7.06.2010

The Outrage (1964)

Director: Martin Ritt

Rating: ** 1/2 spurs (out of four)

Martin Ritt's The Outrage is one of the more offbeat stabs Hollywood has taken at westernizing (both in the literal and the genre sense) a Kurosawa film. Like The Magnificent Seven (1960) before it, as well as the former's Italian contemporary, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the change of setting from feudal Japan to the Old West may seem at first glance to be the only difference in this almost scene-for-scene translation of the Japanese director's Rashomon. But Rashomon's focus on the perception of moral responsibility subtly shifts to a study of class hierarchy in this ambitious, more deliberately-paced, dreamlike western.

Just as Kurosawa begins his film with a downpour as a priest, woodcutter, and a con man gather for shelter under the desolate Rashomon Gate in Kyoto, The Outrage fades in on a lonely train depot virtually eroding under the dark, oppressive rain. A Preacher (pre-Trek William Shatner) voices his doubts about humanity aloud as a Prospector (Howard Da Silva) arrives to convince him not to leave town. A Confidence Man (Edward G. Robinson) rounds out the makeshift chorus, interrogating and allying himself with each man as they recount the event which pushed the Preacher to flee, the trial of Mexican bandido Carrasco (Paul Newman) for the rape of a young Wife (Claire Bloom) and the murder of her Husband (Laurence Harvey).


As in Rashomon, the same incident is revisited various times from the distinct perspectives of Carrasco, the Wife, and even the dead man by way of an Indian Medicine Man (Paul Fix) who claims to be channeling the late Husband. Kurosawa's version cast frequent collaborator Toshiro Mifune in the showy part of the bandit, who relates his version in a way which validates the murder as a dangerous duel in which he honorably prevailed over a noble samurai. The Outrage deviates from Rashomon in that Carrasco, a second-class Mexican outlaw, claims to have been intrigued by the sophisticated manner in which the Wife carries herself, with the added bonus being the embarrassment of the Southern aristocracy in the form of the foppish Husband. From the sex-starved Wife we learn that the reputation of Carrasco—fueled by the "Latin lover" racial stereotype—appeals to her romantic sensibilities, especially given her Husband's current economic circumstances. We learn through subsequent retellings of Carrasco's crime that the class struggle between the three participants is ultimately an empty exercise. As the differing accounts of the assault begin to converge, one posits that the Wife came from "poor white trash" beginnings while another offers that the Husband lost his fortune during the Civil War, motivating the couple's journey west.


Ritt attempts to reinforce the class distinction by pitting his own recurring alter ego, the earthier, Method-influenced Newman, against the more refined, classically trained Bloom and Harvey (even though he's an icier stiff here than usual). Newman and Ritt had just come off the critical zenith of their partnership only one year earlier with the success of one of my all-time favorite films, Hud. But the actor's casting as Carrasco in this, his fifth collaboration with Ritt, proves to be an insurmountable misfire. According to Rob Nixon, Newman had referred to the role as one of his favorites, no doubt due to it being an extremely atypical role for him; a very ethnic, very amoral villain. But despite the amount of time he spent researching Carrasco's Mexican accent, Newman's, shall we say, exuberant Method-style emoting married to the horrible, almost parodic dialect he inflicts on his fellow actors brings the whole movie down around him.


The dynamism Ritt sought is more strongly felt in the framing scenes involving Da Silva, Robinson, and Shatner, three stage-trained actors who approach acting from their extremely different respective disciplines of musical theater, summer stock, and Shakespearean classicism. Who would think that with the singularly idiosyncratic styles of each of these actors, it would be Newman who fouls it up?


William Shatner fares the best as the Preacher. If any of the characters fill the role of protagonist in this disquieting tale it is the Preacher. The disillusioned Preacher undergoes the most profound change, with the Prospector and the Con Man battling it out to convince him whether man has a greater capacity for good or evil. Shatner wisely suppresses his tendency towards flamboyant theatrics and lets the stormy setting reflect his passive character's inner turmoil. Perhaps in this film more than any other, one can see the nuance with which he can color a performance. Shatner modulates the Preacher's transformation to match the diminishing rain as it slowly starts letting up.


The great cinematographer James Wong Howe considered his black and white work in this dark, rainy, set to be particularly flawed. He opined that the backdrop looked phony in bright light. Erring on the side of darkness made the rain difficult to light, creating a compromised, muddled picture. Personally, I believe it is just a matter of the times catching up to the visionary Howe. Watching The Outrage on a DVD released just last year, one sees subtle variations within the black on black picture which create an eerie atmosphere that heightens the depiction of the train depot as a near-supernatural limbo. In my mind, the artificial backdrop only enhances this surreal quality.


Often, the hallucinogenic sound mix by Larry Jost appropriately replicates the sensation of memory by omitting all ambient sound except for a single specific one in each retelling of the central incident. Sometimes, one only hears a flock of birds taking flight. Other times, the running of a small spring is all one hears.


Ultimately, the aesthetic tension forged out of such disparate elements—the otherworldly mood created by the strange soundscape, the spare use of legendary composer Alex North's score, the off-kilter worm's eye angles of Howe's photography, and Ritt's Method-inflected direction of the cast—elevates The Outrage beyond the usual failed remakes.

[This is a contribution to Shatnerthon: The William Shatner Blogathon currently running at She Blogged by Night from July 5th through the 9th.]
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Tony Dayoub considers all manner of films and TV at Cinema Viewfinder.

4.24.2010

Quick Thoughts on John Hillcoat's The Proposition


John Hillcoat’s down under western The Proposition shares a lot in common with the novels of Cormac McCarthy. Both artists are interested in the stark, uncompromising – almost primitive – way violence affects their characters (and their viewers/readers); both artists are interested in placing this violence in the realm of the western; and both of these artists succeed at taking a genre that is wholly American – traditionally easily digestible and altogether satisfying because of the tidiness the genre lends itself to – and turning it into something more existential and ambiguous. It’s no wonder Hillcoat went on to make McCarthy’s The Road in 2009, because watching The Proposition one cannot help but think of not just the brusque violence found in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or The Crossing, but the mood of McCarthy is evident here, too. The Proposition is a film that deserves mention next to McCarthy’s novels as that kind of film that can evoke what the great American author so often accomplishes (especially with “The Border Trilogy”): a kind of assaying of violence in the west as seen through a mythological lens.

The Proposition’s violence is juxtaposed with the beautiful and vast Australian backdrop (almost too big for cinematographer Benoit Delhomme’s camera) and the punk-country western music by Nick Cave (who also wrote the screenplay) fits in perfectly with the kind of anarchistic and unpredictable nature of the violence and the kind of spirit the film emits. The cast is superb here as Guy Pierce and Danny Houston have never been better, and the always reliable vest Emily Watson and Ray Winstone really make the final moments of horror palpable. The film is beautiful to look at (except for when that beauty is interrupted, and sometime splattered, with the film’s austere violence); the music, especially that haunting opening song, is appropriate in evoking the appropriate mood of this alien western; the performances are all top notch; and most amazing is Hillcoat’s ability to take the western genre, make it violent and brutal, and turn it into an experience that is akin to reading a McCarthy novel. That is about the highest praise I think one can bestow on this film.

[This review is cross-posted at my blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies.]

3.24.2010

Junior Bonner (1972)

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Rating: *** 1/2 spurs (out of four)



This post is part of the Steve McQueen blog-a-thon going on over at Jason Bellamy's wonderful blog The Cooler


"I'm workin on my first million. You're still workin on 8 seconds."

This line spoken by Curly (Joe Don Baker) Bonner to his brother Junior (Steve McQueen) gets to the heart of Sam Peckinpah's elegiac western.  This bit of harsh insight comes after Junior, an aging rodeo star, says he can't accept Curly's, an opportunistic entrepreneur looking to exploit the nostalgic charms of the Old west in an emerging culture, job offer because he has to walk down his own road. But what does that road look like for an aging rodeo star in a world that is clearly passing him by?  That is the central question surrounding Junior Bonner, Peckinpah's misunderstood western.

The film's opening credits gives us the context of the rough and roughed up rodeo star as Junior tapes up his ribs, gets thrown from bulls, and looks haggard; all shown in the typical Peckinpah aesthetic: push ins, panels, slow motion, zooms, and split screen.  It's a collection of Junior's memories spliced up on the screen, and it's quite effective because thankfully after the opening onslaught of very 70's editing techniques Peckinpah slows tings down in order to tell his story about Junior returning to his home in Prescott, Arizona only to find that his brother his selling their father's (Robert Preston) land, and that their mother (Ida Lupino) has separated from their father and is accepting what Curly is doing with the Bonner legacy; all leading to Junior wondering what in the hell is happening to the Old West he knew.

The film itself is an interesting mix of old and new as the film is clearly interested in feeling like an old western with the ideas of the new westerns that were being released at the time (rodeo movies were popular in the early 70's), but Peckinpah still throws in elements of old westerns like an exciting -- if ultimately gratuitous -- bar fight. This scene shows how good the acting in the movie is as McQueen (who still dancers with the girl he's had his eye on, even during the fight, acting really freaking cool in the process) and Robert Preston and Ida Lupino add an unexpected tenderness to the film as the estranged husband and wife briefly reconcile.


McQueen exudes cool throughout the film as Bonner (sunglasses and a cowboy hat have never looked so good on someone), a man who has spent his best years on the rodeo circuit, immersed in the ways of the Old West, but now that he has returned home he sees modernism and the counter culture of America in the 70's starting to creep into his home. He's a dying breed, and much like the way Faulkner wrote about Modernism penetrating the old South in "The Bear", so too does Peckinpah seem enamored with this theme of things never being the same. And thankfully Peckinpah's style from the beginning of the film doesn't continue, because it would feel too obtrusive, as he appropriately slows things down to tell the same story that Faulkner did about the myth and traditions of an old way of life dying, and the commercialization and the new Capitalistic America infiltrating the area that Bonner holds so dear.

Peckinpah always had an uncanny way of elegizing the West and in one of Junior Bonner's best scenes father and son go for a joyous horse ride through town. Only Peckinpah shows the trouble of such a ride in a modern town as the scene is juxtaposed nicely with cars and floats driving up and down the streets for the parade, and their ride coming to an abrupt end as they ride through backyards and get knocked off the horse by a clothesline. A woman screams "get that horse off my lawn!" Clearly this is not the Old West, and it's not even really the New West as even that is slowly devolving as you can see the counter culture of America start to seep its way into these small, dusty towns where the Junior Bonner's of the world (or Sam Peckinpah's) become obsolete.

There's a telling motif in Bonner as Junior is shown often driving with his horse in tow in a trailer attached to his car...he doesn't ride his horse anywhere anymore because it seems as though there aren't any places anymore for such an exercise. The same could be said about the Western genre in the 70's; it was dying, and people were more interested realistic portrayals that mirrored their frustrations with the Vietnam war. The mythology of the West was dead as a more gritty, and realistic genre of film was about to become popularized in American cinema (films like Mean Streets, The Deer Hunter, and The Exorcist just to name a few).


It's too bad that this smaller scale, less kinetic and more familial western didn't garner Peckinpah the esteem he deserve for it. It's his prestige picture and audiences weren't wanting it because of the glut of rodeo pictures at the time and the fact that the audience was promised a typical McQueen action film. It also didn't help that Peckinpah was being pegged as a "violent" director with his famous The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs being released prior to Junior Bonner; so, expectations sank the film as it was the last time that Peckinpah would attempt to make a dramatic western in the vein of his previous The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The lack of success stung Peckinpah as he was frustrated that no one went to see his movie in which nobody gets shot. So it's no surprise that after Bonner, McQueen and Peckinpah both returned to what they were best known for when they made The Getaway together. It would be both legends' most successful film. However whenever I think of McQueen's brief collaboration with Peckinpah my mind always goes to this somewhat forgotten western masterpiece which I think is one of McQueen's best performances, and it's certainly Peckinpah's most underrated film.

3.21.2010

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Director: Nicholas Ray

Rating: *** 1/2 spurs (out of four)

To say that Johnny Guitar is simply a western is to ignore its quite substantial and not overly implicit meaning. Indeed much of what is going on in Nicholas Ray's film is happening underneath its shallow— and by this, I don't mean banal—surface. But to read Bosley Crowther's New York Times review of May 28, 1954, one would expect this film to be just another horse opera, and a rather weak one at that.

...Joan Crawford plays essentially the role that Van Heflin played in Shane...The only big difference in the character, as plainly rewritten for her, is that now it falls in love with the ex-gunfighter, whom Sterling Hayden here plays.

But this condescension to Miss Crawford and her technically recognized sex does nothing more for the picture than give it some academic aspects of romance. No more femininity comes from her than from the rugged Mr. Heflin in Shane. For the lady, as usual, is as sexless as the lions on the public library steps and as sharp and romantically forbidding as a package of unwrapped razor blades.

Ouch, I think I cut myself with one of Crowther's metaphorical shavers.


True, on the surface this looks like your typical western about a saloon owner, Crawford's Vienna, refusing to sell her establishment as she holds out for the imminent arrival of the railroad from which she hopes to get a considerable offer for her land. Mercedes McCambridge plays Emma, the greedy cattle empress in love with the crooked Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), whose jealousy over Vienna being the recipient of his affections fuels her desire to destroy her, the saloon, and the railroad's plans for the area. Even Hayden as the titular hero ex-lover come to save Vienna plays second fiddle to the more clearly defined rivalry between the two formidable women. If there is a twist to the humdrum plot, even Crowther acknowledges it is simply one involving gender role reversal, with Crawford and McCambridge getting the lion's share of the screen time and power to move the narrative with the hapless Johnny and the Kid doing much more of the reacting.

So why then does Crowther, often critical of the red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee and the effect it had on Hollywood, miss the more significant subversive machinations of Ray's western? Forget the more covert elements in a film where the colorfully attired "bad" guys like the left-handed Kid and his crew represent the communists against the more sedately dressed, conformist mob led by Ward Bond (an avowed conservative in real life) and McCambridge. As Danny Peary takes pains to catalogue in his Guide for the Film Fanatic,

Every character represents a political faction ...Vienna is a fellow traveler, progressive, who is pushed to side with the "communists"—in an underground passage she puts on a red shirt; Emma is presented as a witch (dressed in black), the head of the witch-hunt, who uses fear and power to destroy the careers of rivals. Since Vienna, who has been in the area five years, is a "foreigner" (notice her name), she is an easy target. Appealing to the cattlemen's warped Americanism, Emma implies Vienna wants the railroad because it will destroy their way of life.

In the film's most explicit parallel, the furious Emma, having whipped the posse that follows her into a lynch mob-frenzy, pushes a captive follower of the Kid's to falsely give Vienna up as an accomplice in much the same way people called before HUAC were ordered to "name names." Even the eponymous Johnny Guitar, now strictly a musician (or entertainer, wink-wink), was formerly known as Johnny Logan, erstwhile outlaw/communist back to help his ex-flame. Actor Hayden, an entertainer himself associated with the Communist Party, did name names to HUAC to preserve his career, an act he would later regret as cowardly.


Crowther is caught flatfooted in his easy dismissal of the film. Hayden, the leftist Ray, and screenwriter Philip Yordan, who often fronted for blacklisted writers according to J. Hoberman, all frolic on the fringes of a film Ray would later disdain because Crawford hijacked it to make a "woman's picture" focused on herself. But Johnny Guitar, only his second color film, is a key work in Ray's career—ostensibly just a western—boldly asserting the director's mastery over the image, its composition, and its portentous use of color to tell a story roiling with allegorical affinities just beneath its ordinary surface.
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Tony Dayoub considers all manner of films and TV at Cinema Viewfinder.

1.21.2010

For a Few Dollars More

Director: Sergio Leone

Rating: *** 1/2 (out of four)

For a Few Dollars More is the second film in Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name" trilogy, his spaghetti Western cycle starring Clint Eastwood. In each of these films — the trilogy is bookended by Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Eastwood doesn't actually play an unnamed character, but three different more-or-less anonymous drifters, mercenaries and bounty hunters. He might have a name (in this film it's Manco) but he doesn't seem to have a past or a sense of place. He simply wanders through forbidding desert landscapes in his distinctive poncho and cowboy hat, with a cigarette clenched between his gritted teeth. He's fast on the draw, laconic, and has a strong sense of morality and right. He is, in other words, the archetype of the Western hero, and the power of Leone's films comes from the way he riffs on these familiar tropes, mythologizing and stylizing the Western gunfighter into a truly outsized figure. He takes a cultural icon that had already permeated popular mythology, and amplifies it into something operatic.

A large portion of the credit for this achievement must of course be shared with Leone's collaborators, notably Eastwood and composer Ennio Morricone, who provided the famous music for all three films and many of Leone's other works. Morricone's music defines the spaghetti Western: his distinctive twangy compositions, collaging together traditional Western motifs with sweeping orchestral strings, dramatic vocals, and goofy sound effects, are instantly recognizable and synonymous with Leone's cinema. And Eastwood, of course, was in the early stages of defining the tough guy persona that would become his career trademark. He carries over the same props and costume from film to film, always smoking the same cigarettes and wearing the same poncho. It's an unconventional garment for a gunslinger, and one that gives Eastwood a kind of grandeur to his movements. When he knows he's going to need his gun, he simply tosses the poncho up across his shoulder, exposing the holster at his hip. Leone seems especially attuned to details like this. The way a man wears his gun, the way he smokes a cigarette, the way he draws and fires, says everything about him. In this film, he emphasizes the way the vicious outlaw El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté) smokes in a strange way, the cigarette held between his middle and ring fingers, his whole hand placed across his mouth to smoke as though he was trying to mute himself. Eastwood, meanwhile, lights his smokes with the match elegantly cupped inside his hand, so that he seems to be lighting the cigarette, unseen, on his palm. When Eastwood describes the way another bounty hunter wears his gun, an old man instantly knows who he's talking about, because such things are signifiers of identity in this world.


This attention to detail extends to the three-part introduction, following Leone's favored method for introducing and contrasting his central characters; it's a technique he'd use again for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where even the title indicates Leone's preference for dealing with his characters as sets of opposing traits. The opening two sequences follow first the bounty hunter Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) and then Manco as they each track and kill a target for pay. The differences in their methods, in the flourishes of their technique, highlight the differences between the characters; for Leone, style is character. Mortimer is calm and steady, slow-moving and graceful. He follows a fleeing bandit without getting ruffled by the man's evasions and attacks, and finally unfurls a blanket full of rifles so he can calmly unseat the man from his horse from a great distance. Then, as the criminal wildly fires his pistol, hitting only the dirt at Mortimer's feet, the bounty hunter carefully assembles his own pistol, with a rifle stock attachment so he can steady his aim on his shoulder. He takes his time, sets up his shot, and dispatches the outlaw with a single shot right between the eyes. Manco, in contrast, is more spontaneous and also has a component of moral engagement in his hunting. He finds his target and then engages the man in an impromptu card game, a game of chance that, though his target never suspects it, has the man's life as its stakes. Manco wins and tells the man that he's lost his life, and in the resulting fight he uses his lightning-fast draw to dispatch both his target and three other outlaws. As he's leaving town, he then takes the opportunity to castigate and expose the corrupt local sheriff.

The impression is that, while Mortimer is a cool professional just doing a job, Manco is a raw moral force, relying on his inherent superiority — both morally and in terms of skill — to get him through everything. To some extent, the remainder of the film will complicate this relationship and stand it on its head. In the end, Mortimer has more of a personal, vengeful stake in the hunting of the bank robber El Indio, who is revealed in flashbacks to have raped Mortimer's sister and led to her eventual death. Both Mortimer and El Indio carry watches with pictures of this woman inside, making them mirror images, each haunted by what happened to her — Mortimer because she was his beloved relative, El Indio because, as Leone eventually reveals, the woman killed herself rather than letting him take her, an insult which devastates the proud bandit.


El Indio is the third point of this triangle, and the third man introduced in the opening sequences. He is shown being broken out of jail by his gang, killing his cellmate and heading off to a hideout that's set up and presented like a church. At one point, Indio steps up into an elevated area that's an analogue for the lectern, and gives his men a speech about their next job; Leone inserts a shot of the space's high, V-shaped rafters, which cause the outlaws' words to reverberate magnificently. This religious satire is a consistent undercurrent in the film. The first shot after the opening credits is a closeup of a gold-embossed Bible being read by an unseen man on a train, who everyone assumes is a reverend. But as soon as he lowers the book, revealing the chiseled, hardened face of Lee Van Cleef, his eyes squinting coolly, there's no doubt that he is not a man of God. It's a subtle joke about appearances and surfaces: Mortimer may be reading the Bible, but one look at him is enough to suggest that he is actually a killer, a hard man who's seen much bloodshed in his life, that he couldn't be any holy man. Appearances mean everything here, which is why Leone focuses so intently on the iconography of the Western, the gestures and accoutrements.

In fact, at times the film seems to be nothing but gestures. The plot is simple: a dangerous bandit has escaped from prison, with a massive reward offered for his capture, dead or alive, and two bounty hunters set off after him, sometimes competing and sometimes agreeing to work together as partners. Within this minimal framework, Leone riffs on the mechanics of the shootout, the showdown, the stylized rituals by which rugged Western men test their mettle against one another. When Manco and Mortimer first meet, they engage in a playful duel, with an undercurrent of danger, by shooting at one another's hats. It's a process of sizing up the other man, testing his nerves, testing his skill. If they were not assumed to be equals, there would be an element of humiliation in it when Manco shoots Mortimer's hat off his head and then shoots it away whenever the older man stoops to pick it up. But Mortimer maintains his even-keeled demeanor and then shows up his adversary with his own showy gunplay, and Leone cuts away to them sharing a drink together, professionals with a healthy competitive respect developing between them. The other major gunfights in the film are staged as showdowns where Leone cuts precisely between closeups, watching the men's eyes and faces, watching their hands poised above their gun butts, watching them prepare, internally, for the violence to come. The actual bloodshed is swift and over in a moment. It's the build-up, the accumulating tension, always set to Morricone's grand music, that Leone is concerned with.

This tension builds throughout this sprawling, patiently paced film, which packs in a lot of action — including an explosive bank robbery — but never seems to be moving at a truly frenetic pace. Instead, Leone seems to be steadily building up towards the grand climax, the showdown between Mortimer and Indio, with Manco standing by as a kind of referee to make sure the fight goes smoothly. This is another rehearsal for the threeway shootout that caps The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, another of Leone's moral climaxes.

[This review is cross-posted at my blog Only The Cinema.]

1.06.2010

El Dorado (1966)

Director: Howard Hawks

Rating: **** (out of four)

El Dorado is a sneaky kind of movie, in terms of narrative. It starts out like it's got purpose, a strong forward drive the likes of which hadn't been seen anywhere near Howard Hawks' increasingly languid cinema in years. It sets up, quickly and economically, a rivalry over water rights between kindly farmer Kevin MacDonald (R.G. Armstrong) and the nasty Bart Jason (Edward Asner). Stuck in the middle of this conflict are two old friends, the town sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) and his older mentor Cole Thornton (John Wayne), who came into town as a hired gun for Jason until he realized what was going on. The film's opening section establishes a tense situation, a classic Western pressure cooker, and when Cole accidentally kills one of MacDonald's sons and then himself gets shot in revenge by the clan's feisty daughter Joey (Michele Carey), things look to be really heating up. Hawks, of course, takes the opportunity to insert the first of the film's radical ellipses, shifting away from the action and leaping forward, in a few quick scenes, several months into the future, with Cole now safely away from the town of El Dorado. It's almost a panicked reaction, as though Hawks was afraid he was getting to the climax too fast. The rest of the film pretty much meanders, slowly but surely, back towards the tension of those opening scenes.

A funny thing happens along the way, too, as not only does Hawks take his time getting back to the center of the action, but he begins morphing the film into a virtual remake of his previous John Wayne Western, Rio Bravo. This predecessor is already hinted at in the film's opening minutes, with a shot of Cole walking along a street that runs diagonally across the frame, a composition that recurred throughout Rio Bravo as Wayne's John T. Chance patrolled his town. By inserting the shot here, into the opening's series of establishing shots, Hawks hints at his eagerness to revisit his earlier success. The joke goes that Hawks liked Rio Bravo so much he made it twice more, with El Dorado and its successor Rio Lobo, and at times it virtually is a joke. One can sense Hawks and Wayne and company chuckling at getting away with remaking their own picture just seven years later, and the way the plot begins to fall in line with its ancestor is decidedly tongue-in-cheek. The result is another light, low-key charmer of a Western from Hawks, an amalgam of everything that made his previous efforts in the genre so much fun; there's even a visual reference to the cattle drive from Red River, this time with a herd of horses filling the screen. Once Cole makes his way back to El Dorado, the film's mirroring of Rio Bravo becomes more and more complete, as various pieces fall into place. It seems that during one of the narrative ellipses, Mitchum's J.P. got his story crossed up with Rio Bravo's Dean Martin character: a no-good girl whirled into town, seduced him and broke his heart, leaving him a useless drunkard and the town laughingstock.


Naturally, this leaves him singularly unable to deal with the MacDonald/Jason rivalry, which is just now reaching a head as Jason hires the ace gunman Nelse McLeod (Christopher George). Mitchum is arguably a perfect choice for the drunk sheriff, the formerly noble and strong-willed lawman brought low by a bad woman. With his sleepy eyes and hunched posture, he stumbles around, grasping his stomach, slumped over, slamming into things. His performance is both more harrowing than Martin's, and also somehow more broadly comic, even cartoony, channeling the same pop-eyed lunacy he brought to his homicidal preacher in Night of the Hunter. At one point, when Cole hits him over the head with a metal pan, J.P. freezes stiffly, his eyes wide, looking like one of Bugs Bunny's frazzled opponents. There's nothing here as iconic as Martin's scrambling for a coin thrown into a spittoon, but Mitchum's performance is complex and multilayered, heartrending and hilarious in roughly equal measures.

The film is packed with such bravura performances, which is good because even more than Rio Bravo itself this is a true hangout movie, a movie about dialogue, about the easygoing exchange of barbed witticisms. Filling out the cast of Rio Bravo analogues are Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brennan cranky old man role), Mississippi (James Caan standing in for Ricky Nelson's cocky young fighter) and Maudie (Charlene Holt replacing Angie Dickinson). The cast may be different, but the dynamics are startlingly familiar, so the pleasures here are in seeing how Hawks and company weave variations on the formula they'd established. Certainly, Mississippi gets a great introduction, stepping into a bar and announcing to an older gunfighter that he's after revenge for his dead friend. It turns out, he's a knife-fighter rather than a gunfighter, a Wild West anomaly, further set apart by his goofy hat and his general naïveté. He provides much of the film's comic relief, along with Hunnicutt's Bull, who often communicates through his trumpet. As for Holt, she had previously been great in small roles for Hawks' middling Man's Favorite Sport? and Red Line 7000, an electrifying and sexy presence on the fringes of those films, and here she finally gets a good showcase in an actual peak Hawks production. Her banter with Wayne is typically awkward, marked by the stop/start rhythms that reveal the aging tough guy's discomfort with romance and emotional expression. It's a virtual repeat of the hesitant Wayne/Dickinson chemistry, though Holt doesn't get quite as much to do, beyond memorably reprising Dickinson's va-va-voom lingerie modeling scenes.

These kinds of mirrors recur throughout the film, and part of the fun is waiting to see when Hawks (with screenwriter Leigh Brackett) is going to stick to the script, and when he's going to shake things up. Again and again, he riffs subtle variations on Rio Bravo's key scenes, like the one where Cole and J.P. track a killer to a saloon full of hostile gunmen. Here, instead of hiding in the rafters and revealing himself with blood dripping into a beer glass, the killer is behind a piano and reveals his presence through the nervous piano player's wrong notes. Elsewhere, Hawks stages a great gunfight at a church, where the bullets pinging off the bells not only provide a deafening soundtrack to the scene, but contribute to the strategy of the battle. The film is packed with great moments like this, scenes where Hawks' careful, deliberate staging turns every cut, every movement, into something graceful and purposeful, whether he's shooting an action climax or a simple dialogue exchange. The dialogue is fantastic too, especially since the amazing ensemble cast does such justice to that characteristic Hawks looseness, and to Brackett's witty writing. The recurring gags, like J.P.'s absentmindedness about just who Mississippi is, are as good as Rio Bravo's best running gags (and Walter Brennan's crankiness about always being told to stay in the back of the jail is given a nod here in the form of a similar brief scene with Hunnicutt).


The crackling dialogue also asserts itself in the film's emphasis on storytelling over action; the characters spend a lot of time talking, telling tales, rather than doing anything. Mississippi's vengeful showdown is paced by his languidly meted out story about his dead friend and his mission of catching up with the men who killed him. Then McLeod tells Cole a story about a drunk sheriff and a no-good woman, not realizing that 1) he's talking about Cole's friend; and 2) he's retelling the story behind Rio Bravo. One of the funniest of these stories is a brief interlude with a Swedish gunsmith, who tells the tragicomic tale of the nearly blind gunman who previously owned Mississippi's shotgun. Later, Maudie tells J.P. about her long friendship with Cole, and her great debt to him, and we realize that she's another Rio Bravo echo, beyond her faint resemblance to Angie Dickinson and her sexually suggestive wit (best showcased in some hilarious dialogue about a "bouncing" bed). Like Dickinson's Feathers, Maudie is also a gambling widow; she's just further along in her relationship with Wayne's character when we meet her. Indeed, her character's familiarity allows Hawks the freedom to omit key scenes, like the late reconciliation between her and Cole, which takes place offscreen, relying on the memory of Rio Bravo's Wayne/Dickinson showdown over the girl's skimpy performing outfit.

Ultimately, what's great about El Dorado is how Hawks and his cast take what should have been an utter throwaway project, a shameless retread of a relatively recent film, and turn it into something special of its own. It's a roughshod film, casually skipping over long periods of time with inexplicable edits — and sloppy editing is also responsible for the one sight gag that just plain doesn't work, a lamely executed stunt that's supposed to show James Caan leaping under a charging horse's hooves. Somehow, though, these elliptical narrative shenanigans only add to the film's indelible charm. This is especially apparent in the ending, when after the final showdown Hawks jumps ahead a small amount of time to show J.P. and Cole patrolling the town together, both injured, both limping with crutches, bickering and laughing. It's a wonderful moment, these two crotchety gunmen propped up on crutches, patrolling the town: it's absurd, strangely touching, and funny all at once, just like the film as a whole.

[This review is cross-posted at my blog Only The Cinema.]

11.12.2009

The Limits of Control (2009)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rating: *** spurs (out of four)

Quentin Tarantino, as part of a veritable orgasm of hornswoggling to accompany his latest cinematic venture, pronounced Inglourious Basterds a "spaghetti western" to the press. The inside jokeyness of the claim aside, I confess that I fail to recognize much of the elan of Leone (or others) in that challenging, exhilarating mess of a film; but his reckless genre-izing raises piquant questions about setting, soul, and simulation. Without belaboring worthless distinctions between form and content (or that third nebulous artistic aspect, "style"), we might leap-frog to the point that trimming one's film with flourishes reminiscent of a particular cinematic tradition is not necessarily the same as contributing to that cinematic tradition. Angularly aping the vernacular of the old west, emphasizing sweltering masculine clichés, and employing an episodic, slow-burn plot with dribbles of violence occasionally over boiling apparently does not add up to a western-minded film (let's be generous and at least say that at intervals IB is a film ABOUT western films): What then, does?

Jim Jarmusch is just as fecklessly allusive and genre-bending -- explain the plot of Ghost Dog to anyone and it's likely to seem a poor excuse for mis-matched archetypes. Similarly, that film explored its roots in the least subtle manner thinkable, with the protagonist a fan of Rashomon's source material. And yet Jarmusch's references are the direct opposite of Tarantino's name-dropping, though the latter can at first appear more satisfying in its fleetingness and coiled passion. Just as the destiny of the young girl in Ghost Dog is definitively shaped by a ratty paperback serving as a cheeky, existentialist movie connection, so Jarmusch's characters (especially those in Ghost Dog, Dead Man, Night on Earth and Down by Law) actively learn from their antecedents in profound ways -- to the point that Jarmusch's cinema seems at times to be an incisive, ongoing conversation with its predecessors. Tarantino's, on the other hand, is a tremendously popular clearinghouse of worthless film ephemera.

The Limits of Control is the not the first film by Jarmusch I do not love dearly (that distinction goes to the subpar but still perfectly adequate Broken Flowers), but it's the first film of his to startle me with its lack of candor. It's not that his other movies aren't complex, but one can be honest and sneaky simultaneously, and Jarmusch always struck me as a champion of that filmic voice (just as JD Salinger was in print, especially in his short fiction -- those dreadful camp letters from Seymour Glass!), adept at pinning useful emotions to his lapel while keeping quieter themes with more longevity close to the vest. LoC is an insidiously recondite hodgepodge of tropes, types, and twists (the best: the trade of an antiquarian Spanish guitar is brilliantly used as a MacGuffin, the only purpose of which is to foreshadow the murderous denouement with a creatively-used, tautly pulled low E string), following a sophisticatedly sable Man With No Name (Isaach De Bankolé) as he tediously carries out unexplained steps towards a vague assassinary objective in the Spanish (I think?) countryside. Out of Jarmusch's oeuvre it most closely resembles Coffee and Cigarettes in the sense that it amounts to, in the end, a series of bewildering conversations -- in this case between the (possible) hit man and other operatives who feed him instructions via hand-written ciphers delivered in classy matchboxes.

As my editor Ed Gonzalez astutely puts it, the film "[resembles] what a David Lynch film no doubt looks like to people who don't actually like David Lynch films," though to someone familiar with both directors the distinctions are enormous. Lynch has become something of a peddler of unsolvable puzzles -- perhaps coincidentally like the koans one can use to clear the mind while meditating, a practice Lynch actively engages in -- of electric images bewilderingly branching out in to the great, dendritic unknown. Jarmusch, on the other hand, excels at portraits comprised of film grammar divorced from any greater narrative meaning -- eg, the pop culture quotation of "Danger, Will Robinson" as evidence of a character's clunkingly mechanical fatalism (which in turn amounts to jack squat -- but again, we've emotionally acknowledged the reference in a way we don't with Tarantino). Perhaps he's unintentionally chasing the dragon of purely reflexive cinema as Altman (The Long Goodbye, especially Quintet) did, and admittedly Tarantino as well with less successful results (Kill Bill).

And much in the sense that Jarmusch's film Stranger than Paradise was structured around non-encounters and non-events that ordinarily would only be implied at the periphery of a typical story, LoC is collection of cinematic mannerisms (a nude girl with a gun, a peculiarly anal method of drinking espresso, an old man who won't shut up and a woman in tantalizingly obscure trouble) without any sort of expository foundation. It's one of the best examples I've seen of what we might call "swinging trap door" cinema -- rather than "releasing" the plot at the proper time for dramatic effect, the film simply operates as though the bottom had already been dropped out from under it, and the narrative's neck had been snapped and stilled long before the audience even arrived.

This gallows metaphor is a fine enough transition to my final point, namely that if LoC is an incoherent assembly of filmic gestures, they are almost certainly western ones -- and the film's rewards via this interpretation are not insignificant. There's no disputing the occasional noir-isms -- especially Paz de la Huerta's pouting, supple bottom -- but their implementation is far more akin to the western milieu. (It's worth noting that de al Huerta's seduction of the Man With No Name fails, if it is seduction, and that they spend impotent nights curled up on hotel cots with the former's hand gripping the latter's uncomfortable thigh with restless inanimation.) The most successful westerns are counterintuitively derived from unacknowledged emotions and seething (often masculine) vulnerabilities -- these elements are not foreign to noir, certainly, but in noir they're often parsed as an inability to act (The Crimson Kimono, Ace in the Hole) rather than as an inability to feel. Decision at Sundown, the most psychologically penetrating of the Ranown series, limns a protagonist unable to cope with his estranged wife's infidelity; even more so than with the discovery of Ethan Edwards' unholy, incestuous determination, our realization of Randolph Scott's character's culpability and projections of violence are deeply affecting. And while individuals in noir often wheedle and misrepresent, in the western world facts are made to be distorted beyond recognition and salvation, very probably because motives are more crucial (see how quickly a raucous act of sexual violence expands in ugliness as it travels the countryside by hearsay in Unforgiven, and how few people care).

What Jarmusch has slyly constructed in LoC is a universe without facts, without details, and without (for the most part) the visceral punch that makes a Fuller or a Mann or a Peckinpah shuffle along with grace. What's left is a tone poem not at all like the "white on white" painting that the Man With No Name observes in a Spanish gallery -- it is, rather, a collection of blocky colors with bleeding juxtapositions not unlike a Rothko or a John Ford tequila sunset. One such hue is John Hurt's whiskered vagrant, scraggily clearing his throat like he desperately needs a cerveza. Another is the wide shot with which Jarmusch frames the Man With No Name sauntering down the street with a guitar case in one hand (remember, with a smile, Desperado?) and a leather duffle in the other. A third is an impenetrable fortress much like that of El Jefe's, and the Man With No Name is able to freely enter for the same reason as Warren Oates' Bennie. He holds something of monstrous value: A putrid objective correlative for male weakness and, naturally, the limits of a man's control over his sexual sensitivities.

11.11.2009

The Last Command (1955)

Director: Frank Lloyd

Rating: *** Spurs (out of four)

There is no way to describe The Last Command except as earnest in its inaccuracy. Still, this 1955 western, unavailable on DVD, is likely the most accurate and best depiction of the Battle of the Alamo as seen through the eyes of one of its heroes, Jim Bowie. In fact, the film begins with the song "Jim Bowie," lyrics by Sydney Clare ("On the Good Ship Lollipop") and music composed by the great Max Steiner. The Austrian Steiner was Warner Brothers go-to composer in the early days, responsible for the famous themes for Gone With the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1942) among others (by the time he composed the score for this Republic film he was working freelance). As sung by Gordon MacRae—the very same year he hit his career peak in the movie Oklahoma!—"Jim Bowie" immediately sets the reverential tone for the picture.


Good thing it's the stolid Sterling Hayden playing Bowie. Hayden already had The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Johnny Guitar (1954) under his belt by the time The Last Command rolled around. His laconic dynamism keeps the character of Bowie both grounded and exciting, just a hair away from decking someone if he pushes Bowie the wrong way. And even if that quality is not easily discernible to his Texian compadres, Hayden's 6'5" frame lets you easily buy into why so many of the salty men in this story respect and choose to follow him despite his softspoken nature. That and his prowess with the eponymous Bowie knife he became known for.


Ernest Borgnine, having already gotten some notice for From Here to Eternity (1953), plays the half-crazy—and fictional—Mike Radin. Radin is representative of the kind of man who not only volunteered, but hoped to go to war with the despotic Mexican President Santa Ana (J. Carroll Naish). The Texas War of Independence attracted a mercenary lot, eager for an outlet for their aggression. Borgnine's Radin has one of the best action scenes in the film, his itchy need for violence pushing him to challenge Bowie to a knife fight... which he promptly loses. Bowie lets him live after severely injuring his right arm. Radin responds with a gruff, but simple, "You're a good man, Bowie." The next time Bowie sees Radin while on a scouting party against the Mexicans, the now stiff-armed Radin gives his allegiance to Bowie—shaking his hand with his left hand now—with an endearing, "Like I said before, you're a good man, Bowie."

Shot in Republic's proprietary Trucolor, the film had an atypically high budget for the studio. According to TCM, the genesis of the film lay with John Wayne. Wayne had expressed great interest in participating in a film about the Alamo. Indeed, years of research and a screenplay came together under Wayne's auspices. When Wayne couldn't come to an agreement with Republic head Herbert Yates on the ambitious budget the star desired—and after Wayne hesitated working again with Yates' wife, actress Vera Ralston, in the film (after a bad experience working with her in Dakota)—then the Duke walked and began mounting his own production, The Alamo (1960), an oversized epic (and flawed) version of the story. Yates put The Texas Legionnaires (as it was then known) into production right away. Wayne would never work on a Republic film again; Trucolor lost ground with the emergence of less expensive color film processing in 1957; and the studio division of Republic Pictures folded in 1959.


The Last Command is filled with some nice moments throughout. One fictional conceit of the film is that Santa Ana and Mexican citizen (this detail is true) Bowie are longtime friends before the battle puts them on opposite sides—Bowie having served under the General in an earlier campaign according to the backstory. This gives us a couple of nice scenes between Naish and Hayden before the battle begins where they trade the customary platitudes about it being too bad that war has come between them but neither would ever back down. Another bit of male bonding occurs after Hayden's Colonel Bowie clashes with Colonel Travis (Richard Carlson) over who will lead the volunteers in the standoff. They put the matter to a vote which Bowie wins, but he immediately offers Travis an equal part in the leadership, instantly winning Travis' respect. This ultimately makes the film's only graphic killing—a bullet in the forehead for Travis—all the more poignant.

Frank Lloyd (The Mutiny on the Bounty) directs in a manner both solid and understated. He lets the story unfold slowly, allowing for interesting character moments like the one Borgnine has later on, after the Mexicans have surrounded the Alamo. Borgnine's Radin stands guard at night before the fighting has begun, listening to the distant sound of the Mexicans singing, and turns to Bowie and says, "They sing real pretty, don't they?" The beautiful young Anna Maria Alberghetti is a distraction as a love interest, but one that's easy on the eyes to be sure. Arthur Honnicutt's crotchety performance as Davy Crockett (the part Wayne ends up playing in The Alamo) brings a touch of humor into the otherwise ardent proceedings. It's too bad he doesn't appear earlier than right before the battle starts midway into the film. And the cinematography by Jack Marta—who would go on to shoot cult TV fare like Batman and The Green Hornet in the sixties—takes full advantage of the generous (for Republic, at least) budget. The torchlit day-for-night scenes just before Bowie's ambush of a Mexican column are spectacular. You've rarely scene as many horses thunder across the screen as you do in the ambush scene, which leads up to a climactic explosion of a wagon filled with gunpowder.

The Last Command was Frank Lloyd's last film before he died in 1960. Hayden would go on to star for Stanley Kubrick in The Killing a year later. And Borgnine would win the Academy Award for one of his best known roles in a movie he would star in later in 1955, Marty.

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Tony Dayoub considers all manner of films and TV at Cinema Viewfinder.

9.10.2009

The Long Riders (1980)



Director:
Walter Hill

Rating: *1/2 (out of four)

How appropriate that fresh off a viewing of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds I sat down to watch Walter Hill’s The Long Riders. Two totally different movies made by two totally different filmmakers actually have one thing in common: they take their liberties with history. However, Tarantino does it in a way that fleshes out fictional characters while providing factual situations as a backdrop – filling in the peripheries of his altered take on WWII with historical figures. Hill just says “damn the torpedoes” and chucks the whole James-Younger gang mythology into the trash. Tarantino’s film compounds on history – using it as a spring board (and tweaking it along the way) for a more interesting film; Hill’s film demystifies the legend of the James-Younger gang by simply making a film of nothing by bullet points, rushing along through every scene until the viewer is left wondering “that’s it?” when the credits role. The only interesting thing about The Long Riders is how badly it fails.

The plot, which just kind of stumbles its way through necessary Western tropes, is a paradox: it’s brusquely boring. By that I mean each scene is filmed with an energy or sense of urgency to get to the next moment, but this fast pace is excruciating to get through because each short scene reveals less and less about the characters. We’re never allowed to really feel anything for these characters because Hill rushes them from scene to scene so quickly that it took me a while to get all of the characters straight in my head. Is Hill making the James-Younger gang out to be anti-heroes? Are they disillusioned Civil War vets who work on their issues by robbing banks? Hill isn’t interested in any kind of psychological explication, here, and it’s a shame, because he has a cast here that seems more than up to the task.

One of the biggest marketing aspects of the film was no doubt the casting of real life brothers in the film. You have the Carradine’s (Keith, Robert, David) playing the Younger Brothers; The Keache’s (James and Stacy, who also wrote the script) as Frank and Jesse James; and the Quaid’s (Randy and Dennis) as the Miller brothers. The acting is good across the board as David Carradine as Cole Younger really steals the show (Keith has a lot of fun in his role, too). However the casting of James Keache as Jesse James seems an odd choice as he just doesn’t have a western look about him. Stacy seems at home as Frank and the Quaid brothers have good supporting roles. It’s a mildly innovative aspect of the film having these sets of acting brothers play the real-life sets of brothers.



This seems to be where the innovative thought process ended for Hill, though. I get the feeling that the idea to cast these sets of brothers, and to have legendary Ry Cooder do the score, are the only good ones Hill had while making The Long Riders. The movie is a complete failure in editing as key action scenes are just confusing instead of exhilarating. Hill also gives nothing for his actors to do, and there are confusing moments where the first 30 minutes introduces us to the gang as we watch them rob a bank, talk with some lady friends when they get back to town, and then watch as Jesse gets married (the obligatory wedding/dance scene). We're never quite sure what the point was of the scene we just watched. The movie kind of moseys from scene to scene at the beginning (using classic wipes to transition to a new scene), but then it's almost as if Hill was sure that he didn't want his film to be longer than 100 minutes, because after that leisurely opening the film just goes from bullet point to bullet point.

And that’s your set-up. No effort is made to examine just why the James-Younger gang was being written about, and no attempt is made to explain why they do what they do. Instead the movie goes from being about nothing while doing nothing (the wedding scene goes on way too long), to being about nothing while going from one butchered scene to the next. This film needed an editor.

When the film moves colder to its ending I was expecting to get a more fleshed out version of Jesse and the Ford brothers (Christopher and Nicholas Guest), their relationship, and why they ended up shooting Jesse. Instead we get an extended gun fight with lots of slow motion in an obvious homage to Hill’s mentor Sam Peckinpah. Then we see the Ford brothers (who make a brief two minute appearance towards the beginning of the film) show up after the shoot-out and immediately shoot Jesse. And that's pretty much it. Movie over. No real context to understand why the Ford brothers did what they did, and it's just weird going immediately from Frank and Jesse escaping the shoot-out (abandoning the Younger's along the way) to the two of them in their home with the Ford's.

The shoot-out also showcases one of the major problems of Hill's film. The shoot-out is a well filmed, there’s no denying that, and there is lots of blood; however, the shots were so close that I couldn’t tell what was happening during the big action scene. I never understood where the gang was riding off to (it just seemed like they kept going in a big circle) as the camera never pulled back and stayed static long enough for the viewer to get a good sense of the towns logistics. And after awhile you get bored watching people get shot in slo-mo for ten solid minutes. This happens numerous times throughout the film where the camera either stayed too tight on its subjects that I couldn't get a good idea of what was going on around them, or just stayed in medium shot, refusing to pull back to give us the panoramic view of the action.

Walter Hill has had this problem in other westerns, too. His Wild Bill is an awful re-telling of the James Butler Hickok legend. Hill, as he does in The Long Riders, disregards any notion of legend and simply gets his character from one bullet point to the next – covering all of the historical ground he needs to in order for the film to feel authentic enough in his mind. It’s not that I have a problem with Hill taking liberties with these legends and their stories; it’s that his disinterest strongly comes across as a film of nothing but moments without anything tying them together. When you remove the mythological thread that holds these stories together you’re removing the very thing that makes them unique and interesting. One needs only to point to 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to see that.

Perhaps I’m just missing something, here. Maybe Hill is constructing a mythology in The Long Riders with its short scenes acting as brief chapters in the retelling of the James gang legend…and maybe I’m just missing the whole point of it. I don’t know, but I have to say that this one of the most unpleasant westerns I’ve sat through – I never once felt like what I was looking at was pleasing to the eye, I never understood where the James-Younger gang was in regards to their history, and the logistics of the shootout at the end just left me scratching my head. There are countless positive reviews for The Long Riders that exist out there, so maybe I completely blew it with this one, but watching Hill’s western was one of the most excruciating exercises I’ve had to endure in a while.

Hill’s film did succeed at the box office, rejuvenating a pretty dormant genre at the time (although the genre wasn’t completely dead as Heaven’s Gate wouldn’t be released until November of that year), but he would fail to get out of the 80’s having made a movie as successful as his three biggest films: The Warriors, The Long Riders, and 48 Hours. The Long Riders is the weakest of those three, and Hill has returned numerous times to the western themes he obviously loves (Trespass, Geronimo, Wild Bill, and Last Man Standing) but was never able to capture the success of The Long Riders. What I think his underlying failure is in all of the aforementioned movies is that he moves through scenes too quickly. The blanks are purposefully not filled in, and that is maddening to me when you’re dealing with major historical figures like Jesse James, Geronimo, or Wild Bill.

It’s more than okay for an artist to tweak historical facts to fit their vision, but that vision still has to be interesting. And just because you have long dance sequences with good western music, and you film your movie in a sepia tone…that doesn’t mean your western is good, it just means you sought to make it look as authentic as you wanted it to be. Unlike Tarantino’s Basterds, Hill’s films don’t use this re-imagining as way to look at history through a different lens; instead Hill throws the lens on the ground, shattering it to pieces. Hill doesn’t further explore his alternate take on history because I think he just doesn’t care. He’s content with his film looking and sounding like a western, and that’s all. Which in Hill’s case is a paradox: he seeks have an authentic western aesthetic about his film, but he’s obviously not interested in making an authentic western.

8.15.2009

Rio Bravo (1959)

Director: Howard Hawks

Rating: **** (out of four)

Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo is the pinnacle of the director's late style, in which he increasingly stripped his films down into ambling, nearly plotless examinations of his signature themes and the interactions of his characters. Hawks' cinema was always more about relationships than stories: relationships between male friends, between men and women getting to know one another, between professionals working on dangerous jobs together. Rio Bravo is about all these things, and as in much of Hawks' other late work, all the extraneous stuff, like the narrative, is pared away to focus more directly on these relationships as they develop and change. The plot itself is utter simplicity. Small-town sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins), the brother of the notorious outlaw Nathan Burdette (John Russell). Chance holds Joe in the town's tiny jail, while Nathan schemes to break his brother out. The film was famously inspired by Hawks' well-known hatred of Fred Zinnemann's High Noon, in which Gary Cooper's small-town sheriff must plead with the unwilling townspeople to help him face off against an outlaw who's coming for revenge. The macho Hawks obviously despised this show of weakness, and conceived of Chance as standing virtually alone against the encroaching outlaws, aided only by a motley assortment of true friends: the drunken former deputy Dude (Dean Martin), the old cripple Stumpy (Walter Brennan), and eventually the quick-shooting young Colorado (Ricky Nelson).

From this slight material, an archetypal white hat/black hat story, Hawks developed one of the great works of cinema. His patient pacing allows plenty of time for the character arcs to develop naturally. Dude was once a proud, tough man, brought low by a woman and reduced to a pathetic drunkard, memorably introduced in the opening scenes stooping to pick up a coin that a man throws into a spittoon for him. Throughout the film, he struggles with his alcoholism, trying to regain control of himself, to reassert his dignity and intelligence and bravery, as well as his formidability with a gun. Chance is, in comparison, a bedrock of stoic self-confidence and moral rigor, though Hawks emphasizes that he's merely human too by including all of the fumbling, awkward love scenes with Angie Dickinson's ambiguous bad gal Feathers. These scenes play off of Wayne's own obvious discomfort in romantic scenes, infusing a layer of metafiction into each of them: is Chance thrown off balance by Feathers, or Wayne by Dickinson? Seemingly the only thing that can ruffle Wayne's drawling onscreen persona, pushing him out of his comfort zone, is the presence of a pretty girl, a fact Hawks would take advantage of again in Hatari!, to equally amusing effect.


There's a lot more going on in this film, too, even as virtually nothing actually happens. The film simply rambles along, the connective tissue between set pieces often consisting of lengthy scenes where the characters just sit around and shoot the breeze. Much of the film takes place in the tight, constricted space of the jail, where Hawks is comfortable filming tight, constricted compositions crammed with people. The joy of the filmmaking is palpable in every frame; there are few Hollywood movies that are so relaxed, so carefree. Watching Rio Bravo feels like spending a few hours on the set with Wayne, Brennan, Martin and Nelson, hanging out, cracking jokes, sparring sometimes in jest and sometimes in earnest, shifting between the two so smoothly that it's hard to tell when the characters' jokes bleed over into genuine hurt. The film is packed with incident, but somehow it never seems to add up to a real forward-moving plot, perhaps because the whole film is based around stasis: it's a waiting game. That's what gives it its unique charm.

The easygoing pace also allows Hawks the time to examine his themes and characters in depth, with subtle touches rather than broad gestures. There's surprising nuance and emotion in set pieces like the one where Stumpy nearly blows off Dude's head when the latter enters the jail unexpectedly. On its face, its a comic bit of action, a near-miss that the men can laugh about because it wasn't a hit. But it also lays bare some of the deeper emotions at the core of the story. Stumpy doesn't recognize Dude to begin with because the former drunk has cleaned up and gotten sober, has taken a bath and donned some new clothes, replacing his old threadbare, filthy rags. He looks like a real man again, and Stumpy, accustomed to seeing him as a ragged beggar, doesn't even realize it's him. It mirrors the earlier scene where the rancher Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) doesn't recognize Dude because he'd never seen him sober before. Underneath the violent humor of the incident, there's this poignant undercurrent, as Dude is reminded yet again of how far he'd fallen, while Stumpy, behind his ornery chatter, is horrified by what he almost did to his friend.

Hawks treats these complex emotions seriously, but he never allows them to truly overwhelm the film's surface charm, its low-key wit and humor. After all, this is a film in which, at a pivotal moment, the characters decide to take a break and have a good old singalong, showcasing the star voices of Nelson and Martin. It's a wonderful moment, a perfect indication of the film's total commitment to its anti-narrative languor: when the tension is at its peak, the final showdown approaching, the characters break out into not just one but two folksy songs in a row, as though they had all the time in the world. Dude is lying on a cot with his hat shading his eyes, Colorado plays the guitar, and Stumpy hollers and plays the harmonica, all while Chance looks on, smiling benevolently, too stiff to join the fun but not to enjoy it. Indeed, one would have to be pretty stiff not to enjoy this film, which encourages the audience to revel in the sparkle of the dialogue and the ways in which the charming personalities of these likable actors blend seamlessly into their characters. Hawks, though he appreciated fresh faces too, was always adept at using star personalities in interesting ways, zeroing in on the essence of an actor and channeling that into his or her onscreen persona.


Here, the confined space of the jail allows Hawks to play these personalities off of one another, ricocheting Brennan's manic grouchiness off of Martin's slouching, half-speed delivery, while Nelson's boyish confidence resonates as a nascent version of Wayne's mature persona, his unflappable manliness. The film juggles these different personalities admirably, and the film's tone shifts smoothly between comic patter, hesitant romance, slow-building suspense, and action. Indeed, despite the laidback pace, Rio Bravo boasts some exceptional action sequences, not only the justifiably famous final shootout, in which Chance and his allies finally defeat the bad guys with dynamite, but also an earlier scene in which Chance and Dude track an assassin to a saloon filled with Burdette's men. This scene is formally precise, rigid in its geometry and use of the bar's space. It's through angles that Chance and Dude control the room, lining up the men at gunpoint in a straight line on one side of the room. The way Hawks frames this scene emphasizes how the two heroes remain on opposite sides of the room, both angled towards the disarmed bad guys, forming a triangle with the bar at its base and its point balancing on the line of criminals. The scene's denouement, in which Dude discovers the hiding assassin by noticing the man's blood dripping down into a glass of beer from above in the rafters, is similarly precise in its formal mastery.

For all these reasons and many more, Rio Bravo is one of Hawks' most sublime achievements: it's more like an old friend than a film, a familiar place to visit and revisit over and over again, always enjoying the company and the ragged charm of its storytelling.

[This review is cross-posted at my blog Only The Cinema.]

8.12.2009

Classic Maiden's Top 10 Westerns


The always insightful and knowledgeable Classic Maiden has posted a list of her top 10 westerns, and kudos to her for not picking the most obvious choices. A good example: The Searchers is naturally included, but as number 10, feeling more like a "let's get this out of the way and move on, shall we?" type of entry. Let's have a look at all the titles:

10. The Searchers (1956)

9. Shane (1953)

8. The Man From Laramie (1955)

7. Seven Men From Now (1956)

6. Ride The High Country (1962)

5. Forty Guns (1957)

4. Chato's Land (1972)

3. Chino aka The Valdez Horses (1973)

2. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

1. Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)


It's great to see both Sam Fuller and Charles Bronson, two underrated western myth-makers, represented here. And Ride the High Country, though it surely needs no defense from an amateur critic, is to my mind one of the finest films of its decade, and is my current pet Peckinpah (though Warren Oates raving to one end of a messily decapitated body is forever nipping at its heels...I want my new nephew to call my "El Jefe" when he gets old enough to speak, in fact).

Classic Maiden's soliciting YOUR lists and notes in the comments, so get a move on, little doggies!

8.08.2009

Westbound (1959)

Director: Budd Boetticher

Rating: **1/2 spurs (out of four)

Shot and released during a small seasonal hiatus between two classic Ranown westerns, Buchanan Rides Alone and Ride Lonesome, Westbound is one of the few collaborations between Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott to be produced without the usual gang. and while author Burt Kennedy, co-producer Harry Joe Brown and the impeccable scenery/set team of Robert Boyle and Frank Tuttle never seemed like auteurs, per se, after this movie I felt as though I had been unfairly taking their contributions for granted; Westbound is one of Scott's weakest westerns. It's also a firm testament to the parched, mythic glory of Lone Pine, California, which inhabited the space of the Ranowns with the slinky, needly eroticism of a flaming Fata Morgana (Westbound was made in Calabasas, and the backdrops reek of LA artificiality). The sketchy plot follows John Hayes (Scott), a Union Captain in the Civil War who's commissioned to protect the transfer of California gold through the hazardous border states to Northern reserves. Upon setting up shop in a small Colorado town brimming with crotchety confederates, Hayes begins butting heads with local businessman Putnam (Andrew Duggan) and his small, trigger-happy posse, who are determined to halt the shipments at all costs (this includes swiping stagecoach horses, torching outposts, and overturning wagons transporting women and children in addition to the Union bullion).

We also discover between yawns and rolling eyes that Putnam's wife (a maddeningly unconvincing Virgina Mayo) was once Hayes' lover, and that Hayes' right hand man in the operation is a ex-Union soldier who lost his left arm to gangrene after a battle injury (the deformity more or less just gives the southerners another reason to mock and emasculate Hayes and his crew) -- the overlapping histories of the characters are a grating mixture of maudlin and nostalgic that only exacerbate the pitifully "can't the south and north just get along?" finale. But there are chinks in the patina, too. Putnam's primary goon -- Mace, played by Michael Pate -- is a black-silk oasis of post-modern confusion; Pate's performance is something of a three-way cross between a bigoted good ol' boy Randy Newman might have sang about, a backwoodsy sodomite, and an effeminately lispy belle-gun the likes of which Dan Duryea nailed with eyelash-batting aplomb. In an early stand-off, Mace demands that Hayes show him whether or not he’s armed, and as the captain daintily lifts his coat you wonder whether or not the curled-lip antagonist isn’t tenderly undressing Randolph Scott in his mind.

And even when the very bedrock of a picture is wobbly and warped, Boetticher’s mise-en-scène is complexly effective. Of all the classic western directors Scott worked with, Boetticher seemed to be able to visually render the star's leathery on-screen persona most agilely – even in Westbound, the nuances of the Scott character are communicated in surprisingly grammatical ways. In the clip below, the scene fades and gracefully dotes on two lovers flirt-scheming before wryly swiveling to reveal Scott as the ubiquitous third wheel, unromantically loafing about. It’s a great representation both of Scott’s sense of humor and the audience’s reluctant faith in his character’s sobriety (a sentiment capitalized on marvelously in Ride the High Country).

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Finally, after the somewhat anticlimactic shoot-out (a set-piece Boetticher excelled at), the camera glances after a townsman walking away at a lower-than-usual angle. It seems at first as though we’re observing the scene’s aftermath from the perspective of Mace’s corpse (Scott has just shot him) but after a second or two we realize we’re slightly too elevated for that. We’re actually at the POV of an individual crouching down to examine the dead, making our implied participation and interaction with the screen far more realistic and dramatically potent; Boetticher wants to implicate us as passive bystanders, rather than letting us off the hook with simple sympathy for the fallen.


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Westbound can purchased from Warner Brothers' on-demand archive service.