Farrow losing two high-paying 1950s prestige gigs in the space of five years is odd. It alludes to an imperious, uncooperative manner.
Was Farrow’s 1963 heart attack a genetic thing? Was it due to alcohol abuse? Farrow was only 58 when he passed — a relatively early departure for a man who wasn’t overweight.
How many years ago was this doc shot? The answer seems to be “not recently.” Three, four years ago for the most part? More?
Why don’t the filmmakers simply mention where the Farrow family lived in Bel Air? How could that be a violation of anyone’s privacy so many decades after the fact? The home was built for Farrow & O’Sullivan in ‘37.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the absence of Mia Farrow and Ronan Farrow, and especially Mia.
I gather she didn’t participate due to negative feelings about her philandering, possibly emotionally abusive dad, and Ronan undoubtedly passed out of deference to his mom, but really? Mia refuses to sit for an interview because her Catholic father cheated on her mom with “dozens” of women during the heyday of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and she doesn’t want to endorse or seem blasé about that? In the context of her own checkered sexual history, Mia is hardly in a position to judge or throw stones. Very odd. Sexual indulgence and even perversity is seemingly baked into the Farrow clan’s DNA.
And of course there’s John Charles Farrow’s recent imprisonment for child molestation, for which he served seven years. Did Mia not participate because of her brother’s participation? Because she didn’t want that shade mingled with her own?
It has to be said that the Farrow doc is non-explicit to the point of being coy. What is conveyed is a little too genteel. It tip-toes around. The doc’s refusal to even glance at the icky stuff leaves a gaping hole in the overall narrative. Better to just air it all and look at things plainly.
David Thomson observation: “Farrow blood is torn over revelation and discretion.”
The doc opens on present-day cruising shots of the Sunset Strip and the downtown LA tunnel. What does this footage have to do with classic era John Farrow? Absolutely nothing. I actually thought I might be watching a mistake of some kind, as the narration and the footage don’t correspond. The opening cries out for tracking shots of Beverly Hills and Bel Air in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Such footage is abundant on YouTube, and in 60 fps yet.
Among all of John Farrow’s dozens of extra-marital indiscretions the filmmakers couldn’t share some names, dig up loose gossip, someone from the past who knew about this or that? Yes, I know — they’re all dead now.
The absence of Mia and Ronan and the curious omission of John Charles Farrow’s conviction aside, this is a very well observed study of an under-appreciated director. I admired the work and respected the way it was all shaped and honed, but I wanted more candor.