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Category Archives: 1970s

A Fistful of Dynamite

I know what I am talking about when I am talking about the revolutions. The people who read the books go to the people who can’t read the books, the poor people, and say, “We have to have a change.” So, the poor people make the change, ah? And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat, eh? But what has happened to the poor people? They’re dead! That’s your revolution.

For someone who has dedicated so much time to writing about westerns, I’ll have to admit I have thus far neglected one of the best known directors of the genre: Sergio Leone. The truth is that, outside of Leone’s work, I cannot claim to be a huge fan of the spaghetti western sub-genre. So, while I have reservations about the Euro western in general, I have no hesitation at all acknowledging the artistry and sensibility of Leone. He didn’t actually make a large number of westerns, but those which he did have been highly influential. Once Upon a Time in the West has probably come to be accepted as his crowning achievement. While I have no intention of challenging that assertion, I do believe that A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) runs it a very close second in terms of emotional and intellectual depth.

The setting is Mexico during the revolution, and this provides the ideal background for Leone to lay out his thoughts. It affords him the opportunity to make points of both a political and personal nature, and weave them together into a critique of the direction of contemporary filmmaking. If Ford and Peckinpah had helped deconstruct the myth of the west, and paved the way for the emergence of the spaghetti western, then Leone (critically lauded as a cinematic revolutionary) set about the deconstruction of the myth of revolution itself. The film opens with Mao’s quotation describing revolution as being essentially an act of violence, and the events that unfold on the screen back up this assertion. Yet Leone, in his depiction of the frequent and mindless violence, never glories in the bloodshed. The film we see is a tragedy, a very human one, but at the same time it’s a celebration of friendship and kinship. We follow the fortunes of two men, John Mallory (James Coburn) and Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) as they navigate the danger and treachery of a country in upheaval. John is an IRA man, an explosives expert on the run from his native land plying his trade in the silver mines. Juan is a bandit, a simple peasant content to live off whatever pickings come his way. A chance meeting draws these two contrasting characters together and binds their fates inextricably. Initially, each man views the other as a kind of dupe, a tool to be made use of to further their individual ends. Juan sees the Irishman as the means by which he can finally crack the famed bank in Mesa Verde, while John regards the Mexican as someone he can trick into serving the revolutionary cause. The first half of the movie takes us through the twists and turns of his mismatched duo’s effort to stay one step ahead of the other. The tone is light, bordering on the comedic at times, but the clouds are gathering in the background. The aftermath of the Mesa Verde escapade ushers in the second, darker part of the story. It’s here that the full import of the political situation starts to become clear. Where the violence of the earlier section had a cartoonish quality, the deaths that follow (and there are many) are cruel, and they have consequences. The romance of revolution is laid bare before us, both in words (see the opening quotation above) and actions, and it’s not a pretty spectacle. Leone’s controversial assessment seems to be that betrayal and loss – of family, friends and ideals – are both the result and foundation of revolution. That’s a brave and daring position to adopt at any time, and even more so in 1971 following hot on the heels of the previous decade’s climate of political, cultural and social change.

For the most part, A Fistful of Dynamite follows a traditional, linear narrative structure. However, there are teasing flashbacks interspersed throughout, each one adding to and expanding on those that precede it. These flashbacks relate to John’s past life in Ireland, and show Leone’s gift for inventiveness by gradually revealing the character. In fact, they work on two levels: (i) they act as an homage to Ford, by evoking the Irish preoccupation with betrayal as seen in The Informer and (ii) they delineate the background of John, simultaneously marking him out as a western hero in the classical mold. Leone was greatly influenced by Ford – a section in Christopher Frayling’s first class Once Upon a Time in Italy reprints a 1983 interview Leone gave an Italian newspaper, where he details his reverence for Ford and tells how he had a framed photo the latter had signed and inscribed in his honour occupy pride of place on his wall. In purely narrative terms, the flashbacks not only flesh out the character of John but they help explain why and how he came to this place in his life. John is essentially an enigmatic character, a man whose motivations are hard to divine, yet the brief interludes in Ireland allow us to build up a near complete picture of him by the end. By charting his descent from romantic idealist to disillusioned technician, the flashbacks both fill in the gaps and establish his western credentials. At first glance, an Irish bomber involved in the Mexican revolution might not appear to be a traditional western figure, but an examination of his character arc – betrayal, revenge, guilt and the quest for spiritual redemption – tells the tale. This lone figure, this outsider with a heart full of regret, searching for a way to bury his past is a recurrent one in the classic western. As such, John moves from apparent cypher to an incredibly complex man, a walking tragedy who seems destined to enter a new cycle of guilt and remorse – his involvement of Juan in his schemes brings only misfortune, and the matter of betrayal once again rears its head. The explosive finale, therefore, represents the only possible way for him to achieve a form of closure and inner peace. Coburn really got under the skin of John, maybe not quite reaching the levels of self-disgust he managed when playing Pat Garrett for Peckinpah but not far off either. The climactic scene on the engine plate with the traitor Villega (Romolo Valli), where he vows never to pass judgement on another man again, is a masterclass in bitterness and loathing.

By contrast, Juan is a much more straightforward character, a simple man with simple dreams. However, he too has to suffer at the hands of idealism. He’s well aware of the hypocrisies and false promises held out by the revolutionaries, yet he allows himself to be drawn ever deeper into the machinations of John and Villega. His casual vulgarity and lack of sophistication mark him as a semi-comedic everyman, someone whose attachment to family allows the audience to sympathize with him despite his being a common criminal. By having the audience view proceedings mainly from Juan’s perspective, Leone manages to hammer home the abrupt shift in tone at the halfway point much more effectively. The fate of his extended family, a direct consequence of his greedy foolishness and unwitting embroilment in politics, hits both him and us hard. The scene in the cave, with a bewildered and grief-stricken Juan stumbling around amid the carnage, is extremely moving no matter how often it’s seen. It brings both the film and the character to a new level, and neither one is ever the same again. Juan is transformed form a gregarious rogue with grandiose plans first to an image of despair, and then to something harder and colder. As an actor, Rod Steiger generally had a tendency to overcook it, to chew up the scenery before moving on to the props for afters. That is certainly in evidence in the early stages, where he is essentially a caricature of a Mexican bandit. However, he was capable of greater subtlety when the occasion demanded, and his reaction to the discovery in the cave, and all that follows, bears testimony to that. Steiger managed to tap into the development of his character, the journey he has taken, but still hold onto a touch of the innocence that makes him endearing. The final fadeout, with Juan’s moon face staring dumbly into the camera lens as his question is heard and the answer flashes before us, underlines Leone’s feelings and highlights the pitiful quandary faced by all of us.

Of course it would be impossible to discuss any Sergio Leone film without also referring to the music of Ennio Morricone. To any film fan, the names of the director and composer are inseparable, and the two men seemed to draw the best from each other. Morricone’s scores are always distinctive, primal pieces that complement the harsh landscapes and off-center characters in Leone’s films. For A Fistful of Dynamite, Morricone created music that was quite unlike the work he did on the previous Leone collaborations. There’s a light, jaunty quality to the scoring in the early scenes that matches the initial buffoonery of Juan and the ribbing of John. This gives way to the lush romanticism of the pastoral flashbacks and the ethereal vocals repeating the name Sean over and over. And finally, the more somber variation on that theme as the flashbacks grow darker and knowledge of what John did to his friend (Sean?) becomes apparent. One of the features on the DVD actually raises that question – who is Sean, and why does John call himself that at first? Of course, Sean is often used in Ireland as the Gaelic form of John, but Leone’s cutting of that scene and the use of the music therein does suggest some kind of transference is taking place, that John’s guilt is subconsciously driving him to adopt the name of his friend.

And finally, a word on the title. This movie has been known under a number of titles: Giù La Testa, Duck, You Sucker!, Once Upon a Time in the Revolution and A Fistful of Dynamite. The original Italian title arguably captures Leone’s message most succinctly – a plea to keep a low profile and thus avoid unwanted political attention and trouble – but the translation into English loses much of that and actually suggests some light-hearted romp. The other two alternatives both represent attempts to draw connections to and capitalize on Leone’s previous successes, but neither is really satisfactory either. In the end, I opted to use A Fistful of Dynamite to head the piece here mainly because that’s the one I’m most familiar with, and it’s also emblazoned across the cover of my DVD.

A Fistful of Dynamite is a movie that has been released in different forms over the years, but the 2-disc DVD from MGM presents the definitive cut. It restores the full, extended flashback at the end of the film and the title of Duck, You Sucker as it fades out. That full flashback, with its dreamy feel, is vital in fully understanding the relationship between John and his friend back in Ireland, and adds a different twist, a shade more ambiguity, to his actions. I’d hate to be without it. The edition is stacked with fascinating extras, not the least of which is an excellent commentary track from Sir Christopher Frayling. I have no particular complaints about the anamorphic scope transfer but I still feel it’s a pity it has yet to be released on Blu-ray. Among Leone’s films, this title sits alongside Once Upon a Time in the West in my affections, and might just edge it out. Objectively, it may not be the better film, but it has a kind of romanticism, and disillusionment – and what’s disillusionment but wounded romanticism anyway – that stirs something in my Irish blood. I don’t know, it’s a film I love – that’s as much as I can say.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2013 in 1970s, James Coburn, Sergio Leone, Westerns

 

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Monte Walsh

Elegiac is a word that has been used more than a few times to describe westerns that began to appear in the 1960s and particularly in the 1970s. While many movies tagged with this term do have a certain sorrowful quality to them, I can’t help feeling that it’s been overused at times. On the other hand, there are occasions where this description is highly appropriate, Monte Walsh (1970) being one of them. This is a remarkable film, a work of gentle and understated power, one which can break your heart and yet fill it up with renewed optimism at the same time. Being well aware of the fact that filmmaking is a collaborative effort, I’m loath to place too much emphasis on the contribution of one individual. However, and despite the fact there’s uniformly excellent work from all those involved in the film, I do feel that a large part of what makes Monte Walsh such an enriching experience comes down to Lee Marvin’s performance in the title role.

The film is split into roughly two halves, with the first part spending less time on plot development than the careful establishment of mood and character interaction. This technique is particularly important in creating believable human beings, people we get to know and consequently care about as the twists and turns of their lives unfold. Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) are two veteran cowboys, men starting to feel the sharp bite of age in a world on the brink of huge changes. This fact is apparent right from the outset, when the two friends ride back into town after a hard winter to be met with ominous news. The harsh weather has taken a heavy toll on the ranches, wiping out many and allowing corporate interests to step in. Monte and Chet can count themselves among the lucky ones though; they at least have the offer of doing the only job they really know or care about. Their new masters, never seen and contemptuously referred to as “the accountants”, are an unsentimental breed, however, and owe an attachment to nothing beyond the bottom line. As the need to ensure investments remain profitable rules supreme, the initial group of cowhands is gradually whittled down in the interests of efficiency and cost effectiveness – the tight little community the viewer has come to know and identify with is being broken up before our eyes. To begin with, the younger men, those who have more chances of finding alternative employment, are given notice. Still, these chances are few and far between on a frontier that’s becoming hemmed in by both the barbed wire fences of new owners and the economic restrictions of a new era. One of the first redundancies is Shorty Austin (Mitch Ryan), and his departure is significant in that his meager opportunities set him on a path that will bring him into conflict with the law, his former friends, and ultimately shape the course of events in the second half of the picture. Throughout it all, the overriding theme is a sense of loss, and this is seen principally from the perspective of Monte. As viewers, we’re invited to watch as Monte loses first the job he knows and respects, the friends he’s had all his life, the woman he loves, and the only way of life he’s ever experienced. On paper, this should all add up to a pretty depressing time for the audience, yet the stoicism, the determination, the unstinting hope and essential humanity of the lead character means that there’s a kind of life-affirming optimism at the heart of the movie.

Jack Schaefer wrote one of the most famous stories to be made into a western movie when he penned Shane. He also provided the source material for Monte Walsh and thus added another iconic frontier hero. Instead of a wandering gunfighter, although Monte’s no slouch on that score either, he presented a man battling to come to terms with a world that seems to be suddenly passing him by. I guess it all boils down to a meditation on integrity, the determination to remain true to the experiences and life one knows, and ultimately to oneself. As such, the movie is a curious and successful combination of the melancholy and the triumphant. For all the disappointments, and they come thick and fast as the tale goes along, there’s always a hint of hope. John Barry was one of the greatest composers of film scores and although his name isn’t one normally associates with westerns, he created music that’s literally pitch perfect and complements the images on the screen. He was one of the best at conveying a sense of expansiveness and those dusty scenes of the mustang round-up would be a whole lot poorer were it not for his contribution. Still and all, it’s the main theme  The Good Times are Coming – with lyrics by Hal David and vocals by the incomparable (Mama) Cass Elliot – that dominates it all. At first, this piece may seem like a paradox, an irony, in such a story but it’s actually entirely appropriate. Monte Walsh is a man who’s been bruised by life, but never beaten, a dreamer who’s both in thrall to the past and in love with the future – the ultimate cowboy perhaps. And then there’s the directorial debut of William A Fraker, that master cinematographer who took the reins in only a handful of films. His eye for landscape, his ability to draw genuine performances from his cast, and his impeccable sense of timing are wonderful and it’s regrettable that he directed so few movies.

Lee Marvin has to go down as of the Hollywood greats. Starting out in supporting roles, he damned near stole the picture from many a legendary lead. By the time he made Monte Walsh, Marvin was in his mid-40s and looked every hard-living day of it. He always had character in his face, his voice and movements – you just knew this was a man who had been around, who had done things and was no stranger to life. Consequently, he fits the role of Monte like a glove, having the looks and experience in the genre to positively demand you believe in him. Despite winning an Oscar for Cat Ballou, I still feel this actor has never received his full due. Even today, he tends to be thought of as an action actor, a villainous character and tough guy. Well, he was a tough guy, but in the real sense of the term – an all-round man. He could play menacing as well as any but there was a whole lot more to him, power and subtlety to be exact. As Monte Walsh, he’s electrifying – you can’t take your eyes off him. Every bad break in life is etched into those craggy features and every sadness too, but there’s humor and tenderness beneath it all. I could pick out most any scene in the movie to prove my point but I’ll mention just two. The aftermath of Chet’s wedding is a sobering moment for Monte; the full impact of the changes to his world have just begun to hit home, and he heads for the refuge of the saloon. But as he enters he gets another shock – the place is deserted, a forlorn shell that’s a world away from the thriving hub it had once been. The realization and subsequent acceptance of this unpleasant truth is clear to see in just a few brief twitches around the eyes and mouth. Additionally, one of the most moving sequences comes when Monte arrives too late and discovers that his great love Martine (Jeanne Moreau) has passed away. His grief is completely internalized and controlled, yet there’s no question about its depth. As he opens her little jewelry box and finds both a lock of his hair and the unused money he once pressed upon her, there’s just the faintest glimmer of a tear in the corner of his eye – far more telling and powerful than any display of histrionics.

Marvin may have been the beating heart of the movie, but he had no shortage of first class support right through the cast. Jack Palance was another performer who could ignite the screen at will, an actor of extraordinary intensity who was capable of exhausting an audience emotionally. This film, however, saw him playing a model of restraint and self-control. Where Monte would not be cowed by the vagaries of fate, Chet was the more philosophical. Recognizing that time was no longer on his side, he took the pragmatic view and settled down to town life and marriage. Palance added a note of calmness and pragmatism to his performance here, more blissful than defeatist. However, it’s worth noting that it’s the ornery refusal to bow down that leads to Palance’s downfall. Monte held onto that quality throughout, refused to succumb at any point, and fares better in the end. Jeanne Moreau also gave a memorable turn as Martine, the woman in Monte’s life – even his lifeline to some extent – who can forgive him anything and would wait for him for ever. Moreau was all sadness and sexiness, a classically tragic figure. The wordless scene where she tries to arouse the interest of her man as he struggles to roll a cigarette is a beautiful moment of humor and sensuality. And the discussion she has with Marvin about their future together is an object lesson in how to blend romance and regret with ever allowing it to descend into the maudlin.

For a long time, Monte Walsh was one of those movies that I feared would never see the light of day on DVD. Then Paramount finally came to their senses and released it in the US. The film is correctly presented in anamorphic scope and looks pretty good with no distractions or damage that I was aware of. The only extra feature offered is the theatrical trailer, which I think is a shame as a commentary track would be welcome and appropriate. Still, I’m grateful to have the movie available on disc so I’m not going to complain too much. I think this is one of the great westerns, not only of the 1970s but of one of the greats period. There is a depth and richness to Monte Walsh that stands the test of time; I think it’s a perfect piece of filmmaking where I cannot honestly find anything to criticize. It’s one of those films that grows on you and draws you further in with each subsequent viewing, improving with age. To those already familiar with it, it should need no recommendation. And for those others yet to experience its magic, well you’re in for a treat. I recommend this one without reservation or qualification – the definition of a classic.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2012 in 1970s, Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, Westerns

 

Ulzana’s Raid

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By the 1970s revisionism had hit the western in a big way; it had started the previous decade of course, but the social upheval of the period brought it fully to the fore in those last painful days of the Vietnam War. Conflict and domestic unrest have a way of drawing a nation’s gaze inward and it’s hardly surprising that the most iconic cultural markers are the ones upon which attention is most strongly fixed. Such was the case with the western, that most readily identifiable symbol of America’s heritage, and the brutal campaigns against the Indians provided a rich background to use as a parallel for a contemporary war. Ulzana’s Raid (1972) is frequently cited as an allegory for US involvement in South East Asia, and it’s hard to argue with that – inexperienced soldiers battling a largely faceless foe in hostile and unforgiving territory, exposing strengths and weaknesses, prejudices and virtues in the process.

The tale concerns the breakout by a band of Apache led by Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) from the reservation, and their subsequent rampage across Arizona. In response, the army sends out a detachment under the command of a green officer, Lieutenant DeBuin (Bruce Davison), with orders to capture or kill the fugitives. DeBuin is to be aided in his task by two scouts, an Apache, Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke), and a white veteran, McIntosh (Burt Lancaster). DeBuin’s initial approach, fuelled by the fact that his father is a clergyman, is an almost evangelical one, wherein he views the Apache as a misguided and misunderstood people who need to be coaxed back to the bosom of white civilisation. The scouts, McIntosh in particular, have no illusions on this score though – to them the runaway Apache are no aspiring white men who have strayed from the flock, they are a dangerous and cunning enemy worthy of both fear and respect. As DeBuin’s troop follow Ulzana’s blood-soaked trail, encountering one horrific atrocity after another, the young lieutenant sees his faith in the essential goodness of humanity challenged. His reactions range from shock, leading him to question a bemused Ke-Ni-Tay about the motivation for such cruelty, to a kind of outraged vindictiveness as he demands his Apache scout bury the mutilated remains of yet another butchered settler. Throughout all this McIntosh remains dryly philosophical, guiding his young charge as best he can and providing the voice of reason when hate and revenge threaten to displace logical action. What we end up with is an examination of white America’s attempts to come to terms with an adversary whose psychology and beliefs are so alien and incomprehensible that they defy conventional means of tackling them. In the end, it’s only by worming his way into Ulzana’s thought processes that McIntosh is able map out a way to defeat him, although the ultimate irony is that it’s another Apache, and not all the might and firepower of the army, that finally brings closure.

Boxed in - Burt Lancaster in Ulzana's Raid.

I think Ulzana’s Raid might just be Robert Aldrich’s best movie, blending action and harsh visuals perfectly. The cruel and pitiless Arizona and Nevada landscapes are a fitting backdrop for the brutal events that play out on the screen. There’s barely an interior shot in the whole picture, the bulk of it taking place amid the dust, rocks and canyons. Where he was a little coy about trumpeting his politics in earlier works here he indulges in a kind of liberal realism that never patronises or descends into sentiment. There’s clearly sympathy for the deprivation that has driven Ulzana and his band off the reservation in search of the spiritual power they crave, but at no point does Aldrich allow the Apache to be seen as the kind of dippy mystics that is the stuff of caricature. He never shies away from depicting the merciless nature of Ulzana and his men, but nor does he seek to cover it up in politically correct excuses – to paraphrase both McIntosh and Ke-Ni-Tay, the Apache are what they are and that’s how it’s always been. The main focus though is on how the young lieutenant and his men cope with the reality of fighting an enemy that they can neither seem to catch nor even understand. Bruce Davison had suitably innocent and freshly-scrubbed features to portray a man about to have all his high-minded illusions shattered. He matures nicely as the story progresses and McIntosh’s wisdom gradually sinks in. As the grizzled old scout, Lancaster dominates the movie with his wry observations helping to ground it all. He displays a sense of fatalism that befits a man whose years of living on the frontier have exposed him to the brutal nature of men in general. Richard Jaeckel also deserves a mention for his sergeant who’s been through the wars and learnt that while officers need to be obeyed and respected their judgement is not always to be trusted.

Universal’s UK DVD of Ulzana’s Raid presents the film at about 1.78:1 anamorphic. The disc contains no extra features at all, but the movie itself looks very handsome with good detail, sharpness and colour. I should mention that the UK version has a number of mandatory BBFC cuts for horsefalls – these don’t amount to much in terms of time but they do result in slightly jarring editing when they occur. As far as I know, the continental European versions do not have any of those cuts present. As I said, this is probably Aldrich’s best work and it makes for a western that’s both intelligent and engrossing. It casts a cool eye on the old west that refreshingly avoids being either judgemental or romantic – the viewer is expected to be enough of an adult to make up his or her own mind without being led by the nose. Highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1970s, Burt Lancaster, Robert Aldrich, Westerns

 

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

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When I started this series of reviews about a month ago I mentioned that one of the reasons why I’d avoided doing it for a time was the variable quality of the films involved. Being aware that you’re going to have to sit through and then try to express your thoughts on movies that you already know are mediocre can be a little discouraging. What I didn’t mention, however, was the fact that the opposite is also true. When a film has a particularly strong critical reputation it’s equally daunting, though for different reasons of course. You instinctively wonder whether it’s possible to say anything that hasn’t been said before, and probably been said better. In the case of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Sam Peckinpah’s last western, I don’t promise to offer any startling insights but I do hope that I manage to at least express my own personal appreciation of this flawed masterpiece.

The film can, and I think should, be viewed as the death dream of Pat Garrett as he relives the defining events of his life, even as that life is slipping away. I ought to say right now that this view is dependent on the version of the film that’s watched – I’ll explain what I mean later, but for now I will simply say that it does have an impact on the way viewers approach the story. It’s 1909 and an aging and testy Garrett (James Coburn) is riding a wagon through New Mexico. His terse, snappish conversation with his companions is violently interrupted by the crack of a rifle shot. No sooner has the first bullet struck home than Garrett’s escort proceed to empty their own weapons into his mortally wounded body. As the old lawman tumbles towards the earth for the last time the scene is intercut with events of almost 30 years before, in 1881, when we see Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) getting in a bit of target practice by shooting the heads off live chickens. What follows sets up the mood of the rest of the film and explains the motives for the characters subsequent actions. Garrett has sensed that the wind has changed and is pragmatic enough to know that he must go with it or be swept away. He’s thrown in his lot with a shadowy collection of big cattle men and business interests, and has been appointed sheriff. The Kid, on the other hand, resolutely refuses to bow to the march of progress and is bent on continuing as he’s always done. Garrett points out that part of his remit is to ensure the removal, by whatever means are deemed necessary, of the Kid from the territory. This is one of the few times both men share the screen until their final fateful meeting in Fort Sumner, but the movie charts the movements of both as circumstances inexorably draw them to their predetermined positions. That early scene in the cantina where Garrett and the Kid lay their cards on the table and both are aware that they will have to face off sooner or later is full of the melancholy that dominates the picture, and it’s pure Peckinpah. From this point the hunt is on. Garrett brings the Kid in after a bloody shootout at an isolated shack and has him locked up in Lincoln to await execution. This leads to a wonderfully realized sequence in the stark jail room where the Kid’s flippant disregard for authority (both earthly and divine) goads his manic, evangelical guard Ollinger (R G Armstrong) into taunting and threatening him – again depending on which version you watch there’s a killer line that may be missed. When the Kid effects his escape after blasting Ollinger apart with his own shotgun there’s a very human side of him revealed. He swaggers along the main street and orders up a horse to take him out of town. What he’s presented with is a wild animal that promptly bucks him clear and lands him square on his ass. Instead of avenging his bruised dignity on the old Mexican who embarrassed him by offering a horse he couldn’t ride, he simply smiles ruefully, steals another and rides coolly off as befits a legend.

Changing times - James Coburn as Pat Garrett.  

In truth, the whole film could be viewed as a series of memorable scenes. That’s not to say, of course, that there’s a lack of narrative structure; the story follows a very definite line and draws to a completely natural conclusion. What I’m trying to say is that there are certain characteristics that mark it out as a western that transcends the run-of-the-mill and elevate it to something grander. A prime example is the segment with Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado – it moves things forward by showing how Garrett’s pursuit is progressing but that’s not really the point. If anything, like one of Ford’s grace notes, the scene exists for the sake of its own beauty and and poignancy. I’m not going to spoil things for anyone who has yet to see the movie but I will say that it’s gut wrenching stuff and I’ve still never been able to watch it without a lump in my throat. The characters grow and develop as we move along too, especially Garrett. His cynicism and self-loathing increase the closer he comes to his quarry and the further he moves from the man he once was. By the end of the movie he has sold himself completely and his disgust at what he has become is a painful thing to witness. It’s also interesting to compare the portrayal of Garrett’s principal backer, Chisum (Barry Sullivan), to the one John Wayne offered a few years before. This is no heroic defender of the common man, instead he’s a coldly dedicated businessman who feels no sentimental attachment to those who worked for him in the past. This Chisum regards Billy as nothing more than a liability, both financially and politically, who needs to be exterminated. Those hands in his employ are shown to be similarly heartless, and it’s surely clear to Garrett that he’s only being tolerated so long as he has a role to play in Chisum’s schemes. In contrast to Garrett, the character of the Kid undergoes less of a change, perhaps because he’s the one who clings more firmly to the old ways. He starts out grinning, nonchalant and oozing self-confidence, and meets his fate with that attitude virtually intact. However, for all his free spirited charm there’s a hard edge there too. The first time I saw the film I was slightly shocked at the outcome of the duel that the Kid and Alamosa Bill (Jack Elam) are unable to avoid. Having said that, I’ve grown to appreciate that little scene more and more for showing that shootouts in the old west were rarely the kind of honourable and noble standoffs that they’re traditionally portrayed as. 

A man out of time - Kris Kristofferson as the Kid.

As I stated earlier, this was to be Peckinpah’s last western and it’s another of his ruminations on the passing of the old west and the dawn of the modern era. It was a troubled production, not least because of the director’s increasingly wayward behaviour, and the end product reflects that in the multiple cuts of the movie down the years. For all that though, it remains very much a Peckinpah film. It’s tempting to think that Sam saw something of himself in both the title characters: the Kid as the wild, anti-establishment figure that he encouraged others to see him as, and Garrett as the disillusioned independent trying to strike some kind of working balance between corporate interests and a free soul that was probably closer to the truth. As such, I think it’s Coburn’s performance as Garrett that drives the film and gives it much of its power. In terms of realism or accuracy he was too old for the part, but in terms of characterization he was perfect. He was of an age where you can easily understand a man’s need to seek out some form of security, that point when you realize that the recklessness of the past is no longer a viable option yet a part of you still yearns for it and rails against the advance of time and the compromises that are involved. Coburn’s lived-in features and grey hair help to get the point across, and the expressive eyes that could flash cold steel one minute and sardonic humour the next see that it strikes home. In contrast, Kristofferson plays the Kid as a devil may care adventurer, but one with a deep sense of fatalism. Even in that early scene in the cantina the twinkle in the eyes cannot disguise the fact that the Kid knows there and then, as surely as the grim faced Garrett does, that there can only be one outcome. Awareness is one thing of course, but the real fatalism is evident in the way the Kid only half-heartedly tries to elude his old friend. He heads for Mexico and safety but it’s clear enough that in so doing he’s hoping to find some excuse to return and play that one last card whatever the consequences. The supporting cast is something like a wish list of western character players and it’s another of the film’s great strengths. I don’t know how this works for those who come to the film without a familiarity with the genre, but for someone like myself it’s akin to meeting up again with a group of old acquaintances and simply revelling in their company. It would be impossible to go through all the people who drift in and out of the story and enrich it with their presence but, as I noted earlier, a special mention must be given to Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado who contribute to one of the finest moments in this picture, or any other for that matter. The only casting decision that doesn’t really work for me is the inclusion of Bob Dylan. I love the way his music blends in and complements the images on screen but his appearance as a character in the story is unnecessary in my opinion and is just too conspicuous.

The DVD release of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, not unlike the production itself, has become a source of controversy. Ever since Peckinpah’s clashes with MGM boss James Aubrey led to the movie being taken away from him and hacked down into a theatrical version that he hated there has been no real director’s cut available. The closest thing is the Turner Preview version, derived from Peckinpah’s workprint. The 2-disc DVD from Warners includes both the Turner version and a new 2005 Special Edition that claims to come closer to the director’s wishes. Now the problem is that the 2005 cut adds some material but, most damagingly, removes or alters key scenes and lines of dialogue from the Turner version – the exact changes can easily be found by running an internet search or just sitting down and watching the two cuts to compare for yourself. The fact that both versions are available is good of course, but it should be mentioned that the Turner cut has not undergone restoration whereas the 2005 one has. My own preference is for the Turner version for a variety of reasons, but the strongest one is the fact that the bookending of the story remains intact. Others will have to decide for themselves. Aside from the restoration, or lack of it, the DVD set contains a plethora of supplementary material that’s most welcome. As for the movie, I hope it’s clear that I hold it in high regard. It’s not only a compelling story, but it’s also a study of fading dreams, vanished innocence and bitter regrets. It’s one of Peckinpah’s best and should rate high in any list of top westerns. Very highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1970s, James Coburn, Sam Peckinpah, Westerns

 

Chisum

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Of the movies I’ve been looking at so far, and those I’ll feature next, Chisum (1970) is the only one where the Kid is not one of the main characters. That’s not to say he doesn’t play a significant role in the story, just that he’s not the one viewers are asked to focus on. First and foremost, this is a John Wayne film – he plays the title character, one of the prime movers in the Lincoln County War, and the plot revolves around him. I’ve always enjoyed this picture even though I’m aware it’s no classic – it’s solid, entertaining and, for the most part, well made.

The film tells its version of the Lincoln County War and, in particular, the role played by John S Chisum (John Wayne). The title character is presented here as a heroic pioneer whose patriarchal position sees him drawn into conflict with Murphy (Forrest Tucker) over not only the latter’s expansionist plans but also his casual disregard for the livelihoods of Lincoln’s less influential citizens. As the stirring opening credits fade there’s the image of Chisum sitting magisterially astride his mount and surveying all the vast territory he has conquered. All would seem well with the world, despite the dark mutterings of his old friend Pepper (Ben Johnson), as long as this weathered cattle baron holds sway over the territory. However, Murphy’s men are already stoking the fires by masterminding raids on Chisum’s herd. An early confrontation with a group of hired rustlers leads to a shootout and the first contact between Chisum and the Kid (Geoffrey Deuel). Billy’s reputation precedes him and Chisum regards him with wariness in spite of the hearty recommendation of fellow rancher Tunstall (Patric Knowles). Whatever reservations he may have are driven to the sidelines by the continued sniping attacks of Murphy and the corrupt lawmen and hired guns he’s got working for him. More men and guns are drifting into Lincoln and the scene seems set for all out war between the two factions. As the situation deteriorates the Tunstall/Chisum ranks are bolstered by the arrival of an ex-buffalo hunter named Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett). The movie doesn’t really lay out any specific rivalry between Garrett and the Kid – save for an insipid and wholly unnecessary romantic triangle involving Chisum’s neice – except to show that Garrett’s older and more experienced man has chosen a path that’s governed by caution as opposed to the Kid’s impulsiveness. When Tunstall is murdered by Murphy’s hirelings the fat is very definitely in the fire; Billy embarks on a killing spree to avenge his boss, and Chisum (who’s still shielding the Kid discreetly) sees himself pushed to the limit too. The climax comes with a potted and compressed version of the Battle of Lincoln that’s only brought to an end by the intervention of Chisum and a spectacular cattle stampede that he orchestrates.

Nearing the end of friendship - Garrett (Glenn Corbett) & the Kid (Geoffrey Deuel)

Both the strengths and weaknesses of Chisum can be seen in the casting. Both Wayne and Forrest Tucker butt heads impressively as the two hard men at the centre of the storm. I remember hearing or reading a comment once that Tucker was one of the most graceful riders ever to mount a horse, but he does none of that here. He’s the manipulative businessman quietly pulling the strings and calling in favours, but he does so with a craftiness and cunning that’s a lot of fun to watch. Wayne, in contrast, is the typical outdoors individualist with a simple philosophy and a straightforward approach to dealing with problems. It’s one of Wayne’s most enjoyable late career roles; it may not be his best but his massive screen presence is used to great effect and he does bring real warmth to his character. On the other hand, the younger stars – Glenn Corbett and Geoffrey Deuel – are just about adequate as Garrett and the Kid. Corbett probably comes off better by being on the “right” side and getting the more sympathetic handling whereas Deuel’s Kid is little more than a cypher who flits in and out of the action to knock off whoever’s next in line. Once again the support cast, consisting of a virtual who’s who of western players, comes to the rescue. Ben Johnson’s part is not a huge one but his long acquaintance with the Duke means that the scenes they share have a kind of easy going charm and are full of good-natured humour. For the others, just reading through the list of names – Patric Knowles, Bruce Cabot, Richard Jaeckel, Ray Teal, Hank Worden et al – should give an indication of the depth of talent involved. Like many of Andrew V McLaglen’s pictures, Chisum is a mix of the good and the not so good. The action scenes are generally well handled but the tacked on romance is both poorly conceived and badly executed. There’s also an unwelcome tendency to indulge in cheap looking, TV movie style zooms at inappropriate moments. Having said that, William Clothier’s photography and Dominic Frontiere’s score help offset some of the other technical shortcomings.

The UK DVD of Chisum from Warners offers a nice, sharp anamorphic scope transfer that boasts strong colour and a clean image. The disc has a short feature on the making of the film and a commentary track with the director. The movie itself isn’t one of the great westerns and it has plenty of historical goofs – for example, Chisum’s fictitious stampede to halt the Battle of Lincoln, and the violent deaths of Murphy and Jesse Evans – yet it’s one with a high rewatch value. In fact, it’s one of those pictures that I used to test drive movie guides in the past. Reviews are, by necessity, subjective and it’s hard to lay your hands on those volumes that are likely to suit one’s own tastes. I once hit upon the method of browsing guides to see what they had to say about a selection of films that I knew were no classics but still pleased me. Chisum was almost always among the choices. If the reviewer trashed the movie then it wasn’t for me; if, on the other hand, it got a generally positive but guarded write up then it was probably one I could depend on. As such, that’s still more or less the way I view this picture – an enjoyable and competent mid-range western that’s worth seeing.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1970s, Andrew V McLaglen, John Wayne, Westerns

 

Breakheart Pass

 

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A Charles Bronson western written by a Scotsman and combining elements of a whodunnit and an espionage thriller sounds very much like a recipe for disaster. Despite that, Breakheart Pass (1975) actually works quite well; it’s never going to be considered a classic but it is wonderfully entertaining and looks great. A fine cast and some first class talent behind the camera have a lot to do with this of course. For me, the fact that a significant part of the action takes place aboard a train adds to the pleasure, as I’m a huge fan of anything that exploits the dramatic possibilities of having a group of suspicious characters all cooped up together and denied the opportunity to escape. 

A military train carrying reinforcements, and medicines is bound for Fort Humboldt, where a diptheria epidemic is raging out of control. Aside from soldiers, there’s a number of civilian passengers aboard, all with official reasons for being there. Their numbers are swollen right at the beginning though when Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) muscles his way through the protocol in order to get both himself and his newly acquired prisoner, a wanted murderer and arsonist, John Deakin (Charles Bronson) a couple of berths. Before the train has even pulled away from the halt two army officers have mysteriously vanished, and it’s clear from the shifty behaviour of practically every passenger that nothing is quite as it seems. While the locomotive chugs its way towards the stricken fort the unexplained incidents, and the bodies, start to pile up ominously. The senior army officer, Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), is growing uneasy while the Marshal and the most prominent passenger, Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna), seem reluctant to treat matters as anything more than ill fortune and coincidence. All the while, Deakin moves surreptitiously from carriage to carriage pursuing some undefined agenda of his own. It’s only when the troop cars are sheared off and sent careening away into mid-air and subsequent carnage that it becomes clear to everyone how grave the danger is, and that a ruthless killer is in their midst. The movie trades heavily on the fact that all the passengers are potential suspects; it’s a constant guessing game for the viewer to try to figure out who’s behind the ever increasing mayhem. Just about everyone appears to have something to hide yet it’s difficult to see how any individual could wreak such havoc. Of course all is eventually revealed before a slam bang finish draws the curtain on an hour and a half of solid entertainment.

Ben Johnson and Charles Bronson are among those doing the fencing on the way to Breakheart Pass.

Most of Alistair MacLean’s books which were adapted for the big screen have something to keep you interested. While his writing was fairly formulaic, it’s not hard to see why so many of his stories ended up being filmed; they tend to have a cinematic quality in that the plots are definitely to the fore and the characters usually have a shadowy aspect that’s only gradually revealed. The biggest failing tends to be in the dialogue, his later work suffering especially. Breakheart Pass has a few such instances, when characters come out with lines that just don’t ring true in any way. Director Tom Gries had already directed a couple of very enjoyable westerns, the one of particular note being Will Penny with Charlton Heston. His shooting of the action scenes is hard to fault and, apart from the free-for-all finale, the fight atop the moving train is one of the best parts of the movie. Bronson and former light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore get to slug it out in an excellently choreographed scene that’s tense, exciting and real looking – no doubt the presence of the great Yakima Canutt, as stunt coordinator had something to do with it too. Of course, the aforementioned crash of the runaway troop cars is another of the big set pieces that’s both mesmerizing and horrifying. Furthermore, Lucien Ballard was on lens duty and, as you would expect, the photography of the outdoor scenes is quite spectacular. And rounding out the crew is Jerry Goldsmith, who provided another of his memorably upbeat scores that draws you in from the moment the title credits roll. As far as the acting’s concerned, Bronson is his usual laconic self, speaking only when there’s a need to but holding off on the physical stuff for long stretches. His character is no brainless lug and he plays him with restraint and enough thoughtfulness to make him believable. Although the wife was also in the cast there’s, mercifully in my opinion, no contrived romance to take the attention away from the twisty plot. Ben Johnson is always a pleasure to watch and just got better and better with age. His character isn’t the best defined one that he played but he still manages to make his mark on the movie – all his little gestures and his characteristic delivery keep reminding you that you’re watching a genuine westerner in action. Richard Crenna and Ed Lauter, as the Governor and the Major, have just enough oily charm and nervy anxiety respectively to keep the viewer guessing about their motives too.

MGM’s UK DVD of Breakheart Pass is a reasonably good effort. The anamorphic transfer is the kind that’s not especially remarkable but doesn’t have any major issues either. The colour looks true enough to my eyes and there’s no notable damage to the print – the image doesn’t pop off the screen but nor does it disappoint. The only extra included is the trailer, along with a variety of subtitle options. So, we’re talking here about a movie that’s best described as good, competent entertainment. It doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking but there are far worse ways to spend an hour and a half. It’s the kind of film that will obviously grip the viewer more the first time it’s seen, however, there’s enough in the action scenes, acting and visuals to ensure it’s worth revisiting.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1970s, Charles Bronson, Tom Gries, Westerns

 

The Omega Man

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Up to now I haven’t touched on science fiction on this blog. The reason for that isn’t that I have any beef with the genre, rather that it tends to get plenty of attention elsewhere. The truth is I’m quite fond of sci-fi, at least the movies from the 50s through to the 70s, and watch a reasonable amount of it. One of my all time favourites in the genre has to be The Omega Man (1971), a film that’s not without its faults but whose strengths raise it up high. To the best of my knowledge, the story by Richard Matheson has been filmed three times now with The Omega Man being the second effort. It’s a movie very much of its time, but Charlton Heston’s central performance and a fantastic score by Ron Grainer power it on and help to divert attention from the weaknesses.

The story is pretty straightforward: a Sino-Russian conflict spreads westward and eventually engulfs the whole world, resulting in germ warfare that essentially wipes out humanity. The film opens with Robert Neville (Charlton Heston), a former army scientist, driving through a barren urban landscape. This scene, which never fails to give me goose bumps, has Neville cruising down deserted streets to the accompaniment of Percy Faith’s A Summer Place blasting out from the car stereo. For an instant, everything seems almost idyllic – but the illusion of an early morning spin in a still sleeping city is shattered violently as Neville stamps on the brakes and produces a machine pistol to rake the windows of a building where he’s just spotted a dark figure flitting silently by. From this point on it becomes clear what the real situation is; Neville is the last healthy human in a world of corpses and photo-sensitive mutants. The first three quarters of an hour are spent establishing the near hopeless situation Neville finds himself facing. He commands the city by day, hunting mutants and searching for their hive, but the nights belong to the black robed Family. It’s clear that the strain of his solitary existence and nights spent holed up in his fortress-like brownstone have begun to take their toll on Neville’s psychology. He spends his time conversing with himself and playing chess with a bust of Caesar, and he’s beginning to crack up. Were any person forced to live in such isolation and fend off regular night time assaults and taunts from the sinister Family, it’s not unreasonable that they’d start to imagine they could hear phones ringing and begin to question their own sanity. Neville has spent two long years ploughing this lonely furrow, until he catches a glimpse of what he thinks might be another normal human being. It’s only when a slip on his part leads to his being captured by the Family that he finds out he’s not as alone as he thought. That whole first half of the movie carefully builds up a picture of Neville’s world and the horror of living within it. The second part takes us in a new direction as we see him regain hope and perspective. The question is whether that new hope can be sustained, and the answer is left open when the movie reaches its conclusion with one of the most memorable (and touching) final shots and fade outs in cinema.

Charlton Heston confronting the grim handiwork of the Family.

I started off by pointing out that The Omega Man is not without its faults, and I’ll try and address those first. The thing that will strike any modern audience is that this is a 70s movie, and proudly so. The imagery and many of the themes are rooted firmly in that decade. The problem is that this lends it an air of kitsch that may be off-putting to some. The presence of Rosalind Cash and Lincoln Kilpatrick results in a curious mix of jive talking blaxploitation and more serious questions about race relations, and they don’t really sit comfortably together in retrospect. However, that stuff is more a matter of personal taste and could be seen as part of the movie’s charm. A bigger issue is the Family (this is probably the main weakness of all three versions of the story) who never come across as threatening as they should. They do attain a cult-style creepiness, and their malice is never in question, but there’s also a slightly comical air about them – not helped by a hammy performance by Anthony Zerbe as their leader Matthias – that dilutes the danger somewhat. On the other hand, Heston’s take on Neville really anchors the picture. He does very well in the opening half when he basically has no one to play off and has to earn the viewers’ sympathy and support single handed. I thought he brought the right balance of tough resilience and increasing despondency to the role. The other major plus is a score by Ron Grainer that evokes the mood of both the story and the characters beautifully. I think it would be fair to say that Grainer’s music plays a significant part in ensuring the movie remains eminently watchable – this is probably among the best pieces of film composing the decade offered.

The Omega Man is one of the gradually increasing number of classic films that’s made it onto Blu-Ray. Having said that, I’ve yet to buy into the format myself (partly because of a lack of attractive titles but mainly because I’m satisfied enough with the quality of the DVDs I own – but that’s a discussion for another time) so I’ll confine myself to saying that I’ve no doubt the BD adds to the overall visual presentation. The old Warner DVD was one that never gave me any cause for complaint, with a strong and detailed anamorphic scope image. For me, the film is an old favourite whose failings can be easily ignored when there’s the pleasure of seeing Heston near his best and hearing Ron Grainer’s haunting melodies.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in 1970s, Charlton Heston

 

The Black Windmill

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When a film gets panned by critics there can be a number of reasons why; it may just be a bad movie, or it may simply be a step down from the director’s/actor’s previous work. I’d say the latter is certainly the case with The Black Windmill (1974). Don Siegel had just come off a run of high quality films and this slow burning espionage thriller didn’t quite match up. In truth it’s not a bad film, it has moments of real style, but there is a flatness about it that’s hard to explain.

John Tarrant (Michael Caine) is a former army officer who’s now in the employ of MI6, and is shown to be involved in setting up a sting operation to net some international arms dealers. It’s clear that something else is taking shape in the background though – the opening sequence has just shown the kidnapping of two schoolboys by those allegedly involved in the gun running. One of these boys turns out to be the son of Tarrant, and it quickly becomes apparent that the abduction is being used as leverage to extort money from British Intelligence. It’s also clear that those behind the abduction have the kind of inside knowledge (the nature of the ransom demanded) that suggests the presence of a mole. Tarrant’s superior, Harper (Donald Pleasence), suspects that he may even have orchestrated the whole thing himself, while his estranged wife (Janet Suzman) blames him and his job. Thus Tarrant finds himself in the unenviable position of having to cope with both the suspicions of his bosses and the recriminations of his wife as he struggles to retain the composure and coolness needed to effect the release of his son. When it dawns on him that Harper has no intention of meeting the kidnappers’ demands Tarrant chooses the only option that remains open to him – going “rogue” and risking the wrath of his own people.

Fading into the shadows - Michael Caine and Janet Suzman.  

Don Siegel made a lot of different kinds of movies but the espionage thriller wasn’t really his strong suit and he struggled to leave his mark on The Black Windmill. A couple of years later he would return to the genre with greater success in the more action driven Telefon, which remains more consistently entertaining. It’s really in the latter half of this movie that you actually become aware of the fact that you’re watching a Siegel picture. The chase through the London Underground and the escape sequence in Paris are well filmed and add a much needed sense of urgency as events build towards the violent climax at the titular windmill. In contrast, the first half unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace as characters are introduced and the groundwork is laid. There’s also a tongue in cheek aspect to these earlier scenes; one inspired moment during an MI6 briefing has a room of stunned bigwigs informed that one of the enemy agents is Sean Connery! There’s another nod to Bond in a scene where Tarrant and Harper watch a demonstration of an exploding briefcase carried out by a Q clone. Much of the film’s humour derives from the performance of Donald Pleasence as the fussy and prissy head of MI6. Michael Caine, on the other hand, plays it straight all the way through and is good enough as the agent who has to keep his emotions under tight control. When he finally gives vent to his frustration at the bureaucratic caution that might lead to his son’s death it comes across as more powerful given the detached facade he’s been presenting up to that point. Janet Suzman is limited to bouts of anxiety and bitterness at the beginning but gets to show off her resourcefulness as the story progresses. The two main villains of the piece are John Vernon and Delphine Seyrig – they’re both suitably ruthless but their characters are ultimately one dimensional.

Universal’s UK DVD presents the film in anamorphic scope, and the transfer is very clean and smooth. This is another fairly basic disc, no extras offered at all, but the the image is pleasing enough and anyway it’s not one of Siegel’s or Caine’s better known movies. All told, The Black Windmill is a middling film; it’s not the best of the director, star or even the genre but it’s still reasonably entertaining. If you make it through the slightly plodding beginning it does pick up the pace and gets better as it goes along. I’d give it a cautious recommendation if you’re into spy thrillers, but those expecting a typical Don Siegel movie would likely be disappointed.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in 1970s, Don Siegel, Michael Caine, Mystery/Thriller

 

Hustle

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I’m unsure how to categorise a film like Hustle (1975). Should I refer to it as neo-noir, post-noir, or use some other unwieldy title? Let’s just put it this way, if the movie had been made twenty years earlier it would have been classed as film noir. It has all the ingredients of classic era noir but it’s just not of the right vintage. As a result we’re left with a stylish 70s critique of a corrupt system and a world that’s lost its way. Incidentally, it’s also a damned fine film. 

Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds) is a homicide cop with a long list of things wrong in his life. At first glance everything might seem just dandy since we first see him reclining in bed and being pampered by his beautiful French girlfriend. However, his situation is far from ideal. The girlfriend, Nicole (Catherine Deneuve), works as an upmarket call girl and Gaines is just about dealing with this. The two of them plan and dream of hopping a jet and seeing out their days in Rome but neither one really has the ability to break away from their lifestyles. Nicole’s excuse is the need to earn a living and Gaines keeps putting it on the long finger, preferring to gaze at the fading photographic calender tacked on his office wall whilst indulging in idle fantasy. In addition, his job is increasingly getting on top of him and shows no signs of improving as his next case looms. The body of a young girl is found washed up on the beach and triggers an investigation that will eventually expose corruption in high places and drive Gaines to finally become more than a mere spectator. The girl in question was a hooker/dancer, a runaway whose life descended into seediness instead of the glamour she sought. Everyone appears inclined to write the whole thing off as another pathetic suicide, everyone except the girl’s father that is. Marty Hollinger (Ben Johnson) is a Korean War vet with an axe to grind and an obsessive streak. It’s his unwillingness to let the matter lie that pushes Gaines to dig ever deeper until the truth is exposed. By the end of the movie that truth is laid bare but, as in life, it doesn’t necessarily help anyone. The ending itself is a real choker and unapologetically noir in tone.  

Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve - looking for a way out.

Robert Aldrich generally invested his films with a brutal honesty and cynicism, and Hustle isn’t any exception in that regard. He never shies away from the unsavoury and paints a bleak picture of 1970s America, a place where average people are simply nobodies and the wealthy are hopelessly corrupt – in Phil Gaines words, “Guatemala with colour TV.” That rank degeneracy is best exemplified by the villain of the piece, a marvellously sleazy turn by Eddie Albert. In the lead, Burt Reynolds does very well and shows that, when the director and material were right, he was more than capable as an actor. He’s made an excessive number of fairly ropey films but, here and there, the odd gem turns up. He has some excellent moments in this movie, especially when his simmering jealously is dangerously near the surface as he tortures himself listening to Nicole take dirty phone calls from her faceless clients. Catherine Deneuve displayed the right kind of cool detachment that was necessary for her part, and she’s certainly very easy on the eyes. There’s plenty of great support from Paul Winfield, Eileen Brennan and Ernest Borgnine but Ben Johnson rises above them all. He turns in an absolute blinder as the emotionally scarred veteran who feels his country owes him something, and has allowed that massive chip on his shoulder to tear his family apart. The way he forces himself to confront the lifestyle his daughter adopted is as painful for the viewer to watch as it is for him to experience. A real class act was Mr Johnson.

Paramount’s R2 DVD of Hustle offers an excellent image, as was usually the case with that company. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is clean and sharp throughout, and I can see no reason to criticise it. However, there’s absolutely nothing in the way of extra content and that is a little disappointing. Overall, I’d rate Hustle as a very fine example of modern noir from a highly accomplished director and a cast that’s uniformly good.

 
 

Charley Varrick

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The term “underrated movie” is one that tends to get thrown around with abandon these days and its overuse is in danger of rendering it meaningless. However, there are times when that label is most certainly appropriate, and Charley Varrick (1973) is a prime example. I’ve no real explanation for this, but I do have a hunch that it frequently comes down to other work by the people involved dominating the thoughts of film fans. For most people (if they’ve heard the names at all) Don Siegel is identified with Dirty Harry, and Walter Matthau with comedic roles alongside Jack Lemmon. Without wishing to disparage any of those films, it is a shame that such thinking has lead to what is arguably the best work by both of these men being virtually forgotten.

Charley Varrick (Matthau) calls himself The Last of the Independents, something that’s true on two levels – his crop dusting operation is in terminal decline due to the rise of the conglomerates, and the small-time criminal activities he’s turned to are overshadowed by organised crime. When the botched robbery of a tiny New Mexico bank yields a huge payday Charley realises that something is very badly wrong. His sole surviving partner, Harman (Andy Robinson), can’t believe their luck but Charley’s been around long enough to recognise the stench of mob money and the consequences of stealing it. When an apparently unstoppable hitman (Joe Don Baker) goes to work the chase is on, and Charley has to figure out a way of staying one step ahead of both the law and the mob. What follows is a violent and dangerous game of criminal chess played out amid the hick towns and trailer parks of the southwest. Charley Varrick starts out as a man who shouldn’t be expected to engage our sympathy (after all he is the leader of a gang of murderous thieves), but by the end of the film we’re rooting for him – when the odds are stacked so heavily against a man it’s hard not to find yourself taking his part. Added to this Charley is, almost perversely, the only figure who displays any real honour or integrity – this petty hood is the only honest one in a world of crooked bankers, sadistic killers, lowlife chiselers and sharp suited mafia front men.

Sheree North & Walter Matthau - Charley Varrick

Although Walter Matthau’s sourpuss features seem destined to remain forever associated with his comic roles he made a trio of tough crime pictures in the early seventies; The Laughing Policeman, The Taking of Pelham 123 and Charley Varrick. The fact that he was able to switch genres so effortlessly and credibly says much for the talent and versatility of the man. While he plays Charley Varrick as a cool and efficient veteran crook he still manages to fit in a few examples of his trademark deadpan humour. I’d have no hesitation in saying that this is the best I’ve seen of Matthau, and his career was by no means characterised by poor performances. The other standout member of the cast was Joe Don Baker as the smiling, heartless contract killer. Having said that, there is no particularly weak playing and John Vernon, Andy Robinson and Sheree North all give good solid support. Don Siegel rarely gets mentioned when top directors are discussed, but the fact remains that he regularly churned out tight intelligent films that eschewed pretension and made everything look deceptively simple. This and The Shootist are his two best films in my opinion, and I’d hate to have to choose between them. And last but not least, there’s a fine score from Lalo Schifrin that’s just about the ideal accompaniment for both the period and the mood.

As for the DVD, Charley Varrick is available in R2 in the UK from Fremantle in a nice anamorphic widescreen transfer (I think the R1 is an open-matte affair). It may not be pristine and it’s an almost barebones disc but there’s no major problems and the price is definitely right. All in all, Charley Varrick is a high class crime movie that really ought to be better known.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1970s, Don Siegel, Mystery/Thriller, Walter Matthau

 
 
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