RSS

Category Archives: James Coburn

Charade

The term Hitchcockian is one that has become familiar to most film fans. Such movies are defined by Wikipedia as “those made with the styles and themes similar to those of Alfred Hitchcock’s films” – few directors have had the honor of seeing a subset of movies named after them, Ford and Welles do spring to mind though. Charade (1963) slots neatly into this category, and has actually been referred to as the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made. It’s easy to see why of course: the casting, the locations, the shooting style, the twisty plot and the presence of the MacGuffin. While these labels clearly attest to the quality of the film, I reckon they’re also a bit of a backhanded compliment to director/producer Stanley Donen and writer Peter Stone. Nevertheless, whatever way you approach it, Charade stands out as a terrifically entertaining piece of 60s cinema.

I love films which grab my attention right away, and Charade certainly does that. As a train speeds through a misty European landscape, an object is tossed from it. We get only the briefest glimpse confirming that it’s the body of a man before the screen dissolves into Maurice Binder’s hypnotic credits and Henry Mancini’s mysterious and romantic theme. Cut to a ski resort where Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn), a bored society wife, is contemplating divorce and flirting playfully with Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), a fellow holidaymaker. It’s all quips and witty one-liners, until Regina returns to Paris and gets some shocking news. The man who made an unscheduled exit from that train at the beginning was her husband, Charles, and she finds that not only is she a sudden widow, but her apartment has been emptied and everything sold off at auction. It had been assumed that Charles was a wealthy man, but in this movie it’s unwise to assume anything. There’s no sign of the proceeds of the sale, and there’s worse to come. Charles was a man with a past, many pasts perhaps as the police point out that he was the owner of a variety of passports. What becomes clear is that Charles was involved in criminal activities stretching back to the war, had stolen a fortune and taken on a new identity. However, that fortune is now being sought by his old accomplices (James Coburn, Ned Glass & George Kennedy), and they don’t much care what they have to do to get their hands on it. Regina finds herself all at sea in a world where her old certainties have been turned upside-down. Even so, it seems there are those prepared to offer assistance: a CIA employee (Walter Matthau) and Peter Joshua, who turns up in Paris too. And yet, nothing is so simple; names and identities are adopted and cast aside with the abandon of a vaudeville quick-change artist. Neither Regina nor the viewer can be sure who’s telling the truth at any given moment, while motives and loyalties shift from one scene to the next.

I guess it’s impossible for any film to exist, be it a work of serious intent or an unashamed piece of escapist entertainment, outside of the zeitgeist of the era in which it’s made. A film like Charade was made at a time when the world was poised on the cusp of hope and despair; huge changes were taking place and such an environment is by definition uncertain. Now I don’t want to make any pretentious claim that Charade was trying to be a statement about the upheaval taking place all round. Rather it’s just an observation that even the lightest pieces of entertainment can’t help but reflect to some extent the state of flux at that time. It’s this sense of never feeling confident about what may happen next, of how the plot may develop, that is one of the film’s great strengths. As viewers, we’re invited to follow proceedings through Regina’s eyes, and share in the confusion and trepidation she feels. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on who’s who and what’s what, the rug is yanked away from beneath us and the merry-go-round of doubt and suspicion whirls away once more.

It’s not hard to see how the comparisons with Hitchcock are made. The casting of Grant in a glamorous, light-hearted thriller immediately evokes memories of movies like To Catch a Thief and North By Northwest. Made at a time when Hitchcock himself was struggling with tone and mood, Charade has the kind of polished assurance which recalled his strongest cinematic period. Add in the locations, the suspenseful plotting, the smooth shooting style and the MacGuffin (in this case, the stolen money) and all the elements are in place. For all that, I think Stanley Donen and Peter Stone deserve more credit than to simply refer to the movie as a successful pastiche. Ultimately, it’s a different beast, never touching on (and to be fair, I don’t believe it was ever the intention to do so anyway) the darker places that even the frothiest Hitchcock fare contained. No, despite the superficial similarities, Charade should be judged on its own terms and goes its own way, even borrowing a little from Poe with the notion of the coveted fortune hiding in plain view. If anything, it might prove more fruitful to look at the movie in relation to Arabesque, where the writer and director tried, not quite so effectively, to emulate their achievement here.

Charade veers continuously between thrills, comedy and romance, a delicate balancing act for any script and the casting of such a movie is critical in determining whether or not it all comes off. In this instance, the choices are positively inspired. Grant was 59 years old and fast closing in on retirement. Much of his career had been spent honing the sophisticated, urbane persona he so successfully projected. He could, when necessary, play it dark and Hitchcock handed him a corker of a role in the rather wonderful Notorious, but it’s his later collaborations with that director which are closest to his role in Charade. Like the character of Regina Lampert, the viewer can’t be fully sure of what to make of Peter Joshua – his identity and allegiance constantly switch and every time we feel we have his measure he deceives us yet again. Grant’s performance is a marvelously relaxed affair, adjusting the tone with a deftness that’s a real pleasure to watch. He played well off Hepburn too, and the significant discrepancy in their ages is never glossed over in the script – in fact, this aspect is frequently the basis for some terrific, witty dialogue. Hepburn herself was the very personification of chic, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off the part of the slightly dizzy and vulnerable Regina quite so believably.

While Grant and Hepburn are the undoubted stars of the film, the support cast is strong and deep. Walter Matthau is deliciously unctuous, exuding a vague air of seediness. And then there’s the terrible threesome of James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass. Their first appearance during the funeral of Charles Lampert emphasizes the sinister humor that is always present whenever they are on screen. Coburn sneers expansively throughout, all swaggering menace and teeth. Glass is a barely contained package of neuroses while Kennedy snarls and sulks and stomps around like a petulant school bully. A word too for Jacques Marin as the Parisian policeman growing ever more morose as his investigation spins out of control under the weight of all the bizarre developments.

Charade was one of those films that suffered from a succession of frankly rotten public domain video releases. Gradually, things improved as official versions came on the market and allowed the movie to be seen in better quality. I still have my old DVD put out by Universal in the UK some years ago. It presents the movie quite well in anamorphic widescreen and a clean, attractive transfer. Since then of course Charade has become available in both the UK and the US on Blu-ray and I can see myself upgrading at some point. The movie is a fine example of slick 60s filmmaking, blending and balancing  the thriller, comedy and romantic aspects of the story to best effect. It’s a great favorite of mine, as elegant, smooth and stylish as its stars. It’s funny, exciting and timeless – even when the twists and hoaxes are familiar, the charm and panache just sweep you along. If you’ve never seen it, then you really ought to make a point of tracking it down.

 

 

 

Tags: , , , ,

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.

 
26 Comments

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

 

Tags: , ,

Young Guns II

Poster

So I’ve come to the last entry in this short series. To be brutally honest, these last two movies have sapped my energy. If anything, I have to say that Young Guns II succeeds in being even more offensive and irritating than its predecessor. The performances are down to, or maybe even lower than, the standards set in the previous film and all semblance of accuracy is cheerfully chucked out the window. I actually reached the point where viewing this became a chore, and that’s a long way from what I regard as the purpose of the movie watching experience.

The story picks up where the first Young Guns left off – the end of the Lincoln County War. The Kid (Emilio Estevez) is now a wanted man by those seeking to put the violent past to bed and get down to the serious business of making money. Billy has taken up with Pat Garrett (William Petersen) and Dave Rudabaugh (Christian Slater) now that his old gang has broken up. However, the powerful men in the region, Lew Wallace and Chisum (James Coburn), want all those involved in the Lincoln County War rounded up and disposed of. To this end, Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland) is abducted and hauled back to New Mexico to face retribution. Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) is there too, biding his time in a pit in Lincoln. When the cocksure Kid sees a deal with Governor Wallace go sour, he takes it on himself to break his buddies out of stir in one of the noisiest and most ludicrous scenes in the film. There’s also a parting of the ways, with Garrett breaking away to find his own path. However, it’s not long before the former outlaw is recruited by Wallace and Chisum, appointed sheriff and tasked with running down his old friends. The rest of the movie plays out the familiar old story of The Kid running and Garrett chasing until both men meet up in Fort Sumner. The climax is supposed to be one of those ambiguous, did-he-or-didn’t-he, type things that folds into the framing prologue and coda. However, after sitting through an hour and a half plus of mindless gunplay and hopeless mugging it’s very hard to care one way or the other. In a way though, it’s somehow appropriate after serving up an unappetising blend of bad history that the film should end by wheeling out yet one more dubious slice of mythology.

Showing how it should be done - James Coburn as Chisum in Young Guns II

I already listed all the shortcomings of the performances of Estevez, Sutherland and Phillips in my previous review, and I see no need to go over the same ground again here. I will say though that Estevez manages to be even more annoying this time round; his endless whooping and quipping has the effect of leaving the viewer longing for Garrett to put a bullet in him, and that’s surely not the point of any movie about his character. The addition of Slater, Balthazar Getty and Alan Ruck really brings nothing to proceedings, with Slater in particular proving himself in need of a good sound slapping. William Petersen comes off best in the role of Garrett, but even so he has a lightweight quality about him that’s painfully obvious in the scene where he gets himself hired as sheriff. Seeing him seated opposite James Coburn, who played the definitive version of the character, just brings home the deficiencies. While the acting is weak, the jarring soundtrack against which the action takes place is anachronistic and misguided enough to be a major distraction. A very poor effort all round.

One good thing that can be said is that the DVD transfer is fine. The Warners R2 disc presents the movie in anamorphic scope, and it’s clean, sharp and colourful. However, no matter how nice the image is the fact remains that Young Guns II is a turkey and I was relieved when the credits finally rolled.

This series has been something of a roller coaster in terms of quality and entertainment. The high point was most definitely Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, with the two Young Guns features coming in last in every respect. One thing that has become apparent to me is how ill-defined the character of Billy the Kid is, with only Peckinpah’s film really fleshing him out at all. When I did pieces on the Jesse James and Wyatt Earp movies I noticed how much of an impression was generally made by the characters of Frank James and Doc Holliday respectively. The same could be said here; in nearly every movie it’s the figure of Pat Garrett who seems most memorable. I suppose this says something about the way historical figures are portrayed on film but I’m not quite sure what that is, except that it maybe underlines the difficulty of such an undertaking. Anyway, the project’s been a pleasure (mostly) and I hope it’s offered at least a little entertainment for anyone who has been following.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1990s, James Coburn, Westerns

 

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Poster

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.

 
Leave a comment

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

 

Hell is for Heroes

Poster

Don Siegel’s Hell is for Heroes (1962) is one of those small scale, low budget war movies that bears comparison with some of the stuff Sam Fuller knocked out at the beginning of his career. It’s the kind of film that keeps the focus firmly on the guys at the bottom of the ladder, and thus manages to address the futility and brutality of war while still acknowledging the courage of the lowly, ordinary grunts who find themselves having to be extraordinary just to stay alive. War movies in the 1960s would increasingly move towards the big budget spectacular, but this one is almost a throwback to the previous decade due to the small cast and character driven plot.

The story here concerns a battle weary squad of US soldiers on the fringes of the Siegfried Line in 1944. Although their fighting strength has been severely weakened the troops aren’t overly anxious as they figure they’re on the point of being shipped out and finally heading back home. Their meagre ranks are added to with the arrival of a replacement, Reese (Steve McQueen). He’s a former master sergeant, busted back to private for flaking out and stealing a jeep. In fact, Reese is a man dangerously near the end of his tether; his distinguished service record has saved him from falling further but he keeps on chipping away at the corners of army discipline. An evening’s visit to the nearby town’s off limits bar would probably have done for him if it hadn’t been for the intervention of Sergeant Pike (Fess Parker), an old acquaintance. When news comes through that there will be no welcome departure, just a move back onto the line, the only man not to show dismay is Reese. For these men the news is about to get even worse, as they are to be left behind as a temporary rearguard while the bulk of the force move on. The challenge is for the isolated squad to fool the Germans into thinking that they’re a much bigger force. To this end the troops devise a number of ingenious ploys, from running a backfiring jeep in low gear to simulate the sound of a tank to stringing ammo boxes full of rocks through the bushes so the enemy might take their rattling for the movements of patrols. This is all well and good but a brutal assault by a German patrol (which sees Reese in his element, even savagely hacking one man to pieces with a butcher knife) renews the danger. With no guarantee when the main force will return to back them up, the squad need to decide between sitting it out in hope or taking the initiative and trying to knock out a pillbox. Reese urges action while the cautious Sergeant Larkin (Harry Guardino) counsels patience. In the end, a stray shell makes their decision for them and Reese gets to lead a tense sortie through a minefield. There are no happy endings in this movie, just sudden and graphic deaths, hard decisions, and harder consequences. Even the final scene offers no real respite; the army surges on amid fallen bodies and there’s no end in sight – more positions will have to be taken and more men will have to give their lives.

Close to the edge - Steve McQueen in Hell is for Heroes.

The part of Reese was ideal for Steve McQueen who must have relished playing the moody loner unburdened by excess dialogue, and it had the added bonus of handing him the opportunity to show off all those twitchy mannerisms that audiences have come to associate with him. It’s really McQueen’s picture from beginning to end and it’s always a pleasure to watch him keep all that angst and bottled up machismo raging just below the surface. He gets some good support from Fess Parker and Harry Guardino, as the respectively sympathetic and exasperated sergeants, and from a bespectacled James Coburn – the squad’s technical jack-of-all-trades. The novelty casting of Bob Newhart and Bobby Darin is altogether less satisfying, but it’s not enough to do any serious damage to the film. Don Siegel’s direction is as tight and professional as could be, and he works wonders on what must have been a small budget. The stark monochrome photography adds just the right touch of bleakness and, while this is essentially a character study, Siegel’s handling of the action scenes is urgent, exciting and realistic. 

Paramount’s R2 DVD of Hell is for Heroes offers an excellent transfer. The movie is presented 1.78:1 anamorphic and looks in very good shape all the way through. There’s not an extra to be found on the disc, which is the only black mark against it for me. This isn’t one of the best known war movies, nor is it likely to be one of the more familiar works of either McQueen or Siegel. However, for fans of the genre, star or director it does deserve to be seen. It’s a powerful little movie that doesn’t try to manipulate the viewer or preach – it simply presents a dispassionate view of war and the men involved.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1960s, Don Siegel, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, War

 

Hard Times

Poster

There’s something marvellously reassuring about sitting down to watch a Charles Bronson movie. You pretty much know what you’re going to get, and during his early-mid 70s peak that usually translated into an uncomplicated and entertaining film. Most of his work falls into the action category but the best of it managed to be a cut above the standard thick ear fare. Hard Times (1975) has long been a favourite of mine due to the simple yet engrossing story, the powerful fight scenes, the star pairing of Bronson and Coburn, and the presence of Walter Hill behind the camera. This is very much a man’s film, something that we rarely see nowadays – it’s tough, gritty and violent without ever becoming gratuitous or allowing the characters to lose touch with their humanity.

The story takes place in 1930s New Orleans and perfectly captures the spirit of the depression era. Chaney (Bronson) is a professional bare-knuckle streetfighter who roams the US, moving from one drab city to another making his living the hard way. Speed (James Coburn) is a chiseling promoter with a big mouth and a gambling habit, always on the make and always on the lookout for a likely prospect. There’s no backstory provided for these men, no clue offered as to how they arrived at this place in life – they just are. When Speed first sees Chaney in action, felling a much younger opponent with one devastating punch, he knows he’s found the fighter he’s been looking for. The taciturn hitter and the garrulous wide boy form a partnership and set about making some real money. However, to make money you have to have money so Speed borrows enough from a local loan shark to set up the first of a series of fights. The first half of the movie deals with the development of the releationship between Chaney and Speed as they seek out the funds necessary to permit a showdown with a local champ and his shady boss. There’s also the diversion of a romance for Chaney with a woman (Jill Ireland) he picks up in a low rent diner. One might imagine the aforementioned showdown would form the climax of the story, but it doesn’t. When Speed squanders the winnings, and thus places his life in danger with the mobsters he borrowed from, Chaney has to decide if he will risk all he has fought for to save the skin of a man who doesn’t deserve it.

Charles Bronson - would you want to argue with this man?

Bronson was in his mid 50s when he made Hard Times but, aside from his weathered facial features, you’d never guess it. He moves through the brutal fights with a kind of graceful, measured confidence. Unlike many more modern films where the hero appears to be an unbreakable superman, Bronson looks like a man who can and has been physically hurt. Those weary, hard-bitten features and his economy with words are perfect for the role – I’d say this may well be his finest hour. In contrast, Coburn’s Speed is a boastful, grinning wastrel who thinks nothing of using everyone around him. His performance here is a broad one and can grate a little at times. He’s an actor that I have a lot of time for and who I’ve admired in many roles, but he did have a tendency to overcook it on occasion and I think he does so here. Strother Martin is great, as always, in a supporting role as the medic with an opium habit. The only really false note comes from Jill Ireland, an actress who never fails to disappoint. Mercifully, her part is not a major one so her wooden performance doesn’t detract from an otherwise excellent film. Hard Times was Walter Hill’s debut as a director and it’s a classy start to a career. He has a real feel for the period and the characters and creates a very believable sense of time and place. He chose to shoot much of the film in old warehouses and dingy nightspots which positively drip atmosphere. The staging of the fights is especially noteworthy and I’d rank them among the most realistic and exciting examples ever put on film.

The transfer on the R2 DVD is a fine one (I imagine the R1 is similar – EDIT: It appears the R1 may only be available in a Pan & Scan edition now. See comment below.) from Sony. The image is anamorphic scope and is strong and true, good colours and sharpness with no noticeable damage. Extras consist of a trailer and brief text biographies for Bronson, Coburn and Hill. Hard Times is a great film with a great cast and a director who’s one of my personal favourites. It’s a movie that tells a simple, straightforward story without resort to sentimentality or sensationalism. Highly recommended.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1970s, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Walter Hill

 

Ride Lonesome

Poster

A man needs a reason to ride this country…

In Ride Lonesome (1959) the reasons are vengeance, bounty and amnesty. The penultimate Ranown western serves up all three but the focus remains firmly on the first. The notion of a lone man driven on by the pain of a past trauma is a recurring theme in Boetticher’s westerns, and is explored in depth in Ride Lonesome. Of the seven films Boetticher and star Randolph Scott made together, I would say this is the best; the plot, dialogue, imagery and performances all mesh to perfection. Nothing is wasted in this picture, where every shot, every gesture and every word is loaded with significance.

The viewer is immediately pitched into the action from the opening shot of the starkly familiar rocky landscape of Lone Pine, and the tension and pace never let up until the final credits roll. Ben Brigade (Scott) is introduced as a lone bounty hunter, and within minutes of appearing on screen has captured a young outlaw. Moving on to the nearest stagecoach swing station, with the outlaw’s brother in pursuit, he finds himself in another dangerous situation. The only occupants are the station master’s wife (Karen Steele) and two wanted men, Boone and Whit (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn), looking to find a way out of their current situation. Turning in the young prisoner would allow them to take advantage of an offer of amnesty, but that also necessitates their disposing of Brigade. The lone hero now finds himself part of an uneasy group and facing threats from three fronts; his new companions, the chasing pack of outlaws and a rampaging Mescalero war party. As the story progresses it becomes apparent that Brigade’s determination to see his captive to Santa Cruz, and an appointment with the hangman, is only part of his motivation. It’s fairly clear that the boy is merely the bait with which Brigade hopes to hook a bigger and more personal catch, although the exact reason for this isn’t revealed until the climax. In these moments, as Brigade stands and gazes impassively at the twisted hanging tree, the full power of the tale strikes home. The cold, unemotional hunter of men is no longer just a bounty killer but a figure lifted straight from classical tragedy.

Randolph Scott consigning the past to flames

Ride Lonesome offered Scott one of his harshest characters in Ben Brigade. There’s very little humour on display and even in those moments when he shows some modicum of tenderness towards Karen Steele it’s of the gruff and brusque variety. However, this is absolutely in keeping with a man who’s carrying around deep scars. Burt Kennedy supplied him with his finest, most distinctive dialogue and Scott delivers it in a suitably terse fashion. Pernell Roberts and James Coburn (in his screen debut) are excellent as the bad men who aren’t all bad – the real villain of the piece is Lee Van Cleef, and the only complaint that could be made about him is that he gets so little screen time. Karen Steele looks good and plays the typically tough and stoical Boetticher heroine whose only moment of weakness comes when she learns the fate of her missing husband. This was the director’s first film in cinemascope and he employs the wide lens to great effect. The action takes place exclusively outdoors and once again highlights Boetticher’s gift for disguising the limited budget he had to work with. There’s a Fordian quality to the tiny figures dwarfed by an expansive landscape which mirrors the scripts nods to the old master. Isn’t there something vaguely familiar about that story of the embittered, driven man on a vengeful quest only to find himself alone and apart from society at its end? There’s also a degree of religious symbolism in the climactic scenes with Scott standing before the hanging tree which resembles a crude cross. It’s as though he has borne his own cross for years and now returns to his personal Golgotha to lay the past to rest before the final cathartic act of burning the tree.

Ride Lonesome is another strong DVD transfer by Sony. Like the other titles in the Films of Budd Boetticher set, the colours are strong and true, and the picture looks suitably filmic. There  is a commentary track provided, and another of those short featurettes with Martin Scorsese. As I said earlier, I think this is the best of the lot – Boetticher’s finest film, and a real treat for western fans.

 
 

The Last Hard Men

Sometimes the title of a movie is almost prophetic; James Coburn and Charlton Heston were probably among the last real tough guy actors. But everything must change and be replaced, and that’s the underlying theme of this 1976 end-of-the-trail western.

In the early years of the 20th century Zack Provo (Coburn), along with a half dozen others, escapes from a chain gang and goes on the run. News of the breakout reaches retired lawman Sam Burgade (Heston) who realises that Provo will come gunning for him. It was Burgade who ran Provo to ground and he knows that old scores will have to be settled. With the abduction of Burgade’s daughter (Barbara Hershey), the chase is on – ending only after an orgy of sub-Peckinpah slow motion violence.

James Coburn

The movie was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and, like most of his work, promises more than it ultimately delivers. McLaglen, an apprentice of John Ford, always knew how to film a landscape and offers some pleasing images here. The main problem is that he seems to be trying to remake Big Jake in the style of Peckinpah, and it never really comes off. However, we’ve seen all this before, and seen it done better. Heston tosses out some lines about how the times are changing, but it doesn’t feel like it has any real conviction. Jerry Goldsmith provides a rousing score but again there’s nothing original – it is the same one he produced for 100 Rifles a few years before. All in all, not a bad movie but not a great one either. If you’re a western fan, or a Heston or Coburn completist like me, you’ll want to check it out – just don’t expect too much. 

The film is widely available in continental Europe, though not in the UK yet, from Fox. The transfer is a solid one, with a sharp anamorphic scope image and strong, bright colours.

 
 
 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 514 other followers