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

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Anything For Billy by Larry McMurtry (Simon & Schuster, 1988)

Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons...

Anything for Billy is in many ways the exact opposite of John Vernon’s Billy the Kid novel, Lucky Billy. Professor Vernon’s book gained in credibility by being authentic and sticking scrupulously to the known facts about the life of William Bonney. Larry McMurtry deliberately invents freely.
All the characters are fictional – even Billy himself, who is named Billy Bone. There is a big rancher, Isinglass, who may be intended as the Chisum of the story but there is nothing Chisumish about him. The Garrett figure is Tully Roebuck but he bears no resemblance to Pat Garrett. Billy is killed by a jilted girlfriend, Katie Garza, half-Mexican daughter of Isinglass and future Mexican revolutionary.
The tale is lyrical and dreamlike in a free-association way. It’s like the Billy tale told by someone on peyote.
The story is narrated by Ben Sippy, of Philadelphia, dime novelist. This is an apt choice for narrator. There is a long tradition of the dime novelist accompanying Billy. Look at the crazed, idolatrous writer in The Left-Handed Gun or the innocent, slightly bewildered Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The novel is based on an amusing conceit: what if all the Utleys and Vernons and historians and eye-witnesses were wrong and it was the dime novelists who were right all along?
The characters are richly epic, almost Dickensian. There is runty Hill Coe, the greatest lawman-gunfighter after Hickok; Des Montaignes, the French ex-mountain man, saloon owner of the China Pond in Greasy Corners, and his clairvoyant old wife La Tulipe with her mule Bonaparte; Mesty-Woolah, the seven-foot Sudanese warrior who kills for Isinglass, and Lady Cecily Snow, the murderous English aristocrat who elopes with Billy. You get the idea.
The novel is fun, it’s light, it’s quite lyrical in parts and the story is told in a straightforward narrative with no trendy dodging about in time. Violence appears as suddenly on the page as it must have happened in reality and is occasionally treated as an act of banality and occasionally inconsequence. Characters, however rich, are despatched as ruthlessly by the author as by the assassin.
The book is full of humor and memorable characters. Billy himself is a lousy shot, adolescent, unthinkingly murderous, short-sighted and ill.
A very few real people are referred to briefly – the Earps and Hickok – and one real person, Doc Holliday, makes a short appearance but he has no lines. Perhaps by introducing as the only authentic personage in the story a famous figure of the West for whom there is no evidence at all that he met Billy, McMurtry is making a mocking point.
I love much of McMurtry’s work, as most Western addicts do, but I must say that while I quite enjoyed this read in a light way, I wouldn’t class it as a must-read or one of his greatest efforts. It certainly adds nothing whatever to our understanding of William Bonney but then it is clear from page one that that was not his aim. Actually, even before page 1: on an early title page of the book you read "Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental." So be warned!


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Shalako (CIN, 1968)

Head them off at the pass, old boy

Marcus Stiglegger (external link), a German film studies person, on his blog says: . “Although Great Britain is the homeland of many pilgrims emigrating to North America in the beginning, there has never been a primary British interest in the ultimate and mythical American genre: the western. The frontier myth – so eminently important for North American identity politics – is not a suitable key metaphor within British cinema.” .

This is an odd statement. The British ‘Western’ was made countless times, in the shape of all those films about the North Western frontier and fights against Afghans or Zulus or followers of the Mahdi, in wild, far away places, which featured brave heroes fighting natives and wild terrain (with a sub-text, like the American Western, of a mission to ‘civilize’). It was an entirely a suitable metaphor.

Furthermore, the Brits made Westerns – proper Westerns, set in the 19th century American West. Like the French and Germans, the British made some very early Westerns. Fate (1911) is said to be the first Western shot in color. British actors, directors and writers, as well as producers, had a go quite often, and while it has been suggested (by Paul Simpson in The Rough Guide to Westerns) that Britain’s contribution to the Western has been on a par with that of Switzerland’s to naval warfare, this is unfair. The Singer Not The Song, directed by Roy Ward Baker in 1961, starring august John Mills and a leather-clad, rather camp Dirk Bogarde, is not rubbish (though not very good either), and Shalako (1968) is even rather good.

Brit Stewart Granger made a good fist of Westerns (look at The Last Hunt, 1956, for example) and was a convincing Western hero. Alan Sharp (1935 - 2013) was a fine writer and The Hired Hand (1971) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972) are as good as anything an American wrote. His stuff reminds me of Elmore Leonard. It’s that good.

Of course there were turkeys. Catlow in 1971 was a sort of Brit spaghetti. The Brit team of director Michael Winner and writer Gerald Wilson was hopeless and, even worse, disrespectful to the genre. They were responsible for Lawman (1971) and Chato’s Land (1972), both very poor, despite the first having fine (American) Western stars in the shape of Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster. Winner & Wilson just didn't get it, at all, and should have stuck to commercial Death Wish-type pulp. There was also an attempt to cash in the comedy Western with Kenneth More as a frightfully British Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), directed by Raoul Walsh, no less, which was surprisingly good - unlike Liverpool-born Arthur Askey (1900 – 1982) in the perfectly dreadful Ramsbottom Rides Again (1956). There was even a ‘Carry On’ Western: Carry On Cowboy (1966), like Ramsbottom, toe-curlingly bad.

Mind, as far as Brit sheriffs are concerned, I prefer John Cleese in the excellent Silverado (1985). Michael Winterbottom directed the very fine The Claim in 2000, a remake in Western key of The Mayor of Casterbridge. And look at how good Christian Bale was in the latest 3:10 to Yuma. It was astonishing that the young lad who played the posh colonial public schoolboy in Empire of the Sun could make a convincing Civil War veteran Arizona farmer with grit. But he did. So some excellent British producers, writers, directors and actors.

Shalako was a big British production. It starred three famous British stars of the time: Sean Connery, taking a break from his fifth James Bond movie; Honor Blackman, Cathy Gale of 43 Avengers episodes; and classic posh Brit Jack Hawkins (1910 – 1973), star of countless films where an English gentleman was required. Even Bosky Fulton the baddy was a Brit, from Northern Ireland, and the butler was played by popular and famous English comic Eric Sykes. The film's producer, Euan Lloyd, was English and went on to make Catlow and A Man Called Noon in ’73. Like Shalako, both were based on Louis L’Amour novels. Shalako was in fact one of Louis L'Amour's best books.

I actually like the movie Shalako. Some people are rude about it but in fact Connery made a good Western hero. Shalako is an ex-army colonel, intelligent, well-read, competent, knowing, brave. Connery rides very well. His laconic, slightly Bondish tough-guy approach suits. He does a good job with L’Amour’s hero. Quite surprisingly perhaps, he 'had it' where Western lead roles were concerned. .

And all those Europeans out in New Mexico were entirely believable. Eurocrats did come out to the West in large numbers on extravagant hunting parties and, like Trollope, Dickens and Wilde, to tour, make money and learn about the culture of the wild frontier.

Brigitte Bardot looks, now, dated to the point of ridicule. Her 60s eye make-up and bouffant blond hairdo are hilarious. But there’s no denying the fact that she was gorgeous and of course she was a huge star at the time. In fact Connery and Bardot were probably the sexpots of the late sixties. BB gets a topless scene, of course.

Woody Strode of all people is the Apache chief Chato. Actually he is quite convincing.

L’Amour is a much underrated author. Some people talk of his books as though they were cheap pulp of no literary merit. This is quite wrong. His Western novels were carefully crafted, well-plotted and full of authentic detail. Their characters are quite subtle and subtly drawn.

A pity that Almeria had to stand in for New Mexico, although I must say the scenery is pretty stunning. It’s just that the colors are all wrong. It’s just Europe. And it looks so odd to see Apaches riding over southern Spain. The credits say that the film was made at Shepperton Studios in the UK and “on location”, which is pretty dumb, like saying it was made “in a place”.

Of course the film was made in that late 60s spaghetti heyday when Almeria became more common as a Western backdrop than New Mexico or Arizona did. . Nowadays, they all have to be made in Canada. Actually, that isn’t quite fair. New Mexico is making a comeback. Quite rightly, of course.

The (good, solid) direction is by Canadian Edward Dmytryk. The music is also by a Canadian (Robert Farnon) and conducted by a Scot, Muir Matheson – it’s not very good, in fact, as it is mainly variations on a theme of the title song (by Brit Jim Dale). That would be OK if the title song weren’t mindless drivel.

The cinematographer, Ted Moore, was South African. It was only thanks to North Dakotan L’Amour and LA-born Woody that there was any Yankee input at all. The crew still made a damn good fist of it, though, and Shalako will stand very well as an example of a good British Western. .

There's a double-decker bus leavin' town at noon, Herr Stiglegger. Be on it.


Westerns fill movie theaters

Make more Westerns

Another excellent thing about the new True Grit was that the movie theater I saw it in was packed for a Western at the early evening performance on a Thursday. The Coen brothers and an Oscarable Jeff Bridges certainly help pack them in. But it's a very good sign. See, studios? People will pay to see a good Western. Start producing more!

Immediately, please.

The 'death of the Western' is often predicted or even announced. It hasn't happened yet. There are too many of us willing to pay $$$ to see them.
Yet another good thing, given that I live and watch my Westerns in France, is that this time, unlike 1969, they did not make lame attempts to translate the title. The film was called True Grit and not 100 Dollars pour le Shérif, which is about as lame as you can get. The only non-English word I know for "grit" in this sense is the Italian word grinta. (Perhaps the etymological orgin of grit?) Indeed, the film currently showing in Milan is Il Grinta, an excellent title. French seems to possess no such word.

Although the Italians couldn't resist adding their adored word vendetta. But actually, the Charles Portis story is not one of vendetta, either in the Italian sense or the more common English one of simple revenge.

Some other bad translations are Temple de acero (Argentina), Bravura indômita (Brazil), Le Vrai Courage (French Canada), Indomável (Portugal), Opradová kuráz (Czech Republic) and Valor de ley (Spain). They would all have done better to do as Japan did and call it True Grit.

Anyway, I may have to go back and see it again today.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

True Grit (Paramount, 2010)


It was a magnificent achievement in 1969 to make such a fine film, the John Wayne True Grit, from such a great book, the 1968 novel by Charles Portis. This version has managed it again.

The movie is dominated by the magisterial performance of Jeff Bridges. He makes a truly fine Rooster, garrulous, aging, bibulous, though not perhaps quite as unscrupulous as Wayne’s or the book’s. The beard is fine. The voice is a bellow. I almost think he might have used Warren Oates in the 1978 TV version (True Grit: A Further Adventure) as a model more than John Wayne. Or maybe he just did his own thing.

He has a marvelous foil in Hailee Steinfeld. She is a remarkably mature thirteen-year-old. Almost too mature, in fact. She has an air of child prodigy about her with her knowledge of law and Latin. Her predecessor, though 22 at the time, seemed younger, somehow, a real frontier Miss. Also, Ms. Steinfeld works hard on her diction but it does sometimes slip into modern teenspeak.
Matt Damon is ten times better as the Texan than Glenn Campbell was. He does benefit from a better script. The Coens have played up his rather naïve pride and some of the lines he has are very good. It’s odd that they wrote him out in the middle, and not very clear why. It’s also odd that Rooster and LaBoeuf “bow out”, giving up the chase. Other insertions, not in either the book or the 1969 film, are the corpse hanged high and the bear man. We wonder where they came from and why they are there. But they do add color and bring a slight touch of surrealism.

Perhaps because of the invented insertions, some things have to be left out. Mattie’s Presbyterianism has been cut, which is a pity because it is a fundamental part of the character. It's a much more secular film. The only hint at religion is the variations on the theme of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms in the film score. (And I always think that the Everlasting Arms sounds like a pub).

And Rooster only has cornbread. Where are the Chinaman’s dodgers?

Of the other actors, Josh Brolin’s dialogue doesn’t ring true. He is Chaney and sounds labored with his Victorian grammar. No one could equal Strother Martin as Col. Stonehill but Dakin Matthews makes a fair stab at it.

I like the way the Coens have included the elderly Mattie seeking out Rooster in the Wild West Show and learning from Cole Younger and Frank James that he has passed on. It was a great scene and deserved to be in the ’69 film. Younger and James did in fact appear in an ill-fated and short-lived Wild West show in 1903.

I hesitate to compare the films too much because they are both so fine in their different ways (but have many similarities too). This new one is more wintry. The Texas and New Mexico scenery standing in for Arkansas is lovely (so it was in the first one). The costumes and look of the places and characters are so good (as they are in all modern Westerns). Fort Smith is wonderful.
In all film versions of books much has to be cut. Fair enough. Sadly they often cut our favorite lines or episodes. But that’s a quibble. It’s an excellent film.

My joy at not having a ghastly Glenn Campbell ballad crooned over the opening titles was, however, mitigated when the Coens dubbed on the appallingly inappropriate braying of some female singer at the end. Whoever it was sounded like a wounded heifer in a railway tunnel and it jarred with and spoiled the rather moving ending.
But it's a four-revolver Western of real class, and isn't it great that they are still making A-picture oaters?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Westerner (MGM, 1940)

Coop slightly overshadowed

Although Gary Cooper is the star of The Westerner and received top billing, he really has a subordinate part and Walter Brennan is the leading player. For this is a treatment of the story of Judge Roy Bean, and Brennan, who was a much better actor than many people think, is superb in the role.

The original screenplay did not need Cooper in the part of the cowpoke Cole Harden; any lesser Western actor would have done. The cowboy was little more than a foil to Bean. Cooper said he would not do it. But Samuel Goldwyn assured Coop that his part would be expanded and insisted on Cooper's contractual obligations. Coop bowed to the inevitable and agreed to do the picture but with no good grace, and he said he would ever work with Goldwyn again.

Parallel with the story of Justice Bean and his idolatry of Lillie Langtry, we get an attempt at the serious (but well-worn) theme of ruthless cattlemen for the open range trying to prevent sturdy homesteaders fencing in the land.

The two themes work well enough together in William Wyler’s direction of Jo Swerling and Niven’s Busch’s adaptation of the Stuart N Lake story. Wyler could be a bit heavy-handed. Jeffrey Meyers, in his biography of Cooper, calls Wyler "a laborious plodder with an inflated reputation" but that's probably overstating it. This movie at least is in fact quite taut and pacey.

Cooper is, obviously, magisterial. The greatest Western star of all time, he was not only a true Westerner (and the title fits him perfectly) but also a fine actor. He gives depth and quality to the essentially lightweight part of Harden.

Filmed by the great Gregg Toland in Tucson in luminous black & white and scored by Dimitri Tiomkin and Alfred Newman, it contains some high drama, especially the scene of the fire, all done, of course, before the days of special effects and computer graphics.

There are some excellent character actors in support: Forrest Tucker, Chill Wills, Dana Andrews. It's a great cast.

Judge Roy Bean was, we know, an appalling character but there is always the temptation to portray him as an amusing old scoundrel, in an Edgar Buchanan TV sort of way. Brennan does well to avoid this. His Bean is a vicious, arrogant, drunken sadist yet you almost feel sorry for him at the end. It was perhaps Brennan’s finest ever performance (he won an Oscar for it). Of course the picture plays fast and loose with history but that’s normal. It was in any case closer to fact than 1972’s The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean.

In this version Lillie (or Lily) Langtry makes a visit (played by Lilian Bond) and Bean buys all the tickets to her show in order to have her to himself. However, when the curtains open it's Cooper instead of Langtry on stage and the bullets begin to zing. All rather absurd, not to say surreal. In reality Ms. Langtry did visit the 'town' Bean had named for her, but only after the judge's death.

Bosley Crowther, in The New York Times review of the time, said, “The scenes in which these two friendly and mutually respecting rivals [Cooper and Brennan] square off are surpassing cinematic episodes—when they slowly and suspiciously fence with cryptic words for bits of information and oppose with no more than attitudes their dominating personalities. These scenes have been directed by William Wyler at the deliberate, suspenseful pace of a Texas drawl and are beautiful to see.” That says it.

It's a fine picture, in fact, despite the historical nonsense, Coop's less than glorious part and Wyler's direction.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Yellow Sky (Fox, 1948)

Tension builds

1948 was a wonderful year for Westerns. Although Red River and Fort Apache (and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre if you think that’s a Western) towered over all, there were some very successful other pictures such as Whispering Smith, The Paleface, 3 Godfathers and, in particular, Four Faces West and Yellow Sky. It’s a pretty impressive list. And Yellow Sky, directed by the great William W Wellman, was perhaps the ‘best of the rest’. It came seventh in the box-office rankings that year, grossing $5.6m on its $2m budget and selling 14 million tickets.

Director Wellman

We know that Gregory Peck was always fine in Westerns. In this one he is a tough hombre, an outlaw leader, who gradually moves towards decency and honor. He starts unshaven and hard as nails, but once he has bathed and put on his The Bravados shirt (he falls for Anne Baxter, you see) he becomes a goody. He is in fact the classic good badman brought to decency by the maid. William S Hart did virtually nothing else. It was one of the great stereotypes of the Western genre but it doesn't feel clichéd or corny in this picture, not at all. That's largely because of good writing and superb acting.

Peck superb as good-badman

In his gang we have smooth Dude (Richard Widmark, very good, like a rattlesnake), an unscrupulous frock-coated gambler with only one lung who always throws a 7 with his dice. It was Widmark's first western and he was excellent.

Widmark's first Western - and one of his best

Then there's young Bull Run (Robert Arthur) – because there has to be a kid. Lengthy (the excellent John Russell), Clint-like in appearance is seriously nasty. Harry Morgan as Half Pint, who can’t help being cheery, even as a badman. Walrus (Charles Kemper) provides the fat-man/slightly-comic relief. Peck acts the pants off all of them, though. He seems to be playing Gary Cooper.

Russell was never less than excellent and he is superb here
They rob a bank and cross a very hostile desert to evade pursuit. In extremis they finally reach a town, but it's only a ghost town, deserted, they think, but..

Top marksperson Baxter, a demon with both Colt and Winchester, and her grandfather live in the ghost town and mine gold secretly. The badmen get wind of it and boy, do the bullets fly. First Peck falls out with the rest of the gang, then the other gang members fall out with each other. (Widmark would do another Western in a ghost town later, the excellent The Law and Jake Wade, in which he was also very good.)

Tomboy Baxter
Baxter is called Mike. There’s quite a tradition in Westerns of the girl being called Mike. Jane Russell in Son of Paleface (Paramount, 1952) and Ms. Learned in Gunsmoke: The Last Apache (CBS TV, 1990) also have this moniker. And Claire Trevor was the rancher's daughter Mike in Texas (Columbia, 1941).

James Barton plays Anne Baxter’s grandpa so that we can have an old timer and thus there is the full deck of Western cards.

It’s not a fast-paced movie - in fact at times it’s quite slow - but it’s one of those Westerns in which the tension builds. Visually it’s stark and hard, photographed in bright black and white by Joe MacDonald in Death Valley. MacDonald and Wellman do quite a lot of close-up work, noir style. It has similarities with another 'dark' picture directed by William Wellman, The Ox-Bow Incident. It had a substantial budget for a black & white Fox Western. The ghost town was especially constructed. In temperatures topping 120°, with gila monsters and scorpions everywhere, it wasn't a comfortable set for the actors.

There’s a camera view taken down the barrel of a gun which must have inspired the people who did the credits for the James Bond movies.
The three-way gunfight in the ruined saloon at the end is good. A bit like The Shootist in a ghost town.

Overall, it’s dark and tense, although it has an oddly chirpy intro with happy music and a similar ending as Peck unrobs the bank and Harry Morgan dudes up (though he can only throw a two with Widmark’s dice). This almost light-hearted Alfred Newman music (reprised from Brigham Young: Frontiersman) is about all there is. The middle part of the film is done without background music, only the wind blowing through the ruined town breaking the ghostly silence and heightening the bleakness. It's actually very effective and every now and then a picture can actually be improved without music.

Tautly directed and well written as well as produced by Lamar Trotti, it’s no masterpiece, it’s no Red River, but it’s a terrific little Wellman Western that certainly deserves 3 revolvers. Because of Peck it verges on 4.

There's a sort of The Tempest vibe going on as the 'shipwrecked' outlaws arrive at a strange isolated place inhabited by an old-timer Prospero and a beautiful Miranda (though sadly no Western Ariel or Caliban).
It was remade in 1967 as The Jackals, with an entertaining Vincent Price topping the bill in the Barton old-timer prospector part, but the remake was pretty weak.


Monday, February 21, 2011

The Return of Frank James (Fox, 1940)

Frank's back

The sequel to Fox’s Jesse James of the preceding year was in some ways remarkably similar to its predecessor. Even Tyrone Power makes a brief appearance at the beginning, just to be shot, and most of the other actors reappear. Henry Fonda, superb again, reprises his role as Frank James. His servant Pinky (Ernest Whitman) is back. Pinky is to be hanged as an accomplice and Frank proposes to give up chasing the Fords for vengeance to go back and save him. Frank’s sidekick asks, “After all our work, are we gonna give up on account of a darkie?” And 1940 was only yesterday, really. The stout defense of the black man by Frank is especially rich coming from the elder scion of a slave-holding family who had fought on the Confederate side in the war. Clay County counted more slaveholders, who held more slaves, than any other part of Missouri. Jesse James was racially enlightened enough to make a vow after the Civil War to shoot any black in Missouri not fulfilling the role of a slave. But this is the cinematic Frank James, a goodie.
Henry Hull, the cantankerous newspaper editor (who becomes Frank’s defense attorney) and his long-suffering clerk Roy (George Chandler) are of course a must.
And naturally the villainous Bob Ford is John Carradine.
J Edward Bromberg as the railroad detective and Donald not-too Meek as the nasty railway company boss also ride again.
So it’s pretty well a full house. Henry Hull's part, by the way, as "Major Rufus Cobb" is presumably - but very loosely - based on the real-life Major John Newman Edwards CSA (1839 - 1889), General Joseph O Shelby's adjutant in the Civil War, founder of The Kansas City Times and champion of Jesse James, after whom Jesse named his son.
Sadly, however, Randolph Scott does not make it back. In 1940 he was too busy stealing Bob Dalton’s girl for Universal to have time to take away Frank James’s for Fox. So if you want Randy you’ll have to watch When the Daltons Rode. More fortunately, Zee (Nancy Kelly) and her tiresome little boy do not make it back either.

Instead, as love interest, we have a prettier and also more spirited heroine in the elegant shape of Gene Tierney, newspaper reporter extraordinaire, in her debut.
We also have other additions: Jackie Cooper is ‘Clem’, apparently the son of one the robbers killed at Northfield (no surname is given), a callow youth who hero-worships Frank and gets to act heroically at the end. And Russell Hicks is the prosecutor in the excellent trial scene, in some ways the highlight of the movie.

We have similar and excellent bright color photography, by George Barnes again, what looks like beautiful Colorado but is said to be Sonora, and the theme tune and titling are the same. It really is very much a sequel.
Fonda’s career was under full sail. By 1940 he had starred in, as well as Jesse James, The Grapes of Wrath, as Abe in Young Mr. Lincoln, for John Ford again in Drums Along the Mohawk, not to mention putting in an appearance as Alexander Graham Bell.

However, this one was directed by Fritz Lang, no less, monocled Austrian expressionist director of Metropolis and M, famous for having thrown Peter Lorre down some stairs to make him look rumpled, just arrived in the US.
As a result, this film has moods and subtleties and shows great attention to detail, lighting and sound. Lang was famously tyrannical and Fonda, who had had the misfortune to work with him before (but never would again), was very wary. At one point he sprang to Tierney’s defense when Lang went for her and she developed a crush on her protector, who was also such a professional. One-Take Fonda, they called him. Of course Frank Sinatra also famously would do only one take. But in Fonda’s case the first take wasn’t crap. Henry is magnificent in this movie. But then he almost always was.
Sam Hellman (Frontier Marshal, My Darling Clementine) replaced Nunnally Johnson to do the screenplay. It is, of course, a travesty of history of equal proportions to Jesse James. In reality, Frank James did not try to revenge himself on the Fords. After the killing of his brother in 1882, James met the Governor in the state capitol and surrendered on the understanding that he would not be extradited to Northfield. He was tried for only two of the robberies/murders the James gang had committed, both in 1881, the attack on the Rock Island Line train in which the engineer and a passenger were killed, and the robbery of an Army payroll in Alabama. He was acquitted of both. He went to Oklahoma to live with his mother. In later years Frank James worked a variety of jobs, including as a shoe salesman and then as a burlesque theater ticket clerk in St. Louis. In 1903 he was in a short-lived and unsuccessful Wild West show with Cole Younger. In his final years, he returned to the James farm, giving 25¢ tours. He died there in 1915, aged 72. So that’s a bit different from the story in the film.
But hey, who wants history? This is another fun, well-made and well-acted Western to enjoy. A three-gun rather than four-gun vehicle but no less watchable for that.

Fox decided to re-utilize their Jesse James franchise in the mid-fifties and in 1957 produced a movie with Robert Wagner as Jesse, The True Story of Jesse James, which of course wasn’t, directed by the talented Nicholas Ray and again with Nunnally Johnson screenplay.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lucky Billy by John Vernon

A confused adolescent

Another Billy book. So many have been written, I know, but this one can be kept in the top drawer. Lucky Billy (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008) is a classy novel by John Vernon.

Its great quality is a rigorous adherence to what (little) is known about the so-called Billy the Kid. Reading it reminds us of reading Robert Utley, and it benefits from the same rigorous scholarship. This makes the story convincing. Furthermore, the hero is convincingly immature. He has no great weight. He is unsure, swaggering, confused – an adolescent.

Of course no one really knows the true Billy. We stare and stare at that famous tintype and we form our own impressions. To me, his mouth hangs stupidly open, he is overdressed, he holds the business end of his Winchester in a frankly idiotic and childish way, as if it were a toy. He has a swagger about him but also the look of an unintelligent youth with little understanding.

All novels and films invent their own Billies. This one will do as well as any because it is subtly drawn and passing well written.

There are weaknesses: scissoring the narrative and reassembling it in a different order is very modern. It can be clever, even witty, as when we finally discover why Vincent and Jules are wearing shorts, for example. But used to tell a complex story of the 1870s (and it is complex), the technique actually becomes tiresome. Even following the ins and outs of the Lincoln County War in a straightforward account like Utley’s is hard enough. Events jumping around in chronology like a jackrabbit being shot at don't help one bit.

John Nichols (author of The Milagro Beanfield War) is guilty of hyperbole on the dust jacket when he says that this book is “as good as anything by Cormac McCarthy”. It isn’t, of course, and I am sure that Professor Vernon himself would not have claimed that. The writing is at times overblown, which McCarthy never is. This kind of sentence, for example:

The horse that rears up has just seen a rat, though how he spotted the vermin down there amid the boots, wheels, wagon tongues, skirts, handbills, canes, dogs, newspapers, legs, pushcarts, sandwich signs, single trees, double trees, the occasional pig, unlit lanterns hung beneath rear axles – not to mention nosebags, bustles, parcels, market baskets, baseball bats, grain sacks freighted on handcarts, wheelbarrows spilling feathers – and street Arabs ducking between and among crinoline dresses, chasing guttersnipes – and gouts of tobacco juice aimed at the interstices – is anyone’s guess.

It’s the kind of sentence that puts you in mind of Dr Johnson’s famous dictum: 'Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.' It’s not even technically all that good – why would there be bustles down with the rats? And guttersnipes are street Arabs, are they not? But it’s the kind of sentence that wearies me reading it, never mind copying it out.

And there are other infelicities, such as Billy being put in mind of aircraft on seeing something flying, not a happy metaphor for a story set in the late 1870s.

Still, I don’t want to be picky and by and large the novel is elegantly crafted.

The Fort Sumner ending comes as something of an anti-climax, perhaps deliberately. Pat Garrett says “I didn’t feel much at all.” We don’t, either.

William Bonney (if that’s the name you choose) probably was a confused juvenile and so this novel comes close in capturing his character. If that’s your Billy. Of course, confused juveniles aren’t great moral heroes and don’t make great figures for stories or movies. But if you want that you can read the dime novels or watch the absurd films. This telling of the Billy tale has depth, even if Billy himself didn’t.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Ox-Bow Incident (Fox, 1943)

Grim, dark, stark, this film still has the power to shock

Westerns that have little action, a lot of talking and are shot on studio sets, movies so static that they could be filmed plays, are maybe not proper Westerns at all. Yet sometimes a Western ‘play’ comes along that is a truly great film and The Ox-Bow Incident is one such.

Henry Fonda and director William A Wellman nagged Darryl Zanuck into making it. Zanuck agreed to the uncommercial vehicle only if Wellman and Fonda signed up to more audience-friendly movies. As Zanuck predicted, it did little at the box office in the darkest hours of the Second World War when Westerns were popular but only if they contained color and shooting and scenery. But it became one of the best ‘serious’ Westerns in the history of the genre and is still to be admired.

The story is of a lynching, in 1885 Nevada, when some townspeople take it into their head to hang three men they believe guilty of rustling and murder. In the only 75 minutes of its length, it succeeds, thanks to the fine original book by Walter van Tilburg Clark and the Lamar Trotti screenplay, as well as the excellent Wellman direction, in delineating and developing the characters. In 1943 the message of how easily justice and right may be perverted was one that struck home.

Of course the film has Henry Fonda in it and is therefore strong, tough and moving. His stand for justice is all the more effective because he is just an ordinary cowpoke, apt to drink and fight. Nebraska-born Fonda was fourteen years old when he observed a lynching. He watched a mob from the second floor window of his father's print shop. "It was the most horrendous sight I'd ever seen… We locked the plant, went downstairs, and drove home in silence. My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope." Fonda made several films condemning the evil of lynching and questioning capital punishment in general.

But there are fine supporting actors too. Frank Conroy, as the leader of the mob, decked out in his Confederate uniform, is a swine, as despicable for his treatment of his own sensitive son as he is for his perversion of justice. But the worst of the rabble is a fat woman, brilliantly played by Jane Darwell, who jokes at the condemned men’s expense and sits with another odious member of the lynch mob and cackles as the victims are condemned. What makes these members of the lynch mob so especially appalling is their total lack of respect for either human life or for justice. The preacher is pathetically ineffectual. Fonda and his friend William Eythe, along with a decent store keeper, Harry Davenport, are observers and though they stand against it, they do not intervene. The men are hanged.

Of the three victims, Dana Andrews is moving and the great Francis Ford full of pathos as the feeble-minded old man but Anthony Quinn is outstanding. It is extraordinary how Quinn could bring such power to a ‘minor’ role. The movie observes the classical unities and is a tragedy in the true sense. It is a whole (notice how the two riders come in at the beginning and a dog crosses the street and you have a mirror image of this at the end).

Grim, dark, stark, this film still has the power to shock.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Lousy DVDs

Mill Creek Entertainment produce lousy DVDs. Take, for example, the boxed set Mean Guns in the ‘Time to Die Collection’. I’m not talking about the quality of the films, though these are pretty dire, but about the quality of the discs themselves.

Although I have good DVD players which show most DVDs very well, the majority of these Mill Creek ones either jump about or freeze solid or don’t run at all. Some show nicely the usual FBI warning that you will go to the electric chair if you even think about actually watching the movie you have bought, then freeze.

When one buys cheap DVDs one doesn’t expect great quality but the minimum is that they actually show the films claimed to be contained in the box.

It is true that of the movies in this set that did work, or partially work, most of them would have better remained unwatched. Low-grade spaghettis, ancient low-budget msecond-features, all in bad color or crackly black and white, they have very little to recommend them.

Dan Candy’s Law was about the best, a second-class Canadian Western that I reviewed in September.

The rest are either junk or may be excellent but I wouldn’t know because they don’t work and I haven't seen them.

So take my tip, blog-pards, stay well away from a Mill Creek DVD. Save yourself money and a lot of frustration.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Billy the Kid in fact and fiction (Part 2/2)

Bandit king or innocent victim?

I have just re-read the copy of a book I bought, I am proud to say, In Lincoln NM on 10th August 2005 (I always write when and where I bought books on the flyleaf). It’s Billy the Kid: a Short and Violent Life by Robert M Utley (University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

I have one great advantage in life: although I have a good short-term memory (and was always good at cramming or exams, for example), I have the long-term memory of an amnesiac flea. Why is this an advantage? Simple! It means I can read books, totally forget them and then read them again a few years later as if they were totally new. I save loads of $$$ that way.

It’s an excellent book. Much of it covers the same ground that we went over in Mr. Utley’s High Noon in Lincoln: violence on the Western frontier (University of New Mexico Press, 1987). William Bonney (or Henry Antrim or McCarty or whatever his name was) did not play a leading role in the Lincoln County War but he did participate actively. The 1989 biography that followed that book uses much of the same material but adds, very interestingly, details of his early life, such as it is known, and his turning to outlawry and demise.

The last chapter, ‘The Legend’, is in some ways the most interesting of all. Utley shows us how the press, as far away as the New York Sun, dealt with his slaying and how in less than a year five dime novels about him were already available. These first accounts highlighted the ‘wicked desperado’ side of Billy, emphasizing his cruelty, and declared that the country was well rid of him. They lauded Pat Garrett as an intrepid and resourceful keeper of the peace.

Pat of course very quickly came out with his own account. Perhaps to silence mutterings of his shot in the dark, which somehow went against the ‘code’ of the West, he penned his own story, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. It had a long and melodramatic sub-title. In fact, of course, Pat had it ghosted. He probably added to and even re-wrote some of the later chapters but most of it came from the pen of Ash Upton. Marshall Ashmun Upson was a journalist, printer and postmaster with a gift for prose that was flowery even by the standards of the day. His highly embellished account, full of inaccuracies and legend, became the standard source. It’s still available and a fun read. The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid
But it wasn’t long before the other side of Billy was emphasized: his good humor, his daring, his love of dancing and music, his success with the ladies, his abstemiousness (he didn’t drink or smoke, very rare amongst his compadres), and the grossly disloyal treatment he received from Governor Wallace, who reneged on his word. The landmark here was Saga of Billy the Kid by Walter Noble Burns, which came out in 1926. It’s still easily available. Here we have Billy as social bandit (not that the term was used then). He was a Western Robin Hood, using his sixguns to right wrongs and fight corruption. In 1941 Eugene Cunningham published his lurid Triggernometry, emphasizing this aspect.

It was this Billy, the Burns/Cunningham one, that Hollywood seized on for its cinematic representations: the sainted Billy, the noble Billy. We looked at this in http://jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.com/2011/01/billy-kid-in-fact-and-fiction.html

The films contained and still contain many of the groundless legends that Garrett, Burns and Cunningham created.

Of course the real William Bonney (let’s call him that) was neither sainted nor irredeemably wicked.

He was an outlaw and a killer, yes. He rustled and he killed men. He was guilty as charged when he was convicted of the murder of Sheriff Brady. He also killed two deputies, probably with their own guns, as he made his escape from Lincoln. He lied, broke an oath and he broke many laws.

But he was far from the evil desperado that he was painted. He was never captain of the Regulators. He participated in many of their actions, including the ambush of Brady, and one of his bullets almost certainly hit Brady, and he shared the guilt for the death of several other men, including the sympathetic James Carlyle at the siege of the Greathouse ranch. He was a mercenary soldier in the Lincoln County War. The crimes he committed then were no worse than those of others (who escaped judgement) and when he slipped into crime afterwards, it was only into stock rustling, then considered almost a minor misdemeanor. Only he was pursued to the death sentence by the courts. Governor Wallace did indeed renege: Billy did his part by testifying against other Lincoln County renegades but Wallace ‘forgot’ his side of the bargain. Compared with the corruption, drunkenness, violence and criminality of so many of the lawmen, officers of the court, ranchers and bandits of New Mexico in the 1870s, Billy’s crimes were relatively mild.

Billy is often credited for killing one man for every year of his life (he died at 21). In fact, we can say for certain that he killed Windy Cahill, a blacksmith who had been abusing him, when he was a boy in Silver City AZ in 1877; he killed the braggart Joe Grant in a Fort Sumner saloon (by manipulating Grant’s gun so that the hammer fell on a spent cartridge) in January 1880; and he murdered the likeable Jim Bell and the coarse bully Bob Olinger (or Ollinger) in his courthouse break-out in April 1881. Four men shot in a one-on-one conflict.

He almost certainly was one of the gunmen responsible for the death of six others, including Brady. This brings the total to ten. Not a pretty tally, to be sure. But others had done worse.

Billy was no angel, none at all. But neither was he the monstrous outlaw chief or bandit king of the lurid press. Of course, Hollywood didn’t lend itself to subtlety and it tended to show one or the other. We still await a film which shows us the real Billy. There’s plenty there for modern film makers. Perhaps the team that did The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could do it.

I’ll write the screenplay.