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Category Archives: Steve McQueen

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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Nevada Smith

 

Poster

The theme of revenge has always been one of the staples of the western genre and, despite a slightly bloated running time, Nevada Smith (1966) is a fairly standard example of this. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the movie is its focus on a mixed race protagonist. However, while this lends a different slant to the usual quest for vengeance, the casting dilutes it a little and it’s easy to forget the whole racial angle for extended periods, except when the characters on screen make explicit reference to it.

Max Sand (Steve McQueen) is the half-breed son of a white man and a Kiowa woman, and the story opens with him innocently directing three men (Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau) who claim acquaintance with his father to the family home. These men aren’t paying any friendly call though and Max realizes this sobering fact too late. By the time he makes his way back home the men have fled, but there’s a horrifying sight left behind for Max to find. In a vain attempt to extort money the father has been cut, burned and shot to death, while the mother has been skinned alive. Mercifully, none of this is shown on screen but the reactions of Max and his subsequent burning to the ground of his home and all that it contains still add up to a powerful scene. With his whole world literally reduced to ashes, he sets out to track down the torturers of his family and kill them. If the casting of McQueen as a half-breed is a bit of a stretch then it’s even less credible to see him as a callow youth with no real world experience. Still, that’s how we’re supposed to take it, and his green foolishness almost ends his quest before he’s even got properly started. It’s his chance encounter with a travelling arms dealer, Jonas Cord (Brian Keith), that turns things around for him. Cord takes the young man under his wing, teaching him the rudiments of gunfighting and giving him some basic education. From here on, the film is divided into three distinct sections, each focusing on how Max (he only adopts the Nevada Smith alias in the final segment) locates his man and goes about his reprisals. The first and third sequences work best, the former for its brevity and the latter for its tension. The middle of the movie (the part dealing with Arthur Kennedy’s comeuppance) is much more problematic though. The way it’s set up – Max having himself jailed to get close to his victim – strains believability in the first place. But the real problem is the way it goes on too long and virtually turns into a separate movie within the main narrative. It slows things down terminally and results in the entire production having a disjointed feel. Such is the draining effect of this sequence that the superior final part has some of its impact lessened by the time we get round to it.

Steve McQueen - Nevada Smith

Nevada Smith is a prequel to The Carpetbaggers, a movie I’ve never seen so I can’t comment on whether it holds up in terms of continuity. Henry Hathaway can usually be counted on to deliver tight, economical movies that rarely outstay their welcome. However, with a filmography as long and varied as his there will inevitably be some that turn out better than others. In this case, I think Hathaway suffered from the episodic nature of the script he had to work with. The narrative ends up bolted together rather than flowing seamlessly from one situation to another. As I already said, the mid section is where it stumbles and the impetus is lost. In fairness, this part does serve to illustrate the development and progression of McQueen’s character. The thing is it’s not actually a weak section on its own; the problem, for me at least, is that it doesn’t quite gel with either the tone or pace of what precedes and follows. Of course Hathaway is aided enormously by having Lucien Ballard shooting the picture for him, the outdoor scenes in particular being beautifully rendered. The miscasting of McQueen is especially noticeable when you consider his age – he was in his mid-thirties, and looked it, and was being asked to play the part of someone at least fifteen years younger. The only saving grace lay in the fact that McQueen had the ability to project a kind of childlike innocence when he wanted. While this cannot entirely paper over the incongruity, it does go some way towards compensating for a major weakness. Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau were a fine trio of villains, and there’s a good deal of satisfaction to be derived from seeing them get what’s coming to them. Malden easily has the best role and he does a good job of portraying a man descending into terrified paranoia as a result of the relentless pursuit by his faceless nemesis. The only female role of any substance was handed to Suzanne Pleshette, as the girl who falls for McQueen and aids him in his escape from the swamp ringed prison, and she manages to be both sexy and tragic.

Back when Paramount were still in the business of issuing catalogue titles on DVD it was rare to come across a poor transfer. Nevada Smith is no exception in that respect, the anamorphic scope image on the R1 disc being strong, detailed and colourful. It’s a totally barebones affair though with no extras whatsoever. So, to recap, we have a fairly standard western tale of revenge – and the ultimate futility of it all – that’s reasonably satisfying. Apart from the odd central casting, I feel the movie could have been improved a good deal by a bit of judicious editing to strip away some of the flab in the script. Still, the end product is entertaining enough and I’d give it a qualified recommendation.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1960s, Henry Hathaway, Steve McQueen, Westerns

 

Hell is for Heroes

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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.

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

 
 
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