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

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Firecreek (Warner Bros, 1968)

A big hand for Firecreek

Although the direction and editing of Firecreek could have been tighter and the pace of this movie is slow, the writing, acting and photography are so good that the movie shines.

Vincent McEveety was primarily a director of TV episodes (Columbo, Star Trek, The Man from UNCLE, you name it) and didn’t really do a great job with this film (though he was better at big-screen Westerns than his brother Bernard). But his actors, notably the stars James Stewart and Henry Fonda but also the supporting cast, were such professionals that they overcame this.

The story and dialogue (Calvin Clements) are very good. Fonda is the boss of a band of white-trash professional guns, on the run from a range war killing up north, who arrive in a crumbling town of losers, Firecreek, which has a farmer who does part time sheriffing for two dollars a week (Stewart). The bad guys tree the town and Stewart, though he tries to stand up to them, is outclassed and knows it.

Fonda is outstanding as the leader with qualities far above the gang and Stewart is also fine as the man who comes round to realizing that he’s going to have to make a stand. It was Fonda and Stewart’s first full length film together and by that time the friends had both been in Hollywood for 32 years (they would get back together in 1970 in The Cheyenne Social Club). And it was the first time that Fonda played an out-and-out badman. (He sure outdid himself later in the year when Once Upon A Time… came out).

There are (distant) echoes of High Noon as the townsfolk cower and leave it up to the sheriff. There’s a bit like the scene in The Deadly Companions where the villains come in to drink in the store which is acting as improvised church (Ed Begley is excellent as the preacher). The shoot-out, with the professional gunmen searching for the hero in the streets of a wooden town, is in a way the prototype of that in the later Pale Rider: but here Stewart is no super-human Clint-style gunfighter. Yet he gets them, amateurishly, more by luck than judgment, rather as Warren Beatty does in McCabe & Mrs Miller.

The women in the town are as bitter and hopeless as the men, Inger Stevens and Louise Latham being particularly good, as is the young tart who throws herself at the men, Barbara Luna. The bad guys under Fonda, led by Jack Elam, are satisfactorily nasty. Robert Porter is moving as the simpleton stable boy. All the acting is good.

William Clothier photographed it, well, as ever, and there is some nice Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona scenery (although a lot is done on the studio set). The Alfred Newman score is effective.

The ending in which the irresistible force of Fonda meets the immovable object of Stewart, is superb.

The Western is small and somber. It was far from a box office smash. Perhaps late sixties audiences were tired of dark, grim Westerns or, more likely, they expected more fun from Fonda and Stewart in harness. Fonda used to shake his head when reminded of the film. “Any man who tries to kill Jim Stewart,” he said, “has to be marked as a man who’s plain rotten.” But it’s a must, boys and girls.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Rounders (MGM, 1965)

A favorite of aficionados

This is a delightful light Western in which Henry Fonda (Howdy) and Glenn Ford (Ben) shine as two down-on-their-luck, none too bright cowboys who always end up working for sharp rancher Chill Wills. Ben says, “It comes to me that we ain’t the smartest cowboys ever lived” and Howdy replies, “You could say that.”

Edgar Buchanan excels as a moonshiner with, ahem, ‘eligible’ daughters. Sometimes the comedy gets a bit low, especially when Fonda & Ford meet up with some seriously dumb blondes (it wouldn’t be allowed these days). One thing we can also say: as a dancer, Glenn is not a good twister. Fonda doesn’t even try (much wiser).

There’s a nod to the Duke when Fonda is asked the origin of his name Howdy. He says he was christened Marion so he changed it to something more Western.

The movie’s written by Burt Kennedy (from the Max Evans novel) and so is rather superior and it is also directed by him. The music (Jeff Alexander) can be a bit irritating (‘comic’ tuba in the funny bits). But the photography (Paul Vogel) and Arizona locations are lovely. I kind of wonder if Sam Peckinpah had seen this film because his Junior Bonner (1972) also has sad rodeo stars, saloon brawls and quasi-documentary footage, in his case of the Prescott Frontier Days, here the Sedona Rodeo.

Maybe the makers of Will Penny (1968) had seen it too because Ben and Howdy winter up at a line shack, get a Christmas tree and have a dance. But no brutal ending here.

As in Junior Bonner, the aging bronc buster dreams of new horizons; Ben wants to buy a boat and go to Tahiti. Who can blame him? Howdy reads out possible adverts, a bit like the scene between the crooked cops in Payback.

But that’s enough references.

In the Italian version of this film the unridable horse is made to talk, which is a bit naff, but in the original the roan has quite enough ‘personality’ without that.

Denver Pyle has a stagger-on part as a drunken friend of the boys. Warren Oates and Peter Fonda have uncredited bit parts.

It’s an amusing little movie well worth the occasional watch. Ford and Fonda were both supreme Westerners and here they are frankly great as cowboys going nowhere. There’s rather a poignant part where Glenn tells his girl that he might settle down one day. As he is 50 and looking it we realize that that’s never going to happen.

MGM mishandled it badly and released it on a double bill with some trashy college comedy. It was only later that it became the favorite of aficionados that it is today.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Warlock (Fox, 1959)

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Monday, April 25, 2011

The Tin Star (Paramount, 1957)

Fonda redux



Fort Apache (1948) was the last of Henry Fonda's Westerns for almost a decade. Had he decided that they weren't for him? It wasn't until 1957 that he leaped (or climbed reluctantly, anyway; he was never one to leap eagerly onto a horse) back into the saddle with another oater. But it was a very good one: The Tin Star.

Paramount’s principal Western offering for that year was directed by Anthony Mann, no less, and starred Fonda, rather than James Stewart (who had fallen out with Mann at the time of Night Passage), as a hard-bitten ex-lawman, now bounty-hunter, teaching a thing or two to green young sheriff Anthony Perkins in a town that wanted law and order but wasn’t prepared to stand up for it. Close to ten Western years may have passed for Fonda, and he was 52, but he hadn’t lost a bit of the magic.

It’s a good story, Oscar-nominated and tightly written by Dudley Nichols (13 Western screenplays, including Stagecoach and The Westerner), as the young lawman is determined not to allow bad guy Lee Van Cleef and his brother to be taken out of his jail and lynched but the townsfolk won’t back him up. The Tin Star comes between High Noon and Rio Bravo, not only chronologically but also in theme. Occasionally 1950s American apple-pie sickly-sweet (the mother-and-son bits), it is for the most part taut and gripping.

It's classic Mann because the hero is an outsider, a man with a past, even an unsavory past. Bounty hunters are not normally nice people in Westerns (except Steve McQueen on TV).

It’s classic Fonda, too, as, embittered, he looks down on the mean-spirited townspeople and goes his lonely way. He is only doing this job because he is good at it. He is a classic loner. Henry Fonda could make a bounty hunter seem noble. He meets attractive young widow Betsy Palmer and takes a shine to her young son by an Indian father. The mother and son are ostracized as he is, and soon the three form a family.

Perkins is boyish and worried. His movements are coltish and awkward and contrast with Fonda's grace and fluidity. (Later, as the apprentice learns from the master, Perkins becomes confident and supple in his movements too).

Neville Brand is sufficiently nasty as the man who would be sheriff. But he is far from the greatest Mann villain. He is not charismatic or charming, or a reflection of the hero, like, for example, Robert Ryan in The Naked Spur. He's really only a small-town bully. John McIntire is a crusty old Doc with a heart of gold - perfect for him. Good old Russell Simpson is in the town too. All great stuff. Mann's two Westerns for Columbia (The Man from Laramie and The Last Frontier) had suffered a bit from the weakish support acting but in this Paramount one he was back to top-class Western character actors. 

There is some nice black & white photography from Shane-Oscared Loyal Griggs in the California location shots, although a lot of the movie is filmed ‘in town’, on the effective Paramount set in LA, so it's not like other Mann Westerns in that respect (except maybe The Far Country). There’s a stirring Elmer Bernstein score. Mann’s direction is seriously classy and he gets a fine performance from Fonda. The role would have suited James Stewart “just fine” but Fonda is grittier, more credible as bounty hunter. It became the sort-of basis for Fonda’s TV series, The Deputy, and made his name, his reputation as a Western lead and probably a fistful of dollars to boot.

In a sort of anti-High Noon moment Fonda picks up the tin star and this is a symbol of his re-integration into society. You can't run away from responsibility. With the badge he has gained a new family, though in the end they leave the town to Perkins and set off for Calfornia - a traditional destination in Westerns which represents a new frontier, another pioneering beginning. In the opening image of the film he rode in, alone, from a high point. In the last and symmetrical image he rides out in a buckboard with dependents and chattels. It's a classic Mann journey, in which the character travels in space but also develops and changes as a person.

Maybe not quite up to the best of Mann’s work with Stewart for Universal, this is still a first-class Western. It's a morality tale, of course. It’s all about a man doing what a man’s gotta do. But there’s also the idea that the teacher learns as much as the pupil, which is an interesting element.

It’s an intelligent, taut Western well worth the watch. And Fonda is great.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Shane (Paramount, 1953)

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Shane by Jack Schaefer (1949)

The mysterious stanger


Although far from my favorite Western and flawed in many ways, Shane still stands as an iconic example of the genre. Every Western blog will contain a fair bit of Shanery. Today, though, we'll look at the source novel.

Jack Schaefer (1907 – 1991) wrote Shane twice. So I thought it only fair to read it twice.

Well, in reality he revised the first edition (which appeared in 1949) in 1954, taking out all the damns and hells and making it suitable as a book to be read in school (good marketing, that). In fact the first time I read Shane was in a lovely boys’ edition illustrated by Wendell Minor in the Illustrated American Classics series. And it makes a good book for children because it is short, it is written in a direct, straightforward style, it has a noble hero to be admired and the story is told from the point of view of a boy on a farm with whom juvenile readers can identify.

The 1984 “critical edition”, however, edited by James C Work, University of Nebraska Press, makes excellent adult reading because as well as the unexpurgated text of the novel you get a series of interesting essays about the book and about the author, as well as reviews of the famous film.

For of course this novel is more than a children’s book. It has become, along with the 1953 movie Paramount made from it, an iconic statement of the Western myth. The novel has appeared in more than seventy editions and thirty languages. As Marc Simmons says of the characters in the story in the Foreword to the critical edition:

[They were] cut from noble cloth. They were strong, hardworking, brave, self-disciplined, responsible, honest; ungalled by self-doubt or any sense of inferiority. In short, they possessed those virtues that, by the mid-twentieth century, were increasingly being dismissed as outdated or unattainable.

Perhaps this describes the appeal of all Westerns, books, movies or in other guise. They described a simpler time, when justice was administered directly and when if might was right, it was tempered by qualities of decency and fairness in the dispensers of the frontier justice. Of course, this time never existed but it makes a satisfactory myth.

The tone of the quotation above is perhaps nostalgic, even reactionary, and that is one major weakness of the novel (and, by extension, the film). It has a certain naïvety about it, an overly bucolic sentimentality that the “boy’s eye view” cannot wholly excuse or disguise. Another way to say it would be that it now seems terribly dated.

But at the same time it is literate and literary. There are powerful passages whose impact is heightened, rather than weakened, by the directness of the prose. Metaphoric language is used sparingly and to greater effect because of that.

And naïve or not, it is a great yarn! The lone stranger rides in from the West and arrives at a farm whose owners, the Starrett family, are being harassed by a powerful open-range rancher, Fletcher. The stranger wants to hang up his guns and live the simple life of a homesteader among his new-found folks but eventually decides that he must bring his lethal skills to bear in the struggle, on the side of the underdogs. For a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

That tale became a cliché. But it wasn’t then. Shane was the archetype.

Just occasionally Schaefer’s style verges on Western pulp. In the saloon at the showdown with the sinister gunfighter Stark Wilson, Shane spits at him, “I’m waiting, Wilson. Do I have to crowd you into slapping leather?” And the writing is sometimes mannered, a self-conscious telling of the Western myth. Although Schaefer later moved to New Mexico and became a Westerner, he has said that at the time he wrote Shane, his first novel, he had “never been west of Toledo, Ohio.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Schaefer created one of the great Western heroes, to rank with Lassiter or The Virginian. Shane is a marvelous figure who sums up all the Western virtues. He is brave, knowing, good with a gun, loyal and firmly on the side of right in a country where there is no marshal for a hundred miles and if justice is to be done, it has to be home-made.

His appearance is always shadowy. We know he is not tall but he is lithe, cat-like. “For all his slim build, he was plenty rugged.” Darkness, of costume and mien, is suggested. (This notion was of course lost in the movie where Alan Ladd, in coiffed blond hairdo, Hollywood tan, light buckskins and a white hat, verges on the dude). Schaefer’s Shane is, naturally, taciturn. He does not need to justify himself. His actions speak for him. All the family fall under his spell: Joe Starrett, leader of the farmers and giant of a man, defers to Shane. His wife Marian is captivated by the stranger. The boy Bob hero-worships him.

Schaefer himself has denied consciously inserting symbols. Some writers have suggested that Shane is a Christ-like figure, or a gun-toting Western Christ anyway, and say that it isn’t an accident that the humble couple visited by this savior are called Joe and Marian. That seems far-fetched to me. But there is something “Olympian” or super-human about Shane (in the film he descends from the mountains) and other commentators have compared him to a messiah, a saint or an angel. Others still have thought of him as an Arthurian knight or a Japanese samurai, which is probably a better image. For Shane is a wandering warrior from another time.

Historically speaking, the book does capture something of the spirit of the time and place. We are in Wyoming in 1889, when the big ranchers were on the point of being “fenced out” by the farmers and some were resorting to violence to protect their open grazing land. It was the time of the Johnson County War (1892) and so it does ring quite true. In 1891 two homesteaders were murdered, shot to death near Buffalo WY, and although it has never been proved, it is likely that a “stock detective”, Frank Canton, hired by the big cattlemen, did it. Stark Wilson in the novel, when he shot down the farmer in town, was not so far removed from the reality.

The sexual tension in Shane lies beneath the surface - to the point where young readers (1950s ones anyway) would not have noticed it, as Bob appears not to notice. But the “triangle” is subtly done (and also very well handled in the film). It is all the more electric for the restraint with which it is treated. (This was lost in Clint Eastwood’s remake, or homage to Shane, Pale Rider in 1985, in which the preacher sleeps with the woman).

A fundamental theme of the book is “growing up.” Bob tells the story as a man, in retrospect, and there are many references to growing into manhood. The frontier is also growing into a stable society, with laws and churches and schools. The United States, indeed, is growing up as a nation. It was in fact a key theme of Schaefer’s, in many of his books. As John Ford so often underlined, this very act of maturation as “civilization” marched West, eroded exactly the noble and worthy qualities of independence, courage and self-sufficiency which had made the West what it was. Mr. & Mrs. Ransom Stoddard express this eloquently in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Shane is a dinosaur. As is Fletcher, the cattleman, of course. The difference is, Shane says, that he knows it while Fletcher is trying vainly to turn back the tide.

Shane does have a wider appeal than merely “a Western”. Like all good writers (and Jack Schaefer was one), the author uses his setting, in this case the frontier, to illustrate people’s true natures and describe universal truths and qualities. Shane is certainly a key milestone for anyone interested in the Western myth, but it is also a damned good book. Edited version for schools: a very good book.


Monday, April 11, 2011

The Gunfighter (Fox, 1950)

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Only The Valiant (Fort Invincible), Warner Bros, 1951

Peck Invincible


You’d think a Warners 1951 Western with Gregory Peck and Ward Bond would be a big movie with a large cast and no expense spared. Instead, Only The Valiant, sometimes known as Fort Invincible, seems just like a second-feature black & white Lippert production. Mostly shot on studio sets, low-budget, with some attempt at building tension (at times it’s almost a whodunnit), it is in fact a typical Gordon Douglas effort. Douglas wasn’t bad and he occasionally produced something a bit better than average (Fort Dobbs, for example, or The Nevadan, or even something really good, such as The Fiend who Walked the West) but all in all most of his stuff was bread-and-butter. And early 50s Warners Westerns were often second rate.
Of course Peck was towering, an excellent Western hero to rank with John Wayne, Henry Fonda or even Gary Cooper. Here, as US Army Captain Richard Lance, Dick to his (precious few) friends, he is fine, very fine, and he makes a pretty low-key film with an ordinary script into something much bigger.

Ward Bond does his stereotype Fordian drunken Irish corporal act and hams it up for all he was worth (which was quite a lot). Every so often he produces a malign, snide glance that shows real menace. But most of the time he sings drinking songs in a brogue. Jeff Corey is good as the tough old Army scout, Joe Harmony. Lon Chaney is a curious Trooper Kebussyan in a big black beard whom they call A-rab and who refers to Peck as “effendi”. You can see him building up for self-sacrifice a mile off. Neville Brand is excellent as a bullying Sergeant Murdock.

At one point Peck tells his suicide-mission group why he ‘volunteered’ them: he lists their faults in a devastating way – cowardice, drunkenness, desertion and so on. He took them out of the fort, he says, because they were the troops that could best be spared and who would be least missed if they were killed. Nothing like encouraging your men.

Barbara Payton (with whom Peck is said to have had an affair on the set) as Cathy jumps to an enormous conclusion and assumes Peck guilty of a base act, spurning him. Like all good Western heroes, Peck does not lower himself to self-justification. If she wants to think that, let her. Of course, later she realizes she was wrong and wants him back. I would have told her where to get off but Peck ends up in her arms with Bond drunkenly serenading them both. It won’t last.

The few location shots were filmed around Gallup, NM. Pity we didn’t get more. The fort has a Beau Gestey look about it.

Habitual 'Indian' Michael Ansara is quite imposing as Apache chief Tucsos and there is an improbable 1:1 duel at the end in which he cashes in his Apache chips. OK, so I’ve spoiled it for you but I haven’t really: you knew that.

Peck said that this was his least favorite of all his movies. Not hard to see why, really. But because of Peck's contribution the film is by no means a clunker.


Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Bravados (Fox, 1958)

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Big Country (United Artists, 1958)

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Law and Order (Universal, 1953)



This rather stodgy color remake of the 1932 Walter Huston/Harry Carey film Law and Order stars Ronald Reagan as Frame Johnson, a Wyatt Earp-like figure. It has none of the tension or acting quality of the original and the screenplay is often downright corny.

Reluctant but brilliant lawman Johnson (Ron) turns in his badge and leaves Tombstone to buy a farm near Cottonwood and settle down with Dorothy Malone (my word, how beautiful she was). However, the new town is run by evil Preston Foster (probably the best actor in the picture), and he and Frame 'go back'. Frame’s brother Luther becomes marshal but is killed for his pains. So Frame once again pins on the star and battle commences.

Standard stuff, it must be said.

The color is bright but the locations are very far from Arizon-esque. They look much like some terrain just off Highway 14 in California. That could be because that was where the movie was shot. The Clifford Stine cinematography is OK, though.

For the rest, Reagan is solid. Stolid, if you prefer. I notice that the adjective solid is often applied to Reagan in reviews. Perhaps it's one-up from bland, and two from wooden. Frame Johnson's brothers (Alex Nicol and Russell Johnson) are satisfactory. La Malone is more than OK. I always thought she was great in Westerns. Chubby Johnson has the colorful old-timer role as Denver, the mortician. Jack Kelly and Dennis Weaver are in it, the latter in a Las Vegas-ish powder-blue suit as the bad guy’s brother who shoots Luther Johnson.

The biggest weakness is the writing, credited to Inez Cocke, John Bagni, Gwen Bagni and DD Beauchamp the Great, from the William R Burnett novel. That’s an awful lot of writers to create something so second-rate. There’s even the line, “He don’t look so tough to me!”

There’s a phonograph. There’s no Doc Holliday figure. Nor is there any corral.

When Frame fights, his shirt disintegrates into comic rags, like Robinson Crusoe.

At one point Dorothy Malone says of our future president, “You’re big and you’re ugly and you’re stupid.” Come now, Dorothy.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Singer Not The Song (Warner Bros, 1961)

More shepherd's pie


Once you get over the shock of an entire 1950s Mexican village speaking with British accents (and, shockingly, there not being a comma in the title), you do get drawn into this community and its drama.

The story of The Singer Not The Song concerns an Irish Catholic priest, Fr. Keogh, played by eminent and posh Brit actor John Mills, arriving in a country town to find it dominated by a gangster in the shape of 50s English screen idol Dirk Bogarde, camp in very tight black leather pants. The blonde vamp of the place, a sub-Bardot actress named Mylène Demongeot, a Niçoise, sets her cap at the handsome priest - a love doomed, of course. Doubly-doomed, actually because he's gay. Bandit Dirk is more interested in the priest than he is in Mylène, so we have an impossible love triangle (for no homosexual affair could have been consummated on screen in 1961). It is all done by allusions and hints.

In the sense that Dirk rides a horse and wears a cowboy hat and a gunbelt, and in the theme of the town treed by a badman, this is a Western. In all other respects, though, it is a torrid and rather melodramatic love story with peculiar twists. There’s some Graham Greenery about it as the Catholic priest battles for the soul of the murderer while the murderer appears to be more interested in the body of his interlocutor than his soul.

Mills has a slightly phony Irish accent but is earnest and passionate. Bogarde is cynical and often raises a single eyebrow to prove it.

The love triangle becomes a sort of distorted quadrilateral when “Old Uncle” tries to kill the priest, more out of jealously than anything, for he sees the Rev. as a rival for his affection for the young bandit. The Old Uncle is a burly Mexican with all the trimmings (bandoliers and so forth), who came from Thames Ditton, Surrey (Laurence Naismith).

The film was produced and directed by Londoner Roy Ward Baker, and was filmed at Pinewood studios in Buckinghamshire and “on location” (a daft expression; in this case it means Torremelinos in southern Spain). So it’s rather in the Shalako tradition of British spaghetti – what I call a shepherd’s pie western, for it seems that Eurowesterns have to be named for antional dishes. The cast is peppered with British character actors: John Bentley is the Mexican police chief, Leslie French is the old Mexican priest whom Mills replaces, and so on. The screenwriter (Nigel Balchin) came from Wiltshire, the music writer (Philip Green) from Whitechapel and British-born folk or British residents populate the credits and crew. So it’s a Brit western all right, with everything that implies.

2 revolvers.


Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Stalking Moon (NGP, 1968)

Well worth it

What a great Western actor Gregory Peck was.

In some ways, perhaps, he was the wrong choice for this particular movie because stalwart hero that he is, you know he’s going to win through, whereas if they had cast someone more vulnerable, more fallible, the tension would have been greater. But that's a quibble: he is fine here.

Peck is an aging Indian scout retiring to a small (and very beautiful) ranch in New Mexico who finds himself, almost accidentally, with a woman, Eva Marie Saint, and her half-breed son, Noland Clay. The boy’s father, a Navajo warrior, wants him back and leaves death and destruction in his wake as he closes in on the ranch and a siege begins. The Navajo hunter is cleverly portrayed; he is only ever glimpsed through most of the movie but the results of his destructive power are seen. There is a real sense of menace.

The movie was shot by the highly talented Charles Lang in the Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada and it’s visually superb. There’s a lovely pink wash to the print.

The story (Alvin Sargent and Wendell Mayes from a novel by Theodore V Olsen) ranges from Arizona to Colorado to New Mexico. The film is well directed by Robert Mulligan and there are some nice touches. The tension builds and you know that when Peck and his new family are settled on their idyllic ranch, horror and death are on their inevitable way.
Afficher l'image d'origine

Eve’s cheekbones and hair are in remarkably good shape considering she is said to have been brutalized for ten years by the Navajo. The boy is supposed to be torn between two cultures but he doesn’t really show that. You can’t blame the actor; he was only ten or something.

Robert Forster is rather good as Peck’s scout friend who comes to warn him and fights with him. Peck is at his splendid best in the early part of the film when he takes pity on the woman and child and takes them with him. His combination of tough and tender is hard to beat. A solid, quality Western, probably a three-revolver picture but Peck bumped it to four, well worth a visit to a movie theater if it’s on and a DVD purchase if it isn't.