Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Tall T



Synopsis
: Randolph Scott plays a stand up ex ranch hand come land owner. He lives in some desolate country where he's friends with the local stagecoach station master and son. On his way back from town (with candy for the son) he gets a lift with a chartered stage carrying Maureen O'Sullivan and her new rubbish husband. They stop at the station and get hijacked by baddie Richard Boone and his two nasty sidekicks. The baddies have killed the station master and son and then kill the stage driver, kidnap the other three and off they go to the baddies' lair in the hills. Cue Randolph working out a way to save himself and Maureen. All ends well for them both but not so well fo the baddies.

I finally got to see this ace western on a day off when it was on TV. It's not currently available on DVD in the UK and I have no recording facilities. This was my third Budd Boetticher western and was recommended to me as one of his best. I've really taken to his westerns - they are taut, lean, sparsely dialogued, rarely any superfluous characters and usually have a pretty short running time (average 80 mins). The three that I've seen (Ride Lonesome, Seven Men From Now and Tall T) seem to follow similar stories. Randolph Scott as a goody either taking revenge for a murdered wife or saving another woman whilst killing baddies. Simple stories but always executed brilliantly.

Things of note from Tall T - this is probably the film in which Randolph Scott has been the 'straightest', no revenge to speak of, no chips on his shoulder really, just a decent guy caught up in a difficult situation. I also liked his relationship with the baddie. Richard Boone's character admires Scott as he sees what he has (his own land) and wants this for himself. There are a couple of interesting exchanges between the two as Boone thinks out loud about getting out of baddie-dom and setting up his own farm whilst Scott slowly realises that he can use this to his advantage when plotting the sidekicks against Boone.

The female lead, O'Sullivan, was in some ways the weakest female character in the Boetticher westerns that I've seen. She doesn't get much to do and cries plenty (well, her husband does get murdered in front of her) but just isn't quite as ballsy as other Boetticher females. There are no punches pulled though as Scott uses his new lady friend's feminine charms to lure the baddies into a comprimising situation.

I would definitely recommend Seven Men From Now for the best female character (hence the name of this blog). Gail Russell's character is far more complex, gutsy and involved in the action than poor old Maureen.

The baddies were pretty good in this one (shoving people down a well - pretty grim stuff) but again not on a par with Lee Marvin in Seven Men From Now for real stubbly bad ass-ness. The two sidekicks are really nasty, especially Chink, a psychotic killer who seems to murder just for kicks. It's also an interesting touch that the ringleader gets his two henchmen to do the dirty work, never killing anyone himself.

A few killer lines in this one. At the climax, Scott is explaining to O'Sullivan why he can't just walk away and says that "Some things a man can't ride around". Ace. And the final line as they walk off together, O'Sullivan is still tearful and Scott says "Come on now, it's gonna be a nice day". You said it Randy.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051047/

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Naked Spur


Synopsis
: Jimmy Stewart plays a bounty hunter taking wanted man Robert Ryan to justice. Ryan and ladyfriend sidekick Janet Leigh play mind games with Stewart whilst Jimmy has to also contend with two mercernary sidekicks Millard Mitchell (looking like he's in the donkey derby riding his mule) and Ralph Meeker. And you thought he looked stressed in Vertigo. Of course the tables turn half way through and Janet realises that Jimmy's a good guy and Robert is very, very bad. All ends well and, without spoiling it, Janet and Jimmy ride off into the West together

This was my first Mann/Stewart western, so lots to look out for. Anthony Mann's westerns are always billed as psychological but so much of Naked Spur reminded of other westerns such as B-movie western director par excellence Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome and 3:10 to Yuma. Stories about bounty hunters taking their quarry to justice and all that focus on people's motivation for action and secrets from their past and stuff. There was also a strong element echoed films like Ride the High Country - men playing mind games with each other, testing out each others' moral codes.

The moral code litmus test in The Naked Spur for me was Janet Leigh's character. She starts out as a naive daughter of friend to Robert Ryan, convinced that he's really okay and will take care of her. However, as the film goes on and as Ryan tries to turn everyone against James Stewart it becomes obvious that Janet is beginning to see the bounty hunter for who he really is - a mixed up but really decent guy.

Reading up on this before watching, I knew that the film was all shot outdoors which meant some stunning scenery (thank you The Rockies) and some interesting camera work. Early on we got a great shot - reminiscent of Vertigo - looking almost vertically down on Stewart as he contemplates climbing up a rock face to capture Ryan. The only problem with so much outdoor work is some hilariously but just out of sync overdubbing.

Great climax too (*Caution: SPOILERS*) - Ryan and Leigh are trying to escape and are on the top of an outcrop above a raging river. Ryan's killed ol' timey Mitchell who is now laid out on some flat rocks down below (some great perspective shots here) and when Stewart and Meeker turn up there's shootin' aplenty. Stewart eventually makes his way up the rocks (nicely bookending the earlier climb) using his spur first as a crampon and then, when face to face with Ryan, as a weapon. Ryan ends up dead and in the white water, with poor Meeker risking and losing his life to retrieve the body. Phew! So much action and so well executed.

Overall a western with so many facets - great action, moral dilemmas, love interest - but at its centre a story of a mixed up man just trying to get through. Always a pleasure to watch James Stewart too.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044953/

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Duel in the Sun



Synopsis
: A bit like an episode of EastEnders. Jennifer Jones plays saucy half-breed Pearl Chavez (for whom I reckon the word coquettish must have been invented), whose father kills her mother and lover and so gets hisself hanged. Pearl is sent to live with Dad's cousin/first love Lillian Gish, who's married to cantankerous senator Lionel Barrymore, and their two sons: one bad, Lewt (Greg Peck) and one good, Jesse (Joseph Cotten). Cue lots of sexually frustrated looks, bright red lipstick, skinny dipping and floor scrubbing and the two sons fighting over the confused Pearl.

Dubbed Lust in the Dust, this one's a bit of an epic with some classic themes: mixed-race issues, female desire, feuding brothers, empires headed by tyrants and so on. Jennifer Jones is well OTT as Pearl, a character who is one part catalyst for all the men's actions, one part Bertha Rochester and one part Katherine Minola. Her main motivation appears to be masochism as she constantly invites suffering and pain in a very confused attempt to belong, both to a man and to a decent society (in contrast to her parents' ending). Lillian Gish's character is a great counterpoint to Pearl: aging and frustrated, she illustrates many of Pearl's fears for the future (ending up unhappy and regretful with her husband) and shows us much restrained and delicate acting.

Pearl sees how good Jesse is but just cannot seem to stop getting down with her bad self, if you know what I mean. She cannot deny the strongest part of her personality, represented by Lewt, who lays humiliation upon humiliation on her. Hey, maybe it's the men who are the catalysts for Pearl? A bit like the metaphorical angel and devil on her shoulders, Pearl wants to be good and follow Jesse but somehow can't resist the evil Lewt as she recognises her bad heritage in him.

We see how Pearl identifies with nature and wildness in a great scene near the end of the film: she's riding to meet Lewt and stops to drink from a stream and we see the horse drinking alongside her - showing where her true nature and allies are. By this time we realise she's reached the end of her tether and she finally confronts Lewt in a shoot out. Talk about hammy, mutual self destruction - they're worse than Sid and Nancy.

Reminded me a bit of The Big Country, even though BC was made 12 years later and is, in many ways, a superior film.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038499/

Monday, 22 June 2009

Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai)


Well, okay, not *strictly* a western but we all know why I've included it (Magnificent Seven, Kurosawa's admiration for John Ford etc.).


Synopsis: Poor Japanese farming community gets routinely attacked by bandits who steal all their crops and do other bad stuff. Village gets together and decides to hire some samurai to protect them. A couple of the villagers go out to find a ronin (masterless samurai) to round up a group of other samurai. He gets together a crazy bunch including the Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifune (last seen by me as a really cross WWII pilot marooned with Lee Marvin in the excellent Hell in the Pacific). They fortify the village, train the villagers to fight and then wait for the bandits. Actually they start out by taking the fight to the baddies in their lair. This doesn't go that well and eventually the bandits attack the village, there is an almighty long, drawn-out battle climaxing in a rain-sodden gun/sword/bow 'n' arrow fight. Only three of the samurai survive (boo!) but all the baddies are killed (yay!). Villagers return to cultivating their land, the samurai go on their way.

It's difficult to describe a film like Seven Samurai without using over effusive, adjective-ridden sentences. It is an epic - in length (3hr10mins), storyline, characters and action and there are some very memorable images too.

Okay, starting with the plot, the story doesn't sit still for a minute. Kurosawa drives the plot forward constantly but he does this at the same time as really allowing the viewer to get to know the characters. For example, he gives you time to get to know the clownish Kikuchiyo and through several crucial points in the story allows the viewer to finally understand why he is the way he is. So, he deftly moulds characters and allows them to evolve whilst never letting the plot drop for a second, which really keeps you glued to the screen. A real page-turner.

There are several other characters that give the film a real depth too. The leader of the samurai, Kambei (played by Takashi Shimura, last seen by me in Kurosawa's Ikiru as a terminally-ill beaurocrat reflecting on his life) is an older, solid leader, always knows the right answer, keeps his men focussed on the job and is a very stable force in an otherwise chaotic situation. His introduction to us is through a great little vignette in which he saves a kidnapped child by disguising himself as a monk. You get the feeling that he has really relished the chance to organise a group of samurai for such a task and it is with poignancy and regret that he realises at the very end that he must continue his nomadic lifestyle.

We get to know the other samurai too - Kikuchiyo slowly changes from a drunken, reckless fool into a loyal, inventive and passionate fighter with "A Past". Kyuzo is the zen-like, older swordsman who risks his life to retrieve one of the bandits guns in a silent night raid. And the young Katsushiro, who falls in love with a village girl, is always ready and eager to learn and is the perfect disciple to Kambei.

Rikichi is another interesting character - one of the villagers who originally goes in search of the samurai and is a conduit between them and the suspicious and frightened community. Kurosawa drops little hints all the way through about Rikichi and his past (we see him getting angry at any mention of him having a wife) and when the samurai (and Rikichi) attack and set on fire the bandits hideaway we see why. Rickichi's wife appears at the hideout, kidnapped sometime ago and seemingly so ashamed at this that she runs back in to the burning building and dies. By the end of the film we see him leading the villagers in a crop-planting song so it seems there is some solace in their victory.

The action moves quickly, which is amazing considering the running time, and as you'd expect there is tonnes of exciting swordplay. It's interesting comparing this to a western as even though you rarely see a killing where the protagonists aren't engaged in very close combat, you do still get that slow, tense build up of a fight (akin to a showdown) in which swords are drawn slowly and stances taken. It would be good to speak to a Japanese person about the notion of machismo too as you definitely don't get a sense of over the top, camp macho-ness, but you do get *really* big swords.

I really liked the final fight sequence, shot in pouring rain and knee-deep sloshing mud, there is so much atmosphere. You feel really exhausted, it's the last hurrah for the samurai and villagers, and they need just a bit more to kill off the last of the bandits. Its not pretty at all and two of the samurai buy it in this last bit, which comes as a bit of a shock as you've invested so much effort in getting to know them.

There's also lots of thundering horses and genuinely funny banter which reminded me of John Ford's cavalry westerns. There's a great bit when the samurai are sorting out the village fighters which took me back to Rio Grande and (I think??) Ben Johnson roughnecking new recruits.

I'll take away many indelible images from my first viewing but two very similar and unusual shots stood out to me. Early on in the story, after we've met Kikuchiyo we see him get insulted by some of the other samurai and he storms out of the house in a huff. As he's leaving we get a really odd shot at feet level as he walks through the doorway. He goes to leave, then sort of hesitates and then continues and we get a strong sense of how hard done by he feels and all his mixed feelings for his fellow fighters. All this from his feet. Then, much later on when the village is being attacked, we get a similar low down viewpoint, this time of a horses legs below the knee. The horse is agitated (I think its rider is a bandit) and we see it stamping about before running off. The two shots are so out of kilter with the rest of the film it makes me wonder why Kurosawa included them and what meaning he gave them.

Anyway, enough babbling. Go and watch it. Now.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047478/

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Warlock



Synopsis
: The good people of Warlock need a decent marshal after Ricky Widmark (who looks likes a grown up Peter the goad herd off of the '70s, German version of Heidi) et al enjoy too much of the thug life and send the previous incumbent packing. Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn turn up to do the right thing. The goat herd, sorry, Ricky W then decides he wants to reform and then the two 'goodies' start twisting our minds too (are they good, bad or mixed up?).

Ooh, and the lady from the stage with the cherries on her hat knows Henry Fonda.

Lots of moral complexity in this one. Spectrums of good and bad in each character highlighting the choices we make and the consequences they have. Back to existentialism? I haven't read the chapter in Sartre on ethics but I'm sure he says lots about this. Not Warlock, but, you know, good and bad and stuff.

I liked the symmetry between Ricky W and his woman with her past and vengeance ishooz and Henry Fonda and his virginal, innocent lady friend who confesses to only having ever tasted whisky once (pah! the wuss). You see, Ricky has reformed and we see his difficulty in trying to do good cos he doesn't think his bad mates are any good any more. Then on the other hand we've got Henry F who has had checkered past to say the least but has somehow ended up being a symbol of decency.

The other interesting thing about this film is the relationship between Henry F and Anthony Quinn (Javier Bardem's long-lost, silver-haired father). Deffo some homoerotic action going on here. Not in an overt, sexual way, but in a we've-been-there-for-each-other-forevah kind of way. End of the film is ace, with Henry shooting his old mate, laying him out on a roulette table then setting him on fire. Best friends forever, right?

Also, look out for DeForest Kelly (you know, that one from Star Trek) as one of the baddies. He's not very convincing, being about as camp as a row of tents.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053434/

Monday, 4 May 2009

Broken Arrow



Synopsis
: Buzzards. Jimmy Stewart plays ex military scout who, whilst panning for gold in Arizona, comes across an injured Apache and saves his life. Other Apache get to know and he becomes trusted friend to Apache chief Cochise (Jeff Chandler) and falls in love with a young Apache woman, Morningstar (Debra Paget). Other Apache involved in the Apache/U.S. war break away from Cochise and are led by Geronimo and try to destroy a fragile peace agreement. The murder of Morningstar by some baddy Whitemen ends in a stronger resolve from Cochise to keep the peace. The End.
Lesson learnt: Give peace a chance.

I love Jimmy Stoowart and he's great in this; very stoical, very serious and full of emotion. It's a good film to focus on war and how enemies treat each other. It doesn't pull any punches with scenes of torture of what basically are POWs. It's all a bit Dances with Wolves but without being six hours long and having to endure Kevin Costner. It even allows Jimmy to fall in love with an actual Apache rather than a white woman interloper. The only sticking point is the Natives speaking English but this is explained first thing by Jimmy. Jeff Chandler outshines Jimmy in many scenes with his holier than thou Apache wise man act and is fantastic. I don't think I've ever seen a straighter face or stronger brow.

There's also a proper focus on racism (and this in 1950) from both sides but particularly white racism. The white folk are even eager to string up Stewart due to his fraternizing with the Apache and making promises of peace to them. There are many scenes that highlight this with discussions between Cochise, Stewart and Gen. Howard (nice, kindly U.S. Army General) about how the Americans would promise to treat any Apache or Americans caught being naughty (with the rule of law etc.). The difference between the older, towny racist folk and the enlightened Stewart and Howard is made explicit time and time again.

Not sure how much of this is historically accurate but good to see in 1950 a film highlighting these issues.

Great bit of comedy with Stewart and Gen. Howard are eating in a teepee, Gen. Howard asks:

"This is delicious, what is it?"
"Pony"
""Pony". What sort of meat is "pony"?"
"Ah...a pony is a small horse"

Also, it's always interesting to see Jimmy Stewart in a romantic role, especially with the young (and brightly white toothed) Debra Paget. I can kind of see what he's got going on and it's heartwarming to see him and his wife on the way to their honeymoon tent to "listen to the brook all night". Ahem.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042286/

Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Gunfighter



Synopsis: Greg Peck (as ace tougho gunfighter Jimmy Ringo) kills a wisecracking Johnny-come-lately whose three bros then come after him. All end up in Cayenne, home to Peck's old flame and eight year old son and his old partner (now on the other side of the law as the marshal). Peck wants to get back with his ladyfriend and son (who don't want nuffink to do wiv 'im but kinda do really) whilst another young whipper snapper fancies having a go at Greg. Climax: Peck meets son for first time; lady friend says a half hearted let's have another go (if you prove yourself); the three brothers try it on and fail but just when you think we're all home and dry the young gun shoots Greg in the back. Cue the marshal punching his lights out and Rock of Ages at the (packed out) funeral.
Lesson learnt: Being a tough guy is...er...really tough.

Watched this afternoon on DVD from Lovefilm and really liked it.

I wasn't sure about Gregory Peck as a roughty-toughty gunman but he brought what was needed to the character, I think. I liked the set-up; it was kind of like 3:10 to Yuma or High Noon in that there was the real time element; the sense of impending doom and the clock watching. It also meant that you got to see a set of characters unfurl over just a couple of hours.

Greg Peck's death scene was a bit hammy but, oh boy, Millard Mitchell (last seen by me in Singin' in the Rain as R.F.) has a fantastic scene just after this with the guy that kills Greg that's really something; summing up the essence of Peck's character and destiny and everything with a few well placed punches that you wished you were administering yourself.

Great bit of pre-Yoda Yoda speak: Peck asks his son to disperse the crowd outside the saloon to which the son says:

"I'll try"
"No, not try: you'll do"

Don't you just love George Lucas and his plagiarising? But seriously, the film has real depth and heart. Definitely one to see if you're into the whole bad-man-trying-to-change-his-ways sub-genre: makes you think about the concept of destiny again and what it means if you just can't break out. There's a good contrast between some of the characters: you've got Peck who is so famous as a bad guy he just can't break free from the burden of this and Mitchell who did manage to break out and go straight. Then there's the female friend who's turned to singing in bars cos her boyfriend (who also used to be a baddy gunman) got killed. She had no choice but to change her course.

So, yet again, it's all about our different identities. Even Peck's old flame has changed hers; her name etc to escape association with him. Also, you've got his son, who at first doesn't even know his real identity and heritage at all. Then, finally you've got the young killer who, after killing Peck, is made to live with what he's done rather than get hung (hanged?), so his destiny is set by his actions.

And so we're back at Sartre again, aren't we? Well...sort of.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042531/