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

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Big Sky (RKO, 1952)

 

OK if you like long black & white movies about trappers









Set too early to be a true Western (in the 1830s), this is more of a historical yarn about trappers and pioneers. At 122 minutes, it is long (the original cut came in at a hefty 140 minutes) and Howard Hawks's rather lethargic direction makes the black & white movie a bit on the ponderous side.


Still, Kirk Douglas is quite fun as Jim Deakins, the hero, doing that cheery-chappy act he patented, and Arthur Hunnicutt, especially, is great in support as Zeb Calloway, the narrator (he was nominated for an Academy award for it). Jim Davis also does a good job as the badmen's leader Streak. Kirk's eye falls on an Indian maid, Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt - her only film) but Kirk's pal and Zeb's nephew, Boone (Dewey Martin, rather good) does too and strains develop... Standard stuff, really, but done with gusto.


The photography and Grand Tetons locations are sometimes fine (though there is a lot of studio work too): Russell Harlan was behind the lens (as he was for Hawks on Red River).


The screenplay is by Dudley Nichols (again, from an AB Guthrie Jr. novel) and the story carries us along fine. The music by Dimitri Tiomkin is suitably grandiose.


So there is much that is enjoyable and high-quality about this movie. It was Howard Hawks's fault and that of his editor Christian Nyby that it wasn't better than it turned out to be. It needed sharper direction and cutting.



 
 

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Outlaw (UA, 1943)


Quite dreadful
 




 


The worst Billy the Kid movie, or at least the worst I have ever seen, was The Outlaw, produced and directed (according to the credits) by the eccentric Howard Hughes, made in 1941 and released, finally, without a certificate, in 1943.


Brace yourself
 
 
It is the worst not because it is one of the most outrageous travesties historically (many movies were as bad) but because of the desperately wooden Jules Furthman screenplay, delivered by the principal characters in an appropriately wooden way.



Sultry Buetel - pursued by Hughes?
 

The lead, Jack Buetel, an insurance clerk chosen presumably for his sultry looks, cannot act to save his life, though actually the real lead is Jane Russell, who is worse. Hughes, who designed a special cantilevered bra for her, said, referring to the effect, that there were two good reasons why every American male wanted to see the film. (In fact, Russell later said she hardly ever wore it as it was so uncomfortable but the myth dictates that she wore it in the film). The famous billboard poster for the film, designed by publicist Russell Birdwell, showed the scantily clad Russell provocatively lying in the straw and holding a gun, and didn’t even show Billy (the outlaw of the title) at all. Or the bra.


Russell Birdwell's master stroke
 

Of course, though it caused scandal at the time, and deliberately traded on that, it is so tame now that we can’t understand what the fuss was about. We never see Buetel and Russell in bed; it’s only hinted at. When the movie was re-released in 1976 it got a G rating, “suitable for general family audiences”.

As, er, counterweight to the two glamorous screen leads, Thomas Mitchell and Walter Huston were drafted in as proper actors, to play Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday. What’s Doc Holliday doing in a Billy the Kid film? Don’t ask. Huston as Holliday manages to do something with his script. Mitchell, a totally ludicrous Garrett, just can’t.

In fact, of course, the censor was so obsessed with Russell’s cleavage, or insisting that she be married in the story before she spent the night with Billy, that he (it was always a he) completely missed the true salacious content of the film, which is, amazingly, a sadomasochistic homosexual love triangle. Or at least it sounds like that as the two older men, Garrett and Holliday, jealously compete for the love of the pouty youth Billy, the real sex object of the movie, unnoticed by the Hays office.

Russell squeezed out of the male love triangle
 
 
Thomas Mitchell, as Garrett, has this speech, addressed to Huston as Holliday: “I might have known you’d do this to me … Ever since you met him [Billy], you’ve treated me like a dog … You stand there, side by side, with that little snip of a kid, against me, me, who’s always been the best friend you ever had. And I still would be if it wasn’t for him.”


A jilted Garrett, jealous of Doc. What crap.
 

This is the petulant foot-stamping of a jilted girl. It comes very strangely out of the mouth of Thomas Mitchell but there the dialogue is. It has been suggested (Garry Wills in his biography of John Wayne writes that LucienBallard said this) that Howard Hughes was sleeping with an unwilling Buetel, not with Russell at all, and the script was a sly dig at Hughes’s relationship. Hughes must have been pretty obtuse if so, letting that script pass.

Howard Hughes. As a producer of films he made a great aviator.
 

Later, Billy submits masochistically as his ‘lover’ shoots nicks out of his ears and creases his gun hand, in a really quite gruesome scene for then (or even now).


Doc and his love interest
 

But all this seems to have slipped by unnoticed, overshadowed (as it were) by Russell’s bosom.

Overall, though, the word I would use to describe this movie is plodding. It’s a dreary, rather washed-out black & white that just looks cheap - extraordinary when you consider Gregg Toland was the photographer, with Lucien Ballard as assistant (two of the greatest cinematographers ever). The vast majority was filmed on studio sets (no excuse for wartime austerity obliging the producers to do that; it was filmed before the US entered the war). Not a lot happens and what does happen is silly. There is a great deal of standing and talking. And there is an irritating muted trumpet that goes wa-wa-wa to simulate laughter every time something ‘comic’ happens (not).

Hawks: bizarrely claimed 'credit' for this film
 


Howard Hawks, uncredited, directed for two weeks and even wrote parts of this movie, before being fired by Hughes. He called Red River (1948) his first Western but he actually worked on The Outlaw a lot, including on the script, with Furthman. He once even said, “I wrote The Outlaw.” If true, he should be ashamed of himself.

It’s junk.

 



 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

My Name is Nobody (Titanus, 1973)



His name was Somebody




 























1973. Henry Fonda is 68. He accepts a part in what turns out to be his last Western.

But it was a tragedy that this should be so because he finished with the worst Western he had ever made, My Name is Nobody. It was by a long shot worse even than There Was A Crooked Man.

Much of the time this tiresome film is puerile. The rest of the time it is infantile.

It was directed by Tonino Valerii but has Sergio Leone stamped all over it, from the scenes that go on far too long, way after we have got the point, to the interminable close-ups of eyes and the use of Ennio Morricone’s irritating music. Why people think Morricone was good I will never know. The music is trite and wanders between the annoying woo-woo vocals and ‘comic’, chirpy interludes. In this film there are a hundred and fifty riders (known as The Wild Bunch) and whenever they appear Morricone puts his wretched stamp on the Valkyries music. As always, this ‘amusing’ idea is milked till we are heartily sick of it.

The main stars of this Italian-French-German co-production are a Venetian named Mario Girotti (who took the name Terence Hill) and Henry Fonda. It was most unfortunate that the great Fonda, one of the finest Western stars of all time, now nearly 70, should lend himself to this trash. He does occasionally seem in this movie to look bewildered, as if wondering what on earth he is doing there. Hill was enormously popular in Italy and perhaps his kind of ‘humor’ goes down well there. There is a lot of slapstick and speeded-up film. He makes faces. He is a buffoon, in fact, which is, of course an ancient Italian tradition but entirely unsuited for a Western ‘hero’.

There is naturally the old ‘nobody’ joke - which is at least as old as Odysseus - as in “Nobody was faster on the draw”. If you want to see that joke used well, watch Dead Man. Here, it is, like everything else, done to death.

There is lavatorial ‘humor’ and a silly (and far too long) scene in a house of mirrors, a cheap reworking of the moment in Lady from Shanghai.
There are really only two good things about this film (one of the worst Westerns ever): some of the photography is quite good, for example a bit where the riders gallop through the White Sands in New Mexico; and, of course, Fonda, who, despite the awful lines he has to deliver, shines through in his old age as the famous gunfighter at the end of his career. If it hadn’t been for these two points, the film would have rated no ‘revolvers’ at all in this review.

If you are a Western fan steer clear of it.

But we mustn't let this dreadful movie spoil our enjoyment of the career of Henry Fonda as a Western actor. He was great. He had weight and authority. He looked right. He exuded the taciturnity, grit and basic decency that are required for a true Western hero. So think of The Ox-Bow Incident, think of My Darling Clementine (which is actually on TV in France tonight). Don't think about My Name is Nobody. In fact, you would do better not to watch My Name is Nobody at all.



 

Monday, May 2, 2011

There Was A Crooked Man (Warner Bros, 1970)



Pretty awful







 

Sadly, Henry Fonda's last two Westerns were pretty awful and that was very unfortunate after such a fine career. 1970 was the year of some good Westerns: The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Little Big Man, Monte Walsh, to name a few. There Was A Crooked Man, however, wasn’t one of them.

If you are thinking that there wasn’t the film maker born who could make Fonda bad in a Western, well, producer/director Joseph L Mankiewicz is your man. He made every effort. He certainly also employed some dire writers, David Newman and Robert Benson. He couldn’t have made a film this lousy all alone. They went on to the even dizzier heights of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and Kramer vs Kramer. But a lot of the 'credit' for this dreary tale must go to Mr. Mankiewicz.

The acting doesn’t help. There are some good names in the line-up but they all give of their worst, starting with Kirk Douglas, as chief jailbird, in eyeglasses and bright orange hair. Poor Fonda, in a beard, does his best but with this plot and these lines and that direction even he stood no chance. John Randolph and Hume Cronyn are an elderly male couple. Warren Oates is a dumb killer. Michael Blodgett is the pretty boy with virtually no lines. Burgess Meredith is the old lag ‘Missouri Kid’. None of them is any good. There are a few women but only for titillation purposes, to be shown without their clothes in various scenes. As most of the story takes part in a men’s prison in the middle of the desert, these scenes were bound to be a bit contrived.

The music (Charles Strouse) is tiresome, an insistent reworking of a grim title song warbled by Trini Lopez. The photography (Harry Stradling Jr.) is unremarkable. In fact it manages to make the Joshua Tree and La Joya, NM dull – quite an achievement.

The film went for the ‘bawdy-comic’ approach. It flopped dismally. The ending was supposed to be an O Henry-type twist. It’s dismally bad. The prison brawl episodes are among the least convincing scenes in the movie, and that is saying a lot.

One has to search to find something good to say about this Western. The set was impressive, a huge 1880s territorial prison built specially and then demolished afterwards to leave the desert location unspoiled. Truckloads of rocks were brought in for the prisoners to break and then trucked out again. Will that do?

It got one or two surprisingly good reviews but the Christmas public was more discerning and stayed away in herds. They might have preferred the British comic Norman Wisdom vehicle of the same title of ten years previously. Brian Garfield, as so often, got it right in his Western Films: A Complete Guide: “It’s long, slow, overacted and monumentally distasteful – an idea gone awry. Neither funny nor illuminating, it is only pretentious trash. It commits the ultimate sin: it is boring.”

Yup.