Hostiles

Rumors of its demise, and so on. Every so often one hears of the passing of the western, the obituary of the genre being wheeled out and presented newly polished, typically, in equal parts respectful, regretful and dismissive. The gist tends to run along the lines that it once rose to prominence, becoming the quintessence of Americana, the imagery evoking the culture of a continent in the eyes of the world. And then it, just as it had achieved true greatness, it began its slow decline, growing tired and introspective to the point of unhealthiness, and finally feeling less relevant as its origins fade further into the past. Yet the western is arguably an integral part of cinema (not just an element of its history) and every time a wake is announced it appears somewhat premature. At the risk of mawkishness, the western constitutes the soul of Hollywood filmmaking, underpinning it and forever watching over it. The point of all this is that as frequently as the genre is lamented, just as frequently does it hint at a recovery. In truth, there have been many false dawns, and perhaps the expectations are either misplaced or too high. The western will never again dominate cinema, but a film like Hostiles (2017) suggests, to me anyway, that there are still stories to be told within the framework of the genre that have artistic merit.

The opening is harsh, make no mistake about that. It’s not so much that the violence is graphic (although there is a brief shot that could be described as such) as the fact it has a stark brutality. There are some moments in westerns that are remembered for this kind of frank depiction of frontier ruthlessness: think of Jack Palance’s shooting of Elisha Cook Jr in Shane or Henry Fonda wiping out a family in Once Upon a Time in the West. What Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) experiences here is on a par with those moments, an emotional gut punch that, quite naturally, leaves her slightly unbalanced for a time and colors her attitude and actions as she journeys through the film. And the whole piece is a journey, literal and metaphorical, following the progress of Captain Joe Blocker, a soldier of fearsome reputation and on the eve of his retirement, as he escorts an old enemy, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), from New Mexico to his spiritual home in Montana. Yellow Hawk is a dying man and his request to end his days in this fashion has been granted by the government. Blocker wants no part of this detail but is given no option and therefore sets out consumed with resentment and naked hatred, something not improved by the discovery of Mrs Quaid and her plight. To say more would, I feel, diminish the experience for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet, so I’ll confine myself to pointing out that this trek undertaken by a collection of damaged and broken souls is involving from start to finish. It is intense and violent at times but not in any gratuitous or nihilistic way, while the growth and emotional development of the characters is ultimately fulfilling and rewarding.

For me, the great appeal of the western is its timelessness and versatility, the ability to tell almost any story in an absorbing and satisfying way. The western always had a way of holding up a lens to the world around us, of taking its setting and trappings and allowing the viewer to examine the world around us through the prism of the past, by focusing on our humanity and reminding us that the challenges we face today have parallels in our past and may well arise again in our future. This is what I see as the central theme of Hostiles: the settling with the past. The film is essentially about characters coming to an arrangement with their own histories and subsequently of growing into an accommodation with themselves. There’s a wonderful moment towards the end of the film where Yellow Hawk and Blocker sit side by side and talk. Blocker tells his one time adversary that when he dies a piece of him will also go with the old chief. I think that’s what the message here comes down to, that confronting our past is not about rejecting it out of hand, but rather acknowledging that some aspects have to be left behind while others are retained and assimilated in order to move forward.

Until now, I’d not seen anything by Scott Cooper but his is a name I’ll be looking out for in future – he appears to have a genuine affinity for the genre and I hope he returns to it at some stage. I always feel westerns are at their best visually when they are shot outside on location and that’s the case here with some wonderful views of the (mainly) Arizona and New Mexico landscape. The only criticism I’d make of the film is the pace is allowed to drop on occasion and I feel the whole sub-plot with Ben Foster’s character is largely superfluous – some judicious cutting/rewriting here and there could have tightened the whole production up. Structurally, thematically and spiritually this movie harks back to the classic era, but scripts then would have been much more streamlined and pared down.

Christian Bale was impressive in his role as the battle-scarred captain, confident and efficient on the outside when faced with the various dangers and threats encountered along the way yet still entirely human as opposed to superhuman in more intimate situations. Frankly, his character arc is hugely satisfying and the end of the film simply feels fitting. What’s more, Bale comes across as wholly convincing as a westerner, a quality which is not so common among leading men these days. Wes Studi is no stranger to westerns of course and he gives another typically authentic performance that’s marvelously quiet. I also thought Rosamund Pike did fine work with just the right kind of vaguely off-center detachment to suit her part. It was nice too to see Stephen Lang, although he’s really only in the movie briefly.

So, Hostiles generally worked for me, and it’s been a good few years now since I came away from a cinema with that feeling about a western. I’d like to think  it might perform well enough to keep the genre from drifting off towards the sidelines immediately. I don’t think it’s a game changer but it’s a mature piece with a solid emotional core and well worth the time of anyone who has an interest in quality western movies.

Advertisements

The Specialty of the House

No, I haven’t decided to transform this place into a restaurant review site. The “house” I’m referring to here is the Hollywood studio, and the question is which one, or ones, we are most partial to.

While all of the major studios, and most of the minor ones too, made movies in every conceivable genre in their heyday, they tended to have their own characteristic or in-house style, not to mention the films they either specialized in or seemed to do more successfully. Warner Brothers gave us the better gangster films of the 30s and retained that grit and social awareness even as time moved on and the range of output expanded. MGM was gloss, glitz and musical spectaculars. And although RKO had Astaire & Rogers, it also turned out some of the most memorable films noir. Of course different decades brought different directions and developments, and 20th Century Fox with its pioneering of the Scope format, took the production of the epic to a whole new level in the 50s.

For me though, my favorite of the classic era studios is possibly Universal; this is something I’ve lately settled on though, and I’m well aware that my preferences may shift again in the future. Anyway, for now at least, Universal is the one. Why? Well, there is the wonderful horror cycle running from the 30s through to the mid-40s, and then the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies that borrowed those old sets and a touch of the macabre sensibility too. Then there were the budget-conscious noir and crime movies that were so common in the 40s and 50s, so many of which are now neglected and half-forgotten. And let’s not forget the Universal-International period, those marvelous years when some of the most visually attractive and thematically rich westerns seemed to be constantly on tap.

So there it is. Do you have a studio you’re happiest visiting? Is there one whose output appeals more, or does it vary from decade to decade?

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands

Some titles are just irresistible, catching the eye and positively insisting that you watch them. And if ever a movie title seemed to encapsulate the absolute essence of film noir, then it surely has to be 1948’s Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. In terms of expectations, it sets the bar pretty high and I wonder if anything could actually live up to the promise.

The film gets off to a flying start with a dangerous and moody looking customer reacting violently to a barman’s attentions. It leads to a scuffle, a fatal punch and then a desperate flight through a grimy studio recreation of post-war London. Bill Saunders (Burt Lancaster) is the fugitive, a former serviceman with psychological scars left by his years as a POW and no place to go. Still, he finds himself running and the only refuge he discovers is the home of Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine), a nurse who’s suffered her own losses in the recent conflict. Out of this reluctant encounter, an inauspicious beginning if ever there were one, grows a fragile romance, the kind one couldn’t envisage outside of times of immense social upheaval. However, the world of noir is rarely concerned with handing anyone an easy time so it’s not long before Bill’s hair-trigger temper and an ill-starred blend of blackmail and black marketeers threaten to sour the relationship.

Director Norman Foster’s biggest credit is probably Journey into Fear, but his work on the Mr Moto and Charlie Chan series is well worth checking out. That low budget background arguably serves him well here as there is a briskness to the movie that’s very welcome. Of course there’s plenty of high quality assistance behind the camera to help things along with cameraman Russell Metty keeping everything shrouded in shadows, while Miklós Rózsa provides the score. I suppose some may complain about the use of sets as opposed to real locations but I’m generally happy to see a nicely designed mock-up  (cult director Nathan Juran’s name is listed in the art direction credits, by the way) as I think this is now something of a lost art and it adds a lot to vintage studio productions. For all that, and as I hinted at in the introduction, the film doesn’t quite attain the heights you might be expecting. This is not to say it’s a bad or poor movie, let me be clear about that. Yet there is a certain weakness in the writing, and I don’t know if that derives from the script or the source novel of the same name, but the build up and visuals suggest a far darker experience than that which is ultimately delivered. Even so, this does not amount to a massive flaw and the film, taken as a whole package, is both entertaining and satisfying.

The action revolves around Lancaster and Fontaine for much of the time, the latter working well and playing to her strengths as she gets the timidity and vulnerability of her character across most effectively. Lancaster is fine but, once again, I feel the writing does him a bit of a disservice by failing to explore as fully as possible the complexity of his role. That said, he makes the most of the material he’s given. The other major part is played by Robert Newton, a man who one always fears may use broader brush strokes than are needed. I don’t believe that’s the case here though and he conveys the oily menace of his part quite credibly.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands was a film I wanted to see for many years – as I said above, the title alone sold it to me – and it was always a matter of frustration that it never seemed to be available or to turn up on TV. Fortunately, there is now a DVD on the market as part of the Universal MOD range. Also, the film has been released in Italy in what I suspect will be a port of the US transfer. The picture quality is sound as far as I can tell, maybe not startlingly good but not seriously compromised in any way either. Overall, I’m delighted to have been able to finally see the film and check another film  noir off the list. So, even if it doesn’t quite make the top tier, it’s easily worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time.