To call Four Men and a Prayer anything other than a minor John Ford film would be ridiculous. But it’s a wildly enjoyable minor Ford work, loaded with all manner of Ford touches, and one truly disturbing sequence that seems to come out of nowhere. At bottom it’s a comedy-adventure-mystery that seems to have been cooked up as a vehicle for Loretta Young and to promote newcomer Richard Greene. The story is largely nonsensical — despite supposedly having been worked on by William Faulkner — and sometimes dubiously constructed. (Early on Young has Cecil Cunningham — doing her usual world-weary shtick — as a traveling companion, but she suddenly disappears without explanation once the film hits Buenos Aires.)
The whole yarn is about four sons — Greene, David Niven, George Sanders, William Henry (apparently cast because he looks good without his shirt on) — out to prove that their father (C. Aubrey Smith) was wrongly discharged from the British army and was murdered and not a suicide. This undertaking — every step of which also involves Loretta Young traipsing around after Richard Greene — takes the film and us to India, South America, and Alexandria. It also drags us into an Irish barroom brawl (it’s Ford, after all) in India, a South American revolution, illegal gun rackets, and two instances of Ford poking fun at conventions of the mystery genre (including a “the name of the murderer is” moment).
It’s fast, it’s amusing, it’s pretty preposterous (see Loretta Young in an evening gown in a revolution). And where — apart from the beefcake and the Irish bar brawl — is Ford in all this? Well, he’s in every masterful composition, for one thing. This is as accomplished technically as any of Ford’s personal projects. Just check out the carefully composed images. Look at the attention to detail — the lighting and the “Dutch angles” — in shots of telephone operators Is it a negligible movie? Probably, but it’s a lot of fun — and worth a look as an example of a great filmmaker putting a personal spin on what is essentially a studio assignment.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Four Men and a Prayer Tuesday, Aug. 19, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.