The Quiet Man is the sequel to an imaginary film noir: the movie that details John Wayne’s life as a boxer in America prior to his return to Ireland. It’s one of the great imaginary movies that exists only in the mind of the audience, up there with Odile and Franz’s silent adventures in South America.
Bits of this phantom film sneak through—in the way Wayne lights and smokes his cigarettes, or the way he grabs Maureen O’Hara by the hair and kisses her. These are desperate actions, at odds with Wayne’s screen persona. We even get a glimpse of this film—the flashback sequence, which breaks with Ford’s visual style for give us a few minutes of stunning color noir, all alienating close-ups, sweaty brows and vague signifiers (we see a doctor’s briefcase, but never a doctor). Wayne looks stunning uneasy in this scene; it’s as if he’s realized that he’s in the wrong film, and therefore escapes somewhere where he feels more at home: a John Ford picture.
There’s a big difference between most noir--or in this case, color noir, a genre in an of itself--and Ford. Chiefly, there’s distance, the sense of space that places several characters into a frame when a noir film would linger on the face of one; this distance, by allowing us to examine the characters surroundings while they carry out their actions, or to see other characters’ reactions, allows us to analyze them. There is no urgency, no desperation here—instead, we can always see alternate solutions. The camera, after all, can make us aware of details we wouldn’t normally notice just as well as it can make us single-minded, unaware of the subject’s surroundings. In medium and wide shots, noir’s desperation would seem foolish—we would see a possibility, another course of action the characters, invariably trapped, don’t realize. The noir carryovers John Wayne brings in his baggage to The Quiet Man--his constantly abandoned cigarettes, the way he sulks in the shadows on his wedding night—are shot from a Fordian distance and seem awkward. Noir is a close-up without possibilities, while Ford is a medium shot, controlled but nonetheless giving us room to think; in noir, the story is a downward straight line, while in Ford it’s just one of many possible paths across an open field.