Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Nevada Smith (1966)


In Nevada Smith Steve McQueen is a half-breed, born out of an Indian (sorry: Native American) mother and a white father. Blue-eyed and fair-haired McQueen may seem an odd choice to play a half-breed, but note that we’re in the Sixties when white actors were often asked to impersonate biracial characters: Paul Newman would play one in Hombre (1967), Elvis Presley had played one in Flaming Star (1960).

The film tells the background story of a character, Max Sand, created by Harold Robbins in his novel The Carpetbeggers (*1). Sand is a young man who vows revenge on the three men who have murdered his parents in gruesome fashion: we’re told (luckily not shown) that his mother - a ‘squaw’ - was skinned alive). A travelling gunsmith (Brian Keith) teaches him how to use a gun, but also warns him that the desire for vengeance may ruin a man’s life. Max disregards all good advice and sets out to track the three murderers down, one by one. The villains have gone separate ways and Max even follows one of them into a Louisiana prison camp to get even with the piece of vermin. 

Keith's warnings are a first indication that the film wants to say something about vigilantism, but its message is rather obscure. In The Bravados (1958, Henry King) Gregory Peck discovers that he has tracked down and killed the wrong man. In the Italian western Da Uomo a Uomo (Death Rides a Horse, Giulio Petroni, 1967) the juvenile avenger discovers that his mentor was present at the scene of the crime (albeit not as one of the killers). In both cases the discovery sheds a new light on the avenger and his obsessions. In Nevada Smith all pleadings to give up his quest and lead a normal life (not only by his mentor, but also by a priest and a girl who has developed feelings for him) seem to have little or no effect, but then, all of a sudden, when he’s about to kill the last murderer he concludes that the man ‘isn’t worth it’. Isn’t worth what? Max has shot the man both the arms and legs and he is most probably bleeding to death. It’s a rather sadistic scene and the effect is opposite to the redemptive effect the film makers most probably had in mind.

Nevada Smith (*2) was popular among moviegoers but critical reactions were mixed. At the age of 36, Steve McQueen is too old to play a teenager at the beginning of the movie and the evolution of the central character from a young inexperienced boy into a hardened killer isn’t very convincing. Instead of being epic, the film feels episodic, with some episodes working better than others. But it remains a fairly exciting revenge western and McQueen’s screen presence is so strong that we are (almost) willing to accept all these complications caused by his casting: he was not called ‘Mr. Cool’ without reason. And the supporting cast is very fine, notably Brian Keith as his mentor and Karl Malden as the most vicious of the murderers. 


Dir: Henry Hathaway - Cast: Steve McQueen (Max Sand/Nevada Smith), Karl Malden (Tom Fitch), Brian Keith (Jonas Cord), Suzanne Pleshette (Pilar), Arthur Kennedy (Bill Bowdre), Martin Landau (Jesse Coe), Raf Vallone (Father Zaccardi), Janet Margolin (Neesa), Pat Hingle (Big Foot), Paul Fix (Sheriff Bonnell) - Cinematography: Lucien Ballard - Music: Alfred Newman


*1) The film describes Max Sands’ first encounter with another character from the novel, Jonas Cord, but the story and script were originally written for the movie. In the 1964 screen adaptation of Robbins’ novel the characters of Max Sands and Jonas Cord were played by Alan Ladd and George Peppard respectively.

*2 Max 'adopts' the name Nevada Smith relatively late into the movie.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Man of the West (1958)


In 1958 this movie was panned by critics for its melodramatic overtones while fans of the director weren’t happy by Mann’s decision to replace his regular collaborator Jimmy Stewart by Gary Cooper. Today many think this is Anthony Mann’s best western.


Gary Cooper is a seemingly respectable citizen who is stranded in the middle of nowhere after a train robbery, along with two other passengers, a cardsharp and a dance hall girl. He takes them to a ramshackle farmhouse, the only shelter he knows for miles and miles around, but the train robbers have taken the same place as their hide-out ... 


We had already noticed that Cooper was secretive about his identity, and now discover why: his real name is Link and he has a shady past as a member of a vicious gang of outlaws. The gang was led by his criminal uncle, a man called Dock Tobin, who told him everything about stealing and killing - the only things he knew as a kid, and the farmhouse was the very place where he grew up. And of course the train robbers who have taken the place as their hide-out, are no other than Dock Tobin and his criminal sons ...


With a subtext of sexual desire, jealousy and rivalry among relatives, we seem to have arrived in a typical Mann universe, but unlike the Mann-Stewart collaborations this is not a tale about a man seeking revenge or redemption. The hero from this movie, has already redeemed himself as a citizen of a town called New Hope: his fellow citizens have trusted him with their money and asked him to go looking for a school teacher. But the focus is not on the hero, but rather on the villain: it’s Cobb’s demented patriarch who’s at the centre of events. Dock Tobin is a person who virtually lives in the past: He thinks Link has returned to join the gang and therefore wants to rob the bank of the prospering town of Lassoo, a plan he had given up long ago, but of course it’s too late, the once prospering town has become a ghost town ...


Cobb was in his mid-forties and eleven years younger than Cooper. Lots of make-up were used to turn Cobb into an old man, but the effect is a little grotesque. I wasn't too fond of Cobb's performance, but Mann uses the contrast between Cobb's theatrical, and Cooper's more restrained acting style to great effect. The movie also has a very good supporting cast, including John Dehner, Jack Lord (as Cooper’s haywire cousin) and Julie London (as the dance hall girl). Lord and London are  involved in the movie’s best remembered (and most intense) scene, with Lord holding a knife to Cooper’s throat and ordering Billie to take off her clothes. Because Cooper is the only one who can protect her, London has no choice but to give in.


Mann of the West is the director's darkest vision on the West: a fistfight between Cooper and Lord is unusually gruesome and people who are hit by bullets don’t just die, but slowly bleed to death, suffering terribly pains. It’s also Mann’s darkest vision on the human condition: None of the characters will ever have what he or she wanted: Link was the son Dock Tobin never had, even if he raised him; his own sons stayed with him, not because they loved him, but because they were afraid to leave him. Even Billie, the dance hall girl who is coveted by all, is a lonely person: she feels attracted to Link, the first man who respects her as a woman, but she knows that Link is not able to return her affection because he is a respectable man and he has told her that he’s the father of two children.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of 5

1958 - Director: Anthony Mann - Cast: Gary Cooper (Link), Julie London (Billie Ellis), Lee J. Cobb (Dock Tobin), Jack Lord (Coaley), Arthur O'Connell (Sam), John Dehner (Claude) - Screenplay: Reginald Rose (based on the novel The Border Jumpers by Will C. Brown) 

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Homesman (2015)

A western unlike most others; it is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, a name that might ring a bell: he also wrote The Shootist, the novel that formed the base of John Wayne's last hurrah.

Hilary Swank is Mary Bee, a 31-year old frontierswoman and a spinster; she owns a piece of land, but can't find a husband because she is homely looking - at least she thinks that is the reason (others rather think she's too "bossy"). To take her mind off things, Mary Bee accepts the job of escorting three women who were driven mad by the harsh frontier life to a safe home in the East (This was a job that was usually done by a man, who was therefore called a homesman). The journey is expected to be harsh and perilous, therefore Mary Bee saves a low-life (director Tommy Lee himself) from the noose and employs him as her bodyguard and traveling companion.

The Homesman is Tommy Lee's second feature film as a director; like his first effort, The three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, it is a literate, flashback-driven movie. The flashbacks illustrate the plight of the three women and some of scenes are both shocking and heartbreaking, but their insertion into the narrative seems a bit arbitrary and they often works more confusing than illuminating. The storyline involves villains and even Indians, but there's hardly any western action, the movie is a period drama rather than a western. (text continues under the pic)

Vermeer in the West

This doesn't mean that the film is without merit. The director once said that he loved the art of the Dutch and Flemish masters of the Golden Age and in one scene (a lonely woman in a shadowy interior, the light coming from the left) is a clear reference to Vermeer's paintings. The darkened, stale interiors offer a sharp contrast to the bleached skies over the plains that reflect the harshness of life on the frontier.

Visually The Homesman is stunning, but these type of westerns, in which not too much happens, need strong characters and in spite of the presence of two of the best actors around, I felt little or no connection to either Hilary Swanks or Tommy Lee's character. The three unlucky women (played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have no dialogue and most of what the two lead characters have to say to each other, remains unsaid. 

And then there's this bizarre plot-twist, two thirds into the movie. I won't say what  it implies exactly - you need to find out yourself - but like some have said, it turns a movie that tries to show the harshness of life for women on the frontier, into a showcase for a male actor.



* Grace Gummer, who plays one of the unlucky women, is Meryl Streep's daughter. Streep has a cameo near the end of the movie as the reverend's wife

Monday, October 7, 2019


A low-key, eccentric approach to the western genre, about a damsel, not in distress

Damsel is set in the West, anno 1870, and can therefore be called a western, but there are no gunslingers and no shootouts in dusty town streets; there's a damsel, but she's not in distress, and there's even an Indian - sorry: a Native American - but he's different from any other red man you may have met in cinema thus far.

Like a few other 'different'  western movies in recent memory (The Homesman, Meek's Cutoff, The Sisters Brothers), Damsel is a movie about a journey. It is undertaken by a young man called Samuel Alabaster (wonderfully played by Robert Pattinson), who ventures West in the company of a mini-horse called Butterscotch and a parson. The horse is a wedding gift for a young girl who's supposed to be waiting for him out there at the frontier, and he picked up the parson in a frontier town because he needs a man of the cloth to officiate the marriage.

The opening scene has told us that the parson is a fake: he received his clothes and bible from an old preacher who wanted to make a new start in life. Soon we also start having doubts about Samuel and his girlfriend: Samuel holds a picture of the girl in a locket, but is she really waiting for him, out there in the wilderness? How on earth did she get there? When the priest utters his doubts, Samuel tells him that the girl is held captive by two settlers, a brute and his mentally retarded brother ...
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This is the first of a series of twists; the second - and most radical one - takes place at the half-way point, when Samuel  and the priest reach the cabin where this girl named Penelope (Mia Wasikowska in another excellent performance) is supposed to be held captive. Samuel and Penelope have shared a few happy moments in the past, but it becomes clear that the experience had a completely different effect on them, and all hopes for a happy future are blown away in a couple of moments of unexpected violence. The halfway point of this movie is an about face you hardly ever experience in cinema, worth an entrance ticket alone. Telling more about it, would spoil the fun, or the shock.

In their relatively young career, the Zellner brothers, David and Nathan, have developed a preference for oddball - yet warm - characters and unpredictable storylines. Damsel is all this. It's a comedy, but the comedy is of a deadpan nature and the atmosphere is rather bleak, eventually almost depressing. I found the movie quite likable, but some western fans will no doubt complain about the slow pace and the lack of authenticity (even most of the conversations have a contemporary ring). And if both Pattinson and Wasikowska are terrific - and perfectly cast - Nathan Zellner miscast himself as the preacher, a character that becomes increasingly unbelievable and pathetic as the story progresses. Maybe the brothers should have asked Robert Forster – who appears in this truly wonderful opening scene, and in this opening scene only -  for this role. 


2018 – Directed by David & Nathan Zellner - Robert Pattinson (Samuel Alabaster), Mia Wasikowska (Penelope), David Zellner (Parson Henry), Robert Forster (Old Preacher), Nathan Zellner (Rufus Cornell), Joseph Billingiere (Zacharia Running Bear), Morgan Lund, Gary Brookins, Gabe Casdorph – Music: The Octopus Project

Tuesday, September 17, 2019


Along with Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado was supposed to breathe new life into the western genre in the mid-80s. It failed to do so. Reviews were positive, but moviegoers where underwhelmed. It did a lot better when released on videocasette and was one of those movies that drew Hollywood's attention to this new market.

The film’s story is classic western stuff: A cowboy named Emmett saves a man called Paden, who was left behind in the desert by bandits who had stolen all his possessions, including his horse and (worst of all) his hat. Emmett and Paden head for the town of Silverado, were Emmett was born. En route they pick up Emmett’s younger brother Jake, a womanizer and gunslinger, who invariably gets into trouble by courting the ladies and shooting their lovers (in self-defense, of course). They are joined by a fourth man, Mal, a former slave turned farmer, who is looking for the murderers of his father. The town of Silverado is dominated by the McKendriks clan, long-time enemies of Emmett’s and Jake’s family. The sheriff is one of Paden’s old ‘pals’, a guy with a very dubious background, and Mal also thinks the men he’s looking for are hiding out in the town of Silverado …

Silverado is a lot of fun to watch. The mosaic script may cause some confusion, but there's plenty of action and in spite of a running time of more than two hours the movie is over before you know it. But if a movie aspires to revive a moribund genre, it must shed a new light on traditional genre elements, and this is exactly what Silverado fails to do. 
Like I have stated before, movies reflect as much the time in which they were made as the time in which they are set. If Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was the prototypical American western of the late sixties, Silverado is the prototypical American western of the mid-eighties. 

The Sixties were a period of change and turmoil, and the best westerns from the late Sixties, early Seventies, were preoccupied with themes such as the closing of the frontier and the transition to a new era (The Wild Bunch, Monte Walsh), the outlaw as a folk hero (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid) or the plight of the red man (Soldier Blue, Little Big Man, Ulzana's Raid). The excessive violence in some of these movies was often interpreted as a reaction to the Vietnam war. It's significant that several movies from the period featured juvenile character who were exposed to dangerous situations (The Culpepper Cattle Company, Bad Company).

Those movies weren't all masterpieces, but they were thought-provoking, and dared to be dirty and violent. The American society was re-inventing itself, and so was that American genre par excellence, the western. The eighties were a decade characterized by a new national (nationalist) awareness. It also was a typical ‘bourgeois’ decade, hostile to true art. Like Roland Barthes stipulated in his classic study Mythologies, bourgeois society has two ways of dealing with art that challenges its nature: it either denies it, or tries to convert it. Silverado is very much a conversion, bourgeois style, of what the western had been in the previous decades. Instead of challenging and thought-provoking, Silverado is reassuring; it’s crammed with action, but it’s never dirty or nasty, it’s all clean fun for the entire family. People who usually do not love westerns, tend to love it more that fans of the genre. 

The four leads are fine, but their motivations and actions are purely rhetorical. No wonder some of the supporting actors steal the show: Jeff Goldblume is well-cast as a perfidious card player and Brian Dennehy is a true delight as the corrupt sheriff of Silverado. There are also a nice cameo appearances by Linda Hunt and especially John Cleese as a sheriff who’s definitely not from these parts.


(1985 – Dir: Lawrence Kasdan – Cast: Kevin Kline (Paden), Scott Glenn (Emmett), Kevin Costner (Jake), Danny Glover (Mal), John Cleese, Jeff Goldblume, Rosanna Arquette, Brian Dennehy, Linda Hunt)


* (1) Don't get this wrong: Art has no specific political color, it can be either left-wing or right-wing, but it is by definition challenging, thought-provoking.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Texas Across the River (1966)

When relatively unknown American actors went to Europe to appear in cheaply made spaghetti westerns (and in some cases became superstars), major European actors took the plane in the opposite direction to appear in lush Hollywood productions. With his appearance in Texas Across the River (1966), French superstar Alain Delon tried to establish his name across the ocean; for the occasion he was cast as a Latin Lover and paired with that other Latin Lover - the one from Hollywood - Dean Martin.

Delon is a Spanish nobleman, Don Andrea Baldazar, El Duce de la Casala, who is about to marry a Southern Belle, Phoebe (Rosemary Forsyth). It turns out that she was promised to another man, a cavalrist from the US army who takes his entire regiment to the wedding to claim his bride. When his rival is accidently killed during an incident, Don Andrea is unjustifiably accused of murder and must therefore flee across the border to Texas (not yet an U.S. state). He is joined by a gunrunner (Dino) who is crossing the same border in order to sell guns to a group of settlers who have created a very unsafe haven in the Texan wilderness ...

Delon had been working very hard to remove the distinctive French inclinations from his speech, so he would be able to play all kind of European nationalities in Hollywood productions, but he still sounds French, not Spanish. It doesn't really matter. The film is a spoof and his character a joke. Dino is top-billed and has a couple of funny repartees (especially in a raunchy scene in and around a pool with Rosemary Forsyth: Rosemary: "I can't come out of the water, I lost my clothes!" Dino: "Close your eyes!"), but it's really Delon's movie: In Texas Don Andrea tames a buffalo in the style of a torero, saves the life of a beautiful squaw, fights with Dino over Phoebe, and clears his name by saving the settlement from being raided by marauding Comanches.

Texas across the River is as entertaining as it is forgettable. The jokes come so fast that you really don't mind that a least half of them are graceless and unfunny. Just sit down and relax, enjoy what's enjoyable and forget the rest. Some will no doubt call it sexist and racist but since all sexes and ethnic groups are targeted the humor feels rather innocuous. All people involved seem to have a good time.


1966 - Director: Michael Gordon - Cast: Dean Martin (Sam Hollis), Alain Delon (Don Andrea), Rosemary Forsyth (Phoebe),  Joey Bishop (Kronk), Tina Aumont  (Lonetta), Peter Graves (Cpt. Stimpson, Michael Ansara (Comanche Chief), Linden Chiles (Comanche Chief's son), Andrew Prine (Lt. Sibley), Stuart Anderson (Yancy Cottle), Richard Farnsworth (Medicine Man)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

More Dead than Alive

The title and the poster of the movie may give you the impression that this is a spaghetti western, but no, More Dead than Alive is an American movie. It stars Clint Walker as a former gunslinger - known as 'Killer Cain' - who has spent 18 years in jail and discovers that it's hard to leave his past behind. 

The film opens with protracted (and remarkably bloody) sequence of a jailbreak that ends in carnage. Cain refuses to help the jail breakers because he wants to serve his sentence and start a new life, but when he is finally released from jail, the world he once knew has disappered and he himself has become a living anachronism. The only person willing to offer him a job, is a showman named Ruffalo, who asks Cain to perform as a sharpshooter in a traveling sideshow. Also working for Ruffalo is a young man named Billy Valance, who soon starts challenging Cain to a duel, in order to prove himself as a gunslinger ...  

The name Billy Valance is no doubt a reference to John Ford's, The man Who Shot LibertyValance, the movie that (along with Peckinpah's Ride the High Country) had established the End of the West as a dominant theme of American westerns from the decade. More Dead than Alive is set in a West that is no longer Wild, but the story device of the famous gunfighter who is repeatedly challenged by a younger man, is closer to Henry King's The Gunfighter, a western from Hollywood's glory years. The surprise ending (I won't give it away) also brings The Gunfighter to mind, but what worked marvelously in King's movie, is strangely ineffective here, leaving us with a feeling of malaise.
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Director Robert Sparr mainly worked for television and it shows. This is a routine movie, but it's easy to enjoy. Walker and Francis (as the woman who helps him forget the past) are a nice, physically contrasting couple and Vincent Price is as flamboyant as ever as the sideshow barker. Singer/actor Paul Hampton overacts as the immature, psychologically unstable Billy, but the role seems to ask for it. The bloody opening sequence almost feels completely detached from the rest of the movie. In the previous year Bonnie and Clyde had a set a trend and in 1969 we saw various western with excessive bloodletting and a tragic ending in which the 'heroes' were shot to pieces. But movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch were movies about people who had chosen a violent lifestyle; in the case of More Dead than Alive the gory killings seem to undermine the anti-violence message of the movie. But those were the days, and in 1969 cowboys died in bloody fashion.


Director: Robert Sparr - Cast: Clint Walker (Cain), Anne Francis (Monica), Vincent Price (Ruffalo), Paul Hampton (Billy) - Written by George Schenk - Produced by Aubrey Schenk and Hal Klein - Music by Philip Springer

R.I.P. Clint Walker, Gentle Giant

Nevada Smith (1966)

  In Nevada Smith Steve McQueen is a half-breed, born out of an Indian (sorry: Native American) mother and a white father. Blue-eyed and fai...