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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dark Command (1940)



DARK COMMAND

Dir: Raoul Walsh - Cast: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Walter Pidgeon, Gabby Hayes, Roy Rogers, Porter Hall, Marjorie Main, Raymond Wallburn

"We gotta saying down in Texas ..."

An early John Wayne western, made one year after the monumental Stagecoach. With a budget of $750,000, Dark Command (1) was quite a prestige object for its production company, Republic, in those days best known for B-movies and serials. It also features singing cowboy Roy Rogers, in a surprisingly dramatic role as Claire Trevor’s trigger-happy younger brother. The story is set in Lawrence, Kansas, on the eve of the Civil War, as the political tensions between the states are growing. Some elements of the plot are (very loosely) based on the historic Quantrill's Raiders. The finale is a romantisized representation of the infamous raid on Lawrence that took place in full wartime, on August 21, 1863.

The film opens with the arrival in town of Doc Crunch, a traveling dentist, and his assistant Bob Seton, a lanky fellow from Texas (they’re a great team: Bob knocks teeth loose, Doc pulls them out!). Lawrence is to be their terminus because the young man falls in love with the local banker’s daughter, Mary McCloud. The illiterate Bob becomes town Marshall, after beating the shoo-in for the election, the seemingly peaceful schoolteacher William Cantrell. The two men are also in competition for Mary and their rivalry comes to a head when Bob is forced to arrest Mary’s brother Fletch for shooting a man. Fletch is defended in court by the eloquent Cantrell, who successfully pleads self-defense. Mary now marries Will, even though she has no romantic feelings for him, and Fletch secretly joins Cantrell and his raiders, a guerilla group supposedly fighting for the Confederacy ...

Dark Command was directed by Raoul Walsh, the man who had discovered Wayne a decade earlier and given him his first leading role in a major production, The Big Trail (1930). Walsh knew exactly how to use the young man and Wayne's character in the movie, Bob Seton, is in every inch type of hero the Duke would become identified with, a friendly yet unflinching man with unquestionable ethics.

Dark Command is a A-movie that often plays like a B-movie. The Duke has a few funny lines as the illiterate guy from Texas who instantly recognizes Shakespeare as a fellow Texan, but some of the light comedy seems out of place in this context. Not too much is made of the historic context of the Missouri-Kansas wars anyway. Like the Cantrell character from the movie, the historic Quantrill was a well-educated person, but he had become a vagabond at relatively young age and had shot his first man at the age of 18. He most certainly did not become a bushwhacker because some guy from Texas had frustrated his aspirations to become a lawman (2).

In the end this might all be of little importance. The movie is no doubt uneven, a bit wacky at times, but it also offers a lively mix of action, romance and drama. And the action scenes are very well handled. The raid on Lawrence (3) is an impressive sequence, beautifully shot and engineered, an entire town going up in flames. Fans of the director will be inclined to compare it to the fiery finale (“Top of the World, Ma!") of White Heat. However, it’s not the movie’s most famous scene. The scene that secured Dark Command a place in film history, is a spectacular (and obviously very dangerous) leap of four men and a team of horses off a cliff into a lake. It was filmed with famous stunt men Yakima Canutt and Cliff Lyons doubling for Wayne and Gabby Hayes. It’s said that the scene (indirectly) led to the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after similar risky stunts continued to pop up in other movies.




Notes:

(1) It’s sometimes listed as The Dark Command and this title also appeared on some publicity material such as posters and lobby cards, but the on-screen title is Dark Command, without the definite article

(2) For a more insightful take on the Kansas-Missouri wars I recommend Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil (or Daniel Woodrell's source novel Woe to live on)

(3) For Quantrills Raid on Lawrence see: http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/content/quantrill%E2%80%99s-raid-lawrence



Saturday, July 11, 2015

Flaming Star (1960)



FLAMING STAR

Dir: Don Siegel - Cast: Elvis Presley, Dolores Del Rio, Steve Forrest, John McIntire, Barbara Eden, L.Q. Jones, Richard Jaeckel, Rodolfo Acosta

Flaming Star is arguably Elvis Presley’s best movie (most people will tell you Jailhouse Rock comes nearest in quality). The screenplay, by Nunnaly Johnson, was based on a novel by Clair Huffaker, but Johnson had written it with Marlon Brando in mind. When Brando dropped out, it was rewritten for Elvis by no other than Huffaker himself.

The movie is a late entry in a series of westerns from the Fifties that tried to shed a new light on the clash between the white and the red man, between those who saw the continent as the New Land and those for whom the New Land was their Old Home (1). Like John Huston’s The Unforgiven (1960) it tells a story of a mixed (red-white) family torn apart when hostilities flare up between the Indians and the settlers.

Elvis Presley is Pacer, the half-breed son of a Texas rancher, Sam Burton, and a Kiowa mother. Together they live with Pacer’s white half-brother Clint (from an earlier marriage of their father) on a small cattle ranch. The family seems well-integrated into the new flourishing society of fellow ranchers and townspeople, but things change rapidly when the Kiowa - under a new Chief - go on the warpath and attack the neighboring ranch of the Howard family, killing all but one. In a desperate attempt to avoid a massacre, Pacer’s mother has a powwow with the tribe’s wise men, but she is shot on her way back home, by the sole survivor of the assault on the Howard ranch. With his family being distrusted by the Indians and despised by the whites, Pacer is propelled into a maelstrom of conflicting feelings of loyalty, pride and passion.

Elvis was very keen on establishing himself as a serious actor and does a pretty good job here. With his dark hair and dark complexion he could well pass for a half-breed and the star vehicles he had appeared in, had told him how to move in front of a camera. He was also in very good shape and could therefore perform many of the stunts himself. But there were still doubts about his talents as a dramatic actor and when Johnson’s script was rewritten by Huffaker, the character of Pacer was brought less central to the events; for about an hour it’s a story of a family stuck in the middle rather than one about a character of mixed-blood who’s loyalties are put to the test. It’s only during the final thirty minutes, when the violence erupts, that Elvis’s Pacer becomes the true pivot of all things happening. It neither hurts the movie nor his character; quite on the contrary, it makes his ‘explosion’ after the death of his mother only more convincing.

Flaming Star is not without flaws; the Kiowa dialogue is too poetic and some of the story elements (especially in the first half) could’ve been handled with more subtlety. But the film is crisply directed by Don Siegel and the grievances of the red man are presented in believable fashion. Pacer is rejected by the Whites and reclaimed by the Kiowa, but on both sides the message seems to be ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’. We heard some echoes of this message in more recent times. This movie might actually be more relevant and significant today than it was back then.

The ending of Flaming star is bleak and may feel a bit forced, but in all its bleakness, it pays lip-service to the idea of the melting pot (2). Like his mother earlier in the movie, Pacer has seen the flaming star of death, which means his days on earth are numbered. He asks his brother Clint to live in his place:

“You live for me, maybe they'll understand people like me some day.”




Notes: 

* (1) Lesley Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American, London, 1969, p. 16
* (2) The idea of the melting pot was a homogeneous society, the different elements "melting together" into a harmonious whole with a common culture (remember the Blue Milk song of the same title). We seemed to have abandoned this idea completely in favor of what is called a multicultural mosaic, in which the different cultures remain distinct in many (if not most) aspects.

What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough enough to take
The world and all its got 
And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee coloured people by the score



Thursday, July 2, 2015

Rough Night in Jericho (1967)



ROUGH NIGHT IN JERICHO 

Director: Arnold Laven - Cast: Dean Martin, George Peppard, Jean Simmons, John McIntire, Slim Pickens, Don Galloway, Richard O'Brien, John Napier 

A bizarre western, if only for casting good old Dean Martin as a villain without any redeeming qualities. It was marketed with the tag line "Who says they don't make Westerns like they used to?" suggesting that this was an old school western with all the classic ingredients. The story about (the lack of) law and order in a small western town, sounds like a fifties western, but the level of violence is more in accordance with the early seventies. When a man in a white shirt is shot his blood runs on the shirt like wine on a napkin, another man is shot in the face, Jean Simmons is beaten up and almost strangled and a hand-to-hand combat between Peppard and Pickens is of a particularly nasty kind.

Martin’s character, Alex Flood, is an ex-lawman gone bad; he is determined to have total control over the town, and therefore wants to own at least 51% of every local business, including the stagecoach line conducted by Molly Lang (Jean Simmons), but Molly refuses. Hell breaks loose with the arrival of two men: Marshall John McIntire (called to town by Simmons) and his best friend, a former lawman turned gambler (George Peppard).

Rough Nigh in Jericho was written by Marvin H. Albert, who adapted his own novel to the screen. The script offers an interesting line-up of characters, played by first rate actors, but they remain largely underdeveloped. McIntire is shot in the leg early on and is therefore confined to a bed for most part of the movie and Simmons is only there because the movie needed a female character. Peppard is quite good as the ex-lawman gone astray, now looking for redemption, but Dino is simply not the right man to play a ruthless villain. Off-beat casting can be effective but it takes a director like Leone to turn a kind-hearted actor like Henry Fonda into the incarnation of evil. Arnold Laven is no Leone.

Nor is he a Peckinpah, for that matter. According to Peckinpah’s biographer David Weddle, Laven and Peckinpah were old acquaintances. Laven had been one of the producers of the TV-series The Rifleman (for which Sam wrote a couple of scripts and directed some episodes) and he had also directed The Glory Guys, scripted by Peckinpah. As far as I know Peckinpah had no hand in Rough Night in Jericho, but towards the end there’s a protracted action sequence with Martin’s men trapped in a town street by the townspeople waiting for them on the rooftops, that will remind many of us of the opening massacre of The Wild Bunch. I’m quite sure Peckinpah saw it and was inspired by it. But don't get over-exited. As said Laven is no Peckinpah. Rough Night in Jericho is an okay watch, but it's no Wild Bunch.





Notes:

* Rough Night in Jericho is available on You Tube. Apparently the version is cut but oddly enough it seems to leave all the violence intact. I had not seen the movie in a while and have no idea what’s missing.

* For the Laven-Peckinpah connection see: David Weddle, If they move, kill ‘em, New York 1996, p. 136-138 and p. 146-154

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Alvarez Kelly



ALVAREZ KELLY

Director: Edward Dmytryk - Cast: William Holden, Richard Widmark, Janice Rule, Patrick O'Neal, Victoria Shaw, Roger C. Carmel, Richard Rust, Arthur Franz, Don 'Red' Barry 

Supposedly based on actual events, this Civil War drama tells the story of an Mexican-Irish adventurer (look at the name of the titular character) who is contracted to deliver a herd of about 2500 cattle to the Union. The herd is brought to a Virginia plantation, but the mistress of the mansion is conspiring with one-eyed Confederate Colonel Rossiter, who wants to steal the cattle to feed the starving soldiers who are defending the town of Richmond. So with the help of the lady, Kelly is kidnapped at night and forced to drive the cattle to its new destination. When Kelly refuses to go along with the scheme, Rossiter shoots off one of his fingers, threatening to shoot off another one for every day he refuses to cooperate ...

This is one of the two westerns directed by Edward Dmytryk in the fall of his career (the other being Shalako). Director Dmytryk had been one of the “Hollywood Ten”, ten former members of the communist party who refused to testify for the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late forties and had their careers disrupted. He spent some time in jail but eventually decided to testify (under high pressure) and got permission to work again would direct some of the best westerns of the fifties, such as Broken Lance (1954) and Warlock (1959). Unfortunately, his westerns from the Sixties do not fall into the same category.

The premise of a man who’s forced to do a job against his will, may suggest that we should read the movie as a personal statement, but Alvarez Kelly never feels as if Dmytryk put much of himself into it. It’s a rather bland affair, top-heavy, with a spectacular finale but not much else to hold people’s attention for the full length of the 114 minutes of running-time. There’s a sub-plot of Holden helping Widmark’s bride-to-be (played by Janice Rule) to elope with another man, no doubt meant  to intensify the antagonism between the two men, but it basically slows an already slow-moving picture further down.

Alvarez Kelly isn’t bad, but it’s not particularly good either. Despite some modernist tendencies (the two man are rather cynical types and Holden’s Kelly is a ‘man in the middle’, a opportunist who doesn't rally care for any of the two warring factions and just wants to make money in wartime), the movie has an old-fashioned feeling hanging over it. Some think it was merely an attempt to extract some of the dramatic qualities of Holden’s biggest success, The Bridge on the River Kwai (in which he also played an opportunist forced to take part in a dangerous mission) and present them in a western setting (1).

The star power is not as electrifying as some may have expected, but both Holden and Widmark turn in good performances. In the case of Holden this may come as a surprise, if you know that he had serious drinking problems around this time and also caught salmonella poisoning while filming on location in Louisiana. In a couple of scenes you notice that he had trouble remembering his lines, but overall he’s this confident actor we all know, a man who made acting look easy.

And then there’s this spectacular finale. To avoid a confrontation with Union troops, Kelly and Rossiter have chosen a route through swampy terrain; the plan seems to work, but after Grant has taken the city the men are forced to take the herd further south, over a bridge protected by Union soldiers. In a very daring move, Kelly stampedes the cattle into the Union lines. A sequence worth waiting for.


Note:

(1) Philip French, Westerns, p. 12


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Support Your Local Sheriff



SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF 

Dir: Burt Kennedy - Cast: James Garner, Joan Hackett, Jack Elam, Bruce Dern, Harry Morgan, Walter Brennan, Henry Jones, Gene Evans, Dick Haynes

A delightful comedy western, using the popular theme of the stranger taming a lawless western town. The town is the Old West frontier town of Calendar, Colorado, the stranger is Jason McCullough (James Garner) a fortune seeker on his way to the promised land (No, not California, Australia).

Calender has fallen prey to the hysteria of a gold rush after the mayor’s daughter discovered gold in an open grave during a funeral ceremony. It has become a boomtown, but the only transportation route is controlled by the villainous Danby family and they ask a large fee for every shipment of gold brought out of town. The Mining Association urges the Town Council to appoint a new sheriff, but that’s easier said than done: three sheriffs were appointed in recent memory, two of them were killed, the third one ran off after no more than two hours of service.

McCullough decides to stay for a while but can't afford the prices asked for simple services in the boomtown, and therefore accepts the job of sheriff. The job isn’t particularly well-paid, but also includes board and lodging: McCullough will stay at the mayor’s place and the sheriff’s daughter Ruby will cook for him. The new sheriff breaks up a street fight, appoints the highly inadequate town drunk Jake as his deputy, and also throws the callous Joe Danby in jail after shooting a man in the saloon, thus invoking the wrath of the entire Danby clan upon himself. And of course the sheriff’s daughter falls for the new kid in town ...

The movie did fairly well at the box-office, but was not an immediate success among scholars and western buffs. Its reputation suffered from a couple of negative reviews, notably one by Roger Ebert, who thought it had no ideas of its own and was no more than a TV-movie dragged out to feature length (1). True, Support Your Local Sheriff is a town-bound western which often has the look and feel of a TV show like, for instance, Maverick, the show that had turned Garner into a household name. But there's more than meets the eye ...

Most western comedies attempt to parody the genre by turning genre clichés inside out, like for instance Cat Ballou, a clever deconstruction of the gunslinger myth, or sending them sky high, like Mel Brooks did in the immensely successful Blazing Saddles; other comedies feature incongruous figures on the frontier, characters who are completely unsuited for the role they're supposed to fulfil. Most of the time those characters are played by a reputed comedy star like Bob Hope (The Paleface) or Jerry Lewis (Pardners, also starring Dean Martin). There are a few irreverent and parodist jokes in this movie (Garner stopping old man Danby by putting a finger in the barrel of his gun), but irreverence or parody was not what the film makers were aiming at - at least not in the first place. Philip French calls it a light-hearted drama rather than a farce (2).

For most part the tradition western situations are played almost straight up. Almost, that is: not entirely. Instead of turning western clichés inside out, the movie pushes them just beyond the breaking point of credibility (3). Garner is - like many western heroes before him - the fastest gun in the West, but he only shows his skills reluctantly, because fame is a dangerous thing (a nice reference to movies like The Gunfighter about troubled gunslingers). When asked by the Town Council to prove what he’s capable of, he shoots a hole in a metal washer (twice), but he tames the town using his charm and wit. Some of the wildest jokes, like the one with the red paint (I won’t give it away) or Garner asking a time-out during a shootout, work, and work marvelously, because of the nearly realistic context in which they are shown.

Garner is wonderful in the lead and Joan Hackett is in every aspect his match; their flirtations (inevitably ending in the two having a quarrel) are priceless. Walter Brennan (reprising, in serio-comic style, his Old Man Clanton character from My Darling Clementine), Jack Elam, Harry Morgan and Bruce Dern all turn in excellent performances. Some of the dialogue (too many trite double entendres) and some parts of the score (too many quirky sounds) don’t really work, but otherwise this is a pleasure to watch from start to finish. Do yourself a favor and watch it.



Notes:

* (1) http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/support-your-local-sheriff-1969
* (2) Philip French, Westerns, p. 147
* (3) http://www.christiananswers.net/spotlight/movies/2002/supportyourlocalsheriff.html

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fort Massacre (1958)



Dir: Joseph M. Newman - Cast: Joel McCrea (Sgt. Vinson), Forrest Tucker (Pvt. McGurney), John Russell (Pvt. Travis), Anthony Caruso (Pawnee), Francis McDonald (Old Piute Man), Susan Cabot (Piute Girl)

Although it’s a minor production, shot on a reduced budget, this is one of the better ‘Indian westerns’ from the Fifties. It tells the familiar story of a small group of survivors who must try to get back to their outpost after an Indian attack. But if the premise is familiar, the execution is thoughtful and uncommon. The film is set in the last decade of the 19th Century, when the Apaches were fighting a desperate war in order to survive. The war has marked those who were involved in it - red or white - for life.

The soldiers have lost their Captain during the attack, and the highest person in rank, who now becomes their new leader, sergeant Vinson, is an Indian hater and a stubborn, inflexible person to boot:

"Do you think the Apaches are still following us, Serg?"
“I don't think, I follow orders, like a dog."

Actually the men think their new leader is not just stubborn, but downright insane. In various situations Vinson seems to look for a confrontation with the Apaches instead of avoiding them, as if he wants to kill as many warriors as possible. He first forces the men - who are outnumbered four to one - to ambush a group of fifty Apaches who are at a waterhole and subsequently he takes a shortcut to the fort which will lead them through hostile Indian territory. The men know that the sergeant’s family was slaughtered by Apaches and one of them, a new recruit who’s also a college graduate (functioning as the movie’s conscience) has witnessed that Vinson killed the last Apache at the waterhole in cold blood, after the warrior had raised his hands in order to surrender ...

Characterizations are a little clichéd (the Indian hater, the coward, the Indian scout, the stoic philosopher, etc.) and the script is also a bit too verbose for its own good, but the film is well-acted (especially by John Russell as the college graduate) and some of the conversations offer insight in the characters’ motivations and psychology. We know the sergeant has some good reasons to hate the Apaches, but only relatively late into the movie we learn what really happened on that fatal day, and how his wife and children died. It’s a pretty bleak and shocking story and I won’t give any more details about it in this place.

Joel McCrea
The character of Joel McCrea’s Indian hating sergeant is no doubt an echo of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, but he’s an even more extreme character: he cannot be redeemed without betraying the film’s premise, so he will not reach the end of the movie. McCrea turns in one of his best performances as the emotionally crippled man; he had a limited acting range and was even called a non-actor by some, but his minimal acting style serves the movie and the character very well. He reminded me a little of William Holden in The Wild Bunch, and oddly enough he even sounded like him (I’m talking about his voice now, not about his lines; even though he’s a doomed person, there’s no similarity to Holden’s gang leader Pike).

The film  eventually falls a little between two stools: they tried to make an 'adult' western (that's why it's so talky) and a real action movie at the same time. And then there’s this finale, set in a sort pueblo or cliff dwelling (the ‘fort massacre’ from the title) in which the soldiers, still under attack, entrench themselves; the sequence is marred by the introduction of two new characters, an elderly Piute and his grand daughter (who has adopted the Christian faith). Their introduction was probably meant to mitigate the movie’s pessimistic message (and to illustrate the plight of the red man), but it feels forced and the effect is almost counterproductive. But a labored finale doesn’t make a bad movie and the strong points easily outshine the shortcomings. Robert Aldrich and Alan Sharp must have had this movie in mind while developing Ulzana’s Raid (1972).

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Lawman (1971)



LAWMAN

Dir: Michael Winner - Cast: Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Sheree North, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall, Albert Salmi, Richard Jordan, Ralph Waite, John Beck,  William C. Watson, J. D. Cannon

Lawman was helmed by British director Michael Winner. It was his first movie in Hollywood. It’s a cynical, brutally violent western and therefore many critics will tell you that the film was influenced by the spaghetti westerns. Others will tell you that it’s a remake of Man with the Gun (1955), a western directed by Richard Wilson and starring Robert Mitchum. Both statements are not without any foundation, but only tell half the truth.

Burt Lancastar is Marshall Jered Maddox, an unyielding man of the law who rides into the town of Sabbath, looking for seven cowpokes who were involved in an incident in which an old man was killed. The seven had gone on a drunken spree after they had paid a visit to the local saloon (after a hard day’s job) and there’s no doubt that the killing was accidental. The cattle baron who was responsible for their behavior is willing to settle things with the victim’s next of kin, but the victim had no family, and Maddox is unwilling to compromise: he’s determined to bring the seven to trial, cost what cost.

Lancaster’s Maddox is a lawman, but his inflexible ideas about law and order turn him into a man who attracts violence; at one point he’s called a widow maker and he also shoots a man in the back. Cattle baron Vincent Bronson virtually owns the town and has 'bought' some people (notably the weak-willed sheriff, played by Robert Ryan), all things you expect from a cattle baron in a western, but he’s also a man of reason with a sense of humanity. In the end nobody is entirely good or bad: when Maddox finally decides that his mission is aimless and wants to ride out of town, he is stopped by those who tried to chase him away. The ensuing carnage was not wanted by anyone, but at the same time all are responsible for it.

The shootout towards the end is unusually graphic; it’s not balletic (like Peckinpah’s slomo violence in The Wild Bunch), it’s savage, gruesome and quick. This brings me to this claim that the film was influenced by the bleakness and excessive violence of the Italian western. The spaghetti westerns were cynical, but the violence was hardly ever visceral. In Lawman blood is spurting from bullet wounds and the bleakness is more in line with the Hollywood revisionist westerns from the period. There are similarities to Man with the Gun, but I wouldn’t call it a remake. Winner and his screenwriter Gerry Wilson used the model of the movie, but changed the character: Unlike Mitchum in the 1955 movie, Lancaster is not a town tamer, asked by the townspeople to restore order: the people from Sabbath didn’t need a peace maker, they were perfectly happy with the situation, and the reason why they turn against Maddox, is therefore radically different. In Lawman the town tamer theme is combined with the stranger in town theme of the Italian western: Maddox is an outsider, a stranger, but not one like Eastwood's No Name or any of the other spaghetti western anti-heroes, he's a sheriff (from another town).

Lawman was shot on location in Durango, Mexico. Winner secured the location just before Howard Hawks, who had wanted to shoot his western Rio Lobo on the same spot. The movie is successful in building up an ambiguous, compelling storyline but somehow fails to come up with a satisfying conclusion. Experiments with an alternate ending suggest that the film makers also felt something was missing. Lancaster looks strained, as if he’s unsure about his role, but Sheree North and Lee J. Cobb are excellent as, respectively, the mistress and the town boss. The cowpokes are played by a fine selection of familiar western actors; if you don't know them by name, you'll certainly recognize their faces. Robert Ryan turns in a truly marvelous performance as the sheriff from Sabbath, paid by Cobb to do as little as possible. He’s a weak-willed person, dreaming of the better days he once knew, and yet he’s also the most pragmatic character of the entire movie: if only the others had followed his advice on several occasions, many of them would have survived the events.

THE ALTERNATE ENDING

(Spoiler alert) The film ends with Maddox riding out of town. He’s the proverbial last man standing (in this case riding) after all others have bitten the dust. But, as said, all were responsible for what happened, so it seems logical that Maddox should pay a prize for his rigid behavior as well. Some claim to have seen a version with an alternate ending, in which Maddox is shot in the back by his former mistress. This ending seems more appropriate, but of course Maddox riding out of town can be interpreted as a punishment as well: he has not achieved any of his goals, instead he has lost everything and must live the rest of his life with the consequences and shame. Anyway, the alternate ending seems lost ...

See also: http://westernsallitaliana.blogspot.be/2012/02/lawman.html



Sunday, March 29, 2015

From Noon Till Three (1975)



FROM NOON TILL THREE 

Dir: Frank D. Gilroy - Cast: Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Douglas V. Fowley, Stan Haze, Hector Morales, Damon Douglas 

More a romantic comedy than a western. It was intended as a career move for Bronson, who was in his mid-fifties and felt that he was getting a bit old for the type of action stuff that had made him a star, but when it turned out to be a box-office failure, he went back to making (successful) formula movies.

Bronson is an amateur bank robber, Graham Dorsey, who’s having premonitions about the next heist ending in disaster and therefore tricks his partners so he can spend three hours in the company of a rich widow while his friends are trying to rob a bank. The two feel attracted to each other and they’re still cuddling when the news comes that the heist has gone wrong. Dorsey rides off to saves his friends from being hanged but is killed when his trail is picked up by the members of a large posse - at least that’s what the lady thinks. With the help of a newspaper journalist she turns the little liason into the romance of the century and her mythmaking is so successful that Dorsey becomes a romantic legend and the mansion in which the romance took place a tourist attraction.

Dorsey, who didn’t ride off to save his friends (because he didn’t care about them) and therefore wasn’t killed, finally shows up at the tourist attraction, making the tour incognito, only to discover that the legend has become more important than the facts: the lady is totally absorbed by the image she has created in her book - that of a man who’s everything Graham Dorsey is not: tall, brave and handsome - and only recognizes him after he has shown her that one body part she could not describe in a 19th Century dime novel. She then decides to preserve the legend, leaving it to Dorsey to reclaim his identity - a job that’s far beyond him, and will eventually drive him crazy.

From Noon till Three was pulverized by contemporary critics and no, it's not a great movie, but it’s not as bad as those sour comments on Mr. & Mrs. Bronson’s thespian talents might suggest. True, Chuck and Jill aren’t the greatest of actors, and true, their comedy talents are limited, but ironically their clumsy efforts to be funny add a touch of believability to those scenes of their uneasy flirtations. After all they’re supposed to be a very odd couple, a small time crook, a good for nothing who never knew true love, and a woman who married a much older man for safety, who never knew real passion. It’s also an advantage that Bronson and Ireland were a real-life couple: they must have been physically attracted to each other, which makes it more plausible that the two would have a quick liason under the given circumstances.

Beginning with a nightmare and ending in madness, the script has a nice circular structure, and the central theme of myth-making is intriguing and witty. But the movie fails to come up with a central idea to bundle all these scattered ideas about identity, false heroics and self-delusion. The Lady’s decision to preserve the legend is no doubt a nod towards the famous line - “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!" - from John Ford’s The Man who Shot Liberty Valence and there are a couple of references to other movies: the scene in which Bronson fakes impotency (to win the lady’s sympathy) echoes a similar scene (with Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe) in Some Like it Hot and Bronson’s nightmare about the heist going wrong, looks like a spoofy version of the opening scene of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Jill Ireland’s character is by the way called Mrs. Starbuck, another reference to Peckinpah’s movie: the opening massacre of The Wild Bunch took place in a Texas border town called Starbuck.


BOTTOM LINE:
A comedy (rather than a western) that isn’t great, but has its moments. Some nice references to classic movies add to the fun. 
6/10

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Bandolero! (1968)



BANDOLERO! 

Dir: Andrew V. McLaglan - Cast:  James Stewart, Dean Martin, Raquel Welch, George Kennedy, Denver Pyle, Will Greer, Harry Carey Jr, Don “Red” Barry, Andrew Prine - Screenplay by J.L. Barrett, based on a story by Stanley Hough 

An enjoyable piece of nothing, as one critic put it. Dean Martin & James Stewart are cast against type as bandit brothers, Dee & Mace Bishop, and they’re not the kind of rascals who steal from the rich to help the poor. They’re selfish, mean and lethal, but note that the movie is basically a comedy. Dino is as charming as ever, smiling his trademark winning smile, while Jimmy is mainly poking fun at himself, walking and talking slowly, commenting his own and his little brother’s actions with a knowing smile.

The first thirty minutes or so, with Jimmy impersonating a hangman, are the best part of the movie. After Dee and his gang are arrested in a border town, we watch Mace overhearing a conversation in an open air bathhouse, where a self-sufficient hangman is bragging about his job and the upcoming hanging in the town of Valverde. When Mace finds out who’s about to be hanged, he joins  the hangman outside of town, has a conversation with him about the finer points of the profession and ... the next moment we see him riding into Valverde, wearing the hangman’s top hat and frock, complimenting the sheriff with the fine job he did, both in arresting the gang and in building such a wonderful scaffold, the perfect platform for the show he’s determined to give.

Of course Mace saves his brother and his men from the gallows, but before riding out of town, he also robs the bank. With virtually all townspeople in hot pursuit of the escaped convicts, it seemed a logical thing to do, as he explains much later into the movie:

“The bank was there and I was there, and there wasn't very much of anybody else there ... so it just seemed like the thing to do.

The kind-hearted sheriff (Kennedy) is on the trail of the two brothers, not only to arrest them and get the townspeople’s money back, but also because he has the hots for the woman they took with them as a hostage, Mrs. Stoner (Raquel), the richest women in the area after the gang has shot her husband. And then there’s also a gang of Mexican bandits, the bandoleros who gave the film its title. They all meet in a small Mexican town for large-scale shootout that will leave very few alive.

Raquel has other qualities ...
Both script and direction leave a lot to desire. Mrs. Stoner seems to enjoy herself a lot in the company of the men who have just shot her husband, but before we may start frowning, we’re told, by the lady herself, that Mr. Stoner had bought her from her poor father ‘for five cows and a gun.’ Andrew V. McLaglen’s direction is very workmanlike, almost absent in some scenes, but then again, Dino & Jimmy know how to play a scene without any director and Raquel, well, she has other qualities. The main problem of Bandolero! is that the second half is less compelling than the first. There’s too much talk and riding around and that grand finale with the bandoleros attacking the Mexican town, has a lot of spectacular stunt work (Hal Needham  coordinating), but also looks quite chaotic. William Clothier’s cinematography of the landscape is impressive, but too many scenes are shot against a blue screen.

Note: Some have suggested that the movie was influenced by the spaghetti westerns. In spite of the comedy it is quite violent and the soundtrack, by Jerry Goldsmith, is dominated by a laconic whistling theme and some of the upbeat tunes we know from Morricone’s scores for the Dollar movies. There are a few similarities to the Enzo G. Castellari’s caper movies in spaghetti western style (often starring an American B-actor like Edd Byrness, John Saxon or Frank Wolff) such as Any Gun Can Play or I came, I saw, I Shot, but they had not yet reached American cinemas when Bandolero! was filmed (*), so it might all have been coincidence.

* Any Gun Can Play was released in September 1968 in New York City, three months after Bandolero!

BOTTOM LINE
A unpretentious but colourful comedy western with a great cast and some fine cinematography. 
6/10

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Showdown (1973)




SHOWDOWN

Dir: George Seaton - Cast: Rock Hudson, Dean Martin, Susan Clark, Donald Moffat, John McLiam

A western telling the familiar story of two friends ending up on different sides of the law. It was the last western for both Dean Martin and Rock Hudson and the only time they appeared together in a movie. It was also the final feature film for director George Seaton (Miracle on 34th Street, Airport) who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after completing the movie.

Martin and and Hudson are two childhood friends, Billy Massey and Chuck Jarvis. At the film’s start, the two buddies have already drifted apart: Chuck (Rock) is a married man and a rancher, Billy (Dino) has become a drifter and a train robber of sorts. Billy has spent some time in Mexico, but after his return to Texas, he robs a train not too far away from where Chuck lives, not realizing that his former buddy has become the local sheriff.

The story of the two friends is shown in a series of flashbacks, nicely introduced by black and white stills. We see how they grew up together, virtually becoming brothers. They went separate ways after both men had fallen in love with the same woman, Kate (played very well by Susan Clark, charming as ever). Kate initially fell for Billy, the more charming of the two, but eventually chose to marry the Rock solid Chuck, because she reckoned he would make a better rancher. Being the sheriff, Chuck is now forced to bring up his old buddy, but Billy’s is also chased by two former partners in crime, who were deserted by him after they had fallen out after the robbery ...

At first sight Showdown is a old-fashioned movie, telling a story that had been told dozens of times before. There are strong similarities to George Marshall’s Texas (1941), in which Glenn Ford, William Holden and Claire Trevor play similar characters, but it also adopts some of the melancholy of the revisionist westerns of the period, often dealing with the theme of the ‘End of the West’. A date on a gravestone (Chuck and Kate had a stillborn child) tells us that we’re in the late 1890s, when the West was no longer Wild (at least not as wild as it used to be). Chuck is a sheriff of the old stamp, instinctively rejecting the bureaucracy he’s confronted with. The finale echoes Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, the two former buddies facing Billy’s partners in crime together, side by side, protecting each other, like they used to do in the good old times.

Showdown is not a great movie; the flashbacks are well-integrated into the story-line but there are too many of them. Both Martin and Hudson were past their prime (especially Martin looks old and tired) and they didn’t get along very well. Dino was also unhappy during the shoot because of the death of his favorite horse Tops (1). But in spite of its shortcomings, it’s not an unpleasant watch; the script (by Theodore Taylor, based on a story by Henry Fine) could have fleshed out the characters a bit more but it’s still a nice story about ‘former pals becoming pals again under pressure’. Ernest Laslo’s widescreen cinematography is impressive and the finale, a remarkably violent showdown in the midst of a forest fire, is quite exciting, even if the dark colors of some of the stock material used (of forest fires) clash with the clarity of Laslo’s cinematography.


BOTTOM LINE:
A predictable but not unpleasant western about two childhood friends ending up on different sides of the law. Slow-moving, but beautifully shot and with an effective finale.
6/10

Note:

* (1) Jeremy Ritchie, A Showdown with Dean Martin and Rock Hudson, on: Moon in the Gutter


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Breakheart Pass (1975)



BREAKHEART PASS (1975) 

Dir: Tom Gries - Cast: Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Richard Crenna, Ben Johnson, Charles Durning, Ed Lauter, Bill McKinney, David Huddleson, Roy Jenson, Eddie Little Sky, Robert Tessier, Archie Moore 

In 1870 a diphtheria epidemic has broken out in the army outpost of Fort Humboldt. A train is on its way to the fort with medical supplies and troops to replace the soldiers who have fallen victim to the disease. Also on board are the Governor and his niece plus a sheriff and his prisoner, a man called Deacon (Charlie), who was arrested for cheating at the card table and identified as a fugitive with the help of a newspaper. As the train approaches its destiny, it becomes clear that things are not what they seem ...

I had never seen this movie before. I’m not a fan of runaway train movies and the idea of a western with a mystery plot in the style of Agatha Christie (The Orient Express inevitably comes to mind) didn’t sound inviting at all. To my surprise the movie works quite well. The story - by Alistair MacLean, who adapted his own novel to the screen - often feels ridiculously far-fetched and there are quite a few inconsistencies, but mystery thrillers are there to puzzle and surprise us, not to be believable. Thanks to a series of twists and turns the entire premise is turned inside out: there’s no epidemic, instead there’s gold, murder, mayhem, a conspiracy of gunrunners and renegade Indians and above all there’s Charles Bronson, a lot of Charles Bronson, including Mrs. Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland.

The setting occasionally has a claustrophobic effect but we also get a series of beautiful images of the steam train moving into the snow-capped mountains and there’s a spectacular man to man fight on top of the train between Chuck and former boxing champion Archie Moore. It was the last movie for legendary stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt and his son Joe was one of the stuntmen. MacLean’s writings offer no more than cardboard characters in a throwaway plot, but the tension is nicely sustained while we move from corpse to corpse and Charlie is turned from a villain into the detective investigating the case. When the train eventually reaches its destiny - not Fort Humboldt but Breakheart Pass - and the passengers disembark, there’s a violent conclusion in the open to give us some real western atmosphere.

Breakheart Pass is a star vehicle, obviously made with a very decent budget. Appearances in European genre movies had turned Bronson into a popular actor in Europe and Asia, and the vigilante movie Death Wish (1974) had finally propelled him to stardom in his own country. The film has a great cast of supporting actors, but unfortunately they don’t have much to do (the only supporting actor who really shines, is the relatively unknown Robert Tessier, a former wrestler, as a particularly nasty, bald and bearded villain). Director Gries also makes a few bad choises: in one scene the cars at the end of the train, containing the soldiers, are decoupled, causing them to roll downhill, getting completely out of control. The climax -  the cars derailing and plunging into a ravine -  is shown in slow-motion, so far so good, but the camera remains so long with the action that it becomes clear that the cars are empty.

BOTTOM LINE: 
Cardboard characters and a throwaway plot, but a good Chuck and some exciting action moments make this an above average star vehicle. 
7- /10