"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Hunting Party (UA, 1971)


Rancid
 


 


Do you remember back last month when I was talking about Wayne Morris in The Marksman? I was aiming also to review his The Fighting Lawman, which was the other Western on the Warner Bros Archive Collection double-feature DVD. But the wretched DVD wouldn't work, and I contacted the supplier, Rarewaves in the US, about it. Well, I can report that Jessica, at Rarewaves, was really good, and she sent me a replacement right away. Full marks to Rarewaves then. Tragically, however, that disc didn't work either, so I reckon there must be a fault on the whole pressing. Therefore dear e-pards, I shall not be reviewing this movie any time soon (no point in their sending yet another copy) and my myriad readers will de deprived of the insightful, witty and perspicacious comments I had planned. Both of them will regret this. Hey ho. On then to other matters.

Perhaps Warners ought to consider recalling their faulty product

The Hunting Party. Early 1970s Westerns really were the pits, weren’t they? I think the period was the nadir of our noble genre. Many 1960s Westerns had been pretty ropey, with aging actors appearing in inferior material, but at least the decade finished on a high, with The Wild Bunch and True Grit in 1969. 1970 through ‘75 had no such quality to recommend it. Take the year 1970 as an example: it was the year of A Man Called Horse, A Man Called Sledge, Adios Sabata, Cannon for Cordoba, Cry Blood Apache, Four Rode Out, Rio LoboTwo Mules for Sister Sara, Fistful of Lead, There Was a Crooked Man, My Name is Trinity, Soldier Blue and His Name was Madron. Not a good Western among them. Little Big Man was interesting that year but teetered dangerously on the edge of parody. About the best we got was Monte Walsh, The Cheyenne Social Club, Valdez is Coming, and Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Chisum from John Wayne was just about acceptable. Those anno domini Western stars again.

1971 wasn’t much better. In fact you could argue it was even worse. Captain Apache, Catlow, Doc, Lawman, One More Train to Rob, Something Big, The Deserter, The Gatling Gun, Trinity is Still My Name. Pretty bad. On the plus side: Yuma, not bad, Wild Rovers, ditto, The Hired Hand, interesting, Support Your Local Gunfighter, fun, Shoot Out, ho hum, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, good, Hannie Caulder, also interesting, and Big Jake, John Wayne again.

Of course, on the other side of the coin, at least we got big-screen Westerns released in numbers!  

The very worst of 1971, though, was The Hunting Party.


It was the most repulsive start of any Western I know, with two deliberately juxtaposed scenes (deep, man) of the cutting up of a live animal and violent sex. In fact the animal part was excised from the film in some countries as being too disgusting to stomach. But Gene Hackman raping Candice Bergen was left in. Truly repellent.

Hackman has a curious CV as far as Westerns go. He was really great as Little Bill in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven – seriously good. He was also OK as General Crook in Geronimo: An American Legend and as Wyatt Earp’s dad in Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp (though they were hardly major parts). But Bite the Bullet was so-so, and he overdid it, and talking of overacting, try The Quick and the Dead, admittedly a very bad Western but he certainly didn’t help. Zandy’s Bride? Forget it. And as for The Hunting Party, well…

He could be good, bad and ugly

You can’t blame Oliver Reed quite so much. He was a Brit who struggled with the American accent he was obliged to put on. He was quite a hot property after his Bill Sikes in Oliver! and his Gerald Crich in Women in Love in the late 60s. But he was unsuited to Westerns – he tried again in The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday, with equally unsatisfactory results. He should never have been cast as the ‘hero’ (hah!) of The Hunting Party.

Unsuited

Ms. Bergen was coming up in the world at the time and would be nominated for an Oscar at the end of the decade. She did three Westerns, one of them Bite the Bullet, again with Hackman, and also the sordid Soldier Blue the year before The Hunting Party. It was a less than glorious record.

A thankless role

The film was originally announced in 1969 as a project for then husband and wife team Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom. Thank goodness at least that we were spared that.

But actually, even if the cast had been the best actors in the world, the film would still have been trash.

Perhaps we should blame principally the director and writers. Don Medford directed over 75 TV series between 1951 and 1989, but only helmed three movies, and this was his only Western, though he directed a few Western TV shows. He clearly didn’t understand the genre at all.

Dig the hair, Don

Three writers are credited: Lou Morheim, who was an associate producer on The Magnificent Seven in 1960 (and actually in this one there's a following rider who makes us think of Chico), but this was the only feature Western screenplay he wrote; Gilbert Ralston, who wrote Willard the same year as The Hunting Party but again scripted no other big-screen oaters; and William W Norton, who wrote or co-wrote three other Westerns, including The Scalphunters (our next review) and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (which has a similar plot to The Hunting Party and is also pretty bad) but was hardly a leading figure in the field.

Let's blame Lou

Or the producers, who put such a noxious project together, of whom writer Norheim was one (he is fast shaping up to be one of the principal culprits) and Arthur Gardner, Jules V Levy and Arnold Laven were the others. It’s sometimes talked of as a British film. Though the only Brit actor (Reed) plays an American and it was shot in Spain, I think some of the backers were British, shame on them.

Whoever was to blame, the movie that resulted was pretty despicable. I would certainly never want to see it again.

Gene Hackman plays arrogant cattle baron Brandt Ruger, rich as Croesus – the town is named Ruger, he has his own train and also a trophy wife, Melissa (Bergen), with whom, though, he appears to be impotent. He organizes a hunting party with some cronies, of whom the leading light is Matt Gunn, played by Simon Oakland, a rather good actor who, however, for me will always be Frank Bullitt’s captain. He presents them all with Sharps .54 rifles with telescopic sights, a snip at $700 each and capable of a range of 800 yards.

He murders many
 
Oakland stands by him

Meanwhile, tough hombre Frank Calder (Reed) rides into town with his gang. LQ Jones is one member, so that’s good. These lowlifes kidnap schoolma’am Melissa and there’s an attempted rape in a wagon (only five minutes in and Melissa has already been assaulted twice). Frank is illiterate and he thinks the schoolteacher will teach him to read. And if we feel that’s enough sexual assaults, forget it. Ruger is busy brutalizing a Chinese sex worker on the train. So far, so repellent.

Outlaw Frank rides into town with his gang

Actually, I think the musician, Riz Ortolani, was kind of complicit, in a way, by scoring romantic music played during these appalling attacks.

Melissa goes on hunger strike but in a ‘comic’ scene (which is not the least bit funny) she relents in the face of a jar of peaches. We sense that she is warming to Frank, who, though a white-trash lowlife, is not quite as repulsive as his colleagues and therefore just about human. But hardly.

When Ruger learns of the kidnap he abandons his trip hunting animals in favor of using the long-distance rifles to shoot the kidnappers.

That’s basically the plot.

There are many brutal horse-falls and there seems to have been no supervision from any humane society or animal welfare outfit.

It's love, eventually, though totally inexplicable and unlikely

Soon one of Frank’s gang will beat and attempt to rape Melissa again. After all, we haven’t had a rape for at least half an hour at this point.

The gang fall out and start killing each other, and on Ruger’s side all his rich friends except Matt abandon the obsessive pursuit and leave him to it. He’s clearly crazy.

There’s a really ridiculous part where Frank kills his wounded friend, and we move to a frankly moronic ending in which everyone dies. Sorry about the spoiler but I just wish it had happened three reels earlier.

As a Western, The Hunting Party isn’t just disgusting to watch, it’s also dismally badly acted, written, and directed.

Best avoided, e-pards.

 

 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Renegade Girl (Screen Guild, 1946)


Ann leads the outlaws



 
 
 
In the 1940s Ann Savage made it quite big in the world of low-budget movies as a hard-bitten blonde with the nickname ‘Perfect Vixen’. She started at Columbia but that didn’t last.
 
Not so blonde in this one
 
While she specialized in noirs and gangster flicks, she also did half a dozen Westerns, starting as Klondike Kate in 1943, taking the female lead in a Russell Hayden/Dub Taylor flick Saddles and Sagebrush, the same year, and doing the same in another, The Last Horseman, in 1944. Later she appeared in a Cisco Kid picture, in 1949. She ended her Western career by being Glenda in Woman They Almost Lynched in ’53. But in 1946 she topped the bill in Renegade Girl.
 
Yet just a woman

Robert L Lippert, owner of a chain of theaters, formed Screen Guild Productions in 1945, dissatisfied with what he believed to be exorbitant rental fees for pictures charged by major studios. He would make his own. The company's first release was a Bob Steele Western, Wildfire, shot in Cinecolor, no less – a movie I am soon to review, you will be utterly thrilled to learn. Eight pictures came out in 1946, many of them Westerns, and one of them was Renegade Girl.

Bob Lippert

It’s a simple 105-minute black & white oater of the period, no great shakes really but worth a look, at least once. William Berke, the director, helmed 90 films and produced nearly 80 (including this one). He started as an actor in silent Westerns. Oscar-winning director Richard Fleischer in his memoir recalled that Berke "was known as King of the Bs. For years and years he had made nothing but pictures with ten or twelve day shooting schedules, minuscule budgets of about $100,000 and no stars. Without bothering with editing or any postproduction chores and with short shooting schedules, he was able to squeeze in eight or ten pictures a year. And he was going nuts". But Berke knew what he was doing, and he churned them out on-time and on-budget.

Wm Berke

Berke had also directed Saddles and Sagebrush. In an interview on Western Clippings Savage remembers: “William Berke directed this picture, and he was nice. I worked with him a number of times. It was all like family. It was nice, being at a studio, learning your trade while being paid.”

Savage said, I was afraid of horses, and I almost didn’t make Renegade Girl. My husband [Bert D’Armand] was also my agent, and he said, ‘Oh, come on, they’ll get the best double for you.’ So, they got Jennifer Jones’s double from Duel in the Sun, and you can’t go wrong with that! Vivian Lopez was her name, I think.”

She's handy with a rifle

Missouri, 1864. Savage is Jean Shelby, a Confederate-sympathizing gal who falls for a Union captain Fred Raymond (Alan Curtis). She’s a tough cookie but Capt. Raymond is awfully gallant and has a very dashing pencil mustache. It will be lerve.

Unfortunately, though, Capt. Raymond is charged by Major Barker (our old pal Jack Holt) with finding and arresting a certain Bob Shelby – who happens to be Jean’s bro (Jimmy Martin). That’s awkward.

The dashing captain and tough major lay their plans

The situation is complicated by the fact that another fellow is smitten with Jean, Jerry Long (Russell Wade). And he is prepared to stoop to skullduggery to elbow the captain out of the way and get his hands on the fair Jean.

Savage said, “Alan Curtis and Russell Wade were so sweet, nice men, and so good looking. It was such a shame Alan died so young [in 1953, aged 43, after a kidney operation.] My husband and I had just moved to New York when I read about it in the papers. I felt so badly. And Russell Wade is so handsome, and so wonderful to work with. Jack Holt was a big star, he was charming; it was delightful to be working with him. For that scene I just stood in the middle as I recall, but it was very nice, I enjoyed making the film.”

Curtis and Wade

Second-billed Curtis never quite made it to stardom but he had some memorable smaller roles, and he did a few Westerns, even leading in two. Wade had a short time in the limelight (he won a contract at RKO) and he too did a few oaters, especially Tim Holt ones, but he also topped the billing in one, Sundown Riders in 1944.

The Indians are the real baddies in this one, though. They are led by Chief White Cloud (played by Chief Thundercloud aka Victor Daniels, who was given the title of Chief in a somewhat, er, honorary capacity and identified himself as Cherokee, although is background is vague). The chief has a grudge against the Shelbys and will stop at naught (naught, I say) to get his revenge. He even has his attacking and whooping braves ride round and round a church. How bad is that!

Grrr

Jean thinks the captain has abandoned her (he’s actually only fighting bravely) and she goes all hard, and leads a band of ex-guerrillas who become outlaws. And she stands for no nonsense from the men.

Jean’s brother rode with Quantrill and the famed guerrilla leader makes a brief appearance – it’s none other than good old Ray Corrigan. So Crash joined the long list of actors who played William Clarke. But most of the story is set after the war, when Quantrill (they all give him the common pronunciation Quantrell) was no more.

Will the lovebirds finally meet up again and live happily ever after? Ah, that would be telling…

The Reb gal and Fed officer. Can it work?

 

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Missouri Breaks (UA, 1976)


Pretty painful




 
 
I don’t like The Missouri Breaks.

Part of the reason is its director Arthur Penn. He won Broadway's 1960 Tony Award as Best Director in 1980 and he directed 8 different movie actors in Oscar-nominated performances, and many people would regard him as one of the great directors of his time. But Western fans may not agree with that assessment. The Left-Handed Gun was interesting in some ways but was essentially mannered and overwrought. Little Big Man teetered dangerously on the edge of parody. And The Missouri Breaks was fundamentally a bad Western.

Penn on the set of The Missouri Breaks

Another reason is Jack Nicholson. I’m a fan of his in other genres but not in Westerns. Those two low-budget mid-60s Monte Hellman pictures, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, were quite interesting, in an oddball way, but Goin’ South was unfunny and he overacted in it. And he has a particular very Jack Nicholson style in The Missouri Breaks but it doesn’t quite ring true for me. Many people think he’s good in it, but I don't.

Not so good this time, Jack

But the principal reason I dislike the film is because of its star, Marlon Brando. I know I’m in a minority on this, and like Arthur Penn, Brando is considered by many to be one of the greatest exponents of the cinematic art. The IMDb bio starts with the sentence “Marlon Brando is widely considered the greatest movie actor of all time, rivaled only by the more theatrically oriented Laurence Olivier in terms of esteem.” As a young man I admired Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and his Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. They made a big impression on me.

Brando hams up his entrance
(luckily we've had more than half an hour screen time without him by then)

But as I grew older I found his performances overdone and even hammy. Grandstanding Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty? Padded-cheeked Don Corleone mumbling his way through The Godfather? Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now? Not for me. And in our noble genre his record was less than distinguished – and that’s putting it mildly. The only Western he was good in (in my view) was Viva Zapata!, and that was hardly a Western at all. The other three were poor. The Appaloosa in 1966 was an over-arty two-revolver picture in which Brando strutted about hammily in a fright wig and false beard, and we never for a moment believe in him as his character. It’s just Marlon Brando. One-Eyed Jacks was similar - mannered, and a curious mixture of the violent and the soppy. He directed it also – and not very well. As actor in that, he is not at all credible as a tough gun hand - he is almost foppish. And in The Missouri Breaks, as gun for hire Robert E Lee Clayton, he is absolutely awful.

What the drag is all about I have no idea

There. Agree with those judgements at your peril. Peril of character assassination from snooty cinéastes anyway.

Mind, I’m not entirely alone. Brian Garfield, praise be unto his memory, said this of Brando in The Missouri Breaks: 

[His] gunslinger ‘regulator’ is contemptible, self-indulgent caricature and belongs in some other movie. Brando, at a gross 250 pounds, looks like a hippo on horseback; his bewildering costume changes (from Buffalo Bill flamboyance to Mother Hubbard drag) are absurd; he speaks alternately with three odd accents (Irish brogue, Plains twang, supercilious English twitter) and one can see his eyes drift towards the off-camera cue cards he uses because he’s too lazy to memorize lines. It bothers me that a man with so little respect for his own profession continues to accept enormous sums of money for work that he holds in contempt. This movie should be held that way too.

The stars were hot properties, though. Nicholson had just won an Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Brando was still trading on his 1972 Oscar for The Godfather and nomination for Last Tango in Paris.
 
Hot properties

The movie isn’t all bad. It was produced (by Elliott Kastner) on a big budget - it lost money - and it looks good, shot in attractive and suitably ‘Western’ Montana locations in color and Panavision by Michael C Butler (his only Western). It had music by John Williams, though I didn’t like it this time. Too much is irritatingly ‘comic’, signaling to us who are too dumb to know which bits are supposed to be funny. Harry Dean Stanton is very good in it – in fact he damn nearly steals the show. And I thought John McLiam was also powerful as the mighty cattle baron. So yes, it had its moments.

Butler shooting Jaws 2

And some people liked it. The Los Angeles Free Press called it “the most important film of the year” and called it a “hilariously funny, disturbingly romantic, picaresque movie.” OK. Chacun à son goût. Tom Dawson of the BBC said, “Brando's performance, which accentuates Clayton's whimsicality, effeteness and sadism, is enjoyably strange, and deliberately at odds with the naturalism of the rest of the cast” and added that “this appealingly eccentric revisionist western highlights the critical importance of violence in establishing 'civilized' society in the American wilderness.” If you say so, Tom.

But the movie is too long, the thin story (Thomas McGuane and Robert Towne) not being substantial enough for the 126-minute runtime. It drags.

Writer McGuane

Director Penn said that Tom Horn was the inspiration for Brando’s character, and writer McGuane is a Tom Horn expert (he would pen the screenplay of Tom Horn in 1980) but in reality Brando’s lilac-smelling fop is about as far from Tom Horn as you could possibly get. No, Mr. Penn, that won’t wash.

Vincent Canby in The New York Times makes the point that the story was better done the year before in Rancho De Luxe, also written by McGuane. However, in The Missouri Breaks, “the characters are just as bored, confused and directionless as they are in 1975, and they, too, look back to some dimly remembered period when the old days were good.”

I quite liked the bit where Harry Dean and some friends rustle Canadian Mounties’ horses while the redcoats are dutifully in church stolidly singing Bringing in the Sheaves. Afterwards, the RCMP get their mounts back, not all that properly, in the US. “It’s not even legal!” one of the rustlers complains, like a child, as if his rustling had been.

HDS the best actor on the set

It would have been much better if Tom Logan (Nicholson) had shot Clayton in the bath tub scene. That would have shortened the film and put a merciful end to Brando’s mug show.

I remember being shocked by Clayton’s eventual demise, though, and even watching again now it’s quite powerful.

The 1970s, which started with revisionist Westerns such as Dirty Little Billy, doing a hatchet job on Billy the Kid, and Doc, doing the same for Wyatt Earp, as well as Soldier Blue, demolishing the reputation of the US Cavalry, and Penn’s own Little Big Man, lampooning Custer, didn’t get much better by the mid-decade point. The Western was definitely in crisis. But at least those pictures weren’t actually boring, like this one.