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Category Archives: Clint Eastwood

Ten of the Best – Western Stars

Well, the holidays are fast approaching, work is pretty hectic, and I didn’t feel like doing one of my usual reviews. So for a change, and a bit of light relief too, I’ve decided to do something a little different. Even the most casual perusal of this site ought to make my fondness for the western abundantly clear. I make no apologies for that; it’s far and away my favourite genre and the richness and variety contained within it mean that I continue to make new discoveries all the time. Yet for all that, there are the old familiar faces that turn up time and time again. I generally don’t bother too much with lists but thought I’d give one a go because…well, just because. Seeing as I mostly review films I reckoned I’d skip over a selection of titles and concentrate instead on the stars, the men who brought the cowboys to life. Bearing in mind that almost every major Hollywood star has at least one western to his credit, this could have been a potentially huge list. So, in the interests of brevity and sanity, I’ve pared it down to ten. I’m not placing them in any particular order, others may do so if they wish, nor am I going to claim that it’s any kind of definitive selection either. These are just ten guys who’ve lent their talents to the greatest genre of them all, and given me a lot of pleasure watching them over the years.

John Wayne

If you were to ask the average person to name the archetypical screen cowboy, then I’d lay odds Wayne would be the one most would mention. Ever since his iconic appearance in John Ford’s Stagecoach, it’s been hard to separate the man from the genre. His influence on the western is immense, and the popular conception of how a cowboy should walk, talk, shoot and ride a horse owes much to Wayne’s portrayals. You’ll often hear it said, not from me though, that the man couldn’t act but his work with Ford and Hawks in particular prove that assertion to be nonsense.

James Stewart

One of the nice guys, an apparently lightweight lead in the 1930s. Stewart seemed to undergo a transformation after his wartime experiences. The geniality was still there, but it was mixed up with a darker, more desperate quality too. Hitchcock managed to capitalize on that in his pictures with Stewart, though it was first used to great effect by Anthony Mann in the series of psychological westerns they made together during the 50s. From Winchester 73 through The Man from Laramie, Stewart and Mann produced a body of work that was and is of the highest quality.

Henry Fonda

One of the great actors of American cinema, a man whose long and distinguished career saw him excel in every genre. His partnership with John Ford saw him create some of the most memorable screen characterizations. His portrayal of Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine is a beautiful blend of the diffident and the deadly. Although his relationship with Ford wasn’t always the smoothest, he went on to do notable work with Anthony Mann and Edward Dmytryk in the 1950s. Then, in a radical and chillingly effective departure from his noble image, he played the cold and heartless killer for Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Gary Cooper

Like Wayne, Cooper was another actor who has had his range as a performer called into question. And again this is a spurious allegation. Coop’s style was a subtle and naturalistic one – the fireworks may have been absent but his depth wasn’t any less in spite of that. His most famous part may well be as the increasingly isolated and desperate lawman in High Noon, and it’s a marvelous performance. However, we should not forget two late career roles that are perhaps as strong, if not stronger: the reluctant outlaw in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, and the doctor with a dark secret in Delmer Daves’ The Hanging Tree.

Randolph Scott

Way back when I was a kid, it seemed like every Saturday afternoon saw the TV showing another western. And so many of them featured Randolph Scott. As such, Scott was an inseparable part of my earliest memories of the genre, and also one of my earliest heroes. More than anyone else, he represented the ultimate cowboy to my young self – strong, honorable and brave. As I got older, and saw more of his movies, my appreciation of his work only increased. If the years brought a greater understanding of characterization and theme to me, then it has to be said that time also brought a gravitas and greater nuance to Scott’s acting. He spent the latter part of his career exclusively in westerns and grew into them. His series of films in collaboration with Budd Boetticher, beginning with Seven Men from Now, are milestones in the genre, and his swan song in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country provided him with a stylish and fitting exit.

Joel McCrea

Both McCrea and Randolph Scott hit late career highs in Ride the High Country, and that’s not the only parallel in their work. McCrea was another who became something of a genre specialist as the years wore on, and he carved out a comfortable niche for himself. If he’s not as celebrated as Scott, and I think it’s fair to say that that is the case, then it’s probably because he didn’t have Boetticher and the Ranown cycle forming part of his filmography. However, he appeared in a number of hidden gems, Andre de Toth’s Ramrod and Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory being just two.

Richard Widmark

Widmark started out in the movies as the giggling psycho in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death and carried over a little of that same character into his western debut in Wellman’s Yellow Sky. Still, he was nothing if not versatile and gradually broadened his range as he went along. Over the next twenty years, he played in an assortment of westerns, becoming more heroic all the time. I especially enjoy his take on Jim Bowie in Wayne’s production of The Alamo and his handling of a complex role in Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock is a fine piece of work.

William Holden

Making a name for himself with Golden Boy, Holden soon graduated to western parts and would return to the genre a number of times. Maybe he doesn’t initially seem a natural for frontier tales but, like others, age brought him more success out west. Having worked with John Sturges and John Ford, Holden landed one of his best roles as the aging outlaw Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s visceral and poignant The Wild Bunch. Even if it had been the only western he ever made, I feel that this film alone would be reason enough to earn his inclusion on this list.

Clint Eastwood

OK, I’m going to hold my hands up and admit that I’m not much of a fan of spaghetti westerns, at least not beyond those made by Sergio Leone. However, although Eastwood had already gone west on TV in Rawhide, it’s the Euro western that made him a star. He brought an Italian macho chic to the traditional image of the cowboy, and in so doing helped breathe new life into a genre that was beginning to look slightly jaded. Along with Wayne, Eastwood has come to define the popular image of the westerner.

Steve McQueen

“The King of Cool” didn’t make all that many westerns but he certainly made an impression whenever he strapped on a six-gun. Building on his success in the TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive, he scored a hit in The Magnificent Seven. His scene stealing antics left director John Sturges bemused, co-star Yul Brynner fuming and audiences very satisfied. He returned to the genre only a handful of times, unfortunately, and his penultimate movie Tom Horn remains underrated to this day.

And there you have it, my “Ten of the Best” western stars. If I were to revisit this list tomorrow I’ve no doubt I would remove some names and add some others, but that’s the nature of such things. I would encourage readers to feel free to chip in and agree or disagree with whatever you like. It is, after all, a bit of fun and nothing more.

 

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Coogan’s Bluff

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As the 60s were drawing to a close the western (at least the traditional variety) was a genre in decline. By the mid-70s it had been more or less supplanted by the hard-nosed urban cop movie. At first glance you might think there’s little common ground, but scratch the surface a little and the similarities are there – men operating alone with their own brand of personal integrity, a hostile and lawless environment, a society that is simultaneously repelled by and in desperate need of the services of those accustomed to violence. Strip away the time and place and those themes could be applied to any number of westerns and 70s cop films. Coogan’s Bluff (1968) can be viewed as a bridge between these two genres, not least because of the presence of Clint Eastwood.

Coogan (Eastwood) is an Arizona deputy who we first see running down a fugitive from a Navajo reservation. This opening establishes not only that he’s a capable and ruthless hunter of men, but he’s also master of his harsh desert environment. A temporary slip on his part lands him in hot water with his superiors and he’s dispatched to New York to complete the seemingly mundane task of escorting an extradited prisoner back home. The thing is though that Coogan is very much a man of then west, and he’s plunged into a world that’s entirely alien to him. When he gets his hands on his prey he allows himself to be duped into a situation that leaves him hospitalized, and without either the prisoner or his gun. His pride refuses to let him take this lying down, and there follows a relentless man hunt through the city’s mean streets. Along the way, Coogan clashes with the local police in the person of Lt. McElroy (Lee J Cobb), and encounters an assortment of hippies, junkies, freaks and low-lifes that are as dangerous as they are strange. Coogan’s the product of a hard place, but the grimy streets he finds himself roaming are every bit as lethal as his desert home. While the scenes of our hero pursuing his quarry through the night spots of the counter-culture offer up a snapshot of the hedonistic late-60s, they also date the film quite badly. Those paisley-shirted kids passing round the spliff, talking in riddles, and chilling to Indian music in psychedelic apartments with beaded curtains seem as far away in time now as the west that Coogan is supposed to embody. In the end, of course, he gets his man, and there’s a nice little coda on the helicopter back home that suggests he may have learned something during his trip to the big city. Where he callously ground his cigarette into the dirt before the imploring eyes of the shackled fugitive at the beginning, he now seems to have learnt a little pity and offers a smoke to his latest prisoner.

The Man With No First Name - Clint Eastwood in Coogan's Bluff.

Eastwood’s Coogan is very much a halfway house between The Man With No Name and Harry Callaghan – in the early scenes the trademark squinting eyes are hidden behind black RayBans and a simple cigarette stands in for the cheroot. However, the western sensibility remains and has not yet been wholly replaced by the full scale urban brutality. Mind you, although he’s playing a fish out of water, there’s no wide eyed innocence about Coogan. Eastwood plays him as a man with quick wits who learns life’s lessons fast. He’s also no superman, taking two beatings in the course of his investigation – the second being particularly rough – yet has the requisite toughness to survive unarmed for the most part. While Eastwood almost always brings some of his dry humour to his roles he pretty much meets his match in Lee J Cobb. The veteran actor deadpans his way through the movie as the world weary cop who recognizes Coogan’s presence as just the source of another headache. Don Siegel’s direction is as lean and efficient as usual, capturing the seedy atmosphere of the inner city perfectly and handling the action scenes like the old pro he was – the pool hall fight being especially well done.

Universal’s UK DVD of Coogan’s Bluff is a very basic affair, with not one extra in sight. The transfer is anamorphic 1.78:1 but it’s a very grainy one, and I’m not usually given to griping too much on the grain issue. Still, it’s very much a budget release so I suppose we can’t expect too much. The film itself remains entertaining throughout, though it’s really only in the mid-range of both Eastwood’s and Siegel’s work. It was the first film the director and star made together, and they would both go on to better things individually and collaboratively. Generally, we’re looking at a good solid piece of filmmaking that acts as an interesting link between genres.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1960s, Clint Eastwood, Don Siegel

 

Where Eagles Dare

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There are some films that seem to have the ability to transport us back in time, and Where Eagles Dare is one of those; I only have to watch the first few minutes for it to work its magic. The alpine landscape appears, the blood red credits roll, Ron Goodwin’s pounding score swells up, and I’m once again that wide-eyed little boy sitting on my parents’ rug – spellbound. Back then, I felt sure that this was the greatest war film ever made – and I was becoming something of a connoisseur of the genre at the time. Now, as the years wear on, I know that Where Eagles Dare is not the greatest war film ever, but its ability to carry me back thirty years or more is a priceless quality that no amount of critical snobbery can ever diminish. 

Following on the success of The Guns of Navarone, the books of Alistair MacLean were seen as a source of cinematic gold just waiting to be mined. There wasn’t a lot of character development in these stories, but the twisty plots and non-stop action made up for that. Where Eagles Dare is about an Allied mission (headed up by Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood) behind enemy lines to rescue a captured American general from the Nazis before they can force him to reveal the details of the D-Day invasion. The difficulty for our heroes lies in the fact that the general is being held in the Schloss Adler, an almost impenetrable castle perched on a mountain top, and accessible only by cable car. As if this were not enough, it looks as though there is a traitor lurking among our intrepid group. To go deeper into the plot would require some massive spoilers, and I don’t want to do that here. Suffice to say that the film treats us to double cross piled onto double cross, lots of big spectacular explosions, huge numbers of Nazis mowed down by Burton and Eastwood, and a fantastic fight with an ice pick atop a moving cable car. By the end everything has been resolved satisfactorily and two and a half hours of escapist bliss have whizzed by.  

Clint Eastwood asking the whole German army if they feel lucky. 

There’s a great cast for this movie, even if they’re all playing roles which are basically caricatures. Richard Burton’s Major Smith seems capable of planning and talking his way out of even the most hopeless situations. Clint’s Lieutenant Schaffer is cool, ruthless and laconic; a WWII version of The Man With No Name. Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt look good while helping out the heroes and, crucially, they do not indulge in any girly histrionics – something which should never happen in a proper Boy’s Own adventure anyway. The support cast is also well stocked with Ferdy Mayne and Anton Diffring playing German officers (what else?). Derren Nesbitt is ideal as the suspicious Gestapo major, although his German accent wouldn’t stand up to too much analysis.

Where Eagles Dare has been out on DVD from Warner for ages. The anamorphic scope transfer is good enough and there’s a ‘Making of’ featurette on the disc. I don’t see this getting an upgrade any time soon since it’s probably seen as too lowbrow for the SE treatment. For me, it will always remain one of those links to an increasingly distant past – an innocent and adventurous world where Richard Burton will forever intone “Broadsword calling Danny Boy…..Broadsword calling Danny Boy” 

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2008 in 1960s, Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton, War

 
 
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