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

Monday, September 30, 2013

Dances With Wolves (MGM, 1990)

Long, earnest, verging on the sugary - but a good film

The most commercially successful Western so far, made with a budget of $18 million (so expensive that it became known as ‘Kevin’s Gate’) but grossing over 400 million, this epic won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and was nominated for five more. Westerns don’t normally win Oscars. The first to win Best Picture was Cimarron in 1931. Unforgiven repeated the trick in 1992.

You can understand why it did so well. The Best Cinematography award for Dean Semler was more than justified. The film is visually stunning. Shot largely in South Dakota, it has a wonderful authentic look of the plains, and certain set pieces like the buffalo hunt or the shots of White Socks, the wolf, remain in the memory. There are Fordian touches or David Leanisms. It is a motion picture that deserves to be seen on the very big screen.
If there is a criticism of its visual appeal it might be that the look of it is almost too pretty and has a romantic sheen. But that applies to the whole movie really. The story and treatment are earnest, worthy, even noble. Costner’s dismay at seeing the trash heap, the dead deer in the river, and the friendship he cultivates with the wolf all establish the movie’s eco-credentials early on, and thenceforth the pro-Indian theme is very pronounced. All the whites (except Costner) are coarse or mad. All the Sioux are noble, handsome and dignified.
One of the best actors
Roger Ebert in his review wrote, “In a sense, "Dances With Wolves" is a sentimental fantasy, a "what if" movie that imagines a world in which whites were genuinely interested in learning about a Native American culture that lived more closely in harmony with the natural world than any other before or since. But our knowledge of how things turned out - of how the Indians were driven from their lands by genocide and theft - casts a sad shadow over everything.” That's right: the hero’s approach is more wishful thinking and late-20th Century projection onto the past than reality. An 1860s pro-Indian eco-warrior would have been a rara avis. For most white Americans, Indians were thieving savages fit only to be shot or at least confined to a reservation, and the land was there to be exploited for profit.

As for the acting, Mary McDonnell does an excellent job as the woman who had been captured by the Sioux as a young girl (Costner’s own daughter plays the child in flashback). She manages the Lakota-speaking adult trying to recapture her English very convincingly. Graham Greene - such a good actor - as Kicking Bird and Rodney A Grant as Wind in his Hair are the leading Sioux and both performances are high class. Wes Studi (always excellent) is there too.
Fine actors Grant and Greene
In the lesser white-man parts, Maury Chaykin is entertaining as a mad Union officer and Robert Pastorelli morbidly amusing as Dunbar's horrible traveling companion.

Viggo Mortensen, later of Appaloosa fame, was to have played Lt. Dunbar and was apparently billed to play the lead in a Simon Wincer-directed Dances with Wolves sequel, Holy Road, but that doesn’t appear to have happened. However, Costner does a good, solid job. It was only his second Western (after being the energetic kid in Silverado in 1985). This movie, the later Wyatt Earp, Open Range and Hatfields & McCoys all benefit from his earnest performances.
Sometimes verges on the sugary-sentimental
The music is appropriate, though once again sometimes a bit on the romantic side.

A couple of secrets to give away, culled from the IMDb trivia page: the buffalo charging at the youngster in the film was actually charging at a pile of its favorite food, Oreo cookies, and the raw buffalo ‘liver’ offered to Kevin to chew on is actually made of cranberry Jell-O. Thought you ought to know about some of the more important aspects of the film.

Costner has been winningly honest about his nervousness as a first-time director. Actually, though, it's his uncertainty in front of the camera that is more interesting, as he survives, copes, then gradually integrates in his new life. Such humor as there is comes from a classic trope: the tenderfoot out West. Turning the idea on its head, however, it is the white man blundering about in the Indian camp who is the greenhorn.
Dean Semler's photography reminds me of Roger Deakins's work in The Assassination...
It’s very long (three hours) but if you are willing to invest your time in it, it doesn’t drag. It’s also quite different: while we do have fairly predictable elements – the buffalo hunt, the romance with the Indian girl – as a Western it is very far from the classic pro-Indian movies of the past it might be compared with, such as Broken Arrow. One of the best features of the movie is that the Sioux are played by Native Americans and are allowed to speak their own tongue. Dances With Wolves is about as far from the old-style Ug, me big chief style of Western as it is possible to get. About time too.
Curiously, perhaps, for such an epic, sweeping, long film, it’s not spectacle but character development which the film really gives us. All credit to Mr. Costner. I will admit that I don’t always put this Western in the DVD player with a song in my heart but that goes for the rather earnest and overlong Wyatt Earp and Hatfields & McCoys too. Silverado and Open Range were a different story; they are fun. Dances With Wolves isn’t fun but when I do watch it again I always think it’s a damn good film.


River of No Return (Fox, 1954)

No return? Probably just as well

River of No Return was Otto Preminger’s only Western. It featured top Hollywood stars Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe and had dramatic Canadian Rockies locations in the new CinemaScope. It should have been a wow, and indeed it did well at the box office. It is in fact quite good, in a way. But quite good doesn’t make great.
Monroe, Preminger, Mitchum. Not happy bunnies.
It’s a raft story, as Bob ‘n’ Marilyn battle rapids, mountain lions, Indians and badmen, sometimes all on the same afternoon, on their way downriver from their cabin burnt by Indians to the safety of Council City.

The story opens (after a regrettable ballad) with farmer Mitchum arriving in a tent-city gold-mining camp defined by a minister as Sodom and Gomorrah, both. Bob is searching for his nine-year-old son Mark (Tommy Rettig, the Lassie boy). Mitch has been away. He finds the lad being cared for, lucky boy, by a saloon gal, Marilyn of course, who sings a good number of songs – Changing Hands, I’m Gonna File My Claim, Down In the Meadow (twice) and, naturally, River of No Return.
The squeezebox player seems distracted
It turns out that Mitch has been ‘away’ because he was in prison for shooting a man in the back. He plunges in his son’s estimation. Shooting someone in the back is not considered quite the done thing in Westerns. However, the ending redresses that problem neatly, if brutally.

Mitchum is good – he always was, even when on auto-pilot. Monroe is competent, if absurdly dressed in a 1950s take on the 1870s. To many people’s surprise, on the set Mitchum did not make an attempt on Monroe’s virtue. He found her vulnerable and childlike, and not his type. Of course in the film they are made for each other and they and the boy will form an ideal family, you can tell.

Rory Calhoun, in probably his most celebrated role and in his final Fox Western, is Marilyn’s ex, a ne’er-do-well gambler who abandoned her but now that Bob is interested, he wants her back. Rory liked rivers: he had done Massacre River and Powder River before this River. In fact 37.5% of his Westerns to date had been about rivers. I tell you this on a need-to-know basis, of course. He'd been fourth-billed in Marilyn's epic of the previous year, How to Marry a Millionaire, so they got on. In River of No Return, though, he only got 16 minutes of screen time so we can't really consider this a Calhoun Western.
Calhoun as ne'er-do-well gambler
Once the cast and crew were assembled in Banff, the drama began to unfold. Marilyn could not cope with Preminger’s Hitlerite screaming. Paul Helmick, the assistant director, said that Preminger “was a complete pain in the ass. Vicious, impatient, very crude to people, especially to women.” In no time at all Preminger and Monroe weren’t speaking to each other and communication was only through Mitchum, who was hitting the bottle. Another major source of unpleasantness was the ubiquitous presence of Marilyn’s “coach”, the odious, smelly and fake Natahsha Lytess. She insisted that Monroe e-nun-ci-ate all her syllables distinctly, advice which Marilyn took so much to heart that her performance became unfilmable. Mitchum thought she looked like a fish.

Lytess: unpleasant and tiresome

Lytess also cruelly told the boy Rettig that he was just at the age when child actors lost their talent: he froze on the set and cried before takes.
Father and son
Meanwhile, the second unit director and stunt people were making the film. Such exciting action as unfolds is to the credit of these brave professionals (one of the Oz munchkins dressed in corduroy stood in for Rettig). Later, the stars went back to Hollywood where they stood on a tethered raft in front of a back-projection screen and studio crew threw buckets of water at them and shot arrows into the timbers at their feet. Preminger’s contract expired just before the end and he departed for Europe without doing any post-production, to everyone’s relief.
Just as the cast were finishing up in Banff, a Universal team arrived to make Saskatchewan on the same locations. The reclusive Alan Ladd (in a role turned down by Mitchum) buried himself in the hotel while certain other (female) members of the cast made a beeline for Bob.

The music of River is rather overwrought and the film is too talky. There are one or two dodgy lines in the Frank Fenton screenplay of the “He can run but he can’t hide” kind.  Both Mitchum and Monroe despised the script. But there is a Deliverance/Rooster Cogburn vibe in a way, though Marilyn is slightly more attractive than Katharine Hepburn in her late sixties. Or Burt Reynolds.

Red shoes symbolize Marilyn’s racy past.

At one point the attacking Indians snatch at Marilyn and her blouse comes away completely. I wonder why Preminger did that. At another point she is soaked and is dressed only in a blanket while Mitchum has to massage her dry.

The pace is too slow, generally.  

It’s an OK Western, thanks to Mitchum, but you can tell that Preminger didn’t understand the genre and it was doubtless a good thing that he only made one.


Sunday, September 29, 2013

High Vermilion by Luke Short

Luke Short in fine form

The novel High Vermilion was first published in serial form in The Saturday Evening Post in 1947. It is a typical and typically good Western tale by Luke Short – the pen name of Frederick Dilley Glidden (1908 to 1975).
Frederick D Glidden (Luke Short)
Luke Short westerns often concentrated knowledgeably on a particular aspect of the West such as cattle droving, freighting or, as in this case, mining. High Vermilion tells of an assayer, Larkin Moffat, who has settled in the mining camp of Vermilion, somewhere unspecified in the West, probably Colorado, and has a murky past which he keeps quiet. Inevitably, his past comes back to haunt him when a former adversary, Charlie Storrs, now married to Moffat’s former flame Josephine, arrives in the camp and reveals Moffat’s identity and shameful past.

There follows a story of skullduggery as ruthless town boss RB Jarboe and his thuggish henchman Bill Taff try to get their hands on the big-strike silver mine of decent Dutch Surrency, and Moffat sides with Dutch. Of course Dutch has a pretty daughter, Candace, so the scene is set for mucho jealousy between the old and new amours of Moffat.

There’s a spectacular fistfight in the saloon as well as back-shooting, sabotage and ambush, so we have action a-plenty. Accompanying this excitement is the anguish of the hero as he struggles to come to terms with his past, shake off the shame and start a new life. Of course we discover that his past actions were not after all as bad as all that and were really caused by Josephine…

Short’s stories were, probably expressly, cinematic and lent themselves well to Hollywood. High Vermilion was not, in fact, filmed but many of his other books were and High Vermilion would have made a tight little Western movie, maybe with Randolph Scott as Moffat. Other books became fine Western films such as Vengeance Valley, Ramrod, Coroner Creek and several more.

Short writes well, in a slightly staid 1940s way. His style is not lurid and the books are a cut above dime novels. They became very popular in the 1950s, in Bantam editions with rather racy covers, and this has led some readers to consider them Western pulp fiction but in reality they are solid, tightly-constructed and well-written Western stories, much like quality 1950s B-movies of the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher type, and they are well worth a read.

Pulp Bantam editions but the books were better than that
One positive aspect of Short's westerns is that his women are all tough, intelligent and independent individualists and not the stereotypical saintly schoolma'ams or slutty saloon gals of Hollywood Westerns. Short/Glidden's mother was an English teacher and college Dean who brought him up after her husband, Short's father, died when their son was 13, and she must have influenced his approach to women - as well as his literary competence.

Glidden was an interesting man who graduated in journalism and wrote for several newspapers but also trapped in Canada and worked as an archaeological assistant in New Mexico. He knew the West and was an avid traveler and reader. His books are slightly formulaic, I guess, but they are all exciting, well-told tales with an authentic ring to them. High Vermilion is no exception.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

¡Three Amigos! (Warner Bros, 1986)

A plethora of jokes

One of the funniest of all Westerns, this movie is just right. Directed by John Landis and written by Steve Martin and producer Lorne Michaels, it is witty, funny, fun and ineffably silly.

Mexico, 1916. Once we get past the classic mistaken-identity gag, the plot is simply The Magnificent Three, as Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short save a poor Mexican village from a marauding bandit.
Wherever there is injustice, you will find us.
Wherever there is suffering, we'll be there.
Wherever liberty is threatened, you will find...
...the three amigos!

The Calvera figure is El Guapo (Alfonso Arau, ex-Wild Bunch villain, very good) and his chief henchman, also well done, is Jefe (Tony Plana). The village was apparently the same one used in The Magnificent Seven, although it doesn’t look like it.
It is a toss-up as to whether the amigos are dumber than the bandits. There’s an excellent German arms dealer, Wild Bunch-like (Kai Wulff), complete with dueling scar, and an obligatory señorita, Patrice Martinez, for Steve to fall for, though in the end it turns out not to be his lucky day.

The bartender is billed as Fred Asparagus but looks rather like Cheech Marin (probably practicing for his bartender role in Desperado). The amigos were to have been Martin, Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi, and with Landis behind the camera that would have been quite something, but Chase and Short do a great job too. Bill Murray and Robin Williams were also considered. Murray would have been good.

It has a plethora of jokes. Most of them are corny but it's the haut-corn that makes it. You could kiss me on the veranda/The lips would be fine.
And it teaches us a lot. As Lucky tells us, "In a way, all of us has an El Guapo to face. For some, shyness might be their El Guapo. For others, a lack of education might be their El Guapo... But as sure as my name is Lucky Day, the people of Santa Poco can conquer their own personal El Guapo, who also happens to be the actual El Guapo." Deep, man.

The songs (and some of the script) are by Randy Newman and great. In fact all the music is high class. Elmer Bernstein did the score. There are some lovely colors, too. Ronald W Browne shot it in Arizona, round Old Tucson. Of course they have to ride off into the sunset. The sunset scene where they camp out is hilariously corny.

It has an exclamation point in the title so is a priori excluded as a good Western by the world-famous Arnold Laughable Exclamation Point Hypothesis (ALEPH), but as it has two and the first one is upside down, it is excused.

The picture got some snooty reviews from dolts who thought it wasn't funny.


Friday, September 27, 2013

The Restless Breed (Fox, 1957)

Another classic


The Restless Breed (odd title considering the content) is a classic late-1950s B-Western.
Racy poster
Made on an ultra-low budget and mostly shot on studio sets, it nevertheless has panache and zip. It stars Scott Brady, one of the wild Tierney brothers, as an undercover secret service agent down on the Tex-Mex border to investigate the death of his daddy. Brady was always full of vim. He looked like Marlon Brando, though he was a rather better actor  than Brando.

Like Brando, only a good actor

He faces off against Leo Gordon, one of the best heavies ever. Don Siegel once said that Gordon, who had served time in San Quentin for armed robbery, was "the scariest man I have ever met". Actually, the leader of the badmen is Jim Davis but he only appears at the very end to get shot. (He’s good though). It’s Leo who is Mr. Mayhem for most of the movie.
Leo the Great. Good German title too.
A young Anne Bancroft plays the Mexican girl who falls for Scott. Ms Bancroft was one of those women who grew more beautiful as she aged but she is pretty damn good here, aged 26. This was her first Western; they were all Bs.
Mr. Brady and Ms. Bancroft canoodle
Jay C Flippen is the US marshal and Rhys Williams is the pastor who tries to redeem Scott. So really solid support acting.

There’s also a strange kind of silent chorus in the shape of Scott Marlowe as Allan (coincidence or not, the director’s first name). He just observes - spying or eavesdropping - and we often see the action from his POV.

The Eastmancolor print has a pleasant blue wash to it. The set is pretty basic, like painted scenery, but this is almost good: it makes the drama more like a stage play.

Veteran director Allan Dwan made no fewer than 171 Westerns, 149 of them silents between 1911 and 1913! But he also made the 1939 Wyatt Earp picture Frontier Marshal with Randolph Scott, and Cattle Queen of Montana in 1954 with the dreaded Barbara Stanwyck. Aged 72, he directed The Restless Breed, his last oater, with a deft touch.
Allan Dwan

If you want a classy 1950s B-Western with punch, watch The Restless Breed. You won’t regret it.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Last Man Standing (Lone Wolf, 1996)

A true Western

I’ve been meaning to review this movie for some time as it is one of my favorites. There are some dolts who say it isn’t a Western but they know nothing.
Great movie
On the surface, yes, this is a gangster film of classic proportions. Set in Prohibition West Texas, it tells of rival bootlegging gangs and a lone gunman who plays one mob off against the other. Sound familiar? It should. It’s A Fistful of Dollars remade, and of course Fistful was Yojimbo remade and anyway they are all based on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (also made into a gangster movie), if not, indeed, Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters (1743). This story has been around.

However, this is ten times better than A Fistful of Dollars. The Chandleresque first-person voiceover of the hero gives a depth to the character that Leone never managed with Eastwood. And Bruce Willis is superb, a true Western hero. He is tough and outwardly just a cynical gun for hire but we come to see the integrity beneath as he cleans up the town. Actually, he cleans it out rather than cleaning it up. This is one of Willis’s best roles. He is of course a man with no name – well, he goes by ‘John Smith’ but that’s pretty much the same thing.
The man with not much of a name
Then there is outstanding support acting. We might mention in particular my hero Bruce Dern as the corrupt sheriff. Dern did heavies supremely well for many years but he was rarely better than the complex character he portrays here.
It's rude to point
In a very short part, Ken Jenkins also takes honors for his Ranger captain, icy in the torrid heat. Ted Markland as the silent Deputy Bob, RD Call as the dumb Irish heavy, William Sanderson (always excellent, Lippy in Lonesome Dove and EB Farnum in Deadwood) as the saloon keeper Joe, these are all first class.

Christopher Walken is positively psychopathic as the chief Doyle shooter. We are told that at 15 he burned down an orphanage and enjoyed watching the “little kids go up like candles.” Oo, that’s bad. The Italians are very good too: Ned Eisenberg doesn’t sound too Italian but he has the gestures and style pat as chief mobster Strozzi and Michael Imperioli, who does sound Italian alright, later to appear in The Sopranos, is first class as Strozzi’s cousin Giorgio. You have to check the credits to see they are Strozzi, though, because they are always referred to by Bruce as Strasi.
Smiling psycopath
Those haircuts! Weren’t they hideous? But very realistic. Nice cars too. Bruce rides into the town of Jericho (which looks very Western) in a 1928 Model A Ford, a twentieth century equivalent of Clint’s mule.

The picture has an orange tint, or perhaps blood-red. This has got redder and redder as my VHS tape ages but that’s fine. It suits it. The heat and dust permeate through the screen at you. There's very fine Lloyd Ahern photography of El Paso and New Mexico locations. Ahern had shot both Geronimo and Wild Bill for Walter Hill so has the credentials.
The music is by Ry Cooder and manages to give us menace, gangsterism, Mexico and a Western all in a modern key. I must get that soundtrack on my iPod. Elmer Bernstein had been hired but was fired for not getting the tone right. Ry is perfect.

This film is sometimes over the top. When Bruce shoots mobsters with his twin Colt 1911 45s the shot badmen fly through the air and into the street in Desperado fashion. It verges on a cartoon. But boy, do they stay shot.
Blam! Blam!
It’s funny, isn’t it, how critics can vary so much in their opinions. The late, respected Roger Ebert called this movie “a mannered, juiceless, excruciatingly repetitive exercise in style.” Oh well, other critics than I have a right to their opinions. Anyone has the right to be wrong.

The dark scenes where Bruce gets beaten up and recovers with help to get his revenge reminded me of Unforgiven. It’s a Western alright. Walter Hill, the director, did Westerns (he once said that all his films were Westerns and when you watch this one you see his point) and he wrote this one as well, giving due credit – unlike Fistful - to Kikushima and Kurosawa. There is something son-of-Sam about Mr. Hill and the Peckinpah influence is there alright.

It’s a great title. And the pictures of Hickok on the hotel wall and a print of Custer’s Last Stand aren’t an accident.

Four revolvers, pards. Outstanding.
Clementine reference

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Avenging Angel (RHI/Alpine Medien/Hallmark, 2007)

The hallmark of blandness

A lot of Westerns came out in 2007, luckily. There was the outstanding Assassination of Jesse James… of course and also a quality remake of 3:10 to Yuma as well as the terrific little Last Stand at Saber River. Seraphim Falls had its points. And so on. All very encouraging. There was some lighter fare too and Avenging Angel falls into this category. A made-for-TV film run by Hallmark, it is a very Pale Rider or, as the star says in an interview on the DVD, Pale Rider meets Death Wish.

Directed by David S Cass Sr. and written by William Sims Myers, it is pretty standard stuff. A town is treed by an evil rancher Col. Cusak (Wings Hauser) who runs off squatters. A Clint-referenced preacher with no name played by the movie’s star, Kevin Sorbo (Hercules in many flicks; this is his first Western) bravely stands up to the thugs who dynamite his church and kill his wife and daughter. He becomes a bounty hunter seeking ‘justice’ and then comes back to the town. There he meets a saloon woman, Maggie (Cynthia Watros), with a little daughter and of course it’s lerve. New squatters arrive, peaceable chaps with no guns. The wicked colonel sends the corrupt sheriff (Nick Chinlund) to kill them. Kevin fights for right. You may imagine how it turns out.
So no surprises, nothing remarkable really. And all a bit bland. As Sorbo says, “It’s Hallmark. You can’t be too explicit.” It’s pleasant enough escapism, I suppose, 81 minutes of Westernism. The acting is competent. The scenery’s quite nice (California) although far from remarkable. Some of the photography by Maximo Munzi is decent. The music (Joe Kraemer) is unnoticeable, which can be a blessing. And I guess it does sort of think about where the line between justice and vengeance lies. Sort of. You’d have to be a Western junky actually to buy it, though. Which is why I saw it, of course.
Hallmark. Tarantino it ain't.
The clothes are poor and are very obviously costumes. The set design is cut price. There are plot holes – why doesn’t anyone recognize him when he comes back to town? At one point a settler points a very visibly plugged replica gun. So it’s a bit amateurish. But all in all this is no total clunker. It’s perfectly presentable as a Western if you don’t set your standards too high. It’s a million times better than the average spaghetti anyway.

But it doesn’t rock.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Joshua (Po’ Boy/Lone Star, 1976)

A burger Western

Blaxploitation could also be applied to Westerns. This 70s effort had Fred Williamson (Kansas City Chiefs football star turned action movie hero) as a soldier back from the Civil War, avenging the murder of his dear, sweet mom by five evil badmen. It’s an absolutely classic cliché as Fred/Josh hunts them down and picks them off one by one.

There is electronic music (Mike Irwin) which merges into 70s sub-rock and is irritatingly repetitive. The print I saw was very pale and it made the winter Monument Valley set even more lunar than usual.
The dialogue was evidently written by a committee of pupils from Utah junior high schools. Either that or by a computer inputted with every Western cliché ever written and asked to come up with a random sample. Actually, though, Fred wrote it. As a writer, he made a great defensive back.

The trouble with such movies is that to be even remotely credible the white actors would have to treat Joshua in such a way and refer to him in such language that would have been totally unacceptable to 1970s audiences, especially black ones. The n-word would have been the least of their epithets. But of course they call him ‘hombre’ or something safe all the time.

Fred may have been good in Shaft-type movies shooting from 70s Camaros or Mustangs but he can’t ride real mustangs to save his life. Nor can most of the other actors. Their knees and elbows are everywhere and their hats fall off. If you are looking for a kind of 1970s Deets from Lonesome Dove, forget it. Danny Glover he ain't.
The girl kidnapped by wicked Cal Bartlett seems to be affected by Tombstone syndrome (a Western fore-runner of Stockholm syndrome) as she starts smooching with her captors.

It’s junk, really, a sort of American spaghetti. A Burger Western?