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Monthly Archives: May 2008

Dark of the Sun

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There haven’t been too many movies based around the modern mercenary trade – The Wild Geese, The Dogs of War, The Last Grenade and, if you stretch the point, the recent Blood Diamond are the ones that spring to mind. There are, of course, lots of examples of mercenary characters in westerns but that’s not really the same thing. Of those mentioned, The Wild Geese isn’t much more than a Boy’s Own adventure, albeit a fairly enjoyable one. The Dogs of War spends way too much time on behind the scenes machinations and The Last Grenade is just not a very good film. Jack Cardiff’s 1968 production Dark of the Sun is a cut above all these and is arguably the best movie in this small sub-genre.

The story is set during the Simba revolt in the Congo in the mid 60s, when that vast, former Belgian colony was on the point of implosion. A mercenary group, under the command of Curry (Rod Taylor), are engaged to drive a train into the interior and evacuate the European inhabitants of an isolated mining town which is threatened by the advance of the Simba rebels. The reason this particular town is on the fast track for relief is because there happens to be a fortune in uncut diamonds waiting around for whoever arrives first. Curry, and comrade in arms Ruffo (Jim Brown), sets out with his hastily assembled group in the hope of beating the Simbas to the chase. Everything zips along at a good pace, packing in a chainsaw fight, a confrontation with the U.N. forces, and the rescue of a massacre survivor (Yvette Mimieux) before the train arrives at its destination. At this point the tension rises, as the diamonds are in a vault whose time lock won’t open for another three hours, and the rebels are inching ever closer.

The waiting game commences for Curry (Rod Taylor)

Rod Taylor gives one of his best performances as the hard as nails soldier of fortune and there’s none of the phony posing so prevalent in more modern action heroes. Taylor seems genuinely tough and the climax, where he gives full rein to his outraged fury at the fate of his best friend, is powerful stuff indeed. Jim Brown was no great shakes as an actor but his calm, reasonable Ruffo provides an acceptable counterweight to the simmering Curry. Peter Carsten makes for a great villain as an unapologetic ex-Nazi, and there’s good support from the seasoned Kenneth More and Andre Morell. This is pretty much a man’s movie so there’s not a lot for Yvette Mimieux to do, but she does look sexy and appealing and that’s good enough for me.

If you’ve ever seen a movie photographed by Jack Cardiff you will know how effortlessly good everything looks. Although he is the director here, the movie remains visually pleasing and is only occasionally spoiled by some poor rear projection. The score by Jacques Loussier (I don’t believe I’ve heard anything else by him) is another major plus; it’s a jazzy, downbeat effort that enhances the mood of the picture perfectly. The source material was a novel of the same name by Wilbur Smith. Smith knocked out some good, tight action thrillers early in his career before sliding into the (probably more lucrative) field of the bloated, historical soap opera. I don’t know who provided the inspiration for Smith’s characters but I suspect he may have been thinking of Mike Hoare. Either way, I believe the film’s makers had one of Dublin’s less celebrated figures in mind – if you can get your hands on a copy of ‘Mad’ Mike’s own memoirs, Congo Mercenary, you ought to notice some parallels.

As far as I know, Dark of the Sun remains unavailable on DVD anywhere but there was some talk of Warner giving it a release in R1. It has turned up on TCM in the past but I would love to see it get a proper release – it’s a very good movie whose stock should rise if only it were more readily available.

EDIT January 2012 – The movie has now been given two official releases. The first is the Warner Archive MOD from the USA which I haven’t seen. It’s also been issued in Spain by Suevia, a company whose output is variable in quality. However, I’m pleased to say the Spanish disc is more than acceptable. It’s been transferred progressively in anamorphic scope and looks generally sharp. The colours are rich and there’s no problem with subs – the disc offers the option of French, Spanish or no subtitles on the English track. Extras are limited to the trailer. All in all, it’s a very satisfactory release.

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2008 in 1960s, Jack Cardiff, Rod Taylor, War

 

A Dandy in Aspic

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Anthony Mann’s career as a director could be divided into three broad phases; his noirs of the forties, his westerns of the fifties, and his epics of the sixties. I think it’s fair to say that he mastered all of these and brought something new to each. A Dandy in Aspic (1968) would be his first Cold War spy thriller, although ironically it would also be his last film and he died before it was completed. Had he lived, I think it’s unlikely that he would have embraced the genre if this film is anything to go by. All told, it’s a tired, glum effort which offers nothing fresh; it falls back on endless cliches and tries to be too clever for its own good.

It opens brightly enough with a nice credits sequence featuring a puppet dancing on a string to the accompaniment of a cool Quincy Jones score. Alex Eberlin is a British spy who we are informed is a remote, sexless snob. Personally, I found this tidbit of information superfluous as the part was being played by Laurence Harvey, and those are the very words that spring to mind when I think of him. It turns out that Eberlin is really a double agent and a KGB assassin who has been living in Britain for twenty years but longs to return home. However, his controllers don’t want him to return just yet since he’s been performing well enough for them. A bigger problem for him, though, is the fact that his superiors in British Intelligence want him to take on a new task. They have grown weary of their operatives being knocked off and Eberlin is handed the job of eliminating the assassin, in other words eliminating himself. To this end, he is packed off to Berlin in the company of another agent, the openly hostile Gatiss (Tom Courtenay). There follows a series of confusing double-crosses, shot against a drab looking Berlin cityscape, until everything winds down to a vaguely unsatisfying twist ending. Along the way, there is time for a romance with an English photographer, Mia Farrow. I’m not quite sure what purpose this relationship is supposed to serve other than to add some swinging sixties atmosphere – if it’s supposed to help the viewer to connect with these characters in some way, then it fails. 

Laurence Harvey in a sticky situation.

The movie is essentially hamstrung with the casting Harvey and Farrow. Harvey’s role is hardly a sympathetic one to begin with as he shows no remorse for his betrayals, and he kills and uses people simply to preserve his own hide. On top of this, he was the kind of actor who could make the furniture around him seem interesting, those pinched facial reactions conveying all the intensity of a mild case of indigestion. Farrow is just vacant, although, in all fairness, she’s handed such a non-role that there’s no real opportunity to do anything with it. Tom Courtenay’s embittered, and belligerent Gatiss is better but it’s still pretty much a one note performance. He gets to stump around on his cane (which doubles as a rifle – shades of Bond amid all the dourness) and spit out his lines with a perpetual scowl on his face but there’s never any explanation for his anger. Lionel Stander has a clownish part as the cigar chomping KGB man in Berlin, and John Bird does his patented mugging act that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Rory Bremner show. Oh, and Peter Cook (who always seemed to find himself funnier than I ever thought he was) pops up for a small yet irritating role. One of my biggest regrets was that Harry Andrews wasn’t given more to do than chair a claustrophobic briefing session.  

There are some interesting shots in the film which illustrate Anthony Mann’s good eye for strong composition, and there’s a nice set piece climax at a motor circuit, but they’re not enough. The plot is close to incomprehensible with all the twists and turns it takes and, in the end, it falls between two stools by trying to marry the grim aspects with too much contrived buffoonery. I think one’s fondness or lack of it for this film may come down to one’s level of tolerance for the performers involved, and I think I’ve made it clear enough where I stand. Basically, I feel I’ve seen all this done before and better but, if you’re a fan of this type of story or any of the actors, it is worth a look. For myself, I only wish Anthony Mann had signed off on a better note.

A Dandy in Aspic is available on DVD in R2 from Sony in a barebones edition, but it does have a pretty good anamorphic scope transfer.

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2008 in 1960s, Anthony Mann, Mystery/Thriller

 

The Woman in the Window

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In many ways Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) plays like a dress rehearsal for his production of Scarlet Street the following year. Both films feature the same three stars – Edward G Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea – and tell the story of a married, middle-aged man whose chance meeting with a young woman leads him into a vortex of murder, blackmail and ruin. However, where Scarlet Street is relentlessly grim, The Woman in the Window is a paler shade of noir – and not just because of its ending.

Richard Wanley (Robinson) is an assistant professor at a New York college whose wife and family have gone off on a trip, leaving him to his own devices. After an evening spent at his club with a couple of friends, including the District Attorney (Raymond Massey), he pauses on his way home to admire a portrait of a woman in the window of an adjacent art gallery. As he’s gazing through the window, the subject of the portrait, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), appears by his side and, one thing leading to another, he ends back at her apartment. Up to this point everything seems innocent enough, but the abrupt and violent arrival of Reed’s lover sends the situation spiralling out of control. Although Wanley is left with no alternative but to kill his assailant out of self defence, he is also aware that his story is unlikely to be accepted and, even if it is, his life will be ruined. The solution – dump the body, destroy all the evidence and make like it never happened. Naturally, all of Wanley’s well laid plans start to unravel before his eyes as the police investigation starts to build up a body of forensic evidence that may soon cast suspicion on the hapless professor. The greatest danger, however, is posed by a shady ex-cop (Dan Duryea) with blackmail on his mind. The plot builds inexorably towards a suitably downbeat climax, yet this film has one last sting in its tail. I won’t spoil things for anyone who hasn’t seen this, but suffice to say that this ending has led some to question the noir credentials of the movie. Personally, I don’t share this view but I can see why it remains a bone of contention with some.

Joan Bennett & Edward G. Robinson behind bars and imprisoned by fate.

As I said above, The Woman in the Window comes off as a lighter form of noir than Scarlet Street, and a good deal of this, aside from the ending, comes down to the portrayal of the characters. It is much easier to sympathise with Robinson’s character here, somehow his decisions, while questionable, seem more understandable. Bennett, too, is much less repugnant than would be the case in Scarlet Street. She is clearly a kept woman and a femme fatale, in the sense that she leads the protagonist into a dangerous, doomed situation, yet her motives are neither malicious nor wholly selfish. It’s only Dan Duryea, in another trademark role as a smirking villain, who fails to endear himself to the audience. There was something about the man – I think it relates to the casually mocking note in his voice – that led to his being typecast in such parts. There’s lots of noir imagery on show with a good deal of the action taking place at night and on rainy city streets. One recurring motif throughout the film is the number of shots which follow events through a series of open doors, symbolising (I suppose) the characters’ deepening crisis. The more I watch and re-watch Lang’s American films, the higher he grows in my estimation – I’d definitely rank him up among my top five directors.

The film was released on DVD last summer, along with a few other noir titles, by MGM in R1. The disc is totally barebones but the transfer is very good, maybe a little soft. There is a R2 available from Spain (I’m not sure about other countries) which, despite an English soundtrack and removable subs, is nowhere near this in terms of picture quality – fortunately, I managed to offload my copy on a friend who remains stubbornly locked into region two. If you’re a fan of noir or Lang then the R1 is the way to go, and I have no hesitation in recommending the movie.

 

Wyatt Earp

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“Some people say it didn’t happen that way…..”

I want to preface this piece by saying that Wyatt Earp is a film for which I’ve never had any particular fondness. However, having said that, I’ve just watched it again after making a conscious decision to try and keep an open mind, and hopefully be as objective as possible. I first saw the film during its initial theatrical run and then later on DVD. I can’t honestly say that I was relishing the prospect of another viewing but I didn’t feel I could round out my series without revisiting this movie. For most film fans any discussion of Wyatt Earp almost always leads to its being compared to Tombstone. Given that both films featured the same lead characters and came out so close together, such comparisons are inevitable but not necessarily fair. While Tombstone focuses on one particular time and place, Wyatt Earp is a sprawling epic that attempts to cover the course of the man’s life. I used to wonder if the fact that I saw Tombstone first colored my opinion in any way, but I don’t now believe that’s the case. I thought Wyatt Earp was a flawed picture on my initial viewing and I still feel the same.

The story begins during the Civil War when Wyatt was helping look after the family farm in Iowa while his older brothers James (David Andrews) and Virgil (Michael Madsen) were off fighting. He is shown attempting to run away to enlist only to be caught and brought back by his father (Gene Hackman). This event, and the subsequent return from war of the brothers, is the cue for some heavy-handed speech making from Hackman. The point of this is to show how Wyatt’s views and attitudes were formed from an early age but I’ve never been keen on this technique for showing character development, it’s always struck me as a lazy way of making a movie. Anyway, having bludgeoned home the point that blood ties are the major motivating force in the young man’s life, the film follows the family on their long trek west to the promised land of California. From there we get snippets of Wyatt’s time as a teamster and how he gained experience in facing down bad men. A fair amount of time is spent on his move to Missouri in order to marry his childhood sweetheart, who succumbs to typhoid soon after the marriage. I found this part of the film dragged a lot although the purpose of its inclusion is to provide an explanation for Wyatt’s later emotional detachment. The pace does pick up when Earp moves to Wichita, Dodge, and ultimately Tombstone, all the while building and expanding his reputation as a fearsome lawman. This is certainly the strongest section of the film and it has to be said that the producers went to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of those wide open frontier towns. It’s also the part of the film that introduces some major characters Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid), his woman Big Nose Kate (Isabella Rossellini), and Bat and Ed Masterson (Tom Sizemore & Bill Pullman).

It all ends now! - Kevin Costner as Wyatt Earp.

Everything builds towards the fateful confrontation with the Cowboys in Tombstone and its aftermath. The O.K. Corral scene is filmed well enough but it just doesn’t carry the punch that such a defining event should; after all, had this not taken place no one would ever have thought to make films about these characters. The resulting vendetta is nowhere near as exciting as it should be and never conveys the sense of the righteous settling of scores that one expects. One major gripe that I had was in the scene showing the climactic gunfight at Iron Springs. Before this the character of Johnny Ringo had barely been mentioned, let alone portrayed. Yet here we have the Earp posse riding into a hail of gunfire, and Doc shouts out the name of Ringo before blasting a faceless man high up in the rocks. If the writers hadn’t wanted to use this character, that’s fair enough – just ignore him. But the way it was handled made me feel that they were sitting around and suddenly realised that here was another name they had to check off the list before things could be wrapped up. In a sense this sums up a serious weakness in the movie, namely the portrayal of the villains. If you’re going to make a big film then you need to ensure that the bad guys are big and bad too. In Wyatt Earp the Cowboys are poorly defined and never provide any real feeling of threat, they’re just a bunch of grubby, unshaven guys who look vaguely mean. Of course I’m aware that this may be closer to the truth but the point is that such realism does not make for a good film. Let’s just say it’s never good news when one of your principal baddies is played by Jeff (straight-to-video) Fahey.

So, for me, the greatest flaws in the movie are the acting and the scale. Costner’s acting style may well be an acquired taste, if so I have yet to acquire it. I could be generous and say that his is a restrained performance but the truth is that he simply comes across as wooden. Every line, no matter what emotion lies behind it, is delivered in the same careful, measured tone. Even if this is true to the character it makes it impossible for the viewer to connect in any way. Dennis Quaid’s Doc Holliday definitely comes off the best but, again, it’s hardly an endearing performance. The real man may not have been a charming figure, but Quaid gives us an irritable and irritating jerk that even Wyatt Earp would have had a hard time considering a friend. There’s also something forced about his interpretation; he certainly looked the picture of bad health but I always had the sense that I was watching an actor in a role, not a real person. The support cast are largely disappointing but the best of the bunch is probably Bill Pullman as the ‘affable’ Ed Masterson. Michael Madsen’s Virgil Earp is generally colorless, but then I’ve always thought that Madsen is a rather limited actor who’s nowhere near as tough as he’d like to think. In general, the cast is filled up with too many nobodies and TV actors, which means too many flat and lifeless performances.

The moment of truth - the Earps and Holliday at the O.K. Corral.

As I said, the scale of the film is another problem – and one that seems to dog many of Costner’s projects. In brief, it’s too long and tries to pack in too much. By attempting to chart the life of this man the film has both too much detail and too little. This results in characters coming and going without the audience getting the chance to know them in any way. Having said that, it does look good and there are some beautifully composed shots of the western landscape. Also, James Newton Howard’s score has that soaring, epic feel to it. Ultimately, though, the film disappointed me and left me feeling as cold as the Alaskan landscape in the final shot.

Wyatt Earp is on DVD from Warner in R1 and R2 in its theatrical cut. As far as I know, the extended cut has never been available on DVD – in a sense I’m grateful for that since I’m of the opinion that a few more trims wouldn’t have hurt this one. I know some may see this as a bit of a hatchet job, but I have tried to give my own honest assessment of the movie and what I feel are its flaws. I hope my efforts at articulating my views make some sort of sense.

So, one month and eight films later, I have come to the end of my series of reviews of the Wyatt Earp movies. I have to say it has been enjoyable for me to go through them all back to back, and I can only hope the readers of this blog haven’t been bored witless by it. What I have noticed most in this lengthy perusal, apart from the increasing focus on realism, is how the character of Wyatt Earp evolved – from the generic and uncomplicated western hero of Randolph Scott, to the taciturn and unsympathetic professional of Kevin Costner. Each characterization added a little more depth to the legend and simultaneously stripped away a little of the myth to reveal more of the darkness inside. I still feel that, despite all the inaccuracies, My Darling Clementine is the best of all the films. I would rank Tombstone as the most entertaining and arguably the most accessible. Unfortunately, I would have to place Wyatt Earp far down the list, maybe even at the bottom – it was just too ambitious and ultimately unable to deliver all that it promised.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2008 in 1990s, Kevin Costner, Lawrence Kasdan, Westerns

 

Tombstone

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No. Make no mistake; it’s not revenge he’s after…it’s a reckoning.

Is Tombstone the best western of recent years? Perhaps not, but it must surely rank as one of the most entertaining. Eastwood’s Unforgiven may have more things to say, it’s themes may run deeper, but despite its undeniable quality it is nowhere near as much fun as Tombstone. When one sets about telling a story that has already been committed to celluloid as many times as this one has, it’s no mean feat to produce something which avoids staleness. The trick was to make a film that stayed closer to the historical facts than any previous effort, yet compress it and ensure that the pacing didn’t suffer. Tombstone manages to maintain this fine balance: the facts are mostly adhered to, but some are altered for dramatic effect and, crucially, the script never allows itself to getbogged down in tedious minutiae.

The title of the film makes it plain that it’s going to deal with the portion of Wyatt Earp’s life spent in the town of Tombstone, and the events surrounding it. Of course references are made to the lives and exploits of the Earps in the years preceding the story but they’re never labored, serving only to clarify the reputation of Wyatt. The opening of the film is a short montage of black and white shots with a voiceover by Robert Mitchum to establish time and place. This little sequence ends with the famous shot from The Great Train Robbery (1903), where a gun is fired straight at the audience. In truth, this is only one of many homages paid to the classic westerns of years gone by, the film is littered with them. From there on, it’s pure blood and thunder stuff as we get our first glimpse of the villains of the piece, the Cowboys, riding into a Mexican pueblo to massacre a wedding party as an act of vengence. The real Cowboys were a band of outlaws who came together from time to time to engage in various criminal acts. The movie, in order to heighten the drama, gives the impression that they were a closely knit group – a sort of western prototype for the mafia. The Earps, on the other hand, are shown to be former lawmen (except the younger Morgan) who have no interest in a confrontation, preferring to spend their time building up their finances via gambling. Some of their less savoury activities, such as their alleged involvement in prostitution, are glossed over, although Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) frequently refers to them as pimps. They only find themselves drawn into conflict with the Cowboys after the killing of town marshal Fred White (Harry Carey Jnr) forces their hand. As a result, the situation soon deteriorates rapidly, culminating in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Cowboys’ retribution, and Wyatt’s subsequent vendetta.

Hell's coming with me - Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp. 

The centrepiece is undoubtedly the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and this is filmed with much more attention to the real details than ever before. The movie takes pains to show who shot who, when, where and how. Even the dialogue sticks close to what has been recorded, with Wyatt (Kurt Russell) telling Ike to either get to fighting or go (he went) and Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) delivering the memorable “You’re a daisy if you do” before dispatching Frank McLaury. It’s a well filmed scene which captures not only the spontaneous excitement but also the nervy disorganisation of the event. The aftermath of this was a lot of legal shenanigans before the Cowboys took bloody revenge on the Earps. The movie skips over the legal wrangling completely and condenses the Cowboys’ attack into one night of violence. While this may be taking liberties with the facts, it helps the film immeasurably by ensuring the narrative keeps moving. The greatest divergence from the truth takes place during the depiction of the vendetta. There were nowhere near as many people killed as the movie suggests, although the entertainment value would have been greatly reduced if this had been insisted on. Even so, the film still manages to include some genuine happenings here, such as Wyatt’s shotgun duel with Curly Bill (Powers Boothe) and the stopover at the ranch of Arizona cattleman Henry Hooker (Charlton Heston).

I'm your huckleberry - Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.

The acting is dominated by Kurt Russell as Wyatt, Val Kilmer as Doc, and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo. These three performances are central to the success of the movie and they’re so good it’s hard to imagine anyone else filling the roles. Russell plays Earp as a cold pragmatist driven to action only by family loyalty, and an emotional icicle who’s gradually thawed out by Dana Delany’s slightly goofy but attractive actress. Michael Biehn’s Ringo is a study in madness and evil, alternately killing priests, quoting in latin, and screaming at the Earps that he wants their blood and souls. The real standout, though, is Val Kilmer as the screen’s definitive Doc Holliday. It is unlikely that Kilmer will ever play a better part (he’s certainly done nothing approaching it since) than the doomed lunger. He gets all the best lines and delivers them with such fatalistic charm that you can’t help liking him. The script also offers him a great exit; if that deathbed scene doesn’t bring a tear to your eye then you’ve obviously mislaid your heart somewhere. It’s nice to see a nod to the classic westerns with the casting of Harry Carey Jnr and Charlton Heston, and Robert Mitchum’s narration – Mitchum was to have played Old Man Clanton but a back injury on the first day of filming put paid to that. A few other references to the movies of the past come with Dana Delany singing Red River Valley (one of John Ford’s favorites) and Russell channelling the spirit of Henry Fonda as he reclines on the boardwalk with his heels on the hitching post before marching off to the O.K. Corral and immortality.

The only DVD of this film worth owning is the R1 Director’s Cut. The anamorphic scope transfer is generally good, though there is visible edge enhancement. The 2-disc set has a number of extras including a commentary from director George P. Cosmatos and, most importantly, it is the only complete version of the film. The added scenes, while not of huge significance, do help fill in a few gaps in the narrative. Although Tombstone will probably never attain the status of one of the great westerns I still get an enormous kick out of it every time I see it.

 
 
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