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

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mackenna's Gold (Columbia, 1969)

Gobble, gobble.

This picture reminds me a lot of the meleagrian How The West Was Won with its bloated budget, its length (though cut from three hours, mercifully), its cast list led by Gregory Peck and a raft running the rapids. Columbia certainly put everything into it, and perhaps they wanted to out-MGM MGM. .

They chose a successful Brit director of big ‘exciting’ pictures (The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear) to helm it, who, however, had no Western track record. They assembled a stellar cast: Peck, Omar Sharif as the Mexican bandit Colorado (well, he was foreign, wasn’t he?) to lead, and then in support Raymond Massey doing his overacting crazed preacher act, Edward G Robinson in blind man’s glasses, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith, Lee J Cobb (as “Samuel Fuller” - references, all these references), Anthony Quayle, all sitting round a camp fire waiting to get massacred. These famous support actors get one line bit-parts and thirty seconds’ screen time each.

The blonde love interest was provided by Swede Camilla Sparv, pretty much unknown and later to end up doing appearances in the Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-O, that kind of thing. Not exactly stellar, she, and Peck (running to flab) could have been her father, if not quite grandfather. Still, she was decorative. . .

The Arizona and Utah locations are certainly spectacular and Joseph MacDonald photographed them in Panavision, so it’s quite something on the big screen, although there are a lot of trendy odd visual tricks (helicopter shots supposed to be a buzzard’s-eye-view, or the camera on Peck’s back as he is dragged along behind a horse, for example) and for such a lavish picture there’s a surprising number of people bobbing up and down on fake horses and studio shots. There’s also too much silly speeded-up film. It's very old-fashioned in this regard.

Pretty bad

In the blessed days before special FX, the canyon was actually blown up for the earthquake scene. The pool where they dally and, of course, skinny-dip (funny how there’s always such a convenient pool in the desert in these movies) had to be man-made and the water trucked in.

In some ways it’s a Western (man against nature, stunning shots of the West, guns, bandits and Apaches) but in fact it could have been set anywhere (Africa, for example) and it’s really just an adventure story of maps leading to secret treasure in a hidden valley of gold. Still, it was written by Carl Foreman of High Noon fame. .

Brian Garfield called it “a gargantuan dud of absolutely stunning dreadfulness”. So I don’t think he liked it. The New York Times reviewer was also stunned and in fact said it was “a Western of truly stunning absurdity”. Personally, I don’t reckon it’s that bad. A Foreman script, Peck as lead, Joe MacDonald behind the lens and Quincy Jones doing the music – they couldn’t make a total turkey. Could they?

Oh, alright then, they could. And I do admit, it isn’t very good. Sharif is just hopeless. Sparv couldn’t act. Telly Savalas as a crooked cavalry sergeant plays it like some low-grade war film. It has OTT sound (Derek Frye) with mega stereophonic dubbed-on effects, probably influenced by spaghetti westerns (take earplugs if you see it in a big movie theater). In fact, it’s a clunker.

See it once (well, you gotta, it’s got Peck in it) but put that DVD back in the rack is my advice. 


Monday, March 28, 2011

Shoot Out (Universal, 1971)

A rare thing - a mediocre Gregory Peck

After the considerable and deserved success of True Grit (Paramount, 1969), Universal must have wanted to replicate that box-office potential Paramount had found. They got Henry Hathaway, True Grit's director,  to helm Shoot Out. An older gunman played by a famous Western star finds himself teamed up with a young girl and they ride together through spectacular Inyo National Forest locations. Marguerite Roberts adapts a Western novel into a screenplay. Paul Nathan and Hal B Wallis produce. Sound familiar?

However, Shoot Out was very far from True Grit – not even in the same league as far as quality is concerned. It was one of Gregory Peck’s worst performances and he seems tired, unconvinced and therefore unconvincing.

Jeff Corey is quite fun as a saloon keeper in a Victorian wheelchair but he soon gets shot. The three violent yahoos, led by Robert F Lyons, who pursue the hero and the little girl, are frankly weak – it needed Bruce Dern to lead them. The three are accompanied for no apparent reason by a saloon whore (Rita Gam). Dawn Lyn, 7, is good as the child. Paul Fix and Arthur Hunnicutt are in it and that raises your hopes at the opening credits but they have micro-parts: blink and you’ll miss them. What a waste.

The plot is a revenge one: Peck has been released from jail and goes after the accomplice who double-crossed him, shot him in the back and took all the bank loot. But oddly, this villain, Sam Foley (James Gregory) only appears briefly at the start and the end of the film, and even more briefly in a flash-back in the middle. The real enemy is the lout Foley sends to shadow the hero, and the (uneven) contest is between them.

There’s a very Will Penny-like scene where Peck takes refuge with a single mother (Patricia Quinn) and son (Nicolas Beauvy, one of the kids from The Cowboys), and Peck duly has an affair with the mother and bonds with the boy, and then the house is invaded by the sadistic hooligans. Sounds familiar again, huh? Once again, though, this film does not have the quality of Will Penny.

There’s a William Tell bit running through the plot.

The Earl Rath photography is lovely and the Dave Grusin music more than satisfactory but the story is a bit of a dud and the direction at best bread-and-butter. The film is ordinary – a rarity for a Western starring Gregory Peck. Though he could do total turkeys of the How the West was Won and Mackenna's Gold kind, pictures like The Gunfighter and The Bravados put him right up there with the top Western actors.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Gregory Peck

A fine Western actor

Gregory Peck (April 5, 1916 – June 12, 2003) came from a Roman Catholic San Diego family of British/Irish ancestry and was educated at a Catholic military academy and San Diego High School, then majored in English at Berkeley, where he started acting. He took drama lessons in New York and appeared on Broadway.

His first film, Days of Glory, appeared in 1944. He was to be nominated for five Academy awards for Best Actor (he won once, for his role as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird), four of which came in his first five years of acting.

He made 11 Westerns. His height (he was 6' 3") and athleticism and quiet, stoical style suited Western roles very well and he was a fine actor capable of transmitting subtle nuances (only occasionally required in the genre…) He was not always lucky with his directors and scripts but even in the weaker vehicles he added class and in the better ones he was magnificent. The Gunfighter must rank as one of the best ever examples of the genre.

The 11 Westerns were:

1. Billy Two Hats (1974)

2. Shoot Out (1971)

3. Mackenna's Gold (1969)

4. The Stalking Moon (1968)

5. How The West Was Won (1962)

6. The Big Country (1958)

7. The Bravados (1958)

8. Only the Valiant aka Fort Invincible (1951)

9. The Gunfighter (1950)

10. Yellow Sky (1948)

11. Duel in the Sun (1946)

The best of them were certainly The Gunfighter and The Bravados.

Yellow SkyThe Stalking Moon and Billy Two Hats, were of high quality.

The Big Country and Duel in the Sun were epic big-budget sagas. 

Only the Valiant was a minor Western, really, but had its points.

Shoot Out was a rarity for Peck, a mediocre picture.

Both Mackenna’s Gold and How the West was Won were really bad, the first a poorly-directed and written pot-boiler and the other a giant turkey in which Peck was miscast, but in general Gregory Peck ranks with Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda at the very top of the acting profession as far as Westerns are concerned.


Friday, March 25, 2011

The War Wagon (Universal, 1967)

Commercial Batjac


Back to John Wayne for a moment because when we were looking at those 60s Batjac productions we didn't watch The War Wagon.

The War Wagon was another 60s Western in which Wayne, in exactly the same costume as about a million other Westerns, toughly righted wrongs, did away with the bad guys and got his ranch back at the end. Curiously, though, in this one he didn’t get the girl (Valore Noland). Robert Walker Jr did. Maybe Universal thought that at 60, Wayne was a bit past getting the girl.

The movie has high production values: Clothier photography of Durango, Mexico locations (supposed to be New Mexico but we’re not proud), Tiomkin music (pleasant, though with a quite ghastly title song), Clair Huffaker screenplay from his own novel, and direction by Burt Kennedy. So it should have been quite good. And it is. Quite good. But no more than that.

The story centers around bad guy Pierce (Wayne pal Bruce Cabot) who has “acquired” Wayne’s ranch and the gold that was on it. Wayne decides to hold up the armored stage with Gatling turret (the 2007 3:10 to Yuma copied it) which Pierce uses, in order to get the gold back. He is helped by a gang of Kiowa Indians led by Marco Antonio (these provide useful cannon fodder for the Gatling), the crooked freighter Keenan Wynn, a big Indian (Howard Keel), a former cellmate good at explosives, Robert Walker Jr., and, yes, safe-cracker extraordinaire and gun-for-hire Kirk Douglas.

Pierce, on his side, has loads of henchpersons including Bruce Dern, sadly written out almost immediately when Wayne & Douglas gun him down, trooper Gene Evans as the corrupt deputy, and others. Emilio Fernandez has a micro-part as a Mexican bandido leader who, when thwarted, throws down his huge sombrero and says Grrr in time-approved fashion.

The film is really a Western caper movie.

There’s a semi-comic saloon fight like 1 million others. Wayne said it was his 500th. He counted?


Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Last Hunt (MGM, 1956)

Posh Brit rides the range

Brit Stewart Granger (born in posh Kensington, London in 1913; died in rich Santa Monica in 1993) had a good line in adventure films and Scaramouche-type sword-and-cloak dramas. But he was also unexpectedly good in Westerns.

One of his better efforts was co-starring with Robert Taylor (another matinée idol surprisingly convincing in Western roles) in The Last Hunt.

In reality, though, the tragic hero of this movie is neither Taylor nor Granger but the buffalo. To see these great shaggy, passive beasts, majestic on the big screen, dropped by rifleshot again and again until not a single one is left is heart-rending. There is a didactic strain to the movie, which sets out to show us how buffalo were hunted, and an ecological message quite advanced for its time - the mid 50s. All this and the fine Dakotas setting gives an almost National Geographic tinge to the film. But underneath that it’s still a good, gritty Western.

Robert Taylor was tough and hard. Stewart Granger could also handle being a hard-boiled Westerner. These two are complemented by a young ‘Indian’ kid, Russ Tamblyn, well known from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers the year before, with bright red hair, who although not so Indian does a good job really. Better than the ghastly Seven Brides anyway, though that wouldn't be hard. There's also a cynical old one-legged skinner, Lloyd Nolan, boozily excellent.

Debra Paget is thrown in for the love interest and to give Taylor and Granger something to fight over. She does her Broken Arrow act (and come to think of it, the Granger role would have suited James Stewart “just fine”).

All in all, the acting is pretty good. Taylor's character is a good case-study for Psychology 101 students working this week on paranoia and also displays symptoms useful for next week’s course on schizoid psychosis. Boy, he is mean. Granger's is sensitive, world-weary, conscience-stricken. The two pair off well and we know the final showdown is coming. It builds up all through the film.

The outcome is a cop-out on first impression but then we realize the rightness of it.

Granger did a couple of other Westerns - Gun Glory and North to Alaska with John Wayne and he was also Old Surehand in cinematic versions of three Karl May Eurowestern tales.

Taylor was of course Billy Bonney in the 1941 Billy the Kid and had a strong Western career thereafter.

The Last Hunt contains some silly hokum about the bad karma that killing a white buffalo will bring but you can get past that OK. This film has a worthy message, teaching us the evils of blood-lust, indiscriminate hunting, Indian-hating and lack of respect for the environment.

It was directed and written by Richard Brooks, classy director of The Brothers Karamazov, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Lord Jim and so on, later to do The Professionals). Brooks used the long, rambling novel by Milton Lott but reduced it to the bare bones for this movie (and by the way, bare bones figure largely and prevent us forgetting the message).

Like all sermons, it does go on a bit but luckily the looming conflict between the two principals keeps us awake and it’s enough of a classic Western for us not to be overwhelmed by the earnestness.

There is some nice photography by Russell Harlan (although quite a lot of sound-stage shooting in the studio too) and I liked the dark music by Daniele Amfitheatrof (great name).

Definitely worth its three revolvers and maybe a DVD purchase too, but if you can’t see it on the big screen (admittedly unlikely these days) do at least buy one of those big TVs.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Catlow (MGM, 1971)

Shepherd's pie

Back to the British Western for a while:

In the tradition of the ‘shepherd’s pie’ Western (what I call British cowboy films; European westerns have to be named after a national dish) comes Catlow. British producer Euan Lloyd, who filmed various versions of Louis L’Amour Western tales, including Shalako, and Chicagoan (but British resident) director Sam Wanamaker put this spaghetti variant together.

Filmed in Spain - and the grayness of those Almeria locations is exaggerated by a very pale washed-out print - and with much spaghetti-esque dubbed-on horse clip-clops, the film is really little more than an early 70s late Italian western which just happens to be British.

It opens with much dust and many (expensively imported?) long-horned cattle, to the tunes of sub-Magnificent Seven music (by Brit Roy Budd). Richard Crenna (solid) is a tough but sympathetic US marshal on the trail of rustler Catlow (a surprisingly bad Yul Brynner in 70s flared jeans and a stupid straw cowgirl hat).

However, on the trail of both is the sinister, evil Miller (Frank’s brother?) played by a quite splendid Leonard Nimoy. Of course you can’t help checking out his ears but once you get past that you realize what a great baddy he made. He carries a Steve McQueen-like cut-down Winchester in a holster on his flank. He also has a rifle with telescopic sights. And a beard. Tragic, therefore, that he has hardly anything to say or do apart from shadow the protagonists and his character cannot develop at all – but that’s the spaghetti genre for you.

The bath scene looks like the one in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. ‘Abilene’ and ‘Nogales’ look very Spanish. Crenna looks like my Uncle Denis. In fact everything looks like something else. Again, that’s spaghetti for you.

There’s a typical early-70s slo-mo lerve scene with slushy music (yawn). There’s some tosh about Confederate gold (yawn). I can’t place the voice of the person who dubs the Mexican general but he did countless characters in spaghetti westerns.

The main trouble, though, with this film is that it can’t make up its mind whether to be a burlesque, a parody or a straight Western. The novel, Catlow, needless to say, was done straight and is all the better for that. The ‘comic' disposing of the soldiers guarding the mule train, for example, is woeful. Brynner tries hard to be charming and amusing but fails. Crenna goes for a straighter style but that doesn’t really come off either, with the lines he has to say. It’s really the fault of the director and writers (Scott Finch and JJ Griffith, the only film of the latter). Catlow just staggers to a two-revolver rating rather than the usual spaghetti one. It’s not complete junk. There is Mr. Spock with a Winchester, after all.

But it is, frankly, eminently unbuyable as a DVD.


Monday, March 14, 2011

How The West Was Won (MGM, 1962)


Total turkey

You can just imagine the moguls at MGM in 1961. The conversation went like this:

   "We’ll put together the biggest Western ever. Money no object."
   "John Ford, he’ll direct."
   "Why stop at Ford? Hathaway too."
   "And let’s throw George Marshall in. He was great on Destry."

Hathaway, Ford, Marshall

   "Now, stars. We’ll need them all. All! Peck, Stewart, Fonda, Wayne, Widmark, get ‘em on the phone right away."
   "Lee J Cobb. Malden. Robert Preston. Oh, and we better throw in a young handsome one. What about this young fellow Peppard?"

Stewart, miscast.
Like all of them.

   "Female lead?"
   "Debbie Reynolds. She’s still in her 20s. Just. And she did all those songs in Singin’ in the Rain. We’ll need songs."

   "12,000 extras. 40-odd location sites."

   "Now, cinematographers: Charles Lang? Bill Daniels? Milton Krasner, maybe. How about Joseph LaShelle? Can’t decide? Have ‘em all."
   "Metrocolor and three-strip Cinerama, of course. It's crap but it'll bring the masses in."

   "Music? Alfred Newman better do the score. Based on a cheery theme and something folksy like ‘Greensleeves’."
   "That corny?"
   "Sure, the public love corn."

   "Now, we need a story."
   "Well, we’ll start with a mountain man, obviously. Stewart’ll do for that."
   "Then a wagon train. That’s where charming gambler Peck can meet Reynolds. She’s maybe inherited a gold mine."
   "We’ll need some Civil War scenes. Ford, of course. Wayne as Sherman, that wouldn't be ridiculous, would it? He did it on TV in Wagon Train. Shock and awe in those scenes. Lots of cannons. 12,000 extras."
   "Then railroads. We'll need railroads. Widmark as ruthless rail boss."
       "Yes. Of course, we’ll have to have some outlaws and tough marshals to clean up the town. Eli could do the badman gunslinger."
   "It’s all coming together. Let’s have another martini."
   "Hey, I’ve got another great idea. We’ll get Spencer Tracy to do a voiceover narration. History of the West."


Then the reality.

Debbie Reynolds was hopeless. Couldn’t even sing. The songs were lousy anyway and there were too many.

Hardly anyone saw the movie in three-strip Cinerama and MGM couldn’t be bothered to film it simultaneously in normal format so we all have to watch it now in three sections with horses crossing the screen in a V-shape. Hathaway is said to have remarked, "That damned Cinerama. Do you know a waist-shot is as close as you can get with that thing?" In mailbox format, which is how 99% of people saw it, faces are indistinguishable in long shot. And the three cameras used filmed actors separately so that when the montage was made they appeared to have no eye-contact with each other - because they had none. The movie was, thank goodness, one of only two made using the process.

Even Fonda no good

The James R Webb/John Gay script was a total clunker, full of corny clichés and lines like cement. Unbelievably, the picture won an Oscar for the screenplay. The action scenes, such as the Malden family on the raft, are all false. Where stuntpersons are used, they are too obviously men in dresses in the rapids. The movie is way too long (162 minutes, would you believe).

Harry Morgan was Grant! You can’t stop laughing throughout the scene. Chicago-born Malden was always completely hopeless in Westerns. Peck is miscast as a cad. In fact they are all miscast. Stewart, ridiculous as a mountain man, looks like his fiancée’s grandfather. His supposed father-in-law (Malden) was four years younger than he was. Even Fonda can’t bring authority to the acting. He's a buffalo hunter.

It just goes to show: huge budget, top direction, mega stars, expensive locations, famous photography and what do you get? A lousy Western. This movie was one giant gimmick and artistically it was a total turkey. Anyway, Westerns shouldn’t be didactic.

I really don’t like this film. (You may have gathered).
Some people do, though. It was a massive commercial success. Produced on a then huge budget of $15 million, it grossed $46.5m at the North American box office, making it the second highest-grossing film of 1963, and it made $50 million worldwide. It won three Oscars. The score was listed at #25 on AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores. The picture gained a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In 1997, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The movie spawned an ABC TV series of the same name. Quite extraordinary. All for a bloated badly-written 'epic' of no discernible merit.

Henry Hathaway directed most of it, with George Marshall doing the railroad sequences and Ford the Civil War. I hope they were properly ashamed.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Billy the Kid gets everywhere

I've just been in the Netherlands for a few days and what did I come across in the small town of Delft, famous for Vermeer and its blue china?

You see, Billy the Kid gets everywhere.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Drums Along The Mohawk (Fox, 1939)

This post has been revised and updated. please click here for the new one. Thanks.