The Spoilers (1942), Albuquerque (1948), Comanche Territory (1950) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

April 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve been slowly working my way through the Universal collection of Westerns called simply Classic Westerns: 10-Movie Collection. These cheaply produced collections can sometimes be fairly grainy, low-quality affairs, but Universal has chosen some decent films here, at least in terms of the presentation, and I find Westerns endlessly fascinating as simplified morality plays. The trouble here is mainly that viewer expectations are so different all these decades later: these are fairly slow-moving, valleyfairly sexist films, and even the occasional burst of action isn’t even wildly entertaining if it’s ultimately cartoonish scenes of men clutching their chests and falling. To be fair, there are sometimes more impressive stunts to be found in these films.

The Spoilers has an overbearing John Wayne character pressuring the Marlene Dietrich character in various ways (she somewhat inexplicably continues to think he’s absolutely dreamy) and he even puts on blackface at one point, supposedly because he needed it to sneak around but it really serves for a remarkably dated and racist attempt at humour. Randolph Scott is on hand to loan the film a somewhat calmer character and generally improve things, despite acting as the villain. Scott only smiles more than he otherwise would and acts confidently, so that he manages to be oily but not overbearing. It’s a wise choice, as another character as overbearing as the John Wayne character would’ve resulted in a nearly unwatchable film. Scott made dozens of Westerns, and is always a more likeable and trustworthy hero than most actors can manage.

It’s worse when we get to Comanche Territory (not to be confused with Comanche Station, because Budd Boetticher actually directed very well-written Westerns) because the only male lead with any real screen time is Macdonald Carey, and he somehow manages to be quite overbearing and smarmy throughout the film. He’s opposite Maureen O’Hara, playing a character that goes from fiercely independent to doting, which is annoying in itself. Again, a few moments of impressive action can’t redeem 90 minutes with an overbearing hero, standard plot and First Nations characters played by Italians, but it’s a distinctly average Western when it doesn’t even have a single performance — not even a supporting performance — worth writing home about.

Albuquerque fares better, mainly because Randolph Scott in the lead role projects something much more calm and mature. He does this in every film — he featured in a number of Budd Boetticher films — and while the romance is as typical as ever, and some of the supporting actors terribly wooden, the pace and plot are an improvement. Overall, it’s an interesting collection that demonstrates how many Westerns were cranked out, and for decades. Most of the films from the era have a few bright spots of one kind or another to be found somewhere in a formula production. I find them almost endlessly fascinating for the values they collectively try to reinforce, the stripped-down, small town nature of the drama, and the entertainment value. They also have double historical value: they’re films about the old west as imagined decades ago in Hollywood. Science-fiction films from the 1950s that imagine a future in which the women still don’t do anything but get the coffee are just as unintentionally amusing.

Not part of this collection, The Valley of Gwangi is like one of these films on drugs, or to be more accurate, one of these films married to another kind of film entirely: the monster film, and in particular the monster film that suggests we tampered in a domain we should’ve simply left alone. It would be called “Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs” if produced today, and it’s surprising no studio has troubled to remake it. James Franciscus in the leading role means we’re back to a smarmy, beaming, somewhat overbearing lead, even as his character is both a hustler and heroic, which makes little sense. It’s also a full 25 minutes before we’re treated to the first special effect by the late, great Ray Harryhausen. The lead characters are all written fairly blandly, but it’s a convincing portrayal of the discovery of a hidden valley, and in the second half of the film the effects are great fun, providing it isn’t going to bother you a few men can hold off an Allosaurus using sticks and lassos.

In the final twenty minutes the films shifts focus to become a shortened version of King Kong, with the characters dragging the creature out to become part of a show. Freda Jackson has the fairly thankless roll of a Gypsy woman who repeatedly warns them of a curse, and the pending destruction, the final minutes of the film involve an impressive climax in the town cathedral. I’ll leave you to take what you want from that about greed and breaking faith. And while I do find John Wayne overbearing in most films, I’ll take time out to say he’s excellent in a great Howard Hawks film called Red River, where he co-stars with Montgomery Clift. Look to this collection for some average, entertaining films, and look elsewhere for the best the genre has to offer. 7 Men From Now (Randolph Scott, directed by Budd Boetticher) can be found on Netflix.

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The Hunting Party (1971)

May 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Comanche Station (1960) is among a number of low-budget, thematically charged Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, sometimes with the capable help of writer Burt Kennedy. In a scene around a campfire, Kennedy has a character reminisce, in plain dialogue that nevertheless gets right to the heart of a particular feeling: “A good looking woman. Kind of made you go lonely just being around her. Hearing her say words. Seeing her move.”

It’s a small moment, but demonstrates that a Western can have graceful and even poetic touches. Sadly, The Hunting Party (1971) seems to have been influenced by a later film The Wild Bunch (1969), reproducing the harsh landscape without even the redeeming camaraderie in that film. In short, Gene Hackman plays a powerful rancher, busy raping his wife or visiting some kind of combination train-whorehouse to inflict pain on other women until he discovers his wife (Candice Bergen) has been kidnapped by a wanderer (Oliver Reed) and his gang. The fact that the Oliver Reed character only wants her to teach him to read does little to excuse the kidnapping or make his character likeable, and the idea that Bergen and Reed may or may not be starting to fall for each other is watered down by an impenetrably grim performance from Oliver Reed.

Meanwhile, Gene Hackman is believable and even frightening as the husband, but it’s another one-note character in the script. In case you don’t want them in advance, plot details follow. He grabs a high-powered rifle like very few others at the time, follows Reed and company and begins picking them off one at a time. You’d think something would change over the course of the rest of the film, that a character might reconsider one way or another, change or grow in some way. But the entire rest of the movie returns to slow-motion shots of men falling and dying at watering holes or some such thing. By the time Bergen is standing in a river, screaming at Hackman just to shoot them and make it all end, this particular viewer felt pretty much the same way. Certainly, it leaves the viewer wondering about the point of the film. I’ve seen reviews that suggested the film is Shakespearean, but in Shakespeare’s tragedies even the most stubborn characters (King Lear, for example) eventually reflect on the mistakes they’ve made. The Hackman character lets the new couple live on a few occasions, shows no sign of reconsidering, and finally kills them.

Is life occasionally this bleak? Perhaps, but I’d argue we don’t need that in a film when we have it in every newspaper headline. I watched the entire film — which begins, by the way, with the actual killing of a cow using a dull knife — in the hope of some redeeming or graceful moment, only to be disappointed. Perhaps the fault is in me, to some extent, as I do believe a film should have some kind of point, other than don’t enrage a guy with a high-powered rifle. For more thoughtful Westerns, track down Budd Botticher films, or the remake of True Grit (2010) recently. These are films willing to admit that even in almost impossibly-difficult landscapes there are moments of grace. And they seem to know that if you’re going to make your viewers crawl through the desert you can at least give them one or two drinks of water along the way.

The Ride Back! (1957)

May 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

It’s hard to imagine a film today that would deign to use an exclamation mark in the title, even The Poseidon Adventure (1972) had to be updated to Poseidon (2006), because there’s something forced and uncool about using the word adventure. Needless to say, The Ride Back is a Western that’s over fifty years old, but it hasn’t dated. As a film, it’s beautifully shot, well acted, well paced and has solid but subtle writing.

William Conrad plays Sheriff Chris Hamish, sent alone to a small town to retrieve Bob Kallen (Anthony Quinn) so he can stand trial. Kallen makes various escape attempts through the harrowing journey back, and it’s slowly revealed that Kallen might not be all that bad, and Hamish, while a decent man, is certainly a flawed one. The dialogue manages to suggest characters that are real simply by making the characters sound reluctant to reveal too much at once. Kallen hands an unloaded gun back to Hamish saying “You’re pretty clever, I’m learning about you,” and there’s a pause before Hamish replies, “Take your time.”  William Conrad hits all the right notes as a man doing his duty and reluctant to reveal why he’s so obstinate about getting Kallen back to stand trial when he has no personal stake in it, and Quinn effortlessly plays the younger and more charming man who’d started a new life away from his troubles.

It might be a little typical that the two men inevitably grow to trust each other a little, but it’s handled quite well, in dialogue that feels real. The Ride Back is a simple Western, and not a terribly celebrated one, as far as I can tell from a search online. A search for the trailer on YouTube gets you some videos of favourite cars from 1957, and I can find personal reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, but not professional ones. Regardless, it’s a worthy film for fans of the genre, or good drama. Oh, and for the record, I love a film that isn’t afraid to put a chipper little exclamation mark at the end of the title.

The Lonely Man (1957)

July 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

A remarkably under-appreciated Western — it isn’t even in my handy-dandy 1570 page movie guide — I was originally attracted to this film for the simplicity of the title as well as the cast. It features Jack Palance as a reformed gunfighter and Anthony Perkins as his son.  Palance plays Jacob Wade, interested to start a new life with a son he didn’t raise, provided former enemies will stay away, and a town somewhere will actually let them stay.  Palance is both understated and excellent, and Anthony Perkins so mellow as his bitter, abandoned son it seemed a little like he was just proving he’d memorized his lines. But in a stark, beautifully shot, black and white film understated performances work better than overblown ones so as not to distract from a quiet, simple and beautifully told story.

There’s even a fairly obvious, beautiful but elusive symbol for happiness quite literally charging through the film infrequently, along with great shots of actors (or possibly stunt people) galloping at full-speed through the landscape with such rousing music it made me want to buy a flippin’ horse.

Watch Jacob Wade make contact with his son again here. The movement Perkins brings to the scene is so languid it manages to be slightly puzzling even as it suggests he’s drunk, and depressed. And the music isn’t overdone — it registers with the viewer, but declines to do anything more than remain mournful, even after the one moment of action in the scene.

I’ve been given the impression a lot of Westerns were produced in the fifties, but this one deserves to be among those remembered — it may have the kind of closure you predicted from the early moments, but it’s still a remarkably satisfying and well-crafted film. Unforgiven (1992) with Clint Eastwood won four Academy Awards, telling the story of a man who leaves a peaceful life of retirement to become a gunslinger again, for reasons that don’t seem terribly valid by the end of the film. The Lonely Man got there first, though it tells the story the other way around. It’s a film that deserves better than to be discontinued on DVD.

Death Rides a Horse (1967) and Shalako (1968)

June 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

So intense-looking he played intimidating characters even as an elderly actor, Lee Van Cleef is among my favourite actors in the Western genre. He has small parts in impressive Westerns like High Noon (1952) with Gary Cooper, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and The Tin Star (1957) with Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins. Finally, he had much larger roles in most of the Sergio Leone trilogy with Clint Eastwood, appearing in For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966). As far as I’m aware Death Rides a Horse is among the few Westerns with him as the hero, so I was a little dismayed when it began with a long, unclear shot of rain and horses and opening credits that looked as though a college student had done them. But the film finds its way, and while a little slow it’s an extremely satisfying Western, if a little typical of the spaghetti Western revenge story. With a score by Ennio Morricone, this one deserves a better quality release on DVD.

Shalako stars Sean Connery, having turned down Bond for the first time, and apparently interested to do a Western as a fan of the genre. The film is interesting for the cast — Brigitte Bardot, Stephen Boyd as a villain, and Connery is reunited with his costar Honor Blackman from Goldfinger (1964), certainly one of the better Bond films ever made. Unfortunately, Shalako doesn’t ever really feel like it gets off the ground. The plot concerns an aristocratic hunting party that couldn’t care less they’re on an Apache reservation. When they’re brought clear proof the Apache are upset but prove too pompous and stupid to simply ride off the reservation before daybreak, the viewer begins to wonder why Shalako (Connery) helps them at all, except for the vaguely implied suggestion you’re supposed to help your own ethnic group, no matter what. Most of the dialogue involves characters grumbling at each other, and most of the action involves characters shooting wildly at each other across long distances. Sadly, Shalako is a passable Western and not the film it should have been considering the cast.

Dead Man (1995)

August 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Dead Man is a wandering but fascinating artistic Western from director Jim Jarmusch (and, if you like one Jim Jarmusch film you’ll probably like them all). It’s a film with both amusing and horrific moments, built with a series of small, often nearly perfect scenes the way a poem is one careful line after another. It only suffers from a limited, repetitive score that begins to feel like the same guy hammering away on a guitar because, well, that’s exactly what it is. It was a bold move to score it this way, but the film deserves better than a self-conscious and distracting score.

There’s also a scene where one of the villains literally steps on and crushes a human head in a long, slow shot. Jarmusch has an admirable reputation for showing the moments between events and the images other directors might skip or cut away from, but this is simply a bit much in a film that’s already relentlessly grim. Setting the film in a period where life was cheaper and more of an ongoing struggle allows him to suggest certain thematic ideas: that we’re all doomed, it only remains to choose where you want to concentrate your desperate efforts before you’re gone. Despite a moment or two that might make you wince uncomfortably, Dead Man is a strong and memorable film, and well worth watching.

Open Range (2003)

June 17, 2008 § Leave a comment

As a director, Kevin Costner has certainly had his ups and downs. On top of the world for the multiple  award-winning Dances With Wolves (1990), by the time The Postman (1997) arrived, it turned out to be a long post-apocalyptic buildup to two armies sitting on opposite sides of a battlefield, but then instead of a battle the two leaders get off their horses and smack each other around.  In slow motion, if I recall correctly.  I remember thinking “Er, what?”  It’s too bad the film was a misfire, the premise of a man in a post-apocalyptic world putting on the jacket of a dead postal worker and coming to represent hope is an intriguing one (the novel is sexist and full of clunky writing, but the film should have easily sidestepped those elements to  be a slam-dunk).

With Open Range, Costner directs another Western, and it’s a film much more comfortable and confident, slowly building the characters and a story of injustice.  In fact, in an age where some films seem to expect you’ll feel sympathy for a character just because they’ve been immediately put through hell — and I can’t help but feel we should know characters better first — Open Range takes its time with everything, only building to one climactic shootout that doesn’t disappoint, though it can be a trifle confusing, and apparently the force of one bullet with a lot of righteousness behind it can pick a man up off his feet, which was news to me.  The score is impressive, and Costner and Robert Duvall are a pleasure to watch in this one.  Costner also makes the brave and very wise choice of giving his character little to say, so that we listen when he does talk, and he shares the stage admirably with Duvall.

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