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

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Unforgiven (Warner Bros, 1992)

Clint's masterpiece

Only the third Western to win an Oscar for Best Picture - Cimarron (RKO, 1931) and Dances With Wolves (MGM, 1990) were the others - this is Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece.
It is a masterpiece in the sense that it is the pinnacle of Mr. Eastwood’s career as a Western star and director, it has one of the best screenplays ever written (David Webb Peoples, co-writer of Blade Runner) and the acting is superb throughout.

In addition, all the ‘lesser’ elements are of the very highest quality:

*   the understated but haunting music by Lennie Niehaus (based on a theme by Eastwood himself);

*   the beautiful photography by Jack Green of the Alberta locations and the very dark interiors; and

*   the design and look of the sets, costumes and props (Henry Bumstead, Glenn Wright et al).

*   Joel Cox also won an Academy award for the editing.

Clint Eastwood, after his Rowdy Yates phase and Italian westerns, began to make some very interesting, crafted films. Hang ‘em High, Two Mules for Sister Sara and High Plains Drifter were all spaghetti-influenced and though none was a great Western, they all had something. Joe Kidd is much better than many people give it credit for. The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider (especially, in my view, the latter) were outstandingly good Westerns, worthy to stand with the classics. But none was as fine as Unforgiven.

Mr. Eastwood produced, directed and starred in it. He apparently deliberately ‘sat on’ the Webb Peoples script he had acquired until he was ready (and old enough) to film it. He was nominated for an Academy award as Best Actor for his part in it (though in the event he lost out to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman). In the story he finds himself, like Gary Cooper in The Westerner, in a world he thought he had forsworn. Gunfighter become (miserably unsuccessful) hog farmer, he is Shane become Starrett, become Shane again.

The casting is perfect. Gene Hackman won an Oscar, and rightly so, for his portrayal of the complex, amiable yet sadistic sheriff Little Bill Daggett. Morgan Freeman, in his only Western, is also outstanding as the former gunman partner of Eastwood who accompanies him on this expedition. And Jaimz Woolvett, a Canadian actor who seems to have done mostly TV since, takes the role of the kid wanting to make a reputation as a gunfighter. Richard Harris is excellent (he wasn’t always) as English Bob, the gunfighter who puts on airs as a Duke, but who, when bested by Little Bill, slips back into his backstreet cockney (a moment lost in dubbed foreign versions). English Bob is accompanied by WW Beauchamp, a Buntline-style dime novelist or biographer, a kind of ten-cent Boswell, also played perfectly by Saul Rubinek. (A nod at low-budget Western scriptwriter DD Beauchamp?) In fact, every single ‘minor’ part is just right.

This is not a straight Western in the traditional mold. The characters are part good, part bad. The chief lawman is brave, intelligent and wants to bring decency, law and order to the town but is prepared to whip a man to death without trial. The women courageously want justice for a brutal crime that has gone unpunished and they pool their whole life savings to do it, but to pay base hired killers. The men who do for this money have been bloodthirsty assassins yet when it comes to it, scruple to do the deed. The most innocent people of all are the cut-up whore of an early, horrific scene and the young partner of the cowboy who did it. And they suffer terribly.

The violence is brutal but the message of the movie is that violence is always consequential and solves nothing. It’s almost a kind of mea culpa from Eastwood for his Dollar films or Dirty Harry. Richard Corliss in Time magazine wrote that the movie was "Eastwood's meditation on age, repute, courage, heroism – on all those burdens he has been carrying with such grace for decades.”

There is no romance or glamor in this West. The dialogue is superbly authentic (you can read the script here - external link) and magnificently handled by cast and director. The look of the picture is authentic too. Derek Malcolm in The Guardian said that “the mud, grime and poverty root its story in a time and place that almost reeks of probability”.

Unforgiven is listed as the fourth best Western in American Film Institute’s top ten list (after The Searchers, High Noon and Shane), for what that’s worth (the list includes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Cat Ballou so is dubious to say the least).

The film is long (135 minutes) but doesn’t drag. The pace is stately, you might say. There is action but it’s sudden, episodic and explosive (just as violence usually is, sudden and out of nowhere).

Unforgiven might be, probably is, Eastwood’s last Western. If so, it’s a more than worthy ending to a splendid career. It is one of the best Westerns ever made.



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